Piööcku Thuɔŋjäŋ: Let's Learn Dinka

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Who are the Dinka People of South Sudan?

The Dinka People of South Sudan

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By Piööcku Thuɔŋjäŋ

Who are the Dinka[1] people of the Republic of South Sudan? Where do they live and how many are they? What are their main political, economic, cultural and social organizations? What is their language and how do they called themselves? Where and how did the name Diŋka (Dinka) come about and what is the meaning of the word Muɔnyjäŋ? Does it really means “the husband” of other people or is that just a fantasized version of reality? What is the difference between Muɔnyjäŋ/Mɔnyjäŋ and Jiëëŋ[2] according to the Dinkas themselves? What roles did they play in the liberation of South Sudan and are they visible in the international arenas too or are they confined to South Sudan only?  Who are their most celebrated sons and daughters and for what? Of course the questions are endless, and thus, the urgency and importance of answering them. Not all of these questions will be answered in this article, however. But surely, more articles would follow to tackle the remaining aspects of the Dinka people.

Little has been written about Muɔnyjäŋ[3] (the Dinka people) of the Republic of South Sudan. The little that there is, is even scattered across the internet or in fragment of books written not purposely about Jiëëŋ (Dinka) as an ethnic group but rather on other topics wherein the Jiëëŋ (Dinka) people inevitably show up. Even what you do find as a purported detailed account of the Dinka People is oft-time an account of events written entirely by foreigners who have had infrequent interactions with and learning of the Dinka people. The fact that there is nothing substantial out there for researchers interested in this largest and hugely influential tribe in South Sudan compel me to take my time and jot down something to go along the way in promoting knowledge and information about the Dinka people.

As a Dinka myself, and one who is greatly fascinated by this tribe, I thought that I am better placed to get the word out, both to Muongjang (native Dinkas) as well as to Juur (Non-Dinkas). Most importantly though, it is my hope that the Non-Dinka people who have hardly any knowledge about the Dinka people would be the one to benefit most from this endeavor. However, it is to be noted though that majority of the Dinkas, both within the country and in the Diaspora, are as ignorance of themselves as the next foreigner striving to learn about the Dinka people. The reason being that many of Jieeng people either grew up outside the country as a result of the long civil war that has profoundly affected the Dinka people or were exclusively raised within their respective clan enclaves, shut off from other sections of the Dinka Communities.

But first, allow me to summarize what has already been said or written about the Dinkas of the Republic of South Sudan. Job Malou, the author of Dinka Vowel System (1988), has this to say about the Dinka people:

Dinka people live in south central Sudan[4] in the area of along the White Nile River and its tributaries, from Renk in the north to Boor in the south and from Boor in the East to Aweil in the west.

Dinka falls into four major language varieties: Eastern, which is Boor based; Northern, known as Padaaŋ (Padaang), which is Doŋjɔl (Dongjol) based; Southern which is Agaar based; and Western which is Rek based.

These are the varieties in which translations of the Bible or some primers have been written. There are minor variations within each major group. However, the differences that exist among the major groups, although greater than those within the major group, do not challenge the unity of an analysis that covers the whole Dinka Language—Thuɔŋjäŋ.

There is no recorded history as to when and from where the Dinka people came from to their present location. It its present manifestation, the language with which the Dinka is most closely related is the Nuer. The two form a complex of sister strains that have descended from a common ancestral language. Just how closely Nuer with its varieties is related to Dinka with its varieties has not been determined with certainty.

The Dinka and the Nuer form one subdivision of Western Nilotic. Burun is the second subdivision. The Shilluk, Anuak, Jur, Bor, Acholi of South Sudan, the Luo of Kenya, and the Lango and Alur of Uganda form the third subdivision.

Western Nilotic is itself a sub-branch of Nilotic which, in turn, is a branch of the Eastern Sudanic division of the Chari-Nile subfamily of the Nilo-Saharan language family, based on Joseph H. Greenberg’s The Language of Africa (1963).

Building on Job Malou’s work, Ms Helena Fatima Idris, in a research thesis for her doctorate—Modern Development in Dinka (2004)—from the Department of Oriental and African Languages, Goteborg University, Sweden, provides more insight into the Dinka language as well as the composition of the Dinka people:

The Dinka language (Thuɔŋjäŋ) has the largest number of all the more than 100 African languages spoken in the Sudan (Abu-Manga 1991:8). Dinka is classified as an Eastern Sudanic language of the Nilo-Saharan phylum according to Greenberg’s classification of African languages (Greenberg 1963: 85).

