Non-Muslim Peoples

Sudan Table of Contents

In the 1990s, most of Sudan's diverse non-Muslim peoples lived in southern Sudan, but a number of small groups resided in the hilly areas south of the Blue Nile on or near the border with Ethiopia. Another cluster of peoples commonly called the Nuba, but socially and culturally diverse, lived in the Nuba Mountains of southern Kurdufan State.


Nilote is a common name for many of the peoples living on or near the Bahr al Jabal and its tributaries. The term refers to people speaking languages of one section of the Nilotic subbranch of the Eastern Sudanic branch of Nilo-Saharan and sharing a myth of common origin. They are marked by physical similarity and many common cultural features. Many had a long tradition of cattlekeeping, including some for whom cattle were no longer of practical importance. Because of their adaptation to different climates and their encounters, peaceful and otherwise, with other peoples, there was also some diversity among the Nilotes.

Despite the civil war and famine, the Nilotes still constituted more than three-fifths of the population of southern Sudan in 1990. One group--the Dinka--made up roughly two-thirds of the total category, 40 percent or more of the population of the area and more than 10 percent of Sudan's population. The Dinka were widely distributed over the northern portion of the southern region, particularly in Aali an Nil and Bahr al Ghazal. The next largest group, only one-fourth to one-third the size of the Dinka, were the Nuer. The Shilluk, the third largest group, had only about one-fourth as many people as the Nuer, and the remaining Nilotic groups were much smaller.

The larger and more dispersed the group, however, the more internally varied it had become. The Dinka and Nuer, for example, did not develop a centralized government encompassing all or any large part of their groups. The Dinka are considered to have as many as twenty-five tribal groups. The Nuer have nine or ten separately named groups.

Armed conflict between and within ethnic groups continued well into the twentieth century. Sections of the Dinka fought sections of the Nuer and each other. Other southern groups also expanded and contracted in the search for cattle and pasturage. The Nuer absorbed some of the Dinka, and some present-day sections of the Nuer have significant Dinka components.

Relations among various southern groups were affected in the nineteenth century by the intrusion of Ottomans, Arabs, and eventually the British. Some ethnic groups made their accommodation with the intruders 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. These Dinka treated the resisting Nuer as hostile, and hostility developed between the two groups as result of their differing relationships to the British. The granting of Sudanese independence in 1956, and the adoption of certain aspects of Islamic law or the sharia, by the central government in 1983 greatly influenced the nature of relations among these groups in modern times.

The next largest group of Nilotes, the Shilluk (self-named Collo), were not dispersed like the Dinka and the Nuer, but settled mainly in a limited, uninterrupted area along the west bank of the Bahr al Jabal, just north of the point where it becomes the White Nile proper. A few lived on the eastern bank. With easy access to fairly good land along the Nile, they relied much more heavily on cultivation and fishing than the Dinka and the Nuer did, and had fewer cattle. The Shilluk had truly permanent settlements and did not move regularly between cultivating and cattle camps.

Unlike the larger groups, the Shilluk, in the Upper Nile, were traditionally ruled by a single politico-religious head (reth), believed to become at the time of his investiture as king the representative, if not the reincarnation, of the mythical hero Nyiking, putative founder of the Shilluk. The administrative and political powers of the reth have been the subject of some debate, but his ritual status was clear enough: his health was believed to be closely related to the material and spiritual welfare of the Shilluk. It is likely that the territorial unity of the Shilluk and the permanence of their settlements contributed to the centralization of their political and ritual structures. In the late 1980s, the activities against the SPLA by the armed militias supported by the government seriously alienated the Shilluk in Malakal.

Bari, Kuku, Kakwa, and Mandari

Several peoples living mainly to the south and east of the Nilotes spoke languages of another section of the Nilotic subbranch of Eastern Sudanic. Primary among them were the Bari and the closely related Kuku, Kakwa, and Mandari. The Bari and Mandari who lived near the Nilotes had been influenced by them and had sometimes been in conflict with them in the past. The more southerly Kuku and Kakwa lived in the highlands, where cultivation was more rewarding than cattle-keeping or where cattle diseases precluded herding.

