South Sudan: The Nuer People – Between Offence And Repair

In case of offence, the perpetrator must publicly acknowledge his guilt and reward the offended. This is the important role of the local community.

The Nuer people live along the rivers in the eastern region of South Sudan, in a land that is flooded for six months every year because of the heavy rains and the Nile flooding. The Nuer prefer to call themselves Naath, which means ‘the people of the origins’.

They make a living from pastoralism, during the dry season they move along with their herds to pasture areas where they settle down until the beginning of the rainy season. They also practice agriculture with ancient methods of cultivation and on a very small scale; they just plant sorghum, maize and vegetables.

The Nuer are generally tall and very dark-skinned people. Initiation rites are usually carried out at around the age of twelve years in this community. Young men are initiated by six cuts across the forehead, whose scars will remain forever and will show the successful transition to adulthood. The members of this group are accustomed to a hard life and they are generally kind and peaceful people, but an irrelevant dispute can sometimes degenerate even into murder.

A dispute over a woman, livestock or the ownership of a piece of land can end with a serious conflict. Antagonism towards other ethnic groups, or sub-ethnic groups and clans, and between locals and foreigners can also create tensions in the community.

In the past, the Nuer used to implement extreme solutions in order to remedy an offence. For instance, when a person was killed, the members of his family were entitled to avenge the murder by killing the murderer or another member of his family. After a conflict each clan makes peace in its own way. For example, the Gawar make peace by offering 15 cows to the offended party members.

The Nuer instead now practice a reconciliation rite whose implementation was decided on the occasion of the meeting in Old Fangak in the state of Jonglei in 1927, which was held in order to face the increase in the number of episodes of violence and to give a common directive to the group’s members scattered throughout Sudan. The rite is founded on the principle of tribal fraternity: ‘We are all brothers and sisters, even though we are scattered throughout the country. We must not kill each other’. Therefore a common reconciliation rite was established and, since then, the Nuer people have stuck to it.

In case of a serious dispute, an agreement is attempted between the individuals directly involved. If this first move does not work, the members of the community try to suggest several solutions, but if the guilty party categorically rejects all proposals aimed at restoring harmony, he is seen as a dangerous person and is expelled from the community. Unfortunately this happens quite frequently. In fact, a Nuer, who is charged with slander, will show great indignation and will fight like a lion to defend his reputation even when he is guilty. Even in the face of the evidence, he will deny everything and will act as if he were the victim. His friends therefore will be forced to intervene to calm him down and try to convince him to acknowledge his guilt.

The Nuer people know how to defend themselves and are skilled at game-changing when they want to make the others believe that the culprit is the victim. Such behaviour can certainly be found everywhere at all latitudes, but the Nuer people are particularly good at doing this. Admitting one’s mistake and having to apologize is a humiliation to a Nuer, since he must always show that he is a strong man who never does anything wrong. In the case that someone wanted to accuse a Nuer of something that might make him feel humiliated, he should be careful not to do it before his wife or children, or else he might get into deep trouble. In fact when a Nuer is humiliated, he may, whether he is innocent or guilty, even kill the accuser.

When a Nuer is killed, his relatives immediately get ready for retaliation. The murderer, therefore, seeks protection at the place of the Kuar Muon, the priest of the tribe’s traditional religion, to whom he confesses to the murder. The Kuar Muon makes an incision on the murderer’s forearm and then mixes the blood that has leaked out with some grass, soil or roots and makes him swallow this concoction. The Kuar Muon’s preparation is supposed to protect the murderer in case he happened to eat or drink something in the victim’s area. The murderer’s brothers get prepared for a possible revenge by the victim’s relatives. They hide and protect the murderer and reward the Kuar Muon.

In the meantime, a mediator, the Kuar Wal, who is believed to have special powers and who makes use of lethal potions, or a relative of the murderer, contacts the family of the offended, in an attempt to make the two groups reconcile. If the relatives of the murderer refuse to make peace, they will be cursed by the clan of the victim. If instead the two parties reach an agreement, a time and a place are decided for the implementation of the peace pact, which will take place in presence of the governmental authority (Kuar-Commissioner), the Kuar Muon, the elders of the two clans and the relatives of the murderer who bring a herd of 50 cows to be offered as a compensation to the victim’s family.

The murderer, as a precaution, remains hidden, some relatives of the victim might want to kill him in spite of the peace pact. After making some reconciliation speeches, the Kuar Muon kills an ox, extracts the bile, and then mixes it with fresh milk. All attendants drink this preparation, (somehow, drinking the bitter gall may be seen as an act of penance after confession). The murder’s relatives give the fifty cows to the victim’s family, the meeting is therefore dismissed and each person takes a piece of meat of the ox which was killed and leaves the place.

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