It is closely related to Nuer, which together with Dinka constitutes a sub-group of the Western Nilotic languages. Dinka is spoken in the central part of Southern Sudan, along the White Nile and its tributaries (Malou 1983: 123). The area extends from Renk in the Upper Nile state to Boor in Jonglei state, and from Rumbeek in Lakes state to Aweil in the Western part of Northern Bahr al Ghazal state.

In 1997 the number of Dinka speakers was estimated to be 2 740 900, a figure worked put by conversion from the 1956 to the 1993 population census in Sudan (Abu-Bakr & Abu-Manga 1997: 3).

The Dinka language is divided into four dialect groups: Padaang is the northern group, while Rek, Agaar, and Boor constitute the Western, Southern and Eastern groups respectively. Padaang has 12 sub-dialects, while the three other dialects have 4-5 sub-dialects each (Kuony 2004). The Dinka dialects, as all other dialects in general, have grammatical, lexical and phonological differences.

The use of different dialects has changed over time. Factors like contact with groups speaking other dialects, establishment of administrative centers, education and prestige have influenced the flexible use of different Dinka dialects. The task of choosing one variant for a unified written Dinka language has been a sensitive issue (Malou 1983: 129-133). Studies of Dinka dialects have been published by the SIL International (Roettger & Roettger1989 and Duerksen 1997).

The Dinka people’s autonym of their language is Thuɔŋjäŋ, meaning “mouth of Jäŋ” (i.e. language of the people). According to Muller (1877a: 48), the term Dinka is formed out of the word dzyen’-ke[5]. The first part, dzyen’, is the actual name of the people, while –ke is a rare plural suffix used in the northern parts of the traditional Dinka area.

It was there that the Dinka language was encountered and given its now-common name by foreigners, i.e. Arabs, Turks, European missionaries, and colonizers, who all came from the North. Due to lack of a standardized orthography, a number of different spellings of the name of the Dinka people [are] found in the literature, for example: dzyen’ (as Muller above), Jäŋ, Jeŋ, Jiëŋ, Jaŋ or Jiëëŋ.

Wikipedia, the popular information-based website has the following:

The Dinka is an ethnic group inhabiting the Bahr el Ghazal region of the Nile basin, Jonglei and parts of southern Kordufan and Upper Nile regions. They are mainly agro-pastoral 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 1.5-3 million people, constituting about 10% of the population of the entire country, and constitute the largest ethnic tribe in South Sudan. Dinka, or as they refer to themselves, Muonyjang (singular) and Mounyjieeng (plural), are one of the branches of the River Lake Nilotes (mainly sedentary agri-pastoral peoples of East Africa who speak Nilotic languages, including the Nuer and Luo). Dinka are sometimes noted for their height. With the Tutsi of Rwanda, they are believed to be the tallest people in Africa. Roberts and Bainbridge reported average height of 182.6 cm (5 ft 11.9 in) in a sample of 52 Dinka Ageir and 181.3 cm (5 ft 11.4 in) in 227 Dinka Ruweng measured in 1953–1954. However, it seems that stature of today’s Dinka males is lower, possibly as a consequence of under-nutrition and war 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) in the Ethiopian Medical Journal.

The Dinka 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 as well as “thuɔŋjäŋ (thuongjang)” 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.

The Dinka tribe (or Jieng) has ten subdivisions: Gok Arol, Atuot, Aliab, Bor, Chiej, Agar, Gok, Rek, Twic/Tuic East, Malual, 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 (luak) and granaries (Jong). During dry season (beginning about December–January), everyone except the aged, ill, and nursing mothers migrate 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. They have 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 derive religious power from nature and the world around them, rather than from a religious tome.

Following the war, Christianity predominated over Dinka religious practices, being introduced to the region by British missionaries in the 19th century and during the civil war.

War with the North and status as refugees

The Dinka’s religions, beliefs and lifestyle have led to conflict with the 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 MO, as well as Edmonton in Canada.

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 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. The Florida ska punk group, Against All Authority refers to the Dinka clan in the song “Dinkas When I Close My Eyes” from their album 24 Hour Roadside Resistance.

1991 Bor Massacre

On November 15, 1991 the event known as the “Bor Massacre” or Southwestern Dinka Massacre commenced in South Sudan. Forces led by the breakaway faction of Riek Machar deliberately killed an estimated 2,000 civilians in Bor and wounded several thousand more over the course of two months. It is estimated a 100,000 people left the area following the attack. Famine followed the massacre, as Machar’s forces had looted and burnt villages and as well as raiding cattle. An estimated 25,000 more people died as a result of hunger, according to Amnesty International.

The Bor massacre was triggered by a coup declaration against the then SPLM chairman, the late Dr. John Garang on August 28, 1991, by the current vice president of the government of South Sudan, Dr. Riek Machar. His motives are believed to be an attempt to hurt the Dinka, and to create a pluralistic less Dinka centric model for the SPLM. Thousands of civilians in the Bor area died when Dr. Riek’s Nuer forces turned against them and killed them after his failure to topple Dr. John Garang. Some people had perished in the Bor areas as determined by the United Nations assessment of casualties in 1992.

Dr. Riek described the incident as “propaganda” and “myth” despite evidence of mass killing shown by bones and corpses in the aftermath of the massacre.

Another informative source about the Dinka is a profile compiled by the Christian missionaries of the StrategyLeader.org:



The Dinka are a group of several closely related peoples living in southern Sudan along both sides of the White Nile. They cover a wide area along the many streams and small rivers, concentrated in the Upper Nile province in southeast Sudan and across into southwest Ethiopia.


Ancient pictographs of cattle in Egypt give reason to associate the Dinka with the introduction of domesticated cattle south of the Sahara.  Around 3000 BC, herders who also fished and tilled settled in the largest swamp area in the world, the area of southern Sudan where the flood plain of the White Nile is also fed by the Rivers Bor, Aweil and Renk.

The Dinka are one of three groups that gradually developed from the original settlers.  Dinka society spread out over the area in recent centuries, perhaps around AD 1500.  The Dinka defended their area against the Ottoman Turks in the mid-1800s and repulsed attempts of slave merchants to convert them to Islam.  Otherwise they have lived in seclusion.


The Dinka are one of the branches of the River Lake Nilotes.  Though known for centuries as Dinka, they actually call themselves Moinjaang, “People of the people.”  The more numerous Southern Luo branch includes peoples throughout central Uganda and neighboring sections of Zaire and the lake area of western Kenya.  The Dinka peoples still live near the hot and humid homeland of the River-Lake Nilotes.  They are the largest ethnic group in southern Sudan.

The Dinka groups retain the traditional pastoral life of the Nilotes, but have added agriculture in some areas, growing grains, peanuts, beans, corn (maize) and other crops.  Women do most of the agriculture, but men clear forest for the gardening sites.  There are usually two plantings per year.  Some are fishers.  Their culture incorporated strategies for dealing with the annual cycle of one long dry season and one long rainy season.

The boys tend goats and sheep while the men are responsible for the cattle.  The cattle are central to the Dinka culture and worlview.  A man will identify with one special ox, will name it and compose songs and dances about the ox.  He calls himself by the name of the ox, which is given to him at his initiation to adulthood.  The ox will be referred to by many reference names, allusions to the direct name, which is actually its colour.

The Dinka expect an individual to be generous to others in order to achieve status in the society. They base their life on values of honor and dignity.  They discuss and solve problems in public forums.


The Dinka peoples speak a series of closely-related languages which are grouped by linguists into five broad families of dialects.  The five formal languages are called by linguists Northeastern, Northwestern, Southeastern, Southwestern and South Central.  These titles encompass all the known dialects of Dinka speech.

Ongoing research and analysis entails continual revision of the formal classification of Dinka speech forms.  The standard reference for these languages and all languages of the world is the ISO language standard, published in the Ethnologue. The current codes are referenced at the top of this profile.

Each subgroup calls its own speech by that group´s name and over thirty dialects have been identified among the five language groupings.  A Dinka correspondent has commented on the classification of one subgroup, the Twic, or Tuic.  This writer refers to the Dinka as Jieng, a name appearing in some formal sources as Jaang.

Dinka (Jieng) Twic/Tuic East has its own language, and it is an independent tribe in Dinka (Jieng).  Putting Twic East under Bor is totally wrong, it a separate language.  Dinka (Jieng) Hol, Dinka (Jieng) Nyarweng, Dinka (Jieng) Twic/Tuic East, and Dinka (Jieng) Bor are classified as “Southeastern Dinka (Jieng).”

The writer comments on the classification of certain Dinka dialects.  The Ethnologue does account for Tuic as a distinct ethnic and language entity in the Dinka, Southeastern group, as suggested.  The Ethnologue does note that Bor speech and East Tuic speech are different forms of Dinka.  The Dinka correspondent may be saying that the Twic speech is not related to the other Southeastern dialects.

But the Ethnologue researchers reported that comparisons indicated there are about 35,000 Tuic/Twic people whose speech is similar to that of the Bor Gok, Atok, Nyaureng and others.  Ethnologue lists their dialect under the name of Tuic, and the people as Twi.

But the language configuration is more complicated yet.  In confirming the Dinka language groupings I discovered that the Ethnologue notes additionally that another larger group of Dinka called Twic, numbering about 50,000, speaks a different form of Dinka.  This group is also called Twic, or Tuic, and is listed in the Ethnologue analysis as Twi, Linguistic analysis shows that this group of people speaks a form of Dinka similar to that of as the Abiem, Luac and others in the Southwestern group.

These language classifications and groupings are based on intense study of forms of speech from village to village across the whole Dinka area, and comparative abnalysis of characteristics and mutual intelligibility as reported by speakers.  The language groupings are not necessarily reflective of affinity relationships or family lineages, which may align on other grounds, based on factors in focus in anthropological analysis.

Some writers refer to these technically distinct languages as one language.  The Dinka languages are written in Latin script.  A large percentage of the Dinka people are reported to be bilingual in Sudanese Arabic.

In the broader Nilotic family the Dinka languages are most closely related to Nuer and Atuot.  The Atuot, or Reel, are culturally Dinka, but the language is different enough to be a sixth separate language group.  The Atuot and Dinka have often had bloody encounters over grazing areas in droughts.

Political Situation:

The Dinka have lived pretty much on their own, undisturbed by the political movements in their area.  They did fight the Ottoman Turks when they were ruling Sudan.  They have periodically had clashes with neighboring peoples, such as the Atuot, with whom they have fought over grazing areas.  They have not traditionally been active in national politics.

In the late 20th century and early 21st, the pressure of the conflict between Arab North and African South has imposed hardships upon the Dinka people.  Many have become involved in the military and political resistance against the Sudanese central government in the growing movement for southern Sudanese independence.

John Garang de Mabior, vice president of Sudan, was a Dinka.  Garang became leader of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army in 1983, leading an armed struggle aainst the Sudanese.  Another Dinka independence war leader was William Deng Nhial, founder of the Sudan African National Union (SANU)

In recent years, there has been extensive military conflict in the South of Sudan, exacerbated by long periods of drought and famine.  Periodic cease-fires and attempts at resolution brought some abatement, but it was only in 1910-11 that final resolution came.

On 9 July 2011, following a series of discussions under a cease-fire, sponsored by the United Nations and other agencies, a new independent nation of the Republic of South Sudan was proclaimed.


Before the coming of the British the Dinka did not live in villages, but traveled in family groups living in temporary homesteads with their cattle.  The homesteads might be in clusters of one or two all the way up to 100 families.  Small towns grew up around British administrative centers.  Each village of one or more extended families is led by a leader chosen by the group.

Traditional homes were made of mud walls with thatched conical roofs, which might last about 20 years.  Only women and children sleep inside the house, while the men sleep in mud-roofed cattle pens.  The homesteads were located to enable movement in a range allowing year-round access to grass and water.  Permanent villages are now built on higher ground above the flood plain of the Nile but with good water for irrigation.  The women and older men tend crops on this high ground while younger men move up and down with the rise and fall of the river.

Polygamy is the ideal for the Dinka, though many men may have only one wife.  The Dinka must marry outside their clan (exogamy), which promotes more cohesion across the broader Dinka group.

A “bride wealth” is paid by the groom´s family to finalize the marriage alliance between the two clan families.  Levirate marriage provides support for widows and their children.  All children of co-wives are raised together and have a wide family identity.  Co-wives cook for all children, though each wife has a responsibility for her own children.

Girls learn to cook, but boys do not.  Cooking is done outdoors in pots over a stone hearth.  Men depend upon women for several aspects of their life, but likewise the division of labor assigns certain functions to the men, such as fishing and herding, and the periodic hunting.  After initiation to adulthood, the social spheres of the genders overlap very little.  The basic food is heavy millet porridge, eaten with milk or with a vegetable and spice sauce.  Milk itself, in various forms, is also a primary food.

The Dinka wear few clothes, particularly in their own village.  Adult men may be totally nude except for beads around the neck or wrist.  The women commonly wear only goatskin skirts, but unmarried adolescent girls will typically be nude.  Clothes are becoming more common.  Some men will be seen in the long Muslim robe or short coat.  They own very few material possessions of any kind.

