DINKAS: PEOPLE OF THE SOUTHERN SUDAN, MAY 1953

ANNOUNCER:

Note: What you are going to read here after is an extract from a draft of the BBC’s introduction and from the broadcast script itself which was read by Coote at a special meeting of the ‘North-East Africa Seminar’ held at the Oxford Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology on 11 June 1999 to mark the publication of the special issue of JASO (Vot XXVII, no. 1; Hilary 1997) published in Godfrey Lienhardt’s memory. Godfrey was a BBC Journalist that came to stay among Dinka people in Southern Sudan in 1947 for several months and managed to observe the Dinka way of life in their natural setting in their geographical location. Except in one instance, in the text of his talk Lienhardt consistently used ‘Dinka’ to refer to both one and many Dinka. The title of the talk as broadcast, however, was ‘Dinkas’ and despite its now rare usage the BBC decided to retain it here. Please read it as it is very rich in explaining the way of life of Dinka people as it still exists today among rural Dinka people. Here you go:

Geography for Schools. Life and Work in Africa. Today you are going to hear about the Dinka people who live in the Southern Sudan among the swamps and grass lands on either side of the White Nile. Until recently, not a great deal was known about the Dinka. To tell you what it is like to live among these people, we have in the studio Godfrey Lienhardt, who has just returned from the Sudan. This was in 1953 three years before the independence of Sudan.
When I first went to the Sudan in 1947 I travelled by train from Khartoum, the capital, to Kosti on the White Nile. Then I took one of the Nile paddle steamers to Juba, which is near the southern border of the Sudan. For the first few days I sat on deck watching the country slowly go by. First the land of various Arab tribes, then, about three hundred miles south of Khartoum, the country got greener, the desert gave way to flat grass lands stretching as far as the eye could see.
Here, instead of the Arabs of the north, I met the naked negro people of whom the Dinka are the most numerous. I had seen my first Dinka in Khartoum. He was working in the zoo there, feeding the lions. He agreed to come with me to teach me a bit of the Dinka language on the journey, and then to visit his own people again. As he knew a few words of English, I hoped I could talk a little through him to some of the Dinka on the way. Every time the steamer stopped to put down passengers, or pick up more wood-because the steamer burnt wood as fuel-we pushed our way on to the bank, through crowds of people trying to sell chickens, sheep and other things to the Arab sailors. But I found I couldn’t say much to the Dinka, we mostly just stared at each other. I admired their fine beads and big ivory bangles, their great height, and the ostrich feathers in their hair, and they, as I only later discovered, examined the British passengers and commented on their small size, their hairy legs, and their thick necks. The Dinka are very tall and slender, and are given the name of ‘storkmen’. On the whole, they find Europeans rather unpleasant to look at. What they particularly dislike about us is our having teeth at the front in the lower jaw. They think this is very ugly, for they take theirs out, rather painfully, with the point of a spear. This makes their language very difficult to speak properly, because all the sounds can only be made well if you have no lower front teeth.
Travelling to Juba, the boat threaded its way for several days through the swamps of the Southern Sudan. These swamps have really to be seen to be believed, for on both banks of the river, as far as the eye can see, there are only reeds, and papyrus grass. Nobody can live there. You can shoot crocodiles from the steamer if you like, and you see quite a lot of hippos too, but along this central stretch of the White Nile, you don’t see many people. Their villages are built many miles away from the river, on higher ridges which are not flooded when the river rises during the rainy season. I should have told you before that I first went in December, when the country was drying up. For you see, not a drop of rain falls in the Southern Sudan from November until March, but in April the rains begin. Then, until November, all the land near the rivers is deeply flooded. When the rains stop, the country begins to dry up until most of the land becomes just hard, dry clay. The rivers sink and sink until really big ones have become no more than miserable little trickles that you can step across easily without getting your feet wet. In places which were covered with water only a few months before, you may be lucky if you can find a single pool of slimy water to drink, and with insects skating on it too. Later I got used to drinking that water, after filtering it through a bit of cloth and then boiling it. It still tasted like mud. Still, if you want to live with the Dinka you can’t be too fussy about such things. By the time the steamer had arrived in Juba, we had passed south of the land of the Dinka, so I took a lorry in Juba, piled it high with my tables, chairs, tins of food, cooking utensils, and everything else needed, and we travelled 400 miles by the main road north-east [sic; the direction is actually north-west] to Wau, a town in Dinka country. Now their land is so big, on both banks of the Upper Nile, that it was hard to know where to stay to get to know the Dinka. You see, there are just over a million Dinkas in a land bigger than Britain, and they are very spread out.
