Murle woman, South Sudan
They also regard themselves as distinct from the people that live around them. At various times they have been at war with all of the surrounding tribes so they present a united front against what they regard as hostile neighbors. The people call themselves Murle and all other peoples are referred to as 'moden." The literal translation of this word is “enemy,” although it can also be translated as “strangers.”
Murle girls in Gumuruk market, South Sudan. Judy McCallum
Even when the Murle are at peace with a given group of neighbors, they still refer to them as moden.
The neighboring tribes also return the favor by referring to the Murle as the “enemy.” The Dinka people refer to the Murle as the Beir and the Anuak call them the Ajiba. These were the terms originally used in the early literature to refer to the Murle people. Only after direct contact by the British did their self-name become known and the term Murle is now generally accepted.
Beautiful Murle girls
The Murle are a relatively new ethnic group in Sudan, having immigrated into the region from Ethiopia. The language they speak is from the Surmic language family - languages spoken primarily in southwest Ethiopia. There are three other Surmic speaking people groups presently living in the Sudan: the Didinga, the Longarim and the Tenet.
A murle woman stands guard over a herd of cattle near Manyabol, southern Sudan.©Pete Muller
Murle has been portrayed as aggressors and formentors of trouble in Sudan by mostly Dinka and Nuer ethnic group that run affairs of the Sudan government but that is not true. "Local and national political discourses portray the Murle group as the main aggressors and the source of much of the instability affecting the state. Such Murle stereotypes are partially driven by concrete experiences, but are also largely manipulated to serve political purposes. Government control over the Murle community is reasserted and legitimised through a perpetrator narrative, which is a discourse sustained by prominent senior government officials, NGOs, media agencies and the general population“despite the reality of a politically and economically marginalised Murle” (Laudati, 2011: 21).
Mary_Boyoi is a Murle tribe woman and South Sudan singer, human right activist and philantropist
Demography and Geography
The Murle number about 300,000 to 400,000 and inhabit Pibor County in southeastern Upper Nile (Jonglei). The Murle neighbours are Nuer and Dinka, whom they call collectively (jong koth); the Anyuak, whom they call (Nyoro) and the Toposa, and Jie they call (kum). The relationship with their neighbours is by no means cordial due to their cattle raiding practices.
Cows are seen tied behind a house at sunset in Pibor on June 21, 2012.
The plain Murle (Lotilla) are predominantly agro-pastoralist, while the mountain Murle (Ngalam) living in Boma Plateau are predominantly agrarian.
Red Chiefs daughter in Nyrgen, South Sudan,
Environment, Economy and Natural Resources
Large parts of Murle country are flood prone plains dissected by numerous perennial streams drained from the foothills of the Ethiopian highlands. The topography suddenly changes to the Boma Plateau as does the rainfall regime and vegetation. This environment has influenced the social and economic activities of the Murle.
Murle people of Boma National Park, South Sudan
The plain Murle are predominantly pastoral and their socio-economic activities centre round the herding of cattle. They practice subsistence agriculture; they also fish and hunt extensively. The Murle are extremely skilful in the arts of hunting and stalking game. In Boma where there is high rainfall the Murle practice agriculture cultivating maize, sorghum, simsim, tobacco and coffee.
The Murle people speak a language also known as Murle (also Ajibba, Beir, Merule, Mourle, Murele, Murule). Murle is a language which belongs to the Southwestern branch of the Surmic languages group of Nilo-Saharan Eastern Sudanic language within the larger Nilo-Saharan family. The Murle language is spoken by both the Ngalam, Bengalam and Lotilla Murle. This language is closely related to the Didinga and Boya languages.
The basic word order for Murle clauses is VSO (verb–subject–object) (Arensen 1982). The morphology of the verb agrees with the person and number of the subject, and can also indicate that of the object.
