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General Society and Culture


The first and overwhelming impression of Sudan is its physical vastness and ethnic diversity, elements that have shaped its regional history from time immemorial. The country encompasses virtually every geographical feature, from the harsh deserts of the north to the rain forests rising on its southern borders. Like most African countries, Sudan is defined by boundaries that European powers determined at the end of the nineteenth century. The British colonial administration in Sudan, established in 1899, emphasized indirect rule by tribal shaykhs and chiefs, although tribalism had been considerably weakened as an administrative institution during the Mahdist period (1884- 98). This loosening of loyalties exacerbated problems in governmental structure and administration and in the peoples' identification as Sudanese. To this day, loyalty remains divided among family, clan, ethnic group, and religion, and it is difficult to forge a nation because the immensity of the land permits many of Sudan's ethnic and tribal groups to live relatively undisturbed by the central government.

The Nile is the link that runs through Sudan, and influences the lives of Sudan's people, even though many of them farm and herd far from the Nile or its two main tributaries, the Blue Nile and the White Nile. Not only do nomads come to the river to water their herds and cultivators to drain off its waters for their fields, but the Nile facilitates trade, administration, and urbanization. Consequently, the confluence of the Blue Nile and the White Nile became the administrative center of a vast hinterland because the area commanded the river, its commerce, and its urban society. This location enabled the urban elites to control the scattered and often isolated population of the interior while enjoying access to the peoples of the outside world.

Although linked by dependence on the Nile, Sudan's population is divided by ethnic, linguistic, and religious differences. Many Sudanese in the north claim Arab descent and speak Arabic, but Sudanese Arabs are highly differentiated. Over many generations, they have intermingled in varying degrees with the indigenous peoples. Arabic is Sudan's official language (with Arabic and English the predominant languages in the south), but beyond Khartoum and its two neighboring cities of Omdurman and Khartoum North a variety of languages is spoken. A more unifying factor is Islam, which has spread widely among the peoples of northern Sudan. But, once again, the Sunni (see Glossary) Muslims of northern Sudan form no monolithic bloc. Some, especially in the urban centers, are strictly orthodox Muslims, while others, mostly in the rural areas, are attracted more to Sufism, an Islamic mystical tendency, in their search for Allah. Within this branch and tendency of Islam are a host of religious sects with their own Islamic rituals and syncretistic adaptations.

The Sudanese of the south are of African origin. Islam has made only modest inroads among these followers of traditional religions and of Christianity, which was spread in the twentieth century by European missionaries, and Arabic has not replaced the diverse languages of the south. The differences between north and south have usually engendered hostility, a clash of cultures that in the last 150 years has led to seemingly endless violence. The strong regional and cultural differences have inhibited nation building and have caused the civil war in the south that has raged since independence, except for a period of peace between 1972 and 1983. The distrust between Sudanese of the north and those of the south--whether elite or peasants--has deepened with the long years of hostilities. And the cost of war has drained valuable national resources at the expense of health, education, and welfare in both regions.


Sudan's ethnic and linguistic diversity remained one of the most complex in the world in 1991. Its nearly 600 ethnic groups spoke more than 400 languages and dialects, many of them intelligible to only a small number of individuals. In the 1980s and 1990s some of these small groups became absorbed by larger groups, while migration often caused individuals reared in one tongue to converse only in the dominant language of the new area. Such was the case with migrants to the Three Towns. There Arabic was the lingua franca despite the use of English by many of the elite. Some linguistic groups had been absorbed by accommodation, others by conflict. Most Sudanese were, of necessity, multilingual. Choice of language played a political role in the ethnic and religious cleavage between the northern and southern Sudanese. English was associated with being non-Muslim, as Arabic was associated with Islam. Thus language was a political instrument and a symbol of identity.

Ethnic Groups

The definition and boundaries of ethnic groups depend on how people perceive themselves and others. Language, cultural characteristics, and common ancestry may be used as markers of ethnic identity or difference, but they do not always define groups of people. Thus, the people called Atuot and the much larger group called Nuer spoke essentially the same language, shared many cultural characteristics, and acknowledged a common ancestry, but each group defined itself and the other as different. Identifying ethnic groups in Sudan was made more complicated by the multifaceted character of internal divisions among Arabic-speaking Muslims, the largest population that might be considered a single ethnic group.

The distinction between Sudan's Muslim and non-Muslim people has been of considerable importance in the country's history and provides a preliminary ordering of the ethnic groups. It does not, however, correspond in any simple way to distinctions based on linguistic, cultural, or racial criteria nor to social or political solidarity. Ethnic group names commonly used in Sudan and by foreign analysts are not always used by the people themselves. That is particularly true for non-Arabs known by names coined by Arabs or by the British, who based the names on terms used by Arabs or others not of the group itself. Thus, the Dinka and the Nuer, the largest groups in southern Sudan, call themselves, respectively, Jieng and Naath.


Language differences have served as a partial basis for ethnic classification and as symbols of ethnic identity. Such differences have been obstacles to the flow of communication in a state as linguistically fragmented as Sudan. These barriers have been overcome in part by the emergence of some languages as lingua francas and by a considerable degree of multilingualism in some areas.

Most languages spoken in Africa fall into four language superstocks. Three of them--Afro-Asiatic, Niger-Kurdufanian, and Nilo-Saharan--are represented in Sudan. Each is divided into groups that are in turn subdivided into sets of closely related languages. Two or more major groups of each superstock are represented in Sudan, which has been historically both a northsouth and an east-west migration crossroad.

The most widely spoken language in the Sudan is Arabic, a member of the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family. Cushitic, another major division of the Afro-Asiatic language, is represented by Bedawiye (with several dialects), spoken by the largely nomadic Beja. Chadic, a third division, is represented by its most important single language, Hausa, a West African tongue used by the Hausa themselves and employed by many other West Africans in Sudan as a lingua franca.

Niger-Kurdufanian is first divided into Niger-Congo and Kurdufanian. The widespread Niger-Congo language group includes many divisions and subdivisions of languages. Represented in Sudan are Azande and several other tongues of the Adamawa-Eastern language division, and Fulani of the West Atlantic division. The Kurdufanian stock comprises only thirty to forty languages spoken in a limited area of Sudan, the Nuba Mountains and their environs.

The designation of a Nilo-Saharan superstock has not been fully accepted by linguists, and its constituent groups and subgroups are not firmly fixed, in part because many of the languages have not been well studied. Assuming the validity of the category and its internal divisions, however, eight of its nine major divisions and many of their subdivisions are well represented in Sudan, where roughly seventy-five languages, well over half of those named in the 1955-56 census, could be identified as Nilo-Saharan. Many of these languages are used only by small groups of people. Only six or seven of them were spoken by 1 percent or more of Sudan's 1956 population. Perhaps another dozen were the home languages of 0.5 to 1 percent. Many other languages were used by a few thousand or even a few hundred people.

The number of languages and dialects in Sudan is assumed to be about 400, including languages spoken by an insignificant number of people. Moreover, languages of smaller ethnic groups tended to disappear when the groups assimilated with more dominant ethnic units.

Several lingua francas have emerged and many peoples have become genuinely multilingual, fluent in a native language spoken at home, a lingua franca, and perhaps other languages. Arabic is the primary lingua franca in Sudan, given its status as the country's official language and as the language of Islam. Arabic, however, has several different forms, and not all who master one are able to use another. Among the varieties noted by scholars are classical Arabic, the language of the Quran (although generally not a spoken language and only used for printed work and by the educated in conversation); Modern Standard Arabic, derived from classical Arabic; and at least two kinds of colloquial Arabic in the Sudan--that spoken in roughly the eastern half of the country and called Sudanese colloquial Arabic and that spoken in western Sudan, closely akin to the colloquial Arabic spoken in Chad. There are other colloquial forms. A pidgin called Juba Arabic is peculiar to southern Sudan. Although some Muslims might become acquainted with classical Arabic in the course of rudimentary religious schooling, very few except the most educated know it except by rote.

Modern Standard Arabic is in principle the same everywhere in the Arab world and presumably permits communication among educated persons whose mother tongue is one or another form of colloquial Arabic. Despite its international character, however, Modern Standard Arabic varies from country to country. It has been, however, the language used in Sudan's central government, the press, and Radio Omdurman. The latter also broadcast in classical Arabic. One observer, writing in the early 1970s, noted that Arabic speakers (and others who had acquired the language informally) in western Sudan found it easier to understand the Chadian colloquial Arabic used by Chad Radio than the Modern Standard Arabic used by Radio Omdurman. This might also be the case elsewhere in rural Sudan where villagers and nomads speak a local dialect of Arabic.

Despite Arabic's status as the official national language, English was acknowledged as the principal language in southern Sudan in the late 1980s. It was also the chief language at the University of Khartoum and was the language of secondary schools even in the north before 1969. The new policy for higher education announced by the Sudanese government in 1990 indicated the language of instruction in all institutions of higher learning would be Arabic.

Nevertheless, in the south, the first two years of primary school were taught in the local language. Thereafter, through secondary school, either Arabic or English could become the medium of instruction (English and Arabic were regarded as of equal importance); the language not used as a medium was taught as a subject. In the early 1970s, when this option was established, roughly half the general secondary classes (equivalent to grades seven through nine) were conducted in Arabic and half in English in Bahr al Ghazal and Al Istiwai provinces. In early 1991, with about 90 percent of the southern third of the country controlled by the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the use of Arabic as a medium of instruction in southern schools remained a political issue, with many southerners regarding Arabic as an element in northern cultural domination.

Juba (or pidgin) Arabic, developed and learned informally, had been used in southern towns, particularly in Al Istiwai, for some time and had spread slowly but steadily throughout the south, but not always at the expense of English. The Juba Arabic used in the marketplace and even by political figures addressing ethnically mixed urban audiences could not be understood by northern Sudanese.


More than half of total population Muslim, most living in north where Muslims constitute 75 percent or more of population. Relatively few Christians, most living in south. Most people in south and substantial minority in north adherents of various indigenous religions. Somewhat more than half Sudan's population was Muslim in the early 1990s. Most Muslims, perhaps 90 percent, lived in the north, where they constituted 75 percent or more of the population. Data on Christians was less reliable; estimates ranged from 4 to 10 percent of the population. At least one-third of the Sudanese were still attached to the indigenous religions of their forebears. Most Christian Sudanese and adherents of local religious systems lived in southern Sudan. Islam had made inroads into the south, but more through the need to know Arabic than a profound belief in the tenets of the Quran. The SPLM, which in 1991 controlled most of southern Sudan, opposed the imposition of the sharia (Islamic law).

Christianity was most prevalent among the peoples of Al Istiwai State--the Madi, Moru, Azande, and Bari. The major churches in the Sudan were the Roman Catholic and the Anglican. Southern communities might include a few Christians, but the rituals and world view of the area were not in general those of traditional Western Christianity. The few communities that had formed around mission stations had disappeared with the dissolution of the missions in 1964. The indigenous Christian churches in Sudan, with external support, continued their mission, however, and had opened new churches and repaired those destroyed in the continuing civil conflict. Originally, the Nilotic peoples were indifferent to Christianity, but in the latter half of the twentieth century many people in the educated elite embraced its tenets, at least superficially. English and Christianity have become symbols of resistance to the Muslim government in the north, which has vowed to destroy both. Unlike the early civil strife of the 1960s and 1970s, the insurgency in the 1980s and the 1990s has taken on a more religiously confrontational character.



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