But I eventually decided to go to a little village called Pan Acier. To get to the village I had to walk with carriers for the last twenty-five miles of the journey, and some of the carriers with my food and furniture on their heads got lost, so when I arrived in the village nobody really knew what I wanted, and there was nowhere to stay. But the Dinka were very kind. They took me to one of the large huts, made of mud and thatch, where they keep their cattle at night, and they said I might stay there. They brought a large bowl of sour milk too-they much prefer their milk sour-and, although I had to pick out a few cow hairs, I was hungry and tired enough to enjoy it. I can’t say I much enjoyed sleeping in the cattle house, since the Dinka always build a smoky fire at night to keep mosquitoes away from them and their cattle, and until you get used to it, you are half suffocated by smoke. There is not much room either, between the goats and cows and visitors, all of whom sleep together in this large hut. Around it are several smaller huts where the family sleeps. They are all nicely made of mud and thatched with grass.
So I slept that night with goats nibbling my mosquito net and I woke up to find twenty or thirty Dinka all standing round to have a look at me as I got up. At first, I must say I found it rather trying to shave with five or six Dinka all trying to look at themselves in the shaving mirror at the same time, and occasionally feeling my whiskers also. This was December, and all the people were together in the village. The harvesting was almost all finished. Every morning the cattle were taken out by the young men and spent the day in the pastures nearby. In the evening, they were brought back and tied to their different pegs-for each one has a peg of its own near the homesteads. Some were put in the cattle houses. Others were tied outside. Little boys ran about making the smoking fires to keep off the mosquitoes. The women were cooking the evening meal. The only lights in the village, of course, were firelight and my lamp; so after supper people used to gather round me in the lamplight and talk. In this way, I began to learn a little Dinka; but as I say, it is a difficult language. I was very proud of my first sentence. I asked a man, ‘Have you finished building your hut and I was quite surprised when everyone burst into laughter. Later, when I knew the language better, I discovered that what I had really said was, ‘Are you married to an ostrich?’
So life went on through December and into January. This was the dry season and the country was by now drying up. As the river fell lower and lower, it was time to start the fishing. An old man took a goat to the river and pushed it under the reeds. This goat was a present for the spirits of the river, to make sure that they brought a plentiful supply of fish to the Dinka. Every day we all went down to fish, the men carrying fish-spears, the women carrying baskets. Then, in water up to the waist, we walked up and down all together, the men thrusting the spears into the water and the women trapping the fish in the baskets. In the deeper places, we fished from canoes, which are just hollowed out tree trunks, and unless you are expert they tip you over and throw you into the river in no time. The worst thing that happened to me in the water was to tread on an electric fish, which gave quite a nasty shock. The Dinka seemed to fmd this funnier than I did.
In January and February, it is time to bum the dry, dead grass. This grows high above a man’s head, so while it is standing you are living like a rabbit in a cornfield. As it becomes dry enough, the Dinka start great fires. Clouds of smoke rise in the air, with a lot of birds circling over the fires to catch the half-roasted grasshoppers driven out by the flames. All the grass round my village was dry by about the middle of January. Little new shoots came from the tufts of burnt grass, but they were soon eaten by the cows. So the chief sent off some men to see if the land further down the river, where it was swampier, was dry enough to take the cattle to.
The men came back and said that the swamps were drying up, so all the Dinka started to prepare for the big move to the main rivers and their flood-plains, where they keep their cattle from about January until April. Every day, more families were ready with their cattle, their womenfolk carrying cooking pots, ropes, and sleeping mats, and even quite small children helping to carry part of the household on their heads. Then they would go off with great excitement, for they love this change of atmosphere and air, and they know too that the cattle give the best milk in the wetter pastures well away from the villages. From our point of view, nothing much happens in these dry-season camps.
The older people sit about all day making rope out of grass or skin and talking mostly about cows; the young men watch the cattle, and have dances in the evening; and the children play about, much like British children’ on the sea-shore, but instead of making sand-castles, they make little cattle-houses of mud, and they collect big snail shells and pretend that those are their cows. When the rains start again in April or May, it is time to go back to the villages to sow the seeds of millet, the grain from which the Dinka use to make their porridge.
