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Kinship in Sudan: Buth and Mar Among the Nuer

The Nuer people are one of more than one hundred ethnic groups in the northeastern African country of Sudan, which stretches stretches southward from Egypt for 2000 kilometres and westward from the Red Sea for 1500 kilometres. The Nuer are the second largest tribe in southern Sudan, numbering over one million people, according to estimates from the 1980’s. Other tribes in the south include the more populous Dinka, the Shilluk, Anuak, Acholi and Lotuho, along with numerous smaller tribes. The Dinka are closely associated with the Nuer, and are often integrated into Nuer society when they reside with, or marry into a Nuer village.

Principally the Nuer inhabit the swamps and expansive open grasslands on either side of the upper Nile River, and its tributaries, in the south. The south has an equatorial rainy climate, divided by a very dry season and a very wet one, and Nuer life is regulated entirely by the seasons. In the dry season only a few of the older folk remain in the village, the rest going with the cattle to water-holes or to the river bank, where summer camps are built. The Nuer are pre-emiinentaly pastoral, though they grow more millet and maize than is commonly supposed (Evans-Pritchard, 1940:16).

The lives of the Nuer revolve around their herding practices, raising cattle, and the seasonal patterns of the terrain. Like many of his pastoral neighbors, the dearest possession of the Nuer is cattle, and their herds play a significant role in the economy, social structure, and religion of these communities. The Nuer cattle are used as payment for virtually everything and are also the main source of food; they are used in purchases of land, as payment of bride price, and for milk, blood and meat.

Cattle are passed down as part of inheritance, and can stay in the family for several generations. An ox or lactating cow is always a part of any religious ceremony no ritual is complete without the symbolic or actual sacrifice of one of the herd. Cattle also play a part in the kinship system used by the Nuer. Kinship is defined by Chodkiewicz (1998, Oct. 9) as the ideology of domestic life. Kinship systems are formed by sets of rules concerning four areas. Descent concerns all the rules of inheritance in group membership, name, property or status.

Affinity deals with all the rules defiing which kind of marriage is forbidden, permitted or perferred. Residence rules dictate where new spouses wil live, and kinship terminology are the named for the categories of relatives which are recognized by a society. It is these four areas of Nuer society that will form the primary focus of this paper, however other areas influence kinship and will be dealt with as they arise. Bibliography for Kinship in Sudan: Buth and Mar Among the Nuer References listed are the primary ones used in the development of ideas or quoted.

Kinship Lecture: Social Organization in Cross Cultural Perspective. October 9, 1998 1940The Nuer: A description of the modes of livelihood and political institutions of a Nilotic people. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1951Kinship and Marriage Among the Nuer. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1956 Nuer Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1987 African Systems of Kinship and Marriage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. 1932Pagan Tribes of the Nilotic Sudan. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. The position of leader is not an inherited responsibility.

Leaders emerge in the community after demonstrating leadership qualities and gaining the respect of the other community members. Leaders were often the elders in the community The people are generous to each other, but any request which has an overtone of an order can quickly anger them. Friends must have an obligation to be hospitable to each other. Hospitality offered by one friend must be returned by the other at a later time. Relative age is of great importance in interpersonal relations. Every person is categorized in terms of an age set which is an association made up of equals in age.

Males are divided into age grades so that each one is a senior, equal or junior to any other males. One is deferential to a senior, informal with an equal and superior to a junior. Women belong to the system as mothers, wives, sisters or daughters of the males. The Nuer are kind to their aged and usually respect their opinions. Age, rather than relationship, governs the use of terms of address. Anyone older is addressed as “father” or “mother”; anyone younger is addressed as “son” or “daughter”. The very old are called “grandfather” or “grandmother”.

People of the same age are addressed as “brother” or “sister”. The cutting of six tribal scars on each side of the forehead is seen as qualifying a boy for manhood and he is then able to fight in battles. The typical age of initiates has decreased over time. During the 1930’s, the typical age range was 14-15 years which decreased to between 9 and 13 years in the 1980’s. A celebration takes place and a big cow is killed. The age set may then take on the name of the cow’s color as part of their name. The ultimate goal of marriage is the bearing of children.

Therefore, a woman’s standing with her husband and his people, is governed by her ability to bear children. To be the mother of many children is the greatest privilege and honor. Should she be unable to bear children, her position is insecure, and her husband will try to get another wife who will bear children. In Nuer culture, gender roles have traditionally been well-defined. Men tended the cattle and other animals and were the warriors fighting neighboring tribes for land, cattle and out of a sense of pride in their tribe and abilities.

Women managed the household and made most decisions regarding rearing of the children. However, the idea of “home” included both men and women; that is, without a man, there is no home and without a woman, there is no home. In fact, a “home” is more easily maintained if the husband/father dies, in which case the children will stay with the mother, than if a wife/mother dies, in which case the children are given to relatives for care until the man remarries. In addition, women were often consulted on issues of public affairs and played an important role in mediating disputes.

Everyone in the family participated in planting and harvesting the few crops grown (millet and maize) and fishing. Marriage, a home and children are the goal of both men and women. The simplest expression of the family consists of husband and wife, or wives, with their children. Men normally marry around 20 years of age; women marry when they are mature enough to bear children (15-18 years). Before a man can marry, all of his older brothers must be married. Although a man may indicate his preferred choice for a wife, the final choice is the woman’s family who must approve of the suitor’s family.

A man will not approach the woman’s family unless he has assurance from the woman that she will accept him as her husband. It is said that the woman can refuse to marry the man approved by her family, but in practice this is very difficult. Marriage is a civil contract in which both parties commit themselves to certain obligations. The contract calls for a transfer of goods or money, or both, from the groom’s family to the bride’s family. A marriage concluded without this dowry means humiliation and even dishonor to the wire. The medium of transfer is usually cattle.

In the event that a man dies, leaving a wife and children, the younger brother of the deceased takes over the responsibility for the wife and children. The younger brother becomes the guardian of the family. Marriage does not occur and the widow retains her name as the wife of the dead man. Because the living brother feels a strong sense of obligation for the future of his dead brother’s family, the children are taken care of very well. Divorce can be granted for reasons such as drunkenness, sexual and temperamental incompatibility, unfriendly relationships with a mother-in-law, adultery, barrenness and impotence.

Divorce rates among the Nuer in Sudan have increased in recent decades. Studies conducted in the 1980’s indicated that up to one-third of marriages experienced divorce. In Sudan, in cases of divorce, child custody typically goes to the males. If a husband and wife are having difficulties, members of the extended families, both men and women, will meet to discuss the situation. The wife will go to her parent’s house. The husband and his relatives will then meet with the male relatives of the wife’s family to further discuss the situation and determine a course of action.

In most cases, the husband and wife will follow the recommendations. This method of solving family disputes is frequently not possible in the United States since many of the Nuer are young adults without the benefit of extended families. Ideal family size was quite large in the Sudan and a family might have more than seven children. Abstinence for up to 3 years was practiced after the birth of a child. Other forms of birth control were generally not practiced in the Sudan.

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