The Dinka people

The Dinka tribe (DinkaJiɛ̈ɛ̈ŋ) are a Nilotic ethnic group native to South Sudan with a sizable diaspora population abroad. The Dinka mostly live along the Nile, from Bor[1] 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[2] 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 agropastoral peoples of the Nile Valley and African Great Lakes region who speak Nilotic languages, including the Nuer and Luo).[3] Dinka are noted for their height, and, along with the Tutsi of Rwanda, they are believed to be the tallest people in Africa.[4] 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.[5] However, it seems that 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).[6] Other studies of comparative historical height data and nutrition place the Dinka as the tallest people in the world.[7]

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,[8] who provide leadership for the entire people and appear to be at least in part hereditary.



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,[9] a Christian, multi-ethnic empire dominated by Nubians.[10] Living in its southern periphery and interacting with the Nubians, the Dinka absorbed a sizable amount of the Nubian vocabulary.[11] 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.[12]

Conflict over pastures and cattle raids has been happening between Dinka and Nuer as they battled for grazing their animals.[13]

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 the 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 non-Dinka fellow 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.[14]


In 1983, due to Sudan’s second civil war, many young educated Dinka men and women were forced to flee from the cities where they were working back to rural villages. Some of these men were Christians who had been converted by the Church Missionary Society and they took their faith with them when they fled.[15] Among these men and women were ordained clergymen who began preaching in the villages. Song and praises were used to teach the mostly illiterate Dinka about the faith and Biblical lessons.[16] Most Dinka have converted to Christianity and are learning how to adapt or reject ancient religious practices and rituals to match Christian teachings.[17] 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.[18]

Dinka massacre[edit]

On November 15, 1991, the event known as the “Dinkas Massacre” commenced in South Sudan.[19][1] Forces led by the breakaway faction of Riek Machar deliberately killed an estimated 2,000 civilians of Dinka Bor, Dinka Twic East, Dinka Nyarweng, and Dinka Hol[20] in villages and wounded several thousand more over the course of two months. Much of their wealth was destroyed, which led to mass death due to hunger. It is estimated that 100,000 people left the area following the attack.[21] [22]

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.

Cattle of the Dinka people, Juba, South Sudan

Southern Sudan has been described as “a large basin gently sloping northward”,[23] 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 southern Sudan into which the rivers of CongoUgandaKenya, 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 the large basin is unique; until recently, wild animals and birds flourished, hunted rarely by the agro-pastoralists.[23]

The Dinka’s migrations are determined by the local climate, and 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 the 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 sorghummillet, 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.[24]

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 Apaak and Reel, Bor, Twic, Nyarweng and Ho[20] l and Panaruu into Awet and Kuel and Ciec into Ador and Lou, where Ador and Lou are sub-divided into Ciec Manyiel (Jieng).[25][26][27]

Rek people[edit]

The Rek are an ethnic group in South Sudan, a subgroup of the Dinka.[28] 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.[29]

Cultural and religious beliefs[edit]

Dinka tribesmen, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, c. 1912

Main article: Dinka religion

The Dinkas’ pastoral lifestyle is also reflected in their religious beliefs and practices. The Dinka religion, just like most other Nilotic faiths, are Polytheistic, but have one creator God, Nhialic, who leads the Dinka pantheon of gods and spirits. He is generally distant to humans and does not directly interact with them.[30] The sacrificing of oxen by the “masters of the fishing spear” is a central component of Dinka’s religious practice. Age is an important factor in Dinka culture, with young men being inducted into adulthood through an initiation ordeal that includes marking the forehead with a sharp object. Also during this ceremony, they acquire a second cow-color name. The Dinka believe they derive religious power from nature and the world around them, rather than from a religious tome.[31]

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 DauThey 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.[32]


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