RPN 20 published November 1995

10. Dinka women and the future of Dinka society by Jok Madut Jok

Two years ago, Jok Madut Jok returned to his home country of Sudan to conduct research after a decade abroad. While researching women's reproductive health in southern Sudan he found that the Dinka culture where he grew up had undergone tremendous changes as a consequence of 12 years of civil war.

The shocking aftermath of the war in Sudan, and the response of the people to its upheavals, raised several issues which were of particular interest, including how women were coping with the situation. For when disasters occur, women are almost always the most affected group.

While conducting fieldwork in a village in northern Bahr El Ghazal region, in south west Sudan, I encountered many behavioural patterns which were disturbing. I found that when I asked a group of displaced women where the fathers of their children were the answers were invariably: i) the father has gone to the north to look for food and never come back; or ii) the father is a soldier and has been away for ten years; or iii) the father was killed four years ago; or iv) my children were fathered by the cousin of my deceased husband; or v) because my husband has been away since he joined the rebellion, his family advised me to have children with his younger brother on behalf of my husband.

Some of these answers would be unclear to an outsider, especially when the husband has been away for ten years and the woman is breast feeding a two year old. To those who are not familiar with Dinka culture, a situation like this may suggest adultery on the part of the woman. For someone like myself, the first thing that comes to mind is the Dinka system of having the woman bear children with a relative of the deceased or absent husband. However, the situation involves both. But when I asked men what they have to say about the conditions of those women who sleep under trees in the rain, with small malnourished children in their arms, the answer was always that it was the fault of the victim. According to these men, the reason why those women are suffering is that they lead their lives in discordance with the cultural norms and values of their society. So what norms and values have these woman violated which render them 'bad' women in the eyes of Dinka men?

Under normal circumstances, Dinka people practise a tradition which allows for a family to maintain its name from generation to generation through what has been described as 'ghost marriage'. The tradition of ghost marriage requires that when a man dies or absents himself from home for too long, the family takes upon itself the responsibility to ensure that his name, and thus the name of his lineage, is kept up. If he was married but did not have children, his wife has to be 'levirated' by a younger relative, most preferably a brother. The Dinka institution of the levirate compels the woman and the family to find a suitable man to remarry her for the sole purpose of producing children. First cousins become the second most eligible in the absence of brothers. Sons of his older brother are also eligible. This practice is known in the Dinka language as lahot entering the hut.

If the man dies before marrying, the procedure to ensure survival of his family name takes the same line. A woman is married and offered to a brother or relative to bear children in the name of the deceased. Likewise, in the case of infertility the man offers his wife/wives to his relative, be he a brother or a cousin. If the infertile man is elderly with many wives, some of whom may have adult children, this patriarch gives his younger wives to his sons in order to have children in his name. The offspring from this arrangement are basically the brothers of their biological fathers. Dinka people believe that it is this system which has seen them through crises. It keeps the network between families strong and it strengthens political relationships with other groups. The system is normally kept intact through a strong local economy which is based on four pillars: cattle, agriculture, trade and fishing. The economy has, however, been compromised by frequent raids from government militia and the neighbouring Nuer; natural disasters have exacerbated what were already fragile economic and social conditions. The rules which governed family ties and support mechanisms have now given way to loose social networks and weak support systems amongst the Dinka.

As a result, many women with absent husbands have had to survive with little help from their communities. When a woman fails to comply with the traditional system of reproduction due to economic reasons, such as the failure of the man who fathers her children to provide for them, she is pressured into displacement. The conditions in displaced persons camps are often so bad that the woman may be pressured into what one may call forced prostitution a situation in which a man with access to food uses this to force women into sexual relationships. When this contact results in pregnancy, the woman does not have relatives in the displaced camps to turn to for help. Her absent husband's family are not interested in anything but cows which they will receive from the adulterous man adultery being punishable by the forfeit of seven cows to be paid to the woman's absent husband. Her own relatives will invariably regard the situation as having brought disgrace to their family.

The other development which has brought changes in Dinka culture is the influx of relief agencies into the area. This has elicited different attitudes toward foreigners because the perceived powers of aid workers have been met with a determination to outwit them. For example, during distribution of the mostly insufficient relief items, individual community representatives provide inflated population figures to try to gain greater access to supplies. Others may try to portray their particular communities as more needy than others. The behaviour of portraying oneself as poor and needy is a direct result of relief aid, because this is something Dinkas try not to show under normal circumstances. As people become poorer they resort to stigmatised behaviours such as begging, doing odd jobs, or lying about their actual conditions. This behaviour is quite demeaning and yet people continue to engage in it because, 'what does it matter in front of foreigners who do not know me personally; it does not take away my dignity if I say to a foreigner that I am poor'. These stage-managed changes in attitude and behaviour slowly make their way into the general culture and will not necessarily disappear when relief workers leave.

The result of these conditions is an increasing loss of self-determination by the people of southern Sudan through dependency on relief, and a gradual loss of cultural patterns which they have used in the past to deal with crisis. As the whole society becomes affected, women are constantly pushed to the bottom. We hear of pastoral economies being the domain of men, but when disaster strikes this economy, women suffer most.

During my stay in the Sudan I learned from 'inside' how relief threatens people's self-reliance. Provision of food relief allows people to count on things whose source they do not know. It encourages destitute families to continue to expect relief instead of trying to produce their own. It breaks down social networks which people previously relied on to take care of themselves. This happens through the targeting mechanisms which are used by relief workers. For example, food items are usually insufficient and are not given to the most needy. This causes animosity between the individuals who receive aid and those who do not, so that when relief stops those who had been receiving cannot then fall back on their communities for help.

It is in this new world where cattle herders wear World Food Programme T-shirts, where 98% of women are illiterate, where STD/HIV/AIDS awareness is zero, where poverty has consumed the dignity of Dinka people that most Africans of the Horn live. It is a world which people who concern themselves with equality must try to understand.

Jok Madut Jok is based at the Department of Anthropology at the University of California at Los Angeles. He is currently completing a dissertation entitled 'Culture, war and reproduction in Akon: a case from southern Sudan' for a PhD in Anthropology.

This article first appeared in the Newsletter of the James S Coleman African Studies Centre at UCLA in Spring 1995.

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October 1996