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Dinka people explained

Jul 7, 2018
Leona Willis
Core Spirit member since Dec 24, 2020
Reading time 7 min.

The Dinka people are an ethnic group inhabiting the Bahr el Ghazal region of the Nile basin, Jonglei and parts of southern Kordufan and Upper Nile regions. The Dinkas are mainly agripastoral 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 4.5 million people according to the 2008 Sudan census, constituting about 18% of the population

The Dinka people 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, who provide leadership for the entire people and appear to be at least in part hereditary.

Their language, called Dinka or “thuɔŋjäŋ” (thuongmuoingjang), is one of the Nilotic languages of the eastern Sudanic language family. The name means “people” in the Dinka language. It is written using the Latin alphabet with a few additions.

Pastoral strategies

Southern Sudan has been described as “a large basin gently sloping northward”, 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.

The Dinka tribe (or Jieng) has twenty six subdivisions: Gok, Agaar, Pakam, Nyang, Aliab, Ciec, Bor, Nyarweng, Hol, Twi/Twic, Twi/Twic Mayardit, Rek, Luac, Malual, Apuk, Aguok, Awan, Panaruau, Ruweng, Alor, Dongjol, Nyiel, Ager, Rut, Abialeng, 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 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; allowed to graze on harvested stalks of the crops.

Cultural and religious beliefs

The Dinkas’ pastoral lifestyle is also reflected in their religious beliefs and practices. Since the arrival of Abrahamic religions 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.

War with the North and status as refugees

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. The Dinka have also engaged in a separate civil war with the Nuer.

Sizable groups of Dinka refugees may be found in distant lands, including Jacksonville, Florida and Clarkston, a working-class suburb of Atlanta, Georgia and in the Midwest such as Omaha NE, Des Moines IA, Sioux Falls SD, and Kansas City MO, as well as Edmonton in Canada, and Melbourne and Sydney in Australia.

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’ . 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’ was released in Dallas, Texas, United States, chronicling in art and dialogue four lost boys’ escapes from the destruction of their hometowns in South Sudan.

1991 Upper Nile Dinka Massacre

On November 15, 1991 the event known as the “Dinka Massacre” or Upper Nile Dinka Massacre commenced in South Sudan. Forces led by the breakaway faction of Riek Machar deliberately killed an estimated 2,000 civilians in Dinka villages of Jonglei State and wounded several thousand more over the course of two months. It is estimated a 100,000 people left the area following the attack.

Notable Dinka

Among well-known Dinka are:

Abel Alier, known as Wal Kwai, the first southerner to become Vice President of Sudan in 1972

Francis Bok, author

Manute Bol, former NBA player, one of the two tallest players in the league’s history

John Bul Dau also known as Dhieu Deng Leek, one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan”, author of God Grew Tired of Us, his autobiography, and subject of the documentary of the same title

Majak Daw, Australian rules footballer

Aldo Deng, former Sudanese cabinet member and current South Sudanese statesman; father of Luol Deng

Lt. General Dominic Dim Deng, South Sudan’s first political officer of SPLA, Minister for SPLA Affairs

Francis Deng, author, SAIS research professor

Luol Deng, current NBA player

Valentino Achak Deng, a former Lost Boy and subject of , a biographical novel written by Dave Eggers

John Garang, former First Vice President of Sudan, Commander in Chief of Sudan People’s Liberation Army and Chairman of Sudan People’s Liberation Movement

Ater Majok, former NBA player

Guor Marial, Olympic marathon runner.

Lt. General Salva Kiir Mayardit, Dr. Garang’s successor as First Vice President of Sudan and President of South Sudan, Commander in Chief of Sudan People’s Liberation Army and Chairman of Sudan People’s Liberation Movement

Alek Wek, fashion model

Ataui Deng, fashion model and niece of Alek Wek

Kuol Deng Majok, tribal leader killed by Misseriya tribespeople in May 2013 in Abyei.

Salva Dut, a former Lost Boy, inspiration of the book A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

Kuol Manyang Juuk, current Minister of defense and a former commander of SPLA high command.


In August 2010 Manyang Mayom was awarded the Hellman/Hammett grant from Human Rights Watch award; HRW Banned, Censored, Harassed, and Jailed -Hellman/Hammett Grants Honor 42 Writers for Courage Facing Political Persecution. On 6 May 2013 Mayom was given an awarded by the South Sudan Red Cross for his coverage of the humanitarian situation in Jonglei state.

Born: 05/11/1982 in Pacong payam of Rumbek East County village; just 12 miles aways from Rumbek central county. Mayom, Before joining UN Radio Miraya in 2010, Mayom worked as a freelance journalist for websites Sudan Tribune and Gurtong and various newspapers including the Khartoum Monitor, The Citizen, Sudan Mirror and The Juba Post as well regular contributor to BBC focus on Africa and Network Africa

by Everything Explained

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