The Dinka of South Sudan
Religion: Traditional; 8% Christian
Population: 1,900,000 (1996 estimates)
Registry of Peoples codes
The Dinka are a group of several closely related peoples living in southern Sudan along both sides of the White Nile. They cover a wide area along the many streams and small rivers, concentrated in the Upper Nile province in southeast Sudan and across into southwest Ethiopia.
Ancient pictographs of cattle in Egypt give reason to associate the Dinka with the introduction of domesticated cattle south of the Sahara. Around 3000 BC, herders who also fished and tilled settled in the largest swamp area in the world, the area of southern Sudan where the flood plain of the White Nile is also fed by the Rivers Bor, Aweil and Renk.
The Dinka are one of three groups that gradually developed from the original settlers. Dinka society spread out over the area in recent centuries, perhaps around AD 1500. The Dinka defended their area against the Ottoman Turks in the mid-1800s and repulsed attempts of slave merchants to convert them to Islam. Otherwise they have lived in seclusion.
The Dinka are one of the branches of the River Lake Nilotes. Though known for centuries as Dinka (noted in various sources as deriving phonetically from the term or name Deng), they actually call themselves Moinjaang, "People of the people." The term Moinjaang is actually the singular word for a male. The various sub-groups call themselves by various other names.
The more numerous Southern Luo branch includes peoples throughout central Uganda and neighboring sections of Zaire and the lake area of western Kenya. The Dinka peoples still live near the hot and humid homeland of the River-Lake Nilotes. They are the largest ethnic group in southern Sudan.
The Dinka groups retain the traditional pastoral life of the Nilotes, but have added agriculture in some areas, growing grains, peanuts, beans, corn (maize) and other crops. Women do most of the agriculture, but men clear forest for the gardening sites. There are usually two plantings per year. Some are fishers. Their culture incorporated strategies for dealing with the annual cycle of one long dry season and one long rainy season.
The boys tend goats and sheep while the men are responsible for the cattle. The cattle are central to the Dinka culture and worlview. A man will identify with one special ox, will name it and compose songs and dances about the ox. He calls himself by the name of the ox, which is given to him at his initiation to adulthood. The ox will be referred to by many reference names, allusions to the direct name, which is actually its colour.
The Dinka expect an individual to be generous to others in order to achieve status in the society. They base their life on values of honor and dignity. They discuss and solve problems in public forums.
The Dinka peoples speak a series of closely-related languages which are grouped by linguists into five broad families of dialects. The five formal languages are called by linguists Northeastern, Northwestern, Southeastern, Southwestern and South Central. These titles encompass all the known dialects of Dinka speech.
Ongoing research and analysis entails continual revision of the formal classification of Dinka speech forms. The standard reference for these languages and all languages of the world is the ISO language standard, published in the Ethnologue. The current codes are referenced at the top of this profile.
Each subgroup calls its own speech by that groupīs name and over thirty dialects have been identified among the five language groupings. A Dinka correspondent has commented on the classification of one subgroup, the Twic, or Tuic. This writer refers to the Dinka as Jieng, a name appearing in some formal sources as Jaang.
Dinka (Jieng) Twic/Tuic East has its own language, and it is an independent tribe in Dinka (Jieng). Putting Twic East under Bor is totally wrong, it a separate language. Dinka (Jieng) Hol, Dinka (Jieng) Nyarweng, Dinka (Jieng) Twic/Tuic East, and Dinka (Jieng) Bor are classified as "Southeastern Dinka (Jieng)."
The writer comments on the classification of certain Dinka dialects. The Ethnologue does account for Tuic as a distinct ethnic and language entity in the Dinka, Southeastern group, as suggested. The Ethnologue does note that Bor speech and East Tuic speech are different forms of Dinka. The Dinka correspondent may be saying that the Twic speech is not related to the other Southeastern dialects.
