South Sudan (officially the Republic of South Sudan) is located in east-central Africa and is the most recently formed country in the world. It gained independence from North Sudan in 2011 after over 50 years of political struggle. Being the youngest country in the world, its national identity is still emerging. Most South Sudanese people share a cultural connection based on their common practice of Christianity, and the experience of struggle and liberation from North Sudan. However, the South Sudanese tend to feel more cultural affiliation and loyalty to their tribal and ethnic groups rather than allegiance to the nation. Furthermore, despite its recent secession, the country continues to face serious civil unrest and endemic violence. Almost two million people have been internally displaced since the outbreak of civil war in 2013 (IDMC, 2016). The cultural lives of many South Sudanese have been deeply altered by the effects of conflict. As the source of one of the world’s most enduring refugee populations, the experience of exile has also changed people’s practice of traditions. Nevertheless, the South Sudanese are renowned for being resilient, adaptable and flexible. Many continue to work through difficult situations with little complaint and are incredibly self-reliant and resourceful.
Diversity of Experience
Most South Sudanese identify with one another on the basis of their African ethnic heritage and Christian beliefs, as these are defining factors that differentiate them from the (predominantly Arab Muslim) Northern Sudanese. However, it is essential to recognise that there is no uniform understanding of the typical South Sudanese experience. Many people have shared the difficulty of unremitting war, displacement and survival. However, individuals’ experiences diverge depending on which period of wartime they were caught in and when they left the country. Each armed conflict and civil war within the region has been different in nature, leading to fundamentally different experiences. Furthermore, not all South Sudanese have come from the centre of conflicts. Many Southern Sudanese people that have fled their country may not have had direct contact with violent behaviour.
Prolonged experiences of displacement can affect the practice of culture and traditions. Some people may have spent years in exile, involuntarily displaced to surrounding countries such as Egypt, Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia. In these cases, many reside in the marginalising and uncertain conditions of refugee camps or have joined the urban poor in major cities. Others may have also been forced to hide within the country, living nomadically to avoid attacks from the army. Meanwhile, a large number of Southerners that had lived in Khartoum (the capital of North Sudan) moved to South Sudan expecting a new life after its independence, and now face double displacement trying to return to their homes in North Sudan where they are no longer citizens.
Additionally, whilst the majority of people currently living in South Sudan have rural subsistence lifestyles, not all people belonging to the South Sudanese diaspora share this cultural background. In fact, many people who identify as South Sudanese are very educated, urbanised and familiar with industrialised environments. Some may have never lived in the actual territory of South Sudan, having previously lived in the cities of North Sudan before the two countries split. Many of these individuals have experienced culture shock adjusting to South Sudan’s rural infrastructure and lifestyles.
Ultimately, the South Sudanese experience is incredibly diverse and complex. Very little can be consistently concluded about a South Sudanese person on the basis of their nationality alone. Therefore, while the following information will concentrate on describing the general cultural life of people living in South Sudan today, it is important to understand that this description will not apply to all people who identify as South Sudanese across the diaspora.
As of 2016, approximately 45% of South Sudan’s population is under 15 years of age (CIA World Factbook, 2016). Meanwhile, only 5% are over 55 years of age. This age disparity reflects the life-altering and often deadly effects of long-term conflict. Current water shortages, famine and lack of resources have also affected people en masse. South Sudan is economically impoverished despite having rich natural resources. It has limited infrastructure, much of which has been damaged from fighting. Roads are mostly unsealed, vehicles are rare, and many people barter rather than using currency. It is estimated over 80% of the population lives in rural areas (CIA World Factbook, 2015). In these rural areas, people may be unfamiliar with modern-day utilities and technologies, such as shopping malls and escalators.
It is normal for South Sudanese people to be bilingual or trilingual. English is the official language of the country and remains the preferred language in business relations and among the educated. It is also common for people to communicate in standard Arabic or Juba Arabic in urban areas (as this was the dominant language of Sudan before the country split). Furthermore, most South Sudanese also speak the local language or dialect of their ethnicity/tribe. There are more than a hundred local languages, many of which diverge from one another in accent or dialect.
