South Sudan is in possession of a rich cultural heritage due to the many tribes that inhabit its borders. Out of these many tribal communities, one of the largest are the Toposa people, whose population numbers over 700,000. The Toposa people reside within the Kapoeta region of the state of Eastern Equatoria of South Sudan. The herding of cattle, goats and sheep is the traditional livelihood of these people, and many of them continue to do so today, although their ways of life are slowly being modernized. The Toposa played a role in the second Sudanese civil war, lending assistance to both the SPLM and the Government of Sudan at different times, depending on whoever provided the most food and weapons.
The Toposa people come from part of a larger group called the Ateker cluster, which comprises several tribes in Sudan, Kenya and Uganda. This cluster is said to have broken up and spread out from Uganda following a major drought. The land the Toposa currently inhabit, in Greater Kapoeta, is semi-arid, and vegetation is limited to shrubs and short grasses.
Due to such an environment, the Toposa obtain their food supply almost exclusively through herding of livestock such as cattle, goats, donkeys, sheep and camels. They also engage in agriculture to a limited extent, growing mainly sorghum in the river valleys. However, due to the unpredictable level of rainfall in the Toposa-inhabited areas, these crops are not always reliable.
The economy and social life of the Toposa people also revolves mainly around the herding of livestock, while they also pan the local rivers and streams for valuable minerals such as gold. Members of their society judge one another’s social status by the amount of livestock in possession, as well as the possession of loaded weapons. The Toposa have also engaged in cattle raids against neighboring tribes, sparking some conflict between tribes. The men of the Toposa can be frequently seen carrying guns, although they are generally friendly as long as respect is given to village elders.
One of the remarkable things about the Toposa people is their process of body scarification. Scarification is practiced by several tribes in Africa, where tribe members use patterns of scars to decorate their bodies. More dramatic styles can be seen occasionally, formed from large cuts that leave heavy scars when healed.
The Toposa people pass down their culture verbally through song, dance, poems, music and folklore. In the aspect of religion, the Toposa traditionally believe in a supreme being and ancestral spirits who can help them overcome problems such as drought and disease. Missionary efforts within South Sudan have also brought some measure of Christianity and Catholicism to the people.
The Toposa are only one of the several unique and intriguing tribes that dwell in South Sudan. Any traveler who visits the country will need to see the Toposa people, among other tribes, to get an understanding of their culture and see how this tribe maintains its ancient ways in the modern age.