But the Ethnologue researchers reported that comparisons indicated there are about 35,000 Tuic/Twic people whose speech is similar to that of the Bor Gok, Atok, Nyaureng and others. Ethnologue lists their dialect under the name of Tuic. and the people as Twi.
But the language configuration is more complicated yet. In confirming the Dinka language groupings I discovered that the Ethnologue notes additionally that another larger group of Dinka called Twic, numbering about 50,000, speak a different form of Dinka. This group is also called Twic, or Tuic, and is listed in the Ethnologue analysis as Twi. Linguistic analysis shows that this group of people speak a form of Dinka similar to that of as the Abiem, Luac and others in the Southwestern group.
These language classifications and groupings are based on intense study of forms of speech from village to village across the whole Dinka area, and comparative analysis of characteristics and mutual intelligiblity as reported by speakers. The language groupings are not necessarily reflective of affinity relationships or family lineages, which may align on other grounds, based on factors in focus in anthropological analysis.
Some writers refer to these technically distinct languages as one language. The Dinka languages are written in Latin script. A large percentage of the Dinka people are reported to be bilingual in Sudanese Arabic.
In the broader Nilotic family the Dinka languages are most closely related to Nuer and Atuot. The Atuot, or Reel, are culturally Dinka, but the language is different enough to be a sixth separate language group. The Atuot and Dinka have often had bloody encounters over grazing areas in droughts.
The Dinka have lived pretty much on their own, undisturbed by the political movements in their area. They did, however, fight the Ottoman Turks when they were ruling Sudan. And they have periodically had clashes with neighboring peoples, such as the Atuot, with whom they have fought over grazing areas. They have not traditionally been active in national politics.
In the late 20th century and early 21st, the pressures of the conflict between Arab North and African South has imposed hardships upon the Dinka people. Many have become involved in the military and political resistance against the Sudanese central government in the growing movement for southern Sudanese independence.
John Garang de Mabior, vice president of Sudan, was a Dinka. Garang became leader of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army in 1983, leading an armed struggle aainst the Sudanese. Another Dinka independence war leader was William Deng Nhial, founder of the Sudan African National Union (SANU).
In recent years, there has been extensive military conflict in the South of Sudan, exacerbated by long periods of drought and famine. Periodic cease-fires and attempts at resolution brought some abatement, but int was only in 1910-11 that final resolution came.
On 9 July 2011, following a series of discussions under a cease-fire, sponsored by the United Nations and other agencies, a new independent nation of the Republic of South Sudan was proclaimed.
Before the coming of the British the Dinka did not live in villages, but traveled in family groups living in temporary homesteads with their cattle. The homesteads might be in clusters of one or two all the way up to 100 families. Small towns grew up around British administrative centers. Each village of one or more extended families is led by a leader chosen by the group.
Traditional homes were made of mud walls with thatched conical roofs, which might last about 20 years. Only women and children sleep inside the house, while the men sleep in mud-roofed cattle pens. The homesteads were located to enable movement in a range allowing year-round access to grass and water. Permanent villages are now built on higher ground above the flood plane of the Nile but with good water for irrigation. The women and older men tend crops on this high ground while younger men move up and down with the rise and fall of the river.
Polygamy is the ideal for the Dinka, though many men may have only one wife. The Dinka must marry outside their clan (exogamy), which promotes more cohesion across the broader Dinka group. Kinship groups are associated with named descent groups identified by a totem, and wives leave their descent gorup to become part of their husbands' lineage group.
A "bride wealth" is paid by the groomīs family to finalize the marriage alliance between the two clan families. Levirate marriage provides support for widows and their children. All children of co-wives are raised together and have a wide family identity. Co-wives cook for all children, though each wife has a responsibility for her own children.
Girls learn to cook, but boys do not. Cooking is done outdoors in pots over a stone hearth. Men depend upon women for several aspects of their life, but likewise the division of labor assigns certain functions to the men, such as fishing and herding, and the periodic hunting. After initiation to adulthood, the social spheres of the genders overlap very little. The basic food is a heavy millet porridge, eaten with milk or with a vegetable and spice sauce. Milk itself, in various forms, is also a primary food.
