By Ter Manyang Gatwech, Kampala,Uganda,


Nuer warriors demonstrating a cultural practices, aimed to highlight how men could tactically fight off a sudden attack by spears in close range (Photo: Nyamilepedia)

Nuer warriors demonstrating a cultural practices, aimed to highlight how men could tactically fight off a sudden attack by spears in close range (Photo: Nyamilepedia)

18th Oct, 2014. (Nyamilepedia) — What is culture? Is a world for people’s ‘way of life’, meaning the way groups do things. Different groups of people many have different cultures. A culture is passed on to the next generation by learning, whereas genetics are passed on by heredity. Culture is seen in people’s writing, religion, music, clothes, cooking, and what they do.

The Naath people are Nilotic ethnic groups primarily inhabiting the Nile Valley. They are concentrated in South Sudan, with some representatives also found in southwestern of Ethiopia after they pushed of Anywaa from their land. They speak the Nuer language, which belongs to the Nilo-Saharan Family.

Naming of Nuer

‘’Nya’’ (nee ya) meaning ‘’daughter of’’, is the standard prefix used for female names. ‘’Gat’’ meaning ‘’son of’’, is a common begin for male Names.  Children are commonly given names to mark historical events (‘’Domaac’’ meaning ‘’bullet’’, or ‘’Mac’’ meaning ‘’fire or gun’’ given to a child born during times of war or from another father who legally married the mother.

‘’Nhial’’ means ‘’rain’’, and is a common name for males. Many Nuer have been exposed to Missionaries and carry a Christian first name. Their second name is a given name and always in Nuer. The father’s given name follows the child’s given name, which is then followed by the grandfather’s name and so on. For example Ter Manyang Gatwech. Gatwech is my grandfather’s name.  Many Nuer can easily recount ten generations of parental lineage because they carry those names themselves. I.e Ter Manyang Gatwech, Gatchang, Lam etc.

Introduction on the Nuer tribe The Nuer Tribe – Anthropology & the Human Condition

The Nuer tribe is a tribe located in South Sudan and Western Ethopia. Nuers call themselves Naath, which means human being. Cattle are an important aspect in their way of life; virtually all matters involve cattle- conflicts are usually about cattle, and cattle are used to pay fines for offenses as well as bridewealth in marriages (Gatkuoth, 2010). Nuers even take the name of their favourite oxen or cows, and greet each other with their cattle names. Cattle also mean prestige and wealth. It also acts as a mediator to the divine, as we would see in the ceremonial rites of Nuer marriages. Cattle not only provide companionship, food and economic security, but also a cultural identity for the Nuer. As we shall see in this write-up, cattle also plays important role in rites in their marriages. Bridewealth is a significant feature in Nuers’ marriage practices. It is an exchange that brings a woman and her children into the descent of her husband. Because of  the patrilineal nature of the Nuer tribe, we shall see that it is important for a man to continue his line, and this explains the alternative marriage arrangements presented in this write up.

Marriage prohibitions and incest

The Nuer has certain marriage prohibitions that revolve around the matters of kinship. A man and woman who stand on a relationship based on kin is hence forbidden to have sex or marry. If marriage takes place, it would be considered incest, or rual. Rual refers to both incest and misfortune brought about it, shaped by their religious beliefs. Syphilis or other diseases, drowning, or any form of violent deaths are seen as a consequence or retribution followed by incest. Some misfortunes could be avoided through cattle sacrifices.

Nuers have to follow the rule of exogamy: a man cannot marry a woman of the same clan and the same lineage. This means, a man and woman who are considered close cognate are also not allowed to marry. As long as a relationship can be traced between a man and woman through either father or mother, up to six generations, marriage is not allowed to happen (Evans-Pritchard, 1951). Further, when a Dinka boy is adopted by a Nuer, he used be regarded as part of the clan, and normally would not be allowed to marry a girl in the clan he is adopted. A man may not also be allowed to take a woman that is kin to the wife, like her sister or any of those in her clan. Because a man and woman is only fully married when the woman has a child and comes to live with her husband’s people, this means that the relation is tied through the child. The sister is also considered to be the mother of the child. Besides that, a man may not marry to the daughter of his “age  mate”, a member of his age set. This is because age-mates shed blood together during their initiation process and gives them a kind of kinship. The daughter one’s age-mate is also one’s daughter, and hence it would be considered incest.

Alternative Marriage Arrangements

One alternative marriage type is same-sex marriage. Women in Nuer culture can marry each other, with one being the ‘father’ of the children of the ‘wife’. The ‘father’ is referred to the ‘pater’. A third person, the ‘genitor’, is required to impregnate the wife. He could be a friend, neighbor or kinsman of the pater, and would help around in the home for tasks which are deemed unfit for women as well. For the marriage to become official, the ‘pater’ has to pay a bridewealth to the wife, as would happen if a man were to marry a woman.

Additionally, the pater would also receive bridewealth if any of her daughters were to marry. While this was not uncommon, the underlying motivation is still to carry on the family name. A woman who marries as a ‘pater’ is usually barren, and for this reason is regarded like a man. In addition, because a barren woman usually practices as a magician or diviner, she acquires more cattle and hence is rich and could have several wives (Evans-Pritchard, 1951).

Another alternative marriage arrangement is ghost marriage. A woman would be chosen to marry a family member of the dead man, and the offspring of these two would be thought of as belonging to the deceased. This lies in the belief that a man who died without male heirs would leave behind an angry spirit to trouble the family. The woman marries to his name so that the children would carry his line. The deceased is the legal husband of the woman whose name is used in paying for bridewealth. The main idea here is the continuity of the lineage.

Another type of union mentioned by Evans-Pritchard is levirate. For the Nuer, once married, the bond between them stays even after death. While polygyny is practiced in the Nuer society, a woman is expected to stay loyal to her husband, where relation with other man is seen as adultery. Hence if one’s husband died, the woman is not allowed to remarry because she is still the wife of her dead husband. Brother of the deceased would then step in as a substitute for the dead man. Because married women traditionally do not have significant wealth, this way she would be able to keep her wealth and power, though there is no living husband (O’Neil, 2009). She is seen as a widow who takes care of her husband’s wealth and children.

The alternative marriage arrangements for the Nuers are shaped by the patrilineal nature of the society. Because men tend to have much more wealth than women, they have the means to have more wives and even pass down their wealth to future generation even he is not married when he is alive.
Dating and Mating

Sexual Behaviors

Having a family is one of the ultimate goals for traditional Nuer youths. The idea of marriage has been ingrained even through childhood. Adults are open about sexual life with their children, and children familiarize themselves with marriage through role-playing of marriage ceremonies, conducting bride wealth negotiations and pretending having a conjugal life. Carrying out domestic work also helps to reinforce the idea of family and commitment. Boys are initiated around the age of 16, after which they would go to dances to woo girls. Girls in their 12 or 13 would begin to have relations with initiated boys.

Dances serve as an important medium where couples meet and court after that. It allows youths from different clans and villages to meet each other. During the dances the men would charm the girls with their fine dancing and “display of spearman ship and dueling with the club”(Evans-Pritchard, 1951).

Sexual activities among Nuer youths are shaped by cultural values. As such, even though they could have multiple partners in the course of their youth, the final goal of their sex life is ultimately marriage, for the chief ambition of a youth is to have a home of his own. Hence, a girl would tend not to have sex with a boy who does not have the intention to marry her. Although a Nuer youth usually has the freedom to choose his or her own mate, parents’ approval is still important, and this depends on whether the boy has sufficient cattle for bride wealth.

Sexual Reproduction as Precursor to Marriage

As we can see, pre-marital sex makes up not only an important aspect in the life for the Nuer, but also an important step to marriage. For the Nuer, sexual reproduction is indeed a precursor to marriage. The main feature to describe Nuer’s marriage is that the union between a man and a woman is only confirmed by the birth of the couple’s child. Only then their relationship would be legitimate, and the husband would be accepted by his wife’s kins as one of themselves. This is because it is then clear that he is the father of their daughter’s child and through that child there is a kinship between them (Evans-Pritchard, 1951).