Ethnic and Tribal Diversity
South Sudan is incredibly diverse with over 60 different ethnic groups. Anthropologists have traditionally categorised the peoples and tribes of South Sudan under six distinct groupings. The majority of the South Sudanese population are defined as Nilotic, meaning their tribal origins trace back to the White Nile. Other groupings include Central Sudanic, Nilo – Hamid, Bari-speaking, Zande and Anyuak people. Each of these are defined by a host of ethnic, historical and linguistic factors.
The Dinka (a Nilotic people) are the biggest ethnic group in South Sudan, forming approximately 35.8% of the population. The Nuer (also Nilotic) is the second biggest ethnic group (15.6%). Other ethnicities or tribes include the Shilluk (Chollo), Luo, Bari, Azande, Anuak, Murle, Kuku, Kakwa, Mandari, Murle, Ndogom Lndi, Lango, Didinga, Dungatona, Acholi, Baka, Fertit, Bviri, Kreish, Bongo, Jiek and Nuba.
Within each ethnic group, there are further subdivisions. For example, the Dinka people are divided into at least 25 ethnic subgroups that each have their own distinct cultural practices, dialects and traditions. Smaller Dinka tribes include the Dinka Malual, Twic, Rek, Ruweng, Bor, Agar, Atwot and Ngok Ablinug.
From this brief overview, one can appreciate that the social landscape of South Sudan is exceptionally diverse. It is not possible to give a comprehensive description of each tribe, its subgroups and their different cultural, religious and linguistic identities in the scope of this profile. Therefore, it is important to recognise that all descriptions of a mainstream ‘South Sudanese culture’ are subject to variances between tribes and ethnicities. Such distinctions are particularly visible when looking at the livelihoods, customary laws, marriage systems and everyday objects of different ethnic groups.
Many people belonging to the broad South Sudanese diaspora across the world have been raised in cities or refugee camps under different circumstances and lifestyles. Therefore, many have been influenced by the cultural customs of host countries and not all follow traditional tribal practices. However, in South Sudan itself, the majority of the population live traditional subsistence lifestyles that are particular to their ethnic group. These livelihoods are usually centred on cattle herding or agricultural productions that vary season to season. Cattle-herding communities are often semi-nomadic, such as the Dinka and Nuer. Meanwhile, agriculturalists tend to remain in a specific territory; these are generally tribes belonging to Zande, Fertit, Anyuak, Shilluk, Maridi ethnic groups and Bari-speaking tribes.
Traditional tribal social structures and customary law form the basis of most rural communities’ social organisation. According to the UN Population Fund (2011), more than 90% of criminal and civil matters in South Sudan are determined through customary law. The purpose of customary law is “to achieve reconciliation and to ensure community harmony rather than to punish” (Jok, Leitch & Vendewint 2004). Through this legal system, individuals exercise social and legal powers at the local level. The rules surrounding marriage, divorce and child custody are matters of the home, not the state. The government is generally not involved in enforcing laws or punishment. Rather, most matters are resolved and circumscribed within communities through tribal courts.
Exact laws are difficult to specify as they differ between tribes. There may be some general commonalities across groups with similar livelihoods. For example, among cattle herders, reparations will usually be made through the currency of cattle. Meanwhile, for agriculturalists, exchanges can vary between tools, manual labour, weapons, beads or cash, for example. These differences in currency can make negotiations across ethnic lines complex. For instance, the terms and conditions of dowries can be difficult to negotiate depending on the customary law of the bride and groom’s tribe (see ‘Dating and Marriage’ under the Family section). Furthermore, tribal social structures are constantly undergoing change. Communities have had to be incredibly dynamic, adapting under the pressures of conflict. As another example, years of conflict and extreme poverty have brought more focus on dowry and early marriage as economic measures for survival. As such, some of the traditional customs surrounding these practices have changed in a short amount of time.
Relations Between Ethnicities and Tribes
Rivalry between tribes can occur over resources or territory. However, these disagreements are not generally ethnically charged as they often happen within ethnicities (i.e. between two Dinka tribes). For example, cattle raids are a serious threat for many tribes living in rural areas. This is an event in which a neighbouring tribe ambushes a community to take their livestock and resources. Due to the widespread availability of weapons, these violent encounters are often deadly. In the event of a cattle raid, the tribe that gets attacked usually seeks reprisal. Though these events can develop into tribal feuds and resource conflicts, they are generally detached from the broader ethnic conflict occurring in politics and are particular to local areas.
