South Sudan is home to a huge number of native tribal ethnicities, and many of these tribes continue to adhere to their traditional ways and means of life. While parts of the larger tribes, such as the Dinka and the Nuer, have settled into modern communities, there are still several subdivisions of these tribes and other tribes that follow the practices passed down from their forefathers. From using a cattle-based economy to hunting for bushmeat, their societies remain largely unchanged from what was seen by colonial explorers over two centuries ago.
While larger tribal ethnicities have been identified among the several tribes that populate South Sudan, these are divided into several different tribal groups and do not follow a centralized political structure. For instance, the Dinka people, who make up the largest tribal ethnicity in South Sudan, comprise twenty three subdivisions spread out over several independent, but interlinked clans. Of these, some have adapted to modern lifestyles, and have produced notable members of the South Sudan society, including sportsmen, professors and politicians.
One of the many tribal practices that are still followed by a majority of tribes in South Sudan is the process of scarification. This involves making cuts and wounds on the skin that heal over time to leave prominent patterns of scars on the face or body. Scarification is usually practiced as a coming-of-age ritual to indicate an individual’s transition into adulthood.
Cattle are also regarded as important to many tribal societies who are primarily herders of livestock. While money is used by many communities to purchase items from shops, cattle are still seen as a measure of social status and are used as a form of dowry, or bride wealth exchange. After a long period of civil conflict, some tribal communities now regard guns as an equal or higher measure of social status. In some communities, the absence of formal education and jobs mean that earning money to purchase cattle is difficult. This leads to cattle-raids that see different tribes regularly fighting each other to steal livestock.
There are several tribes that are nomadic and move about between regions depending on the season. One example would be the Murle people, who migrate seasonally with their livestock due to unpredictable conditions of rainfall and availability of drinking water.
When visiting a traditional tribal community, you should always remember to pay respect to the tribal elders and community rules, and understand that these people are rightly proud of their tribal cultures. If you manage a visit to South Sudan and are interested in walking off the beaten path, taking some time to see this culture from a different era can be a life-changing experience.