Murle, Didinga, and Others

Two other tribes, the Murle and the Didinga, spoke Eastern Sudanic languages of subbranches other than Nilotic. The Murle had dwelt in southern Ethiopia in the nineteenth century and some were still there in the 1990s. Others had moved west and had driven out the local Nilotes, whom they reportedly regarded with contempt, and acquired a reputation as warriors. Under environmental pressure, the Murle raided other groups in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Along the mountainous border with Ethiopia in Al Awsat State lived several small heterogeneous groups. Some, like the Uduk, spoke languages of the Koman division of Nilo-Saharan and were believed to have been in the area since antiquity. Others, like the Ingessana, were refugees driven into the hills by the expansion of other groups. Most of these peoples straddling the Sudan-Ethiopia border had experienced strife with later-arriving neighbors and slave-raiding by the Arabs. All adapted by learning the languages of more dominant groups.


In western Al Istiwai and Bahr al Ghazal states lived a number of small, sometimes fragmented groups. The largest of these groups were the Azande, who comprised 7 to 8 percent of the population of southern Sudan and were the dominant group in western Al Istiwai.

The Azande had emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when groups of hunters, divided into aristocrats and commoners, entered the northeastern past of present-day Zaire (and later southwestern Sudan) and conquered the peoples already there. Although the aristocrats provided ruling kings and nobles, they did not establish an inclusive, centralized state. The means of succession to kingship, however, encouraged Azande expansion. A man succeeded to his father's throne only when he had vanquished those of his brothers who chose to compete for it. The brothers--princes without land or people but with followers looking for the fruits of conquest--would find and rule hitherto unconquered groups. Thus, the Azande became a heterogeneous people.

Their earlier military and political successes notwithstanding, the Azande in the twentieth century were poor, largely dependent on cultivation (hunting was no longer a feasible source of food), and afflicted by sleeping sickness. The British colonial authorities instituted a project, known as the Azande Scheme, involving cotton growing and resettlement in an effort to deal with these problems. The program failed, however, for a variety of reasons, including an inadequate understanding of Azande society, economy, and values on the part of the colonial planners. Azande society deteriorated still further, a deterioration reflected in a declining birthrate. Azande support of the Anya Nya guerrilla groups, as well as conflicts with the Dinka, also served to worsen the Azande's situation. In the early 1980s, there was talk of resurrecting a revised Azande project but the resumption of the civil war in 1983 prevented progress.

Bviri and Ndogo

Several other groups of cultivators in southwestern Sudan spoke languages closely akin to that of the Azande but lacked a dominant group. The most important seemed to be the Bviri. They and a smaller group called Ndogo spoke a language named after the latter; other, smaller communities spoke dialects of that tongue. These communities did not share a sense of common ethnic identity, however.


The other groups in southwestern Sudan spoke languages of the central branch of Nilo-Saharan and were scattered from the western Bahr al Ghazal (the Kreish) to central Al Istiwai (the Moru and the Avukaya) to eastern Al Istiwai (the Madi). In between, in Al Istiwai, were such peoples as the Bongo and the Baka. The languages of Moru and Madi were so close, as were aspects of their cultures, that they were sometimes lumped together. The same was true of the Bongo and the Baka, but there was no indication that either pair constituted a self-conscious ethnic group.


Living in the Nuba Mountains of southern Kurdufan State were perhaps three dozen small groups collectively called the Nuba but varying considerably in their culture and social organization. For example, some were patrilineally organized, others adhered to matrilineal patterns, and a very few--the southeastern Nuba--had both patrilineal and matrilineal groupings in the same community. The Kurdufanian languages these people spoke were not generally mutually intelligible except for those of some adjacent communities.

Despite the arabization of the people around them, only small numbers of Nuba had adopted Arabic as a home language, and even fewer had been converted to Islam. Some had, however, served in the armed forces and police. Most remained cultivators; animal husbandry played only a small part in their economy.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress