These days, when news comes out of South Sudan, it’s usually in relation to the country’s ongoing civil war and growing refugee crisis. Since 2013, the country has been embroiled in a deadly civil war that’s claimed the lives of more than 300,000 people. Brutal tactics on both sides have overshadowed the region’s amazing culture and history. In south Sudan, one of the largest ethnic groups are the Dinka, a close-knit assortment of tribes that currently fight with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) on behalf of South Sudan President Salva Kiir Mayardit, a Dinka himself. If you’re not familiar with these noble people and fierce warriors, then prepare to be amazed.
1. No One Knows the Origin of the Word ‘Dinka’
It was invented by outsiders, but no one is sure what the word means or why it was applied to the people who would become the Dinka. In truth, the Dinka refer to themselves by an entirely different name. They self-apply either Muonjang or Jieng.
2. The Dinka’s Native Territory Is So Huge That Most Dinka Don’t Know of All the Different Variations in Their Collective People
Their territory is landlocked and largely surrounded by ideological adversaries.
3. A Large Portion of the Dinka People Do Not Acknowledge the Political State of Sudan, Because It Was Overtaken By Arabs in the Nineteenth Century
4. There Are Currently 3 Million Dinka Estimated to Be Living in South Sudan
Some experts suggest that since the on-and-off fighting that’s been raging since 1955, more than two million Dinka have been killed.
5. The Dinka Are Part of an Ancient Tradition of Cattle Herding, a Profession that Remains the People’s Primary Source of Income
Several hundred years ago, an group of people known as the Nilotics — the ethnic group to which the Dinka belong — settled in the South Sudan region. When the Nilotics moved on, the Dinka stayed behind to develop techniques for domesticating cattle.
6. There Are Twenty-Five Separate Tribes that Make Up the Dinka People
Though these tribes operate independently, they are united by a shared cultural pride and heritage.
7. The Cow Is Sacred to the Dinka People
In accordance with their primary profession, the Dinka have several myths and legends that ascribe great value to cows. They primarily use the cows for their dairy-making abilities. Dairy products are considered the best kind of food for the Dinka.
8. Throughout the Dinka’s Country, Most Roads Are Non-Existent
They’ve either been destroyed by the war or they’ve fallen into disrepair as a result of South Sudan’s poverty.
9. The Dinka’s Primary Economic Focus Is the Cultivation and Acquisition of Food
Throughout the year, the culture relies curiously on cattle, agriculture, trading, and the gathering of wild foods.
10. The Words ‘Trade,’ ‘Market,’ and ‘Profit’ Don’t Have Any Direct Translation Into the Dinka Language
That doesn’t mean that there’s no trading in South Sudan, it simply suggests that the Dinka have been largely insular for long periods of time.
11. There Are More Than 400 Words to Relate to Cattle in the Dinka Language
12. The Dinka Are Monotheistic
That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re Christian (though a large portion of the population is), it simply means that they believe in one creator. They sacrifice cattle to this being, as well.
13. Animal Sacrifices Are Common For the Dinka at Common Rites of Passage, Like Birth, Marriage, and Death
14. At the Transition into Manhood, Boys Are Expected to Give Up Their Child Names and Pick an ‘Ox-Name’
These names are derived from the man’s favorite characteristic of cattle or cattle herding.
15. At One Point in the Dinka Culture, Polygamy Was Common
16. Nudity Is the Norm for Most of the Dinka People
Clothing is becoming increasingly common among the Dinka, but thanks to the region’s arid climate, most simply go without any clothing.
17. The Dinka Lacked a Formal Education System Until the 1930s
Until then, there’s was an almost exclusively oral tradition.
18. Beyond Cultural Devotion to Song and Dance, Most Hobbies and ‘Recreation’ Are Devoted to Remaining Subsistent
19. South Sudan Gained Independence from Sudan in 2011
Unfortunately, skirmishes throughout 2013 finally erupted into full scale conflict in December when President Salva Kiir accused his then-Vice President of an attempted coup.
20. The Civil War has Raged On and Off Since 2013
Some regions have recently become more stable, but the country is still largely in the midst of the conflict.
21. Thousands Have Been Killed in the Last Three-Plus Years
The SPLA is clashing with opposition forces, the SPLA-IO (the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition). These battles are often fought in the middle of people’s homes, as with the skirmish in Pajok on April 4. In this instance, those civilians caught in the crossfire were gunned down as they tried to flee for their homes. “If you ran, you got shot; if you got arrested, you got slaughtered,” said 35-year-old Lokang Jacky. “There were women who got shot. We just slept in the bush and then at 6 this morning we started walking.”