The Dinka wear few clothes, particularly in their own village. Adult men may be totally nude except for beads around the neck or wrist. The women commonly wear only goatskin skirts, but unmarried adolescent girls will typically be nude. Clothes are becoming more common. Some men will be seen in the long Muslim robe or short coat. They own very few material possessions of any kind.
Personal grooming and decoration are valued. The Dinka rub their bodies with oil made by boiling butter. They cut decorative designs into their skin. They remove some teeth for beauty and wear dung ash to repel mosquitoes. Men dye their hair red with cow urine, while women shave their hair and eyebrows, but leave a knot of hair on top of the head.
The major influence formerly was exercised by "chiefs of the fishing spears" or "spear masters." This elite group provided health through mystical power. Their role has been eradicated due to changes brought about by British rule and the modern world. Their society is egalitarian, with no class system. All people, wealthy or poor, are expected to contribute to the common good.
The primary art forms are poetry and song. There are certain types of songs for different types of activities of life, like festive occasions, field work, preparation for war and initiation ceremonies. History and social identity are taught and preserved through songs. They sing praise songs to their ancestors and the living. Songs are even used ritually in competition to resolve a quarrel in a legal sense. Women also make pottery and weave baskets and mats. Men are blacksmiths, making all sorts of implements.
The Dinka believe in a universal single God, whom they call Nhialac. They believe Nhialac is the creator and source of life but is distant from human affairs. Humans contact Nhialac through spiritual intermediaries and entities called yath and jak which can be manipulated by various rituals.
These rituals are administered by diviners and healers. They believe that the spirits of the departed become part of the spiritual sphere of this life. They have rejected attempts to convert them to Islam, but have been somewhat open to Christian missionaries.
Cattle have a religious significance. They are the first choice as an animal of sacrifice, though sheep may be sacrificed as a substitute on occasion. Sacrifices may be made to yath and jak, since Nhialac is too distant for direct contact with humans. The family and general social relations are primary values in the Dinka religious thought.
The Sudan Interior Mission began work among the Dinka in the 1930s, along with the Uduk and Mabaan peoples. From these groups, gospel work has spread to surrounding peoples including the Jum Jum, Berta, Gumus, Ignessena, and Shilluk.
It is estimated that various Dinka groups are 4-8% Christian. Access to Christian resources is limited by geography, climate and the political situation in the country. Evangelical sources report that 2% of the Dinka are Evangelical believers.
Percent Christian: 19%
Percent Evangelical: 3.1%
Population (year): 29,116,000 (1995)
Major Religion: Islam
Openness to Missionaries: Closed or difficult
For more on Dinka People
Atuot People and Language – Ethnologue
Dinka – Sudan 101
Dinka – Society and Culture Asociation
Dinka Languages – Ethnologue
Dinka People - Moinjaang – Wikipedia
The Invisible Hands, by Joseph Garang
South Sudan – Wikipedia
"Welcome, South Sudan, to the Family of Nations"
Deng, F M. The Dinka of Sudan. New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1970.
Eads, Brian. "Slavery's Shameful Return to Africa," Reader's Digest. Pleasantville, New York: Reader's Digest Association, Inc, March, 1996.
Evens, Terence M S. "Mythic Rationality, Contradiction and Choice Among the Dinka," Social Anthropology, Vol 2, No 2, 1994.
Grimes, Barbara. Ethnologue (Editions 14-16 online). Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1995-2010.
Lienhardt, R G. Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961.
Tradition and Modernization. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971.
Orville Boyd Jenkins
First written January 1997
Updated and posted 19 April 2002
Rewritten 22 February 2011
Last edited 1 March 2013
Copyright © 1997, 2006, 2010 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.