Dinka people

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NSRW Africa Dinka.png
Portrait of Dinka man
Regions with significant populations
 South Sudan4.5 million
Christianity, Islam, Dinka religion
Related ethnic groups
Nuer and Atwot

The Dinka people (Dinka: Jiɛ̈ɛ̈ŋ) are a Nilotic ethnic group native to South Sudan with a sizable diaspora population abroad. The Dinka mostly live along the Nile, from Jonglei to Renk, in the region of Bahr el Ghazal, Upper Nile (two out of three Provinces which were formerly located in southern Sudan) and the Abyei Area of the Ngok Dinka in South Sudan.

They number around 4.5 million people according to the 2008 Sudan census, constituting about 18% of the population[1] of the entire country, and the largest ethnic tribe in South Sudan. Dinka, or as they refer to themselves, Muonyjang (singular) and jieng (plural), make up one of the branches of the River Lake Nilotes (mainly sedentary agripastoral peoples of the Nile Valley and African Great Lakes region who speak Nilotic languages, including the Nuer and Luo).[2] Dinka are sometimes noted for their height. With the Tutsi of Rwanda, they are believed to be the tallest people in Africa.[3] Roberts and Bainbridge reported the average height of 182.6 cm (5 ft 11.9 in) in a sample of 52 Dinka Agaar and 181.3 cm (5 ft 11.4 in) in 227 Dinka Ruweng measured in 1953–1954.[4] However, it seems the stature of today's Dinka males is lower, possibly as a consequence of undernutrition and conflicts. An anthropometric survey of Dinka men, war refugees in Ethiopia, published in 1995 found a mean height of 176.4 cm (5 ft 9.4 in).[5] Other studies of comparative historical height data and nutrition place the Dinka as the tallest people in the world.[6]

The Dinka people have no centralised political authority, instead comprising many independent but interlinked clans. Some of those clans traditionally provide ritual chiefs, known as the "masters of the fishing spear" or beny bith,[7] who provide leadership for the entire people and appear to be at least in part hereditary.


Precolonial history[edit]

Sudanese tribesmen raid a Dinka village in around 1870

According to oral traditions, the Dinka originated from the Gezira in what is now Sudan. In medieval times this region was ruled by the kingdom of Alodia,[8] a Christian, multi-ethnic empire dominated by Nubians.[9] Living in its southern periphery and interacting with the Nubians, the Dinka absorbed a sizable amount of the Nubian vocabulary.[10] From the 13th century, with the disintegration of Alodia, the Dinka began to migrate out of the Gezira, fleeing slave raids and other military conflicts as well as droughts.[11]

As part of Sudan[edit]

The Dinka's religions, beliefs and lifestyle have led to conflict with the Arab Muslim government in Khartoum. The Sudan People's Liberation Army, led by late Dr. John Garang De Mabior, a Dinka, took arms against the government in 1983. During the subsequent 21-year civil war, many thousands of Dinka, along with fellow non-Dinka southerners, were massacred by government forces. Since the independence of South Sudan, the Dinka, led by Salva Kiir Mayardit, have also engaged in a civil war with the Nuer and other groups, who accuse them of monopolising power.[12]


In 1983 due to Sudan’s Second Civil war many young educated Dinka men were forced to flee from the cities where they were working, back to rural Dinka villages. Some of these men were Christians who had been converted by the Anglican Church Missionary Society and they took their faith with them when they fled.[13] Among these men were ordained clergymen who began preaching in the villages. Songs and singing were used to teach the mostly illiterate Dinka about the faith and Biblical lessons.[14] A large number of Dinka people have converted to Christianity and are learning how to adapt or reject ancient religious practices and rituals to match Christian teachings.[15] The Christian conversion of the Dinka people did not only happen in the rural villages but also among Dinka refugees as they fled the war-torn country. The Lost Boys of Sudan were converted in great numbers in the refugee camps of Ethiopia.[16]

Bor massacre[edit]

On November 15, 1991 the event known as the "Dinkas Massacre" commenced in South Sudan. Forces led by the breakaway faction of Riek Machar deliberately killed an estimated 2,000 civilians in Dinkas of Hol, Nyarweng, Twic, Bor and others in villages and wounded several thousand more over the course of two months. It is estimated that 100,000 people left the area following the attack.[17] [18]

Pastoral strategies[edit]

An example of rainy season temporary settlements—note the stilts upon which the huts are built to protect against periodic flooding of the region.
  • Southern Sudan has been described as "a large basin gently sloping northward",[19] through which flow the Bahr el Jebel River, the (White Nile), the Bahr el Ghazal (Nam) River and its tributaries, and the Sobat, all merging into a vast barrier swamp.
  • Vast Sudanese oil areas to the south and east are part of the flood plain, a basin in the southern Sudan into which the rivers of Congo, Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia drain off from an ironstone plateau that belts the regions of Bahr El Ghazal and Upper Nile.
  • The terrain can be divided into four land classes:
    • Highlands: higher than the surrounding plains by only a few centimeters; are the sites for “permanent settlements”. Vegetation consists of open thorn woodland and/or open mixed woodland with grasses.
    • Intermediate Lands: lie slightly below the highlands, commonly subject to flooding from heavy rainfall in the Ethiopian and East/Central African highlands; Vegetation is mostly open perennial grassland with some acacia woodland and other sparsely distributed trees.
    • Toic: land seasonally inundated or saturated by the main rivers and inland water-courses, retaining enough moisture throughout the dry season to support cattle grazing.
    • Sudd: permanent swampland below the level of the toic; covers a substantial part of the floodplain in which the Dinka reside; provides good fishing but is not available for livestock; historically it has been a physical barrier to outsiders’ penetration.
  • Ecology of large basin is unique; until recently, wild animals and birds flourished, hunted rarely by the agro-pastoralists.[20]

The Dinka's migrations are determined by the local climate, their agro-pastoral lifestyle responding to the periodic flooding and dryness of the area in which they live. They begin moving around May–June at the onset of the rainy season to their “permanent settlements” of mud and thatch housing above flood level, where they plant their crops of millet and other grain products. These rainy season settlements usually contain other permanent structures such as cattle byres (luak) and granaries. During dry season (beginning about December–January), everyone except the aged, ill, and nursing mothers migrates to semi-permanent dwellings in the toic for cattle grazing. The cultivation of sorghum, millet, and other crops begins in the highlands in the early rainy season and the harvest of crops begins when the rains are heavy in June–August. Cattle are driven to the toic in September and November when the rainfall drops off and allowed to graze on harvested stalks of the crops.[21]

Dinka tribes[edit]

The number of Dinka sub-divisions is hotly contested as the border or line between group, sub-division and sections is blurred and often difficult to determine. For example, one can divide the Atuot into Apak and Reel, Boor into Athooc and Gok, and Panaruu into Awet and Kuel and Ciec into Ador and Lou where Ador and Lou are sub-divided into Ciec Manyiel (Jieng).[22][23][24]

Rek people[edit]

The Rek is an ethnic group in South Sudan, a subgroup of the Dinka.[25] Its members speak South-Western Dinka, also called Rek, a Nilotic language. Many members of this ethnicity are Christians. Some estimates put the Rek population at or exceeding 500,000 people.[26]

Cultural and religious beliefs[edit]

The Dinkas' pastoral lifestyle is also reflected in their religious beliefs and practices. Most revere one God, Nhialic, who speaks through spirits that take temporary possession of individuals in order to speak through them. The sacrificing of oxen by the "masters of the fishing spear" is a central component of Dinka religious practice. Age is an important factor in Dinka culture, with young men being inducted into adulthood through an initiation ordeal which includes marking the forehead with a sharp object. Also during this ceremony they acquire a second cow-colour name. The Dinka believe they derive religious power from nature and the world around them, rather than from a religious tome.[27]

Dinka diaspora[edit]

The experience of Dinka refugees was portrayed in the documentary movies Lost Boys of Sudan by Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk and God Grew Tired Of Us, Joan Hechts' book The Journey of the Lost Boys and the fictionalized autobiography of a Dinka refugee, Dave Eggers' What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng. Other books on and by the Lost Boys include The Lost Boys of Sudan by Mark Bixler, God Grew Tired of Us by John Bul Dau, They Poured Fire On Us From The Sky by Alephonsion Deng, Benson Deng, and Benjamin Ajak and, "A Long Walk to Water" by Linda Sue Park. In 2004 the first volume of the graphic novel Echoes of the Lost Boys of Sudan was released in Dallas, Texas.[28]

Notable Dinka[edit]


  1. ^ Ancient Historical Society Virtual Museum, 2010
  2. ^ Seligman, C. G.; Seligman, Brenda Z. (1965). Pagan Tribes of the Nilotic Sudan. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  3. ^ "The Tutsi". In and Out of Focus: Images from Central Africa 1885-1960. National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.
  4. ^ Roberts, D. F.; Bainbridge, D. R. (1963). "Nilotic physique". Am J Phys Anthropol. 21 (3): 341–370. doi:10.1002/ajpa.1330210309. PMID 14159970.
  5. ^ Chali, D. (1995). "Anthropometric measurements of the Nilotic tribes in a refugee camp". Ethiopian Medical Journal. 33 (4): 211–217. PMID 8674486.
  6. ^ Eveleth and Tanner (1976) Worldwide Variation in Human Growth, Cambridge University Press; --Floud et al 1990 Height, Health and History: Nutritional Status in the United Kingdom, 1750-1980, p. 6
  7. ^ Lienhardt, G. (1961). Divinity and Experience: the Religion of the Dinka. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  8. ^ Beswick, Stephanie (2004). Sudan's Blood Memory. University of Rochester. pp. 21–23. ISBN 1580461514.
  9. ^ Werner, Werner (2013). Das Christentum in Nubien. Geschichte und Gestalt einer afrikanischen Kirche ["Christianity in Nubia. History and shape of an African church"] (in German). Lit. p. 160. ISBN 978-3-643-12196-7.
  10. ^ Beswick, Stephanie (2004). Sudan's Blood Memory. University of Rochester. p. 21. ISBN 1580461514.
  11. ^ Beswick, Stephanie (2004). Sudan's Blood Memory. University of Rochester. pp. 29–31. ISBN 1580461514.
  12. ^ "As South Sudan implodes, America reconsiders its support for the regime". The Economist. 12 October 2017.
  13. ^ Zink, Jesse (April 2017). "Women and Religion in Sudan's Civil War: Singing through Conflict". Studies in World Christianity. 23 (1): 67–83. doi:10.3366/swc.2017.0170. ISSN 1354-9901.
  14. ^ Nikkel, Marc R. “Aspects of Contemporary Religious Change among the Dinka.” Journal of Religion in Africa, vol. 22, no. 1, 1992, pp. 78–94., www.jstor.org/stable/1580785. Accessed 30 Mar. 2020.
  15. ^ Fancher, Karen. "Ritual and Sacrifice Among the Dinka of Southern Sudan: Implications for Christian Evangelism and Discipleship."https://web.archive.org/web/20200218081224/https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/e996/1d8e9447e2ec2ec6ea656f09c5d9570b8b7d.pdf
  16. ^ Snyder, Kathryn, ""In My Heart I Had a Feeling of Doing It": A Case Study of the Lost Boys of Sudan and Christianity" (2010). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 614. https://digitalcommons.du.edu/etd/614
  17. ^ Clammer, Paul (2005). Sudan: Bradt Travel Guide. Bradt Travel Guides. ISBN 9781841621142. Retrieved 22 March 2011.
  18. ^ Beswick, Stephanie (2004). Sudan's Blood Memory: The Legacy of War, Ethnicity, and Slavery in South Sudan. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press. p. 217. ISBN 1-58046-151-4. Retrieved 4 March 2020.
  19. ^ (Roth 2003)
  20. ^ Roth 2003
  21. ^ Deng, Francis Mading. The Dinka of the Sudan. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press, 1972.
  22. ^ "TECOSS". Twic East Community of South Sudan. Archived from the original on 2011-06-19.
  23. ^ "Sudanese Twic Association of Michigan". Archived from the original on 2018-03-19. Retrieved 2019-07-26.
  24. ^ "The UN Refugee Agency". UNHCR.
  25. ^ Beswick, Stephanie (2006). Sudan's blood memory: the legacy of war, ethnicity, and slavery in early South Sudan (Reprinted. ed.). Rochester, NY [u.a.]: Univ. of Rochester Press. ISBN 9781580461511.
  26. ^ Middleton, John; Tait, David (2013). Tribes Without Rulers Studies in African Segmentary Systems. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis. pp. 97–108. ISBN 9781136532139.
  27. ^ Beswick, S.F. (1994) JAAS XXIX, 3-4 (c) E. J. Brill, Leiden Religious Beliefs
  28. ^ Cuellar, Catherine (June 28, 2004). "'Echoes of the Lost Boys of Sudan': Comic Book Tells Harrowing Tale of Refugee Children". NPR News. NPR.
  29. ^ "Leader of Dinka tribe killed in Sudan attack". Al Jazeera English. 2013-05-05. Retrieved 2016-08-02.

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