Dinka people

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AlekWek.jpg100pxJohn Garang.jpgSalva Kiir Mayardit.jpg
model Alek Wek, author and abolitionist Francis Bok, late revolutionary and first president John Garang, current president Salva Kiir Mayardit
Regions with significant populations
 Southern Sudan
Majority of 75% practice Christianity
Related ethnic groups
Nilotic peoples

The Dinka is an ethnic group inhabiting the Bahr el Ghazal region of the Nile basin, Jonglei and parts of southern Kordufan and Upper Nile regions. They are mainly agro-pastoral people, relying on cattle herding at riverside camps in the dry season and growing millet (Awuou) and other varieties of grains (rap) in fixed settlements during the rainy season. They number around 1.5 million people, constituting about 10% of the population [1] of the entire country, and constitute the largest ethnic tribe in South Sudan. Dinka, or as they refer to themselves, Muonyjang (singular) and jieng (plural), are one of the branches of the River Lake Nilotes (mainly sedentary agri-pastoral peoples of East Africa 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 [2].However, the popular belief that Dinka "often" reach more than seven feet finds no support in scientific literature. An anthropometric survey of Dinka men published in 1995 found a mean height of 176.4 cm, or roughly 5 ft 9.45 in the Ethiopian Medical Journal.[3]

The Dinka have no centralised political authority, instead comprising many independent but interlinked clans. Certain of those clans traditionally provide ritual chiefs, known as the "masters of the fishing spear" or "beny bith" [4], who provide leadership for the entire people and appear to be at least in part hereditary.

Their language called Dinka as well as "thuɔŋjäŋ (thuongjang)" is one of the Nilotic family of languages, belonging to the Chari-Nile branch of the Nilo-Saharan family. The name means "people" in the Dinka language. It is written using the Latin alphabet with a few additions.

Pastoral strategies

An example of dry season site dwellings. Note the conical roofs that are indicative of these Dinka residences.
  • Southern Sudan has been described as “a large basin gently sloping northward (Roth 2003),” 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:
An example of rainy season temporary settlements. Note the stilts upon which the huts are built to protect against periodic flooding of the region.
    • 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 (Roth 2003).
An example of a cattle byre.

The Dinka tribe (or Jieng) has ten subdivisions: Atuot, Aliab, Bor, Chiej, Agar, Gok, Rek, Twij, Malual, and Ngok. Malual is the largest of those groups, numbering over a million people. 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 (luaak) and granaries. During dry season (beginning about December–January), everyone except the aged, ill, and nursing mothers migrate 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; allowed to graze on harvested stalks of the crops [5].

Cultural and religious beliefs

The Dinka's pastoral lifestyle is also reflected in their religious beliefs and practices, which are not animist in character. They have 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 the Dinka. 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.

Following the war, Christianity predominated over Dinka religious practices, being introduced to the region by British missionaries in the 19th century and during the civil war.

War with the North and status as refugees

The Dinka's religions, beliefs and lifestyle have led to conflict with the 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. The Dinka have also engaged in a separate civil war with the Nuer.

On November 15, 1991 the Bor Massacre took place in Southern Sudan, triggered by a coup declaration against the then SPLM chairman, the late Dr. John Garang, on August 28, 1991 by the current vice president of the government of Southern Sudan, Dr. Riek Machar. Dr. Machar's forces killed 500 civilians in Bor and wounded the same number in the course of two months. Immediately after came famine since Machar forces looted and burned villages and raided cattle. Another 25,000 people died as a result, according to Amnesty International. Dr. Riek described the incident as "propaganda" and "myth" despite horrific evidence of mass killing shown by bones and corpses in the aftermath of the massacre.

Sizable groups of Dinka refugees may be found in distant lands, including Jacksonville, Florida and Clarkston, a working-class suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, as well as Edmonton in Canada.

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, and They Poured Fire On Us From The Sky by Alephonsion Deng, Benson Deng, and Benjamin Ajak. In 2004 the first volume of the graphic novel 'Echoes of the Lost Boys of Sudan'[6] was released in Dallas, Texas, United States, chronicling in art and dialogue four lost boys' escapes from the destruction of their hometowns in Southern Sudan. The Florida ska punk group, Against All Authority refers to the Dinka clan in the song "Dinkas When I Close My Eyes" from their album 24 Hour Roadside Resistance.

Notable Dinka

Among well-known Dinka are:


  1. ^ Ancient Historical Society Virtual Museum, 2010
  2. ^ Seligman, C.G. and Brenda Z. Seligman. Pagan Tribes of the Nilotic Sudan. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1965.
  3. ^ Chali D. (1995) 'Anthropometric measurements of the Nilotic tribes in a refugee camp', Ethiopian Medical Journal, 33, 4, 211-217.
  4. ^ G. Lienhardt, Divinity and Experience: the Religion of the Dinka. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961
  5. ^ Deng, Francis Mading. The Dinka of the Sudan. Prospect Heights: Waveland Press, Inc., 1972.
  6. ^ [1]
  7. ^ Lavell, Steve (15 December 2009). "A touch of Majak". North Melbourne Football Club. Retrieved 28 February 2010.
  • [www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Dinka. Dinkas average height.]