Marking of number on nouns in Murle is complex, with no single suffix being generally productive. Some nouns are marked with a singulative suffix, some with a plural suffix, some with both, and a few with irregular stems for the each number. Arensen has proposed a set of semantically based categories (such as association with men, or with weather and seasons) to try to predict which suffixes will be used (1992, 1998).
Murle girl wearing traditional beads
Payne (2006) has proposed analyzing some cases as examples of subtractive morphology:
onyiit 'rib' onyii 'ribs'
rottin 'warrior' rotti 'warriors'
These two forms exemplify how Murle plurals can be predicted from singular forms, but not vice versa.
The New Testament has been translated into the Murle language.
The Murle language has a considerable vocabulary of cattle terms. There are special words for every colour and colour combination; for cows and calves, bulls and oxen, at every stage of their growth; for different kinds of horns and for all the conformations to which their horns can be trained to grow.
The History of Murle Migrations
Tradition claims that the tribe was created at a place called ''''''''Jen'''''''', somewhere beyond Maji in Ethiopia. The Murle elders always point to the east and say they originated in a place called Jen. The term Jen has symbolic meanings because it is one of the cardinal directions meaning “east.” It also refers to the location of the rising sun, bringer of warmth and light. The rains also come from the east, bringing vital water for pastures and gardens. The Murle elders also described their original area of Jen as being a place of mountainous terrain.
The Murle elders went on to describe their migrations to their present location as being a series of moves by a bounded set - a powerful group of Murle moving from location to location, attacking and pushing out the former inhabitants. They started their migration by moving south along the Omo River until they eventually reached Lake Turkana.
Here they turned west, moving to the area of southern Sudan around Kapoeta. In this semi-desert they found pasture for their cattle and water in the sand rivers. Their population grew in numbers and eventually some of them broke away and moved into the Didinga Hills, where they eventually became known as the Didinga people. Other smaller groups also separated, with the Longarim moving west into the Boya Hills and the smallest group, the Tenet, moving farther west into the Lafit Hills. Then the main group of Murle went through a hard time. Their numbers were decimated by smallpox and many of their cattle contracted pleuro-pneumonia. The combination of diseases weakened the tribe and they were soon attacked by the Toposa, a war-like people moving north out of Uganda.
There was fighting between the two groups and the Murle ended up moving north,looking for new land. They eventually reached the small Maruwa Hills and here the tribe split. The Murle people without cattle moved east on to the Boma Plateau where they still live at the present time. The larger portion of the Murle, who still had cattle, moved northwest, heading for the Pibor River system. At that time the region was inhabited by
the Dinka and the Nuer. Battles took place and eventually the Murle took over – pushing the Dinka toward the Nile River and pushing the Nuer to the north.
Mary_Boyoi is a Murle tribe woman and South Sudan singer
Murle Political Systems and Age-sets
The Murle are an acephalous society, meaning there is no hierarchy of leadership. This has serious implications when it comes to making political decisions that affect the entire tribe. Since there is “no head,” there are no strong political leaders who have far reaching authority.
Murle warriors, Jonglei, South Sudan
A homestead, korok, typically consists of two or three generations of a family, tatok. The oldest man in the family is the de facto head of the homestead and he makes all major decisions on behalf of his extended family. This is an extremely small unit, therefore to enhance the chances for physical survival, it may unite with other homesteads through a horizontal extension of social ties. Elizabeth Andretta states that “korok and tatok membership is established through the horizontal extension of relations to living members, rather than oriented vertically in relationship to family ancestors” (1985:227).
Therefore relationships betweens homesteads are not primarily political, but rather provide a mechanism for residential mobility, mutual help and physical survival. The term for neighbors who assist each other is abaayizo, those who live together. If members of one homestead do not get along with their neighbors, they simply pull up stakes and move away, building a new korok in another area where they find the neighbors more compatible. Since the Murle people are transhumant they move easily and do not need complicated mechanisms for solving conflicts between homesteads – instead they simply avoid them.