The people of South Sudan tend to feel a stronger sense of belonging to their tribe or ethnic group before identifying as citizens of the sovereign state. During the years of civil war with North Sudan, many ethnicities and tribes were able to set aside their differences in order to unite to fight for independence. There was a lot of hope and excitement among the broader South Sudanese community when the country gained independence in 2011. However, when conflict erupted in 2013 over competition for political power over the newly formed country, community opinion became divided again.
It is important to understand that although the current civil war has an ethnic undertone, this does not reflect the attitudes of all South Sudanese. People generally treat each other equally, unless they are politically involved individuals (i.e. members of the army) or live in the specific regions affected by violence. For South Sudanese living in host countries, some people may boycott the community events of another ethnicity; however, this kind of behaviour remains on a political level. Day-to-day ethnic relations are usually diplomatic and harmonious as most South Sudanese seek peace. Indeed, South Sudanese people living in other countries are commonly open and united across ethnic backgrounds. People may share their tribe’s songs and dances with other South Sudanese ethnicities to build broader community spirit and solidarity. It is also worth noting that the younger generation is usually detached from the conflict and has become instrumental in developing a united image of the South Sudanese community.
One’s heritage remains crucial to most South Sudanese people’s concept of personal identity. Many South Sudanese have an innate awareness of their ancestors that follows them throughout their life and keeps them grounded. Traditionally, there was a belief in the spiritual realm and the ability of ancestors to intervene among the living. Today, Christian churches in South Sudan generally frown upon ancestor worship and discourage people from calling on the spirits. Members of the South Sudanese diaspora that live in cities or different countries usually have a strong belief in the Christian God that takes priority over their reverence for ancestors. However, some Sudanese people living mostly in rural areas have continued animist traditions (see more in Religion).
Pride in one’s heritage remains very important to all. This extends to those who have been living in exile or refugees that have moved to host countries. People usually have a strong knowledge of the tribe’s history and the exact place where they originated. Traditional dances and stories pass this heritage on from generation to generation. Indeed, music and dance (often to drumming) are central to maintaining cultural ties and binding communities together in times of celebration.
Many South Sudanese are growing worried that some aspects of their culture will not be preserved amidst the effects of war. Those living in refugee camps or otherwise in exile often do not have the opportunity to practise their traditions in their original form. Adolescent refugees commonly have to rely on information passed through their parents and other community members, having never visited their homeland. Nevertheless, people are encouraged to perform their traditional dances and songs in camps to keep their cultures alive.
History of Conflict
The relentless conflicts of the 20th and 21st century have produced a generation of South Sudanese who have scarcely been afforded peace. While not all South Sudanese have directly experienced violence, it helps to have an awareness of their country’s history to understand their perspectives and experiences. South Sudan was once part of Sudan, which was ruled under a joint colonial relationship between the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Egypt. However, the cultures of the north and south were very different. The northern population was predominantly Muslim with an Arab cultural influence, speaking the Juba dialect of Arabic. Meanwhile, the populations of southern Sudan mostly followed tribal African cultural traditions and were strongly impacted by British imperialism, widely adopting Christianity and English. The colonisation strategy attempted to patch these populations together as a single nation.
When the country gained independence in 1956, internal conflict quickly erupted as the northern Muslim leaders came to dominate the central government and many southern Sudanese leaders were removed from power. The south became culturally and religiously persecuted by the government, which implemented shari’a law and exploited their resources. As the southern Sudanese fought for political representation and autonomy, internal conflict became largely ethno-religiously based. South Sudan achieved independence from North Sudan in 2011 after millions of people were killed in two civil wars spanning decades.
The ethnicities and tribes of South Sudanese were largely bound together by a greater cause of independence in their struggle against the North Sudanese government. However, their problems were not properly resolved and they resurfaced in the state-building process after independence was achieved. Ethnic conflict erupted in 2013 and violence is ongoing today. At least 50,000 people have been killed in this current civil war and millions have been displaced. Evidence suggests that the death toll may be far higher than this estimate. From this brief summary, one can appreciate that decades of conflict have given rise to cultural resilience, but also national exhaustion.
Community Interdependence and Privacy
The Southern Sudanese people’s experience of domination by both British/Egyptian colonisers and the Arab Muslim Sudanese government has led them to value independence, self-determination and autonomy. Public attitudes have become strongly opposed to outside interference and controlling bodies. People seek to protect the right to have control over their lives and for the state not to interfere with their communities’ affairs. For many South Sudanese, their tribal customary law reflects much of what they fought to protect in civil war against the north as it allows communities to manage their own activities (see ‘Tribal Lifestyles’ above).
Ultimately, community interdependence is an aspect of life that is important to all South Sudanese. The culture is very collectivistic as reliance on kin and community has been crucial to survival. There is a broad mistrust of government involvement in people’s personal lives, exacerbated by the underfunded social services that are often unable to meet basic needs due to corruption or lack of security. Therefore, if a South Sudanese person is in crisis and essential needs must be met, they are likely to use personal avenues to resolve the problem. By solving problems internally within the community, people can generally avoid the intervention of outsiders.
The communal aspect of South Sudanese culture often means that people rarely seek objective analysis into their personal situations. Individuals tend to approach those who know them first, starting at their most immediate family members and extended relatives or friends. Tribal leaders or community leaders will eventually be consulted if the issue cannot be resolved. Their advice is usually preferred over a counsellor and sensitive information is rarely shared with strangers, such as officials or practitioners. This code of privacy is also important to preserve the honourable reputation of a family. People tend not to reveal their problems to the public to safeguard their family name against judgement from the community. For example, parents are unlikely to reveal the fact that their child is receiving bad grades at school.
Dealing with Challenges and Confrontation
The privacy of the South Sudanese community can sometimes mean that some people do not speak up when they are having difficulty. Individuals may accept unjust situations or challenging circumstances to avoid causing community gossip by raising their voice. Many are becoming more aware of their civil and workplace rights. However, some people may not report their mistreatment due to mistrust of the system, or fear that doing so will make their situation worse. This leads some South Sudanese to be compliant to the point that they are put at a disadvantage.
Some people among the South Sudanese community may be quick to anger at one another. However, they generally rarely hold grudges. This aspect of the culture is important to understand as it differs from the English-speaking West. For example, when two Australian friends fight, it usually affects their long-term relationship henceforth. Confrontations often signify the beginning or culmination of a long-standing dispute. However, in South Sudan, fights are often seen as the final action that puts an end to a disagreement. At its conclusion, the matter is generally thought to be resolved, and anger dissipates fairly quickly with both parties leaving with no hard feelings. Sometimes a quarrel can involve physical confrontation. However, even in this case, the long-term repercussions are usually minimal. People generally revert to being friendly and pleasant with each other, without any underlying awkwardness or animosity the next day. Therefore, it is important for foreigners to understand that though some South Sudanese may appear to have a quick temper, the effects of such behaviour on interpersonal relationships are interpreted differently in the South Sudanese community.
Age and Respect
Age determines the social hierarchy as it is associated with wisdom in South Sudanese culture. The older one is, the more respect they expect to receive from their peers and the community. To be an elder is to be allowed into high-level community meetings, make decisions, go hunting and perform certain cultural practices. As one’s old age signifies a higher social status, being called ‘old’ is a compliment and a point of pride in South Sudan.
However, most people born in South Sudan do not know their exact age or birthday. Often they will have knowledge of an event that happened the year they were born, and will estimate their age from there. For example, one may know that their family suffered from a bad drought during the year they were born, and will correlate their age to that life event recorded in history.
Perceptions of youth and adulthood are more fluid in South Sudan. People do not have a fixed age at which they become legal adults (as is normally the case at 18 years of age in Western culture). Rather, a person becomes a young adult once they have been initiated with a rite of passage. This can occur anytime around puberty, but usually when they are 15 or 16 years old. Initiations vary between ethnicities. For example, boys may be circumcised, girls may be tattooed, or both may receive scarification (decorative cuts). Once a child has been initiated as a young adult, they may take on more responsibility. However, one is only considered a full adult once they get married.
Evason, Nina. (2018). South Sudanese Culture. Retrieved from https://culturalatlas.sbs.com.au/south-sudanese-culture/south-sudanese-culture-core-concepts#south-sudanese-culture-core-concepts