The Nuer Ethnic Group


The Nuer ethnic group is a Nilotic tribe or people concentrated in the Greater Upper Nile area of South Sudan. They also reside in the Ethiopian region of Gambella. They mostly speak the Nuer language, which belongs to the Nilotic language family. They are the 2nd largest tribe or ethnic group in South Sudan. The Nuer people are pastoralists who herd cattle to earn a living. The Nuer’s cattle serve as companions and define their way of life or lifestyle. The Nuer people also call themselves the Naat or Naath. Historically, people have been undercounting the Nuer people due to the semi-nomadic culture. They also have a culture or way of life of counting only older members of the families. The Nuer have a strong belief that counting the number of offsprings or children one has could cause misfortune and prefer to report fewer kids than they have.

The History of the Nuer People

The Nuer ethnic group was originally a section of the Dinka people that moved or migrated out of the Gezira but south into an infertile, dry land that they labeled or called Kwer Kwong, which was in the southern section of Kordofan. Several centuries of influence and isolation from the Luo peoples caused them to be a distinct tribe from the Dinka people. The arrival of Bagarra Arabs and their following slave raids in the late 1700s caused the Nuer people to move in masses from southern Kordofan into today’s Bentiu. In around the mid-19th century (1850), further slave raids, flooding, and overpopulation caused them to move even further out of Bentiu and eastwards into Ethiopia’s western fringes, absorbing and displacing several Anyuak, Dinka, and Burin in the process.

The invasion of the British in the 19th century stopped Nuer’s aggressive territorial increase or expansion against the Anyuak and the Dinka. There are several accounts or records of the origin of the conflict between the Dinka and the Nuer, South Sudan’s two most prominent tribes or ethnic groups. Peter J. Newcomer, an anthropologist, proposes or suggests that the Nuer people are the Dinka. He argues that centuries or hundreds of years of population growth created expansion, which resulted in wars and raids. In 2006, the Nuer people were the ethnic group that resisted disarmament most strongly. The Nuer White Army members, a group of armed youths, often independent from tribal elders’ authority, refused to put down their arms, leading SPLA troops to confiscate Nuer’s cattle, destroying or damaging their economy. The SPLA finally defeated the White Army in mid-2006, though a successor organization self-styling itself as a White Army formed in 2011 to combat the Murle tribe, the Dinka people, and UNMISS.


The Culture of the Nuer People (Cattle, Kinship, Religion, Ritual)

The life of the Nuer people revolves around cattle, which has made them pastoralists. However, people at times know them to resort to horticulture, the practice of garden cultivation and management, when diseases endanger or threaten their herds of cattle. Because of seasonal bad or harsh weather, the Nuer people move around to ensure that their livelihood is safe. They tend to shift when heavy rain seasons come to protect the herds from hoof disease and when the cattle’s resources are few.

Evans Pritchard, a British anthropologist, wrote that the Nuer rely on the herds for their existence. He says that the cattle are the thread that runs through Nuer’s language, institutions, politics, rites of passage, allegiances, and economy. The Nuer can structure their whole culture around cattle and still have what they need. Before advancement or development, the Nuer people used every single piece of their cattle to their advantage. According to the British anthropologist, cattle aided in evolving the Nuer way of life into what it is presently. They shaped the Nuer’s daily tasks as they devote or dedicate themselves to protecting the cattle. For example, every month, they blow air into their livestock’s rectums to prevent or relieve constipation.

Evans Pritchard wrote and said that people exemplified cattle’s significance in Nuer life and thought in personal names. They form their kids’ names from the biological characteristics or features of the cattle. All the raw materials for the Nuer people come from cattle, including raw materials for rugs, drums, clothing, shields, spears, containers, and leather items. The people create daily essentials such as toothpaste and mouthwash from the cattle’s urine and dung. Individuals chop the dung into pieces and leave it out to harden and then use it for toothpaste, containers, or even to protect the cattle themselves by burning it to release enough smoke to keep insects that spread diseases away.

The Nuer ethnic group never feed or eat cattle just for the sake. Cattle are very holy or sacred to them; hence, they honor their ghost when they decide to eat cattle. The Nuer eat the cattle that are old or dying due to sickness. But even if they do so, they all come together performing dances, rituals, or songs before and after they slaughter the animal or the cattle. Never do the Nuer people kill or slaughter cattle for the fun of it because there is the danger of the animal’s spirit visiting a curse on anyone who would slaughter the cattle without ritual intentions. The Nuer people will consume any animal that dies of natural causes. At most times, it may not be the cattle that they eat; it could be any animal that they have hunted upon that has died due to natural causes.

Other food sources are available for the Nuer people to eat or consume. Nuer’s diet mainly comprises millet and fish. Their main or staple crop is millet. They consume millet as beer or as porridge. The Nuer people turn to this staple food or product in seasons of rainfall when they move their animals up to the higher ground. Besides, they may also turn to millet when the cattle are performing well to support their family.

To a Nuer individual, people do not consider his siblings and parents as mar kin about kinship. He does not refer to them as kin. To him, individuals consider them as gol, which is more intimate and significant. There are several kinship categories in Nuer society.

There is a balance between the father and mother’s side that people acknowledge through formal events or occasions such as marriages. The Nuer girls usually marry at seventeen or eighteen. If a young girl gets married at a young age, people delay the wedding and consummation ceremonies. Girls or women give birth to their 1st children when they are older enough to have or bear them.


The Religion of the Nuer People

The Nuer people believe that God is the spirit of the sky or the spirit who’s in the sky. The Nuer people also believe in the coming of the Supreme being or God via lightning, thunder, and rain and that the rainbow is God’s necklace. The moon, sun, and other material entities are also sign or manifestations of God, a spirit. People believe that the spirits of the air above are the most powerful of the lesser spirits. There are spirits associated with a clan-spears name, such as WiW, a war spirit connected with thunder.

The Nuer people believe that when a person, a man or a woman, dies, the flesh, the soul, and the life separate. The flesh is committed to the planet or the earth, while the life or breath returns to God. The soul representing or signifying the human personality and individuality stays or remains alive as a reflection or a shadow.

Historically, in the 1940s, missionaries started to try to evangelize the Nuer ethnic group. By the 1970s, there were more than 150 Nuer congregations that existed.

The Nuer Ritual

The Nuer people receive facial markings known as Gaar as part of their initiation into adulthood. The pattern of Nuer scarification differs or varies within specific sub-groups. The most usual initiation pattern among the males comprises more than four parallel horizontal lines that cut across the forehead with a razor blade. Dotted patterns are also prevalent, particularly among females and the Bul Nuer. Some Nuer people have started practicing circumcision after other ethnic groups or tribes have incorporated or partially incorporated them. According to history, the Nuer people were not practicing circumcision but will circumcise people who have engaged in incest.

Nuer Refugees in the United States

In the early 1990s, the authorities resettled more than 20000 African refugees in the United States throughout various locations such as Tennessee, Minnesota, and South Dakota. In particular, the authorities resettled more than 4000 refugees from Sudan among 36 multiple states between 1990 and 1997, with the largest number in Texas at 17% of Sudan’s refugee population. The Nuer refugees in the United States and those in the African region continue to observe their social duties or obligations to one another. They use several means ranging from letters to new technologically advanced communication methods or techniques to stay connected to their loved ones in Africa. The Nuer people in the USA provide help for family members’ paperwork to aid their migration process to the US.



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