Nuer beliefs 101

Different Nuer tribes have different totems. They believe that the totems originated by being born the animal twin of their ancestor, including the lion, python, crocodile, ostrich and monitor lizard (our Betty).

Different Nuer tribes have different totems. They believe that the totems originated by being born the animal twin of their ancestor, including the lion, python, crocodile, ostrich and monitor lizard (our Betty). The Nuer believe that by paying homage to the totem's spirit they will be protected. Offering sacrifice is common. They also believe if they kill, eat or disrespect their specific totem bad things will happen, eg. children will be born with grotesque crocodile-like deformities such as short, claw-like arms. If a simple greeting to a totem is ignored the person or one of his kin may become ill. In order to counteract this a Leopard Skin Priest is summoned and a sacrifice must be made.

There are quite a few rules about sacrifices such as the way the sacrifice falls. Generally it is speared twice (throat and heart). If it falls straight onto its right side this is a good omen and celebrations occur. If it stumbles, falls to the left or head first this is a bad sign and may require a second animal sacrifice. Once the animal falls the men all jump on it and hack away pieces of flesh with their spear tips. Quite a frenzy!

I have a photo of this from Adura, but when they spied me they became very angry and shouted and waved spears at the guy who had taken me over. I didn’t really know what was happening at the time but it was explained later. Thank goodness the poor beast had fallen to the right or I could have been the “bad omen”.

A particular rite, performed by a “gwan kwoth nyanga” (person who possesses the crocodile spirit), is conducted to allow safe passage for people and stock across rivers and streams. A metal bracelet is bent until the ends overlap and is tied with grass. The bracelet is then pushed into the mud of the bank, calling on the “gwandong” (grandfather or ancestor/ crocodile spirit) to allow the people to pass over in safety. They believe this closes the jaws of the crocodile while people and cattle are in the water. I’m hoping this is done for us. There are a few of these bracelets being worn in the Jikow mobile clinic as these are the descendants of the crocodile. I’m told that some of the children can call up the crocodile and that they actually jump up out of the water when summoned. I will ask if they can do this for us while I’m here and will have my video recorder handy if they allow it.

You know I really wouldn’t be that surprised to see this. The people here have such a close relationship with their animals, cattle and goats etc. The animals seem to work together with them. I’ve only seen one cow injury, actually she died after being kicked in head by one, but it’s the only cattle injury I’ve seen. They are all hand tethered at night and walked off to feed during the day. They have huge horns and could do a lot of damage but they seem to just do as they are asked and have the mutual respect of their owners. Little kids of seven or eight are responsible for herding the goats and calves. With nothing more than a small stick they guide them to and from the river across great expanses of land. I’m sure I couldn’t do as good a job with a motorbike!

A large number of Nuer respect snakes such as the python or cobra, also believed to be born a twin to their ancestor. When they make a sacrifice to the python spirit they take a goat to the edge of the river and kill it in imitation of a python killing its prey. They block its mouth and nose and bounce on its stomach until it suffocates. They then throw an offering of meat into the river, a piece onto the land and make a soup with the rest. A senior kinsman then sharpens a new cattle peg, drives it into the ground, wraps grass around it and pours some goats blood onto it. This ritual sacrifice is offered up to the python spirit and asked in return for the people to be left at peace. Bugger me, I’m getting me a heard of goats! It is believed by all different lineages that if they respect the animal of their totem it shall not harm them. Even to the point of rubbing butter and milk onto a python that enters a man’s camp and chooses to sleep there!

Another interesting group of people are the Leopard skin priests. These people are born into the role of mediator. Secrets and tools are passed from generation to generation and sometimes they are specifically chosen by another priest. They are not from any particular tribe and are open to working with all. They are the most respected and feared people of all the tribes. We have two here in Mattar and I will be meeting them. I hope they’re like the general population and happy to share their knowledge and experiences with me. They are extremely busy with all types of business such as weddings, funerals, sacrifices, mediations of blood spilling, homicide and the most common, incest. The Nuer believe that if the words of the Leopard skin priest are not adhered to the person defying them will die. They must consult a priest as early as possible after performing homicide or incest so a sacrifice can be made and the wrong righted. If this is not done quickly the person will surely die. The fact that retaliation is a key element ensures this is true; a priest will mediate the compensation and if this is done in time this may ward off further bloodshed.