However, one would expect to find some further type of leadership system. B.A. Lewis wrote the first anthropological book on the Murle and he writes about four clans, kidongwa, translated as drumships, with their respective chiefs. But in his book he asserts that even in the 1930s the drumships had lost their cohesiveness and the attendant chiefs were losing their power. Lewis was studying at Oxford University when the theory of structuralism was in vogue. He expected to find hierarchy among the Murle and thus found what he was looking for. The drumships were never strong political units and political chiefs were never part of Murle society. There are four drumships. The largest two are the Tangajon and Ngaroti. The smaller two are the Kelenya and the Ngenvac, but they claim to have lost their drums and their prestige.
Although not operating as political entities, each drumship possesses an alaan ci meeri, red chief. There is a leading family in each drumship and the position of red chief is passed on from father to son. But an alaan ci meeri holds a religious position rather than a political one. A more accurate translation of alaan would be priest or prophet. A red chief gets his name from the crimson bird feathers he wears on his forehead. He is
expected to have direct contact with Tammu, God. He can pray for rain, bless the crops, advise the hunters, heal the sick, and predict the success (or failure) of an upcoming cattle raid. He is also feared because he has the power to curse a person and cause their death. However, he stays somewhat aloof and does not get involved in the daily decisions of the various homesteads. Only rarely do red chiefs get together and make a broad decision that affects the whole tribe. This happened recently when the red chiefs tried to set a top limit of 40 cows for the payment of bridewealth.
Since there is little hierarchy, the cohesive factor that holds Murle society together is the highly functional age-sets. These are well-defined groups of men based on age, and I regard them as the core social force among the Murle. The younger age-sets are a fighting force and take on the important role of protecting the tribe for outsiders. Belonging to an age-set is critical. When Murle men meet each other for the first time, one of the first questions they ask is which buul, age-set, the other man belongs to. If they find out they
belong to the same buul there is instant rapport and offers of hospitality and help.
All boys become members of a buul in their late teenage years and they stay in the same buul for the rest of their lives. Members of an age-set do not formally move from one social position to another over time, although as men get older they will marry and focus their lives on their cattle and family. It is when the Murle men are still young and single that the age-sets are most important in their lives. This is the time when young men are eager to fight and prove themselves – whether in protecting their country from enemy tribes, or going out on raids to procure cattle.
At the present time there is no formal initiation into an age-set. Lewis states that the last initiation took place about 1890. At that time there was an epidemic that killed many cattle and there were not enough oxen to hold the necessary sacrifices (1972:85). Since that time new age-sets have been formed gradually during periods of adolescence. Boys are spurned by the age-set above them so they slowly organize themselves. There is no patronage by an older age-set as exists among the Maasai of Kenya. Between 1976 to 1984 the Dorongwa, hartebeest, age-set was in the ascendancy. This was made up of strong young warriors in their twenties. They had images of hartebeests carved into the skin of their chests and hexagon patterns scarred on their faces. They wore red beads in honor of their totem animal. They rejected the adolescent boys and called them Muden, mice. The boys accepted the name and ran with it. They chose a color code, black and red, a scarification pattern, and composed songs to praise themselves. They used the private space in front of our house to practice their strength and they would wrestle, throw spears and practice stick fighting. Over time they gathered dancing regalia such as skins, leather and feathers, and they would dress up and strut around outside our house. But they were still too weak to take on the Dorongwa so after practice they would stash their regalia, spears and sticks in our house for safekeeping.
For several years the Dorongwa continued to hold on to their position and power, of which a critical aspect was socialization with adolescent girls. They would organize dances to which unmarried girls were invited, but not the adolescent boys. As the Muden became more assertive, they would march around with their dueling sticks, occasionally finding a Dorongwa man alone, and beating him with their sticks. These aggressive acts caused the Dorongwa to periodically band together and attack the Muden. But both agesets were careful to use only sticks, since fighting with metal could only be done against enemy tribes.
Eventually the Muden grew into a powerful force and the Dorongwa got tired of the fighting. The Dorongwa backed off, allowing the Muden to have a full-fledged buul. The members of the new age-set now had the right to dance with girls, sing, hunt, fight the enemy and steal cattle. A buul comes into ascendancy “by force
like the government, atobo akuma.”
Men within an age-set rose to positions of leadership based on their popularity and ability. A talented singer would compose songs and lead the singing at the dances. A good hunter would naturally lead the men when they hunted white-eared kob. But the most important position was that of a talented fighter who earned the title eet ci oronto, the man who owns the war. This man rose to his position through his natural abilities. He
would be a man who had proved himself in battle and a man who was respected by other men in his buul. He was chosen for his ability to think well and quickly. He earned the authority to plan attacks and lead members of his buul into battle.
Across the entire tribe all men of the same age belonged to the same buul. But since they were so spread out, the full membership of a buul did not meet together and function under one war leader. There were different war leaders for different areas. Men could choose to follow whichever leader they liked. The fighting units that went on raids were usually small mobile units who planned and executed raids on their own. The results were small but effective raids that took place fairly often, especially during the dry season when travel was easy. These raids were a bane to the Dinka around Bor who were the most frequent victims of these attacks.
When the members of a buul became a little older (late 20s) they became interested in marriage and they needed cattle to pay the bride-wealth. Such a buul would step up the number of raids to gain the necessary cattle for marriage. Then they would get married and ease off into family life. But for the next twenty years they could still be militarized and brought back into a fighting force if it became necessary to defend the their land.
At the present time there are three young age-sets that are the most active. The youngest buul is called Lango, small antelope, and their colors are yellow and black. These men are single, wild and the most aggressive age-set at present, since they want to prove themselves. There are recent reports of serious fighting taking place with the Langoattacking the buul above them and trying to establish themselves as valid warriors. A new age-set is organized about every ten years. The age-set above the Lango is named Bototnya, knob-nosed goose. Their color code is black and white like the goose. These men are in their prime, still single, and are experienced warriors.
The age-set above them is called Titi, cordon bleu. Their color code is green and blue. Most of these men are aged between 30 and 40 and many of the men in this age-set are now married. But they are still considered to be the ruling age-set. They took over this position from the Muden in 1994. They are still active warriors, although they have passed some of the fighting down to the Bototnya. I have included the older age sets in ascending order in the list below:
Age-set name Gloss Color
Muden Rats black and red
Dorongwa Hartebeest orange and blue
Mara Lion yellow and blue
Tubezwa Guinea fowl spotted
Wawoc Cattle egret white
Tiyen Zebra striped
Kiziwan Buffalo black
Tagoon Giraffe spotted
Karam Colobus monkey black and white
Boroi Rainbow multicolored
The names of most of these age-sets are taken from animals – known either for their bravery or their beauty. The Murle use alternative names for the various age-sets so other lists may use different terms.Men over fifty years of age still acknowledge their age-sets and remember the glories of their youth. But they are no longer immersed in age-set activities. It is merely a point of identification.
In the past a war leader would go to an alaan ci meeri, red chief, and ask him for a blessing on a planned raid. The alaan ci meeri would read the omens and then bless the raid – or warn him not to go. If a raid was successful the war leader would then give several cows to the alaan ci meeri in thanks for blessing the raid. At the present time the red chiefs are no longer being asked for a blessing. The war leaders of the three youngest age-sets are simply going out on their own. It is said by my informants that most of the red chiefs no longer have any influence over the younger age-sets.
But there is another level of hierarchy among the Murle – the one initiated by the British colonial government. This was a hierarchy of chiefs that was chosen by the colonial administration. Early District Commissioners tried to set up a system of indirect rule – a system that worked well in places like Nigeria, where there were already powerful chiefs with a traditional hierarchical system. These appointed chiefs would intercede between the people and the colonial government. They had the authority to solve basic disputes following traditional methods. However, they were also assigned the onerous task of collecting taxes and appointing people to work details, such as making roads. This system of indirect rule did not work well among the Murle. When the Murle discovered how the system worked, they put forward their most incompetent men as their official chiefs –and then ignored these chiefs as they tried to implement their duties.
Richard Lyth was the District Commissioner over the Murle from 1944-1954. The first chiefs he appointed were incompetent, but over time he found some good men and trained them to be judges. Working through these men he was able to bring peace to the Murle area. Cattle raiding by the younger age-sets was largely curtailed and severe punishment was inflicted on anyone attacking people from other ethnic groups (Arensen
But this method of working through government appointed leaders has had a checkered history among the Murle. Since the time of Lyth, most government-appointed chiefs have not been able to bring peace to the Murle people. This carries over into the present time. There are currently a large number of Murle chiefs appointed by the new South Sudan government. But these chiefs are not held in high esteem and one Murle pastor told me that “most people continue to do what is right in their own eyes.” This is especially true of the three younger age-sets that continue to make raids on other tribes – thus extending the present unrest and conflict.
The present fighting has also experienced a substantial change from traditional cattle raiding. Historically such raids were undertaken using only spears and involved a relatively small number of warriors. Few people were actually killed and the focus was on stealing cattle. In turn the other ethnic group would attack, kill a couple of men and take some cattle for themselves. This tit-for-tat type of fighting took place between cattle
people all over Sudan. It was almost considered to be a sport of the younger warriors. However the coming of guns, and especially the AK-47, has radically changed this situation. Such guns give the raiders the capability of killing many people, often from a distance. This naturally makes the victimized people furious and they mount a return attacks – also using guns.
Murle warrior sheltering under shade of a tree in Nyrgen.
Moreover, the old ethics of war have changed and now many women, children and old men are being killed. In addition, houses and crops are being burned. Sharon Hutchinson discusses this while describing fighting between the Dinka and Nuer, but her statement is equally true of the Murle situation. She states, “Until 1991 Nuer and Dinka fighters did not intentionally kill women, children or elderly persons during violent confrontations among themselves. The purposeful slaying of a child, woman or elderly person was universally perceived not only as cowardly and reprehensible but, more importantly, as a direct affront against God as the ultimate guardian of human morality” (2000:4). She argues that “regional codes of warfare ethics also precluded the burning of houses and the destruction of crops” (2000:4). Sadly, the introduction of powerful guns into the raiding system has accelerated the whole procedure into an increasingly destructive practice. Hutchinson concludes with the powerful statement, “the killing of unarmed women and children became standard practice between Nuer and Dinka combatants. God, it seems, was no longer watching” (2000:6).
The only other kind of leadership system within the Murle people is that of the Presbyterian church. This church was established by American missionaries who came to Pibor in 1952. These early missionaries brought modern medicine and introduced literacy. Later expatriates helped translate the New Testament into the Murle language. Over the following decades many Murle have become Christians and these Christians
have became a strong force in the Murle community. At last report there were 66 churches in the Murle area, many of them with well-trained pastors. Some of these pastors have received college degrees and have returned to live among their own people. These pastors are actively speaking up against the current violence. They played an important role in bringing the two sides of Murle society together after the end of he civil
war. However, they are having a difficult time influencing the younger age-sets. Pastors have reported to me that members of the younger age-sets do not come to church and do not listen to the pastors’ messages of peace. So even though there are local pastors in place committed to peace efforts, they are still struggling to play an effective role in ending the present conflict.So a vital question remains. In an acephalous society, how do people put pressure on the young age-sets to stop fighting and learn to live in peace with their neighbors?
Murle tribe boy
As with all pastoralists, cattle are wealth and crucial to their survival. When it is time for family to arrange a marriage for their son, they seek out for a family with a marriageable daughter and begin to negotiate with the parent over an appropriate bridewealth, which for Murle is always a number of cattle given in exchange for the marriage. The bride price (cattle) is transferred in a ceremony to the girl’s homestead.