Personal grooming and decoration are valued.  The Dinka rub their bodies with oil made by boiling butter.  They cut decorative designs into their skin.  They remove some teeth for beauty and wear dung ash to repel mosquitoes.  Men dye their hair red with cow urine, while women shave their hair and eyebrows, but leave a knot of hair on top of the head.

The major influence formerly was exercised by “chiefs of the fishing spears” or “spear masters.”  This elite group provided health through mystical power.  Their role has been eradicated due to changes brought about by British rule and the modern world.  Their society is egalitarian, with no class system.  All people, wealthy or poor, are expected to contribute to the common good.

The primary art forms are poetry and song.  There are certain types of songs for different types of activities of life, like festive occasions, field work, preparation for war and initiation ceremonies.  History and social identity are taught and preserved through songs.  They sing praise songs to their ancestors and the living.  Songs are even used ritually in competition to resolve a quarrel in a legal sense.  Women also make pottery and weave baskets and mats.  Men are blacksmiths, making all sorts of implements.


The Dinka believe in a universal single God, whom they call Nhialic.  They believe Nhialic is the creator and source of life but is distant from human affairs.  Humans contact Nhialic through spiritual intermediaries and entities called yath and jak which can be manipulated by various rituals.

These rituals are administered by diviners and healers.  They believe that the spirits of the departed become part of the spiritual sphere of this life.  They have rejected attempts to convert them to Islam, but have been somewhat open to Christian missionaries.

Cattle have a religious significance.  They are the first choice as an animal of sacrifice, though sheep may be sacrificed as a substitute on occasion.  Sacrifices may be made to yath and jak, since Nhialac is too distant for direct contact with humans.  The family and general social relations are primary values in the Dinka religious thought.


The Sudan Interior Mission began work among the Dinka in the 1930s, along with the Uduk and Mabaan peoples.  From these groups, gospel work has spread to surrounding peoples including the Jum Jum, Berta, Gumus, Ignessena, and Shilluk.

It is estimated that various Dinka groups are 4-8% Christian.  Even so, Global Research (Southern Baptist) classifies all Dinka groups as World A except for the Padang, or Northern group (Northeastern language group), listed as Unreached.  Access to Christian resources is limited by geography, climate and the political situation in the country.  Evangelical sources report that 2% of the Dinka are Evangelical believers.

And Gurtong.net, a South Sudanese online news-site and printed magazine, has the following profile of the Dinka people:

Dinka (Jieng, Muony-Jang)

The Name

The people call themselves Jieng (Upper Nile) or muonyjang (Bahr el Ghazal). The Nuer call them ‘Jiang’; Shilluk call them ‘Jango’; Arabs and Equatorians call them Jiengge; all stemming from Jieng.

Demography and Geography

The Dinka is the largest single national grouping in South Sudan. Numbering about 2.5 to 3 million and constituting of more than 25 aggregates of different Dinka sections (Wut). The Dinka are found in Bahr el Ghazal, Upper Nile and Southern Kordofan regions. Each Dinka section has a separate political entity with established rights to a well-defined territory. The main sections and sub-sections and their geographic locations include.

Geographical Location Section (s)

Aweil – Rek

Pangak -Thoi Luach

Bailiet – Ngok   Renk

Bentiu – Ruweng

Bor – Bor, Twic, Nyarweng, Hol

Rumbek – Agar Gok

Tonj – Rek Luach

Gogrial – Rek

Yirol – Aliab, Ciec

Abyei – Ngok

Environment, Economy and Natural Resources

The Dinka habitat ranges from ironstone plateau of Bahr el Ghazal and the flood plains (toch) between the White Nile River and its numerous tributaries and distributaries to the rich savannah grasslands of Upper Nile. The economy is largely traditional animal husbandry, subsistence agriculture, fishing and hunting. Ownership of livestock is familial; and is a basis of social status/standing in society. The larger the herd the more prestigious the family is. The Dinka land in western and northern Upper Nile and Abyei in southern Kordofan is endowed with huge petroleum reserves. Other natural resources include forest products such as shea nuts in Rumbek and Yirol, fisheries resources, etc.

Mythology and History

According to a myth held by many Dinka sections, the first people to be created by God (Nhialic) were Garang and Abuk, understood now as being the equivalent of Adam and Eve. Deng was their first born from whom all Dinka people are descended.