In May and June, everyone is hard at work hoeing the ground and scattering the seed. The cattle are looked after by a few young men, and again are brought in to the villages at night. It is a worrying time, there are so many things that may spoil the grain. The rains may stop altogether for a week or two after the seed has begun to sprout. While the children and old men watch the growing crops and scare away the birds, the young men go off again with the cattle to camps in the forest, and stay there until the harvest time in September. They then return to the village, and all live together until the grass near home becomes dry again, and again it is time to move off to the swampier pastures. You may be wondering, perhaps, why the Dinka go to so much trouble for their cattle, moving about with them in all weathers to find the best grass. First, it is because they need their milk and meat, for they cannot grow enough grain, or catch enough fish when the rivers are high, to live on fish and grain alone. But they never kill an animal just for food, and they hate selling cows. They will eat one if it dies naturally, and sometimes they kill a bull as a present for their God, and eat the meat themselves. But the most important thing about cows for the Dinka is that you have to use them when you get married. Then, you have to give your wife’s father a large present of cows, between fifteen and thirty, or perhaps more, to make up for taking his daughter away from him. Also, although it sounds strange to us, Dinka young men sometimes go courting with their favourite oxen. A pet ox, with decorative tassels hanging from its horns and a large bell round its neck, is taken along by its owner. Off they go together, the young man and his pet, to the place where his girl is milking her father’s cows. The young man walks round with his ox, singing a song to please her, and she sometimes looks up and thinks how handsome they both are, the man with his tall, slender body all shiny with oil, and his best beads on, and the ox well-groomed and decked out. I once asked a Dinka girl whether she would rather have a good-looking man with an ugly ox, or an ugly man with a really fine ox. She said that she would rather have the ugly man with the fine ox, though perhaps she was pulling my leg, as Dinka girls liked to do.
A Dinka marriage is quite an exciting affair. The bridegroom’s people go and dance for days at the house of the bride. She stays out of the way, and so does her mother, because it is thought a bad thing for a man to see his mother-in-law before marriage. The old people talk, and the young people dance. Then the time comes for the cows to be handed over, and there is often what looks like a fight. The girl’s people complain that there are not enough cattle, and the man’s people say there are enough, and then they pretend that the marriage is not going ahead after all. But usually some old man comes and calms them down, and they all settle happily to eat the marriage feast. The unfortunate bridegroom does not take much part in all this. He has to stay on one side out of the way, wearing a leopard-skin, and with a huge helmet made of black ostrich feathers on his head. When the wife has her first baby, she goes home to her mother, who will teach her how to look after it properly.
Dinka babies, by the way, are quite a light red colour when they are born, though their parents ~ very black-skinned. And you can’t please the parents by praising the children. They think that anyone who shows too much interest in their babies is jealous of them, so it is not polite to say how healthy or fat a baby is. It is polite to say that it is a miserable little thing, and talk about it as though it were nasty and ugly, if you talk about it all. If you say nice things about it, its mother will be very angry, and if after that it gets sick, she will think that it is your fault. Actually, though, the babies are very pretty indeed, though they do sometimes yell loudly when they see a strange white face approaching. Their parents don’t try to stop them from crying. They think it is a good thing for a child to be afraid of strangers and strange things; otherwise, it will not know how to look out for danger when it grows up. And a small child in that country has to know when to run away, for some .day he will certainly meet a snake, if not a lion or a leopard. Then, the Dinka say, if he has not been taught to be afraid, he will be hurt, because he will just stand there looking at the animal.
I wish there were more time to tell you some other things about the Dinka. You see it is a hard country they live in, and in some ways the Dinka are a hard people to get to know. Proud and sometimes fierce. But, when you know them, and get used to talking about cows all the time, they are a most enjoyable people to live with. I hope to see them again this summer and I shall be glad to hear the songs they sing to their cattle, and the beating of their dancing drums. And now, just to give you an idea of what it is all like, we have a recording of a Dinka song. It was made on a small portable recorder, so perhaps the quality is not of the best. Still-here it is.
[Song and drumming]
Announcer: And that ends Geography for today. The talk on the Dinka of Southern Sudan was given by Godfrey Lienhardt.
Source: JASO OCCASIONAL PAPERS SERIES, JASO 3113 (2000): 247-255DINKAS: PEOPLE OF THE SOUTHERN SUDAN, MAY 1953

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