Godfrey Lienhardt, Divinity and Experience

The Dinka people are spread across a very wide area but are surprisingly homogenous, with slight differences in dialect, custom and social structure, yet they can still be treated as a single people.  The study is oriented towards the Western Dinka, in particular the Rek tribal group. Dinkaland lies at the basin on the Nile so the bottom section often floods meaning that communication between the higher and lower stretches becomes difficult. As a result of this flooding, permanent year-round settlement is impossible due to the flooding of the basin, so the Dinka are constantly on the move. During the rainiest part of the year the young men leave with the cattle, leaving the girls and the elderly at the camp, and form camps in the Savannah to escape the poor grazing conditions. When the wet season ends they return to their homes.

The Dinka tribe as a whole is extremely of which there are many subtribes. The smallest herding group consists of a man, his children and their cattle. A number of these groups which are joined together through kinship, friendship and neighbourhood, join together for the savannah forest camping at the beginning of the rainy season and a number of these camps form a subtribe. These cattle-herding groups which have formed a subtribe join with several other subtribes which then form a tribe – which all started from a single cattle-herding group. This seasonal migration is extremely important in creating and securing links within the Dinka and creating subtribes. The largest tribe has the most subtribes. The Dinka region is split up roughly into the different tribal area, yet there are no physical boundaries and it is difficult to distinguish where one starts as there is a lot of overlap with dialect and culture. Male circumcision for example, cuts across the Rek tribal group, with one half practising it and the other not.

Cattle play an integral role within Dinka society and is the point of which every practice and tradition centres around, and animal sacrifice is at the heart of religious ritual. They are used as the foundation for names of people, courting, marriage, transactions and religion. There is a vast vocabulary referring to the cattle, their shading and colouring which seems indistinguishable.  This intricate defining of cattle which verges on “obsession” is not merely for practical reasons, as you do not need to know the colour of a cow to use it for its produce. Links to our society – particularly in secondary school and university people are categorised in this way which, to someone from the Dinka tribe, would seem just as futile. We have no practical use for this categorisation of people, ‘geek’, ‘druggie’, except that we think it ‘helps’ us to understand someone better or conversely; to judge them and stay away from them.

When a boy reaches manhood he is given the name of an ox along with his own name which he displays to impress girls – a symbol of masculinity as an ox is strong and productive. Complex metaphorical names are given to beast for their differentiating colours, for example a white ox is called “bull of the women” because women want white European salt. This shows the interdependence of Dinkas’ perception of colour in nature and its cattle and the deliberate effort to link cattle with its environmental and social surroundings. Also works on the theme of colour has something which is socially variable, one sees a colour and names if differently depending on what that colour means within ones social context. Perhaps a Westerner and a Dinka could agree that a certain colour looks the same but will have different names for it, but who is ‘right’? Would the Westerner of the Dinka be correct in giving the colour a name? This non-answerable question highlights the subjectivity of trying to define colour and its complete cultural dependency.

Men imitate cattle in dances, imitating its raw animalistic qualities through stamping and crying, mimicking the cattle’s rhythmic movement. This self-identification with ox is further displayed in a courting process when they walk around with their ox whilst the women are milking the cows and the women look at the ox as much as the man. The men are extremely closely linked to their animal and are almost interchangeable in activities such as these. One girl told Lienhardt that she would “prefer a somewhat ugly young man with a fine ox to a handsome man with an indifferent ox”. There is a similarity here with Western men and sports cars, which are sometimes used to amplify their appearance.

Men and cattle are arguably as important as each other due to the value places on cattle and a man’s wealth in cattle will determine the remembrance of his name, as well as the fertility of his cattle denoting the number of children he can expect to have. To have a herd is to have rights and a place in society, without it you are commodity-poor and have a very low value as a member of society and no place in “the main structure of Dinka society”, the desperation of which Lienhardt likens to the Western notion of suicide.



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