The Dinka language (Thong muonyjang or thong-Jieng) and its different variations (dialects) is spoken through Dinka land. Because of this variation it is not surprising that certain sections are unintelligible to others. The Rek of Tonj is said to be the standard Dinka language. The Dinka language relates to other Nilotic group of languages.

Dinka Society, Social Events, Attitudes, Traditions and Customs

The Dinka section is as an alliance of lineages that are bound by blood and other individuals or families who had attached themselves either by marriage or otherwise. The sections identify with a particular lineage originally derived from one of the main chiefly clans (beny), who are dominant and said to have the land of the section. They claim a single ancestor and base their right to political and religious superiority on some particular important myth about their descent.

The second category of clans, the members of which had no special hereditary religious functions, is called collectively kic (commoners). They vary considerably in size and area of distribution. The ‘commoner’ clans were scarcely regarded as wut, but as disunited families with no sense of a wider agnatic relationship.

The commoner clans among the Dinka are also described as koc tong (people of the war spear, or slaves) in relation to the chiefly clans who were koc bith (people of the fishing spear). This distinction however is one of culture, not of function. Among the Dinka the chief is believed to possess supernatural powers associated with truth-telling, justice, wealth, knowledge, and prophetic vision.

The Dinka are proud and ethnocentric but, nevertheless, hospitable and friendly more often than not demonstrating a high moral standard, code of behaviour, feeding mannerism and sense of personal dignity (dheeng) and integrity. They deal with others on the basis of reciprocity. The Dinka are least touched by modernisation; their pride and ethnocentrism must be important factors in their conservatism and resistance to change . Dinka culture is centred on cattle. It is the medium of exchange whether in marriage, payment of debts and blood price, or for sacrifices to the spirits and on major occasions and rites.


Every Dinka male is given an ox by his father, uncle or whoever is responsible for him. His ‘bull-name’ like other Dinka names also derive from colour of their cattle and a girl (Ayen, Yar, etc.) or a boy (Mayom, Mayen, Malith, etc.) could be named after the colour of the best ox (mayom, malith, mayen) or cow (ayen, yar) that was given in marriage by the father. Like other Nilotics, the Dinka have special names for twins: Ngor, Chan, Bol, etc. indicating being a twin.

The Dinka have large vocabulary for cattle, their colours and take great interest and pride in the art of making different conformations to which their horns can be trained to grow. When discussing, debating about anything or in a dance, a Dinka usually throws up his arms in imitation of the shape of the horns of ox.


Marriage is obligatory among the Dinka. Every male is expected to raise a family and can marry as many wives as possible. Relatives marry to the ghost of a male who died in infancy –many ‘ghost fathers’ exist among the Dinka.

The bride price differs from one Dinka section to the other. It ranges from some tens (Upper Nile) to a few hundreds (Bahr el Ghazal). In the same way the bride price is raised by the groom’s family – contribution, it is distributed accordingly (uncle to uncle, brother to brother, etc.) in the Bride’s clan.

Chief’s daughters fetch more cattle in the same way chief’s son is expected to pay more cattle for his wife. University graduates fetch more bride prices; a factor that is likely to positively affect enrolment of girls in schools. Like other Nilotics, sex among the Dinka is only for social reproduction. Thus, fornication is prohibited; adulterers are despised and heavily fined, sometimes this may be source of conflict and clan fighting. Incest is usually unimaginable and indeed abhorred.

Initiation into Adulthood

Initiation into adulthood takes different styles and ceremonies. They invariably remove the 4 lower canines as a sign of maturity. A girl’s physiological evolution and attainment of puberty is marked by celebration (usually by women) to demonstrate readiness for marriage. Some Dinka sections scarify the face to mark graduation into adulthood and age-group. In some, women of particular status have their faces scarified.

Social and Political Organisation

The Dinka are an acephalous nationality – a cultural rather than political federation of sub-nationalities. The concept of state and hence political institutions, structure and consequently authority does not exist among the Dinka. Each Dinka section is an autonomous political entity in itself.

Chieftainship is hereditary and holds the title of beny (plural bany), which translates into different things such as chief, expert, or military officer. The title always has an attribute in order to indicate the office, for example, beny de ring or beny rein (or riem) – Northern Dinka and beny bith in the remaining parts of the country. The word ring (or rem) probably refers to the supernatural power of the chief. Bith, on the other hand, is the sacred fishing-spear (unbarbed or un-serrated spear) as a symbol of office . The spiritual leaders (fishing spear chief, medicine women/men, and Deng’s chiefs) exert great influence. Except in few cases, the spiritual leaders more often reject secular authority. Dinka chiefs exercised authority by persuasion not through any known instruments of coercion and force.

