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Nuer people


Nuer people

A Nuer boy
Total population
Approximately 1,800,000 people
Regions with significant populations
South Sudan
Nuer language
African Traditional Religion
Related ethnic groups
Dinka, other Nilotic peoples

The Nuer people are a Nilotic ethnic group primarily inhabiting the Nile Valley. They are concentrated in South Sudan, with some representatives also found in southwestern Ethiopia after they pushed off the Anyuak from their land. They speak the Nuer language, which belongs to the Nilo-Saharan family.


  • History 1
  • Culture 2
  • Nuer military and political leaders 3
  • Naming conventions 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8


The nature of relations among the various southern Sudanese tribes were greatly affected in the 19th century by the intrusion of Ottomans, Arabs, and eventually the British. Some ethnic groups made their accommodation with the imperial attackers and others did not, in effect pitting one southern ethnic group against another in the context of foreign rule. For example, some sections of the Dinka were more accommodating to British rule than were the Nuer. The Dinka treated the resisting Nuer as hostile, and hostility developed between the two groups as a result of their differing relationships to the British.[1]

In 2006, the Nuer were the tribe that resisted disarmament most strongly. Members of the Murle tribe (see 2011–2012 South Sudan tribal clashes), as well as the SPLA and UNMISS.[3]


Cattle have historically been of the highest symbolic, religious and economic value among the Nuer. Cattle are particularly important in their role as bride wealth, where they are given by a husband's lineage to his wife's lineage. It is this exchange of cattle which ensures that the children will be considered to belong to the husband's lineage and to his line of descent. The classical Nuer institution of ghost marriage, in which a man can "father" children after his death, is based on this ability of cattle exchanges to define relations of kinship and descent. In their turn, cattle given over to the wife's patrilineage enable the male children of that patrilineage to marry, and thereby ensure the continuity of her patrilineage. A barren woman can even take a wife of her own, whose children (obviously biologically fathered by men from outside unions) then become members of her patrilieage, and she is legally and culturally their father, allowing her to participate in reproduction in a metaphorical sense.

E. E. Evans-Pritchard studied the Nuer and made very detailed accounts of his interactions. He also describes Nuer cosmology and religion in his books.

Nuer Online indicates that, "Nuer (Nuäär) believes that God is the spirit of the sky or the spirit who is in the sky” Kuoth Nhial” (God in Heaven) the creator, but Nuers believe in the coming of God through rain, lightning and thunder, and that the rainbow is the necklace of God. The sun and the moon as well as other material entities are also manifestation or sign of God, who after all is a spirit.

The spirits of the air above are believed to be the most powerful of the lesser spirits, while there are also spirits associated with clan-spears names such as WiW, a spirit of war, associated with thunder. Nuers believe that when a man or a woman dies, the flesh, the life and the soul separate. The flesh is committed to the earth, while the breath or life goes back to God (Kuoth). The soul that signifies the human individuality and personality remains alive as a shadow or a reflection, and departs together with the ox sacrificed, to the place of the ghosts.".

In the 1990s, Sharon Hutchinson returned to Nuerland to update Evans-Pritchard's account. She found that the Nuer had placed strict limits on the convertibility of money and cattle in order to preserve the special status of cattle as objects of bride wealth exchange and as mediators to the divine. She also found that as a result of endemic warfare with the Sudanese state, guns had acquired much of the symbolic and ritual importance previously held by cattle.

The people speak the Nuer language which belongs to the Nilo-Saharan language phylum.

The Nuer receive facial markings (called gaar) as part of their initiation into adulthood. The pattern of Nuer scarification varies within specific subgroups. The most common initiation pattern among males consists of six parallel horizontal lines which are cut across the forehead with a razor, often with a dip in the lines above the nose. Dotted patterns are also common (especially among the Bul Nuer and among females).

Typical foods eaten by the Nuer tribe include beef, goat, cow's milk, injera, a large, pancake-like yeast-risen flatbread.

Because of the civil wars in Southern Sudan over the past 50 years, many Nuer have emigrated to Kitchener, Edmonton, and Calgary. There are currently (2008) over 20,000 Southern Sudanese in Australia, perhaps a third of these Nuer.

Nuer military and political leaders

Some important Nuer politicians are Bul Nyawan who fought against the Khartoum government in Bentiu; he was killed in 1985 by the current president of Sudan. Commander Ruai and Leah Diu Deng were responsible for the attack that forced Chevron to suspend activities in the oil field around 1982.

Naming conventions

  • "Nya" (née ya) meaning "daughter of", is the standard prefix used for female names. "Gat" meaning "son of", is a common prefix for male names.
  • Children are commonly given names to mark historical events ("Domaac" meaning "bullet", or "Mac" meaning "fire or gun" given to a child born during times of war or from another man in the name of the deceased father who legally married the mother ).
  • "Nhial" means "rain", and is a common name for males.
  • Many Nuer have been exposed to missionaries and carry a Christian first name. Their second name is a given name and always in Nuer. The father's given name follows the child's given name, which is then followed by the grandfather's name, and so on. Many Nuer can easily recount ten generations of paternal lineage because they carry those names themselves.
  • When a Nuer comes to the Western world, which wants a first and last name, it is their custom to give their name as their first name followed by their father's name as their middle name and their grandfather's name as their last name.

Most Nuer people are named after their cattle. The boys usually chose the name of their favorite cattle based on the form and color of the ox. The girls are named after the cows that they milk. Sometimes the cow names are passed down. (The Nuer, E.E. Evans-Pritchard)

See also


  1. ^ Helen Chapin Metz, ed. "Sudan: A Country Study", Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1991
  2. ^
  3. ^
  • E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute"Nuer Marriage Ceremonies", , 18 (1948), pp. 29–40

Further reading

External links

  • Images of Nuer in the village of Leal, Southern Sudan
  • [2]
  • [3]
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