Nuerland in Ethiopia

Nuerland lies within the swamps along the Nile of South Sudan and extends into bordering Ethiopia near the town of Gambella.   It is remote, hot, humid, insect-filled and experiences frequent conflict between tribal groups. Because of this range of factors, this culture is rarely visited or photographed by foreigners.  These villages are small, remote and lack standard accommodations so along with my six hearty travel companions, we arranged for mobile tents to be pitched immediately next to one of the larger Neuer villages.  After first flying to the Gambella airport from Addis Ababa, we drove more than 2 hours on marginal dirt roads to our camp near a sizable Neur village.  As these people rarely see outsiders, they greeted us warmly with tribal singing and dancing and was widely attended by the villagers. They rarely see photographic images of themselves and exhibited child-like delight for the opportunity to see their image on the back of the camera for a couple of brief seconds.

The villages are constructed as a series of traditional stick and straw huts arranged in a circular manner to surround the cattle.  Cattle are staked at night within the village so they can be protected from wildllfe and marauding tribes.  Dried cow manure is burned in smelting fires and cattle are further rubbed in the resulting manure ash to ward off mosquitos and other insects.  During the day, cattle are grazed on available grasses alongside nearby swamps.   

 

The Nuer are culturally related to the Dinka tribe and while both are primarily pastoralists they both also rely on limited subsistence farming.  Conflict between these tribes was a major element in Sudan leading to civil war.  Occasionally these conflicts spill across the border into Ethiopia.  While not as heavily armed as some other tribes in southern Ethiopia, AK-47s were ever present in each camp.   While the situation has apparently calmed in recent months, Aljazeera reported in April 2016 that Dinka from South Sudan moved into Ethiopia to attack Nuer villages in the Gambella region and killed 208 people, abducted 108 children and stole more than 2000 cattle.  Sadly, such violence, famine and poor nutrition are frequent.

 Nuer children were fascinated and excited to see their images on the back of the camera.

Nuer children were fascinated and excited to see their images on the back of the camera.

The Nuer are extremely poor and live in marginal conditions with little outside support to clean water, proper hygiene, or effective healthcare.  They seldom eat their cattle, although they do utilize milk as food.  Their diets consist mostly of millet, sorghum and the abundant catfish found throughout the swamp land.  Through the presence of missionaries, large numbers of Nuer converted to Christianity at the end of the twentieth century, but the majority remain followers of traditional religions worshipping ancestral spirits, and various deities.  The social structure is patriarchal and polygyny is common.  Women provide the majority of labor in the village, cleaning, caring for children and the elderly, milking cows, grinding grain to make a bread-like mash. Men fish, tend the cattle and protect the village.

 Elderly Nuer couple outside their hut at dawn.

Elderly Nuer couple outside their hut at dawn.

 Grinding grain for simple bread-like mash.

Grinding grain for simple bread-like mash.

 Nuer village woman cooking mash of sorghum and millet

Nuer village woman cooking mash of sorghum and millet

Within the past decade, Chinese developers have invested significant sums for the purchase of surrounding lands on which to create large commercial farms for cotton and other water thirsty crops.  Many of these ventures were ill-planned and proved unsuccessful.  As a result, a large amount of farm equipment and many shipping containers have been abandoned across the country side.  Many miles of electrical poles have been erected but the wires never arrived. Electrical power is not present in these villages.  Some farms and processing facilities have provided economic opportunity for some of the villagers, but with grazing land disappearing, it is likely a matter of time before the traditional pastoral way of life will be abandoned for modern farm and factory jobs.  Already they have largely replaced their traditional clothing that consisted of nominal coverings of animal skin in favor of a western style of dress manufactured and imported from China and elsewhere.  The Nuer are famous for the scarring men and women perform on their faces and foreheads.  This too is rapidly disappearing while young people opt to forego these adornments for more modern ways.

 Nuer women with traditional facial scars

Nuer women with traditional facial scars

 Nuer warrior with deep facial scarring

Nuer warrior with deep facial scarring

 Neur warrior

Neur warrior

Improved roads and greater access to the outside world is rapidly changing the traditional way of life, although unfortunately, there is little evidence the Nuer will obtain many tangible benefits of a modern society in exchange for their pastoralist lifestyle. The environmental damage created by large scale farming operations and the current political situation in Ethiopia is unlikely to provide a good deal of improvement for the Nuer. Lacking adequate hygiene, clean water or access to health care, the Nuer face a meager and rather desperate future, where the health of young children and animals continues to be marginal at best.  It was a personal privilege to interact with these proud people for a few short days.  I was enriched by the opportunity to witness their pride for their waning pastoral traditions and the strong will of their spirit to endure and find happy moments even in the harshest of conditions.

 A proud traditional Nuer woman.  Her eyes give away the challenges of her life.

A proud traditional Nuer woman.  Her eyes give away the challenges of her life.

REFERENCES

http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences-and-law/anthropology-and-archaeology/people/nuer

Encyclopedia of World Cultures Supplement, The Gale Group, Inc. 2002

https://www.tesfanews.net/ethiopia-south-sudan-gambela-murle/   Aljazeera, April 17, 2016