Marriage Procedures

Marriage for the Nuer is made up of payment of bride wealth and by the performance of certain ceremonial rites. These two aspects are necessary and indeed reinforce each other. The chief ceremonies in Nuer marriages include the betrothal (lacing), the wedding (ngut) and the consummation (mut). In these procedures, we shall see the significant use of cattle in Nuer marriages.

Nuer Wedding Dance.

The negotiations of bride wealth or cattle talk (riet ghok) starts when the boy comes to consult the girl’s and ask kins for approval. After several cattle discussions and the girl’s people are satisfied, they would tell the bridegroom that he can bring the ghok lipa, the cattle of betrothal, on a certain day. During the betrothal ceremony three to ten heads of cattle are transferred to the bride’s family. At this phase, marriage is provisionally agreed upon both families. The celebration would be usually be attended by neighbors. The dance in weddings attracts crowds to come, although the union do not directly concern them. Families and kin of the bride and groom are more involved in prolonged discussions about bride wealth, sacrifices and other rites.

The wedding ceremony (ngut) takes place some weeks later, during the windy season, and meanwhile there are further discussions about bride wealth not only in the home of her bride’s father but also in the home of her senior maternal uncle(father’s brother-in-law), who is also responsible for the negotiations. In the meantime, bridegroom and girl are considered man and wife, and he is respected as son-in-law. Occasionally visits the girl with his friends, but they are carefully observed by bride’s family.

The final cattle talk happens during the ngut. The wedding also consists of calling of the ghosts of ancestors, the wedding dance and sacrifice of the cattle. There would be chanting to invoke the ghosts of ancestors to look upon the cattle of the bride wealth. This is to make the ghosts witnesses of the union. In the evening or the following morning, a wedding ox provided by the bride’s father is sacrificed and distributed. This sacrifice is important to ward off evil and contamination, according to Nuer’s religious beliefs.

The consummation (mut) concludes the marriage. Before the couple is allowed to consummate, half of the bride wealth have to be transferred. This ceremony makes the couple husband and wife. After which, the husband can claim compensation if adultery happens, while the bride is prevented form going to evening dances. Important rites in this ceremony include the sacrifice of an ox, lustration and shaving of the bride’s head. Because the union is seen complete only after the birth of the first child, the wife would only be brought to her husband’s home after that, where she would be accepted as kin. Again this feature is important in Nuer marriage because infertility could cause the marriage to be dissolved and so the wife is pressured to have a child within one to two years (Moore, 1998). The payment of bride wealth is to be completed before the woman moves into her husband’s clan.

As we can see, bride wealth makes up an important aspect in Nuer marriages. Bride wealth serves several functions. It is basically an exchange whereby the girl is transferred to the male’s lineage and her family receives the cattle. It also means that children born out of that union belongs to the husband’s descent. In addition, bride wealth is a way to develop relationship between two families. It is different from dowry such that bride wealth is not given for the bride alone but also distributed among her kins (Goody, 1973). Because marriage is a long process for the Nuer, bride wealth payments can be seen as a way to develop social relations among people with no kinship ties (i.e. between families of the bride and bridegroom). Each payment gives stability to the union and security to both parties.

These are the importance of culture in any society in the world

  1. Culture is the Treasury of Knowledge

Culture provides knowledge, which is essential for the physical and intellectual existence of man. Birds and animals behave instinctively with environment. But man has greater intelligence and learning capacity. With the help of these, he has been able to adapt himself with environment or modify it to suit his convenience. Culture has made such an adaptation and modification possible and easier by providing man the necessary skills and knowledge. Culture preserves knowledge and helps its transmission from generation to generation through its means that is language helps not only the transmission of knowledge but also its preservation, accumulation and diffusion. On the contrary, animals do not have this advantage. Because culture does not exist at such human level.

  1. Culture Defines Situations

Culture defines social situations for us. It not only defines but also conditions and determines what we eat and drink, we wear, when to laugh, weep, sleep, love to like friends with, what work we do, what god we worship, what knowledge we rely upon, what poetry we recite and so on.