Spirituality and Beliefs

The sphere of the living and the dead (ghosts) interact. Tradition permits addressing God and the spirits of the departed ancestors and relatives either directly or through a medium in a special offering place yik, situated in every Dinka homestead.

Dinka Culture, Arts and Material Culture

The most important culture asset of the Dinka is the cattle camp, where all social activities; traits and behaviours including dheeng, valour, generosity and respect for social norms are cultivated. Dinka literature remains orally expressed in songs, poems, and folklore.

The different Dinka sections have evolved their different articles of arts, music and folklore. There are of course many different types of dance formations and songs. The common art is that of war: spear and stick. The Dinka start practicing stick and spear duelling with great dexterity from their youth.

Relationship with Neighbours and Foreigners

The Dinka have cultural and linguistic affinity to and share much with the Nuer and Shilluk to whom they refer to in their names. The Dinka refer to other peoples as foreigners (jur) and the colour of the skin is the only distinction. ‘Jur chol’ refer to black foreigners and jur mathiang or buony refer to light skin people.

Modernity and foreign ideas have permeated Dinka culture and are slowly replacing their traditions and customs. Many Dinka have converted to Christianity and Islam – in Ngok and Abialang. They have adopted either jellabia or European dress and now nudity and wearing of skins are rare sight even in the cattle camps.

Latest Developments

Like other nationalities in south Sudan, the Dinka have been affected by war. Many of have been displaced and live either as internally displaced persons (IDPs) or as refugees in the neighbouring countries. This has had influence on the social fabric, traditions and attitudes. In Bahr el Ghazal, Dinka interaction with war and its exigencies has resulted in use of their revered cattle in agricultural production.

Many have become traders trekking hundreds of kilometres to Uganda and Congo to sell their bulls and bring back consumer goods. International humanitarian and development aid inputs; the monetisation of economy and motorisation of transport are slowly but steadily prompting changes in the lives of the Dinka.


The war has created a Dinka Diaspora in Europe, America (Lost Boys) and Australia. Some in the Diaspora maintain strong links and communication with their family members back home; making regular remittances to support them.

In my yet-to-be-completed, unpublished book, The Dinka People of South Sudan, I have, in the course of my interviews and research on the composition and the (official) division of the Dinka people, strove to present a better, more comprehensive and acceptable subdivisions of the Dinka. Whether or not that would be the de-facto composition of the Dinka people remain to be seen with time and more in-depth research.

All that I can report is that it is just hard to pinpoint the exact, acceptable subdivisions among the Dinkas, and more so when you try to place some communities in a certain sections that they vehemently dispute to have anything to do with. For one, politically motivated subdivision during the SPLM/A era were and still not universal recognized because they were carved out by the SPLM/A without inputs from the local people purposely to smoothen out their administration of the “liberated areas.” And because no one thought much about the name-tags at the time or most were fearful to question the SPLM/A, the name-tags and divisions remained in place to this day.

But that does not mean that time has worked its magic to mollify the initial resentment of names and groupings; people still fervently oppose to various things ranging from whether or not they are in this or that section/group or if that de-facto name, payam, county that they are being referred to is inclusive or appropriate enough for all members.

Therefore, treat the following findings as inconclusive and as well as being the best currently available as far as the groupings of the Dinka people is concerned.

The Dinka People of South Sudan

The most common subtribes of the Dinka people of South Sudan are the following:

        Dinka                                      English

  1. Boor                                         Bor/Boor
  2. Twïc/Twï                                   Twic/Twi
  3. Malual                                       Malual
  4. Rek                                           Rek
  5. Agaar                                        Agaar
  6. Atuɔ̈t                                         Atuot
  7. Ŋɔɔk                                         Ngok/Ngook
  8. Gɔ̈k                                          Ghok/Gok
  9. Aliab                                         Aliab
  10. Ciëc/Kiëc                                   Chiec/Khiec
  1. Dinka Dialects/Thuɔŋjäŋ/Thoŋmuɔnyjäŋ

Dinka Dialect is known by various names : Diŋka (Dinka), Thuɔŋjäŋ (Thuongjang), Thoŋjiëëŋ (Thongjieeng), Thoŋmuɔnyjäŋ (Thongmuonyjang) or Thoŋmɔnyjäŋ (Thongmonyjang). The major spoken dialects of Dinka language are based on the following five major subgroup :

  • Boor (Southeastern Dinka)
  • Rek (Southwestern Dinka)
  • Padaaŋ (Northeastern Dinka)
  • Ruweŋ (Northwestern Dinka)
  • Agaar (South Central Dinka)

The Dinka Subtribes According to Geographical Location

But as previously pointed out, the most comprehensive subdivisions are those based on the geographical location of the Dinkas.

