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"We Are Bought Like Clothes": The War Over Polygyny and Levirate Marriage in South Sudan

From: Northeast African Studies
Volume 8, Number 2, 2001 (New Series)
pp. 35-61 | 10.1353/nas.2005.0023

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Northeast African Studies 8.2 (2001) 35-61

The War over Polygyny and Levirate Marriage in South Sudan

Stephanie Beswick

Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana

In 1971, Kathleen Gough wrote that the Nilotic women of South Sudan considered themselves fully equal citizens. Rather than perceiving themselves as part of a corporate identity, their emotional feelings extended to a strong individual identity, or, as has been suggested, they realized the great singularity of their own self-identity. Fifteen years later their perception evidently had not changed. Gathering around Pul Bur near eastern Nasir in South Sudan in 1986, Eastern Twic Dinka Ayuel Parmena Bul was listening to the radio with a group of people, including a Nuer woman. When a female, Makere Benjamin, took over as the broadcaster the Nuer lady was startled and remarked, "Is this woman so great that she can speak on the radio?" Ayuel said, "Women are presidents, for example, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher." The Nuer responded, "Is this a republic of women alone?" Ayuel said:

No, these women have reached a level of men in these societies. Through [Western] education and intelligence women can reach the level of men: a woman could even be a district commissioner.

The woman responded:

If God can make me a district commissioner, on day ONE, I will sit in this chair and I will revenge all the nonsense you men have done to women. Then I will try to raise the woman more than the man.

Field research among women in South Sudan today suggests that many no longer believe they are equal citizens within their own communities. They particularly resent certain key historical social practices endemic to their own cultures, specifically those that structure marriage. It has been argued that historical changes in production relations in a society give impetus to a fundamental restructuring of reproduction, followed by transformations in the nature of kinship and affinal networks. I suggest that South Sudanese female discontent can be traced to this very phenomenon. The length and violence of the country's second civil war, which has ranged since 1983 and killed many men, has been particularly important in the restructuring of South Sudanese gender relations. Another factor, affecting both men and women, has been the introduction of new foreign cultures by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and Kenyan aid workers. These influences have entered both South Sudan itself and also Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwest Kenya, home to over 70,000 Dinka in 2001. These factors have led many women in South Sudan, particularly the Western Nilotes, to believe that two of their most enduring cultural practices, polygyny and levirate marriage, no longer serve them in a conjugal or even consanguineal setting.

The primary focus of this study is the pastoral Nilotic Dinka, the largest ethnic group in South Sudan; however, Azande (non-Nilotic) and Nuer evidence is also incorporated, along with some material from other ethnic groups. The study specifically addresses polygyny, levirate marriage, adultery, and divorce; other related topics, such as "women marriage," lie beyond its scope. A number of the women cited here gave their opinions on condition of anonymity; hence, their full or real names will not appear.

The Setting

Polygyny and Levirate Marriage: Definitions and Importance in Western Nilotic Society

Polygamy in any culture is marriage in which a spouse of either sex may possess a plurality of mates at the same time. Polygyny, the subject of this paper, is the practice of having more than one wife at one time. Here each wife and her children form an economic subunit with a separate kitchen, fields for food production, and cattle. Each extended family is embedded in a sociological structure characterized by networks of wider economic and political obligations based on kinship ties. Nonetheless, most households are self-sufficient economic units producing their own food, housing, and other necessities. Until recently, a large family was highly respected in many African communities. Of importance here is that in many African societies today, including the Dinka, the term "wife" has two basic referents: a female married to a given male (or female) and a female married into a given compound or lineage. Thus, this type of marital social organization is...