Murle woman and her daughter, South Sudan
Once the bride’s parents are satisfied with the dowry she is then presented to the groom. The dowry, which is the number of accepted cattle, is divided among her relatives. The Murle recognize that in this marriage the families would be united, and the cattle represent something tangible to mark the connection.
The Murle word for relatives, atiinok, comes from the word cattle, atiin. Thus, to be related means "to have cattle between us."
The Murle regard incest (ngilidh) with great horror; in the past the offence was almost invariably punished by death.
The Murle social and cultural life is centred round their cattle. They breed them, marry with them, eat their meat, drink their blood and milk, and sleep on their hides. The Murle compose songs full of references to the herds captured in battle or raids from their neighbours. Raiding and stealing of cattle is a question of honour and valour. Every important social event is celebrated by the sacrifice of a bull in order to ensure the participation of the ancestral spirits as well as to provide food for the assembled guests and relatives. Kinship obligations are expressed in terms of cattle.
Among the Murle there is nothing special to mark initiation into adulthood for both boys and girls. However, boys of the same age could group and give themselves a group name which is then recognised.
All Murle boys receive a secret name when they become a man. A father gives his son a large ox with beautiful colors and spreading horns. The boy then makes a riddle based on the color of this name-ox. He then goes to an old man who remembers the Toposa language. The riddle is shortened to a couple of Toposa words and this becomes the boy’s manhood name for the rest of his life. He will tell his friends his new name, but the meaning remains a secret. So Murle men go through their lives bearing Toposa names.
The Murle stress the importance of the web of kinship ties. They are more interested in the links between living people than in their descent groups, clans, and lineages. Marriage relationship (kaavdhet) is considered most important, and the respect paid to parents-in-law is emphasized.
Youth from the Murle ethnic group dancing in Bor, Jonglei State, South Sudan, 30 July 2012
The Murle are extremely conscious of the spirits. Nevertheless, they do not distinguish between the religious and secular aspects of life. They emphasise the immanence of God as well as the significance of Jen. Anything they can not explain such as the rainbow, is considered to be ‘one of God’s things’. The supreme Being of Murle is Tammu. Tammu was the original creator of the world and of the Murle people. Tammu is not to a lower pantheon of spirits.
Murle people prayed directly to Tammu in time of need such as drought or famine. The people honored Tammu, but at the same time they feared Him in a respectful way. The term Tammu was their term for God, however, as a result of Nuer and Dinka dominance in South Sudan, the word "Jok" has been appropriated by Murle or has entered Murle vocabulary as the term for God.
Beautiful Murle Children sing and dance on a Sunday morning at the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan in Pibor on June 24, 2012.
Murle also worship nature especially Nyandit. Every Murle family undertakes - every 5 to 6 years - a pilgrimage to a sacred spot along River Nyandit to pay offerings to ‘Nyandit’. Nyandit was a sacred pool left behind by the Nuer peoples when they were pushed to the north by the Murle. Nyandit (the term for a large crocodile in the Nuer language). The Murle incorporated Nyandit into their religious beliefs. Large goats are identified as jok. People organize evening sessions around a fire where they confess their sins and put them on the goats. After a month the old Murle women take these jok to the shrine at Nyandit. Here the goats are tied and thrown into the muddy water to drown, symbolically taking away the sins of the confessors.
Culture: Arts, Music, Literature and Handicraft
The Murle have evolved a culture centred round cattle and which is expressed in songs, poetry, folklore and dance. They adorn their bodies with all kinds of scars and drawings of different animals and birds while wearing different types of beads. Murle literature is invariably oral.
The Murle consider death as a natural culmination of life. There is mourning for the dead and in the past, the body was not buried but left to the birds and wild animals. Only chiefs are buried in a ceremony.
The Murle are least affected by modernity because of deliberate neglect, marginalisation and political exclusion. The exception was the recruitment of young men to fight alongside the government army. The civil war divided the Murle between SPLM and GoS administrations.
Murle Laarim subtribe woman