  • Northeastern Dinka—Dinka Padaaŋ
    • Abiliaŋ
    • ŋɔŋ Lual-Yak
    • Doŋjɔl
    • Luäc
    • Ageer
    • Rut
    • Thoi
    • Northwestern Dinka—Dinka Ruweŋ
      • Panaruu
      • ŋɔŋ Deŋ-Kuɔl
      • Paweny
      • Alɔɔr
    • South Central Dinka—Dinka Agaar
      • Aliab
      • Ciëc
      • Atuɔ̈t
      • Gɔ̈k
      • Agaar
    • Southeastern Dinka—Dinka Boor
      • Twïc
      • Boor
      • Hɔ̈l
      • Nyarweŋ
    • Southwestern Dinka—Dinka Rek
      • Twïc
      • Aguɔk
      • Apuk
      • Awan
      • Kuac
      • Abiëm
      • Rek
      • Lɔu
      • Luäc
      • Malual
      • Paliët
      • Paliëupiny

Southeastern Dinka (Boor Dinka)

This group comprises of Boor Athooc, Boor Ghok, Twic East, Nyarweng and Hol

South Central Dinka (Agaar Dinka)

These are the Aliab, Agaar, Chiec, Ghok, and Atuot

Northeastern Dinka (Padaang Dinka)

Padaang Dinka is made up of Luach, Abiliang, Thoi, Dongjol, Ngok Lual-yak, Rut and Ageer

Northwestern Dinka (Ruweng Dinka)

Ruweng Dinkas are Panaruu, Aloor, Paweny and Ngok Abyei

Southwestern Dinka (Rek Dinka)

Rek comprises of Apuk, Awan, Aguok, Abiem, Kuach, Twic, Lou, Luach, Malual, Paliet and Palieu-piny

Who are the Dinka people of South Sudan (1).pdf Who are the Dinka people of South Sudan (1).pdf
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[1] For the sake of simplicity, I am going to use the name Jiëëŋ and Muɔnyjäŋ interchangeably for the word Dinka till when we get to discuss how different, if any, they are.

[2] Jiëëŋ simply means people in the sense of “everyone, everybody.” Its other version is Jäŋ as in Muɔnyjäŋ

[3] The part “muɔny” in Muɔnyjäŋ (Muonyjang) literally means “a male member of” Jäŋ (people as in Jiëëŋ mentioned above), rendering the meaning of Muɔnyjäŋ (Dinka) as a male member of Jäŋ (people) or Muɔnyjiëëŋ as male member of Jiëëŋ.

[4] That was before South Sudan independence on July 9, 2011.

[5] Deng-kaar

Modern Developments in the Dinka Language

Food for Thought!

This well researched article by Ms Helena Fatima Idris (2004) , a research thesis for her doctorate from the Department of Oriental and African Languages, Goteborg University, Sweden, contains a great deal of information about the Dinka people as well as the recent development in the Dinka Language (Thuɔŋjäŋ). Her introduction, for those already familiar with Job Malou’s Dinka Book, Dinka Vowels System, provide more insight into the composition of the Dinka people.

1. Modern Developments in Dinka Language (PDF)

2. Orthographic Reform in Dinka (PDF)

In the pages of my yet-to-be published Dinka book, The Dinka People of South Sudan, I have done more intensive and extensive research on the Dinka people. Though I have succeeded to get enough information on almost all the major five subdivisions of Muɔnyjäŋ/Jiëëŋ, I have not been successful enough to get adequate information about the division and structure of the Rek Dinka, one of the five braches of the Dinka People.

Please comment on this topic, it is very crucial that we the Dinkas, rather than the FatimaS, the JohnS, the MohammedS, the ObamaS  etc of the world, should be the one researching, writing, reading and talking in and about the Dinka Language.

I am interested to know your take on Ms Fatima,s assertion that Thuɔŋjäŋ has a number of “official” loanwords from other languages, namely English, Arabic etc. Supply relevant links too.


Piööcku Thuɔŋjäŋ.

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