  1. Culture Defines Attitudes, Values and Goods

Attitudes refer to the tendency to feel and work out in certain ways. Values are the measure of goodness or desirability. Goods refer to the attainments, which our values define as worthy. It is the culture, which conditions our attitude towards various issues such as religion, morality, marriage, science, family planning, positions and so on. Our values concerning private etc. are influenced by our culture. Our goals of winning the race, understanding others, attaining salvation, being obedient to elders and teachers, being loyal to husband, being patriotic etc. are all set forth by our culture. We are being socialized on these models.

  1. Culture Decides Our Career
    Whether we should become a politician or a social worker, a doctor, an engineer, a soldier, a farmer, a professor, an industrialist; a religious leader and so on is decided by our culture. What career we are likely to pursue is largely decided by our culture. Culture sets limitations on our choice to select different careers. Individuals may develop, modify or oppose the trends of their culture but they always live within its framework. Only a few can find outlet on the culture.
  2. Culture Provides Behavior Pattern
    Culture directs and confines the behavior of an individual. Culture assigns goals and provides means for achieving them. It rewards noble works and punishes the ignoble ones. It assigns him status. We see dream, aspire, work, strive to marry, enjoy according to the cultural expectation. Culture not only contains but also liberates human energy and activities; Man indeed is a prisoner of his culture.
  3. Culture Provides Personality
    Culture exercises a great influence on the development of personality. No child can get human qualities in the absence of a cultural environment. Culture prepares man for group life and provides him the design of living. It is the culture that provides opportunities for the development of personality and sets limits on its growth. As Ruth Benedict has pointed out every culture will provide its special type or types of personality.
  4. Culture Makes Man a Human Being

It is culture that makes the human, a man, regulates his conduct and prepares him for group life. It provides to him a complete design for living. It teaches him what type of food he should take and in what mariner, how he should cover himself and behave with his fellows, how he should speak with the people and how he should co-operate or compete with others. An individual abstained from culture is less than human; he is what we call feral, man. The individual to be truly human must participate in cultural stream without it he would have been forced to find his own way, which would mean a loss of energy in satisfying his elementary needs.

  1. Culture Provides Solution for Complicated Situation

Secondly, culture provides man with a set of behavior even for complicated situation. It has so thoroughly influenced that often he does not require any external force to keep himself in conformity with the social requirements. His action becomes automatic. Forming queues when there is rush at the booking window or driving left in the busy streets. In the absence of culture, he should have been baffled even at the simplest situations. He need not go through painful trial and error learning to know what food can be taken without poisoning himself and fellow. His culture directs and confines his behavior, limits his goals and measures his reward. His culture gets into his mind and shutters vision so that he sees what is supposed to see in dream what he is expected to dream and hunger for what he is trained to hunger.

  1. Culture Provides Traditional Interpretations to Certain Situation.

Through culture men gets traditional interpretation for many situations according to which he determines his behavior. If a cat crosses his way, he postpones his journey. It may however be noted that these traditional interpretation differ from culture to culture. Among some culture owl is regarded as a symbol of wisdom and not a symbol of idiocy.

  1. Culture Keeps Social Relationship Intact

Culture has importance not only for man but also for the group. Had there been no culture there would have been no group life. Culture is the design and the prescription for guiding values and ideals. By regulating the behavior of the people and satisfying, the primary drives pertaining to hunger and sex it has been able to maintain group life. Culture has provided a number of checks upon irrational conduct and suggestibility culture aids such as in schooling or scientific training. Lessen the chances that a man will behave irrationally or irresponsibility. The members of group characterized though they be by consciousness of kind, at once competing. They are held in line by constraints prescribed by culture.

  1. Culture Broadens the Out Looks of the Individual
    Culture has given a new vision to individual by providing him a set of rules for co-operation of the individuals. He thinks not only his own self but also of the others. Culture teaches him to think himself a part of the larger whole, it provides him with the concept of family, state, nation and class and make responsible the co­operation and division of labor.
  2. Culture Creates New Needs
    Culture also creates new needs and new drives, for example, thirst for knowledge and arranges for the satisfaction.

By Ter Manyang Gatwech, a finalist student of Cavendish University, Uganda. Pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree of Arts in Public Administration and Management. Chairperson of Gawaar Community in Uganda. You can contact me through my email address;


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