In praise of human variety

Xenophilia opening page remarks


Publications by Guy Ottewell




The Nuba are a society of cultures. They are a congeries of more than sixty African tribes, speaking many languages, and with varying customs, yet living together rather harmoniously in the Nuba Mountains. Unfortunately for them they happen to be in the middle of the political unit called Sudan.

Bilād as-Sūdān means in Arabic "the lands of the blacks", and the name was applied in medieval times to the whole zone of savanna grasslands across Africa south of the Sahara, all the way from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. The eastern part, along the Nile above Egypt, contained the ancient civilization called Nubia. In the nineteenth century the eastern Sudan was ruled by Egypt; in the first half of the twentieth century it was a joint dominion called the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan; and in 1956 it became the independent republic of Sudan, a country larger than the U.S.A. east of the Mississippi, though with a far thinner population.

From the vast clay plains of central Sudan, in South Kordofan province, more than two hundred miles southwest of Khartoum, rises a scatter of rugged granite mountains. This is Dār Nuba, "the house of the Nuba".

"Nuba" is not a term in any of the Nuba peoples' own languages. It was a disdainful label applied by Arab conquerors to black people of the hinterland, the outback. It seems to be a memory of the ancient "Nubia", though that applied to a fairly distant region on the other side of Khartoum. The names by which some of the tribes are known, too, are derogatory: Koalib and Mesakin are the Arabic words Kawālib, "dogs", and Masākīn, "poor ones" or "beggars".

The Nuba are estimated to number somewhat over a million and a half. In language they are remarkably diverse. There are, by various analyses, six, or ten, or more language groups among them, each including several languages or dialects. Most of the languages form a "Kordofanian" group that is a precious and almost unique relic. Its only, and distant, relatives are the languages of the family that linguists call "Niger-Congo", and that spreads all across western and southern Africa and includes the huge Bantu branch. Indeed, the Kordofanian languages are sometimes called "Bantoid", because they use a noun-class system similar to that of Bantu. In the northern part of the Nuba hills are peoples who speak languages of the Eastern Sudanic branch of the Nilo-Saharan family; they came in as refugees from elsewhere, mostly from Nubia proper.

Thus on a linguistic map of Africa the Nuba Mountains stand out as a little whorl of complexity.

In culture, too, the Nuba vary, though in general they are described as vigorous, independent, and strong in their traditions. They farm terraces on the hills, and larger fields on the flat corridors between, growing millet and sorghum, also sesame, okra, watermelons, gourds, cotton, and more recently maize. Besides cattle, sheep, poultry, and other animals, they keep pigs—an unusual holdout against the pig-taboo that has spread with Islam.

Nuba homesteads are rings of round red-clay rooms with conical thatched roofs, linked by walls to form courtyards, and grouped to form villages, which are usually in the hills even if the fields are down in the plains. Kin descent is matrilineal in the south, changing gradually to patrilineal toward the north. Indeed, this is only part of a complex of related cultural features that change step by step across the Nuba area from its southern core to its northern rim, more exposed to influence from other peoples; there is a fascinating analysis of this process in the Nuba chapter of George Murdock's Africa: Its People and Their Culture History.

The Nuba are very black, a tall people of famously fine physique. Men and women traditionally go naked except for some lip plugs, beads, and other decorations; sometimes they paint the whole body in whites and blues. And the Sudanic and one of the Kordofanian tribes (the Otoro) have a custom of knocking out the lower incisors (middle teeth) at puberty—a somewhat severe rite of passage, though far from the cruelty of the female genital mutilation that is so widespread elsewhere in Africa and the Islamic world. Long-legged Nuba girls perform eccentric dances, smeared with sim-sim oil and ocher and wearing a few ornaments. Nuba men go in for wrestling, and you may have seen the well-known photograph of a gigantic champion, clad in nothing but an earring, being carried shoulder-high.

[PICTURE? the wrestler?

"Nuba cultures are vibrant in a way that we had never expected. We spent scarcely a night in the Nuba Mountains without hearing music. Every evening and night there was drumming, singing and dancing, in an astonishing variety of musical styles..." This is from Facing Genocide: the Nuba of Sudan, a book of (alas) 344 pages published in 1995 by the London-based organization African Rights.

The Nuba tribes are remnants of peoples once more widespread. After the last ice age, what is now the Sahara was probably green, and populated by black people, as shown in their beautiful paintings such as those in the caves of Tassili. From a few thousand years ago, the Sahara has become desert, whether through climate change or human pastoralism; fair-skinned peoples from the north, the Berbers and much later the Arabs, spread into it, and Berber and black groups hold out in the mountain islands—Ahaggar, Aļr, Tibesti, Ennedi, and Dar Nuba. The Arabs carrying the new religion of Islam conquered Egypt in 640 A.D. Then as they spread up the Nile, their way was blocked by the Nubian Christian kingdom of Dongola, and then, after that fell, by another called Alwa, in the region of Khartoum; in 1504 that too fell, and the way was open for Arabs to pour into central Sudan. The Bedouin tribes who inundated the plains are known as Baggara ("cattle Arabs"). Other Arabs, coming in from the north as traders, are collectively called Jellaba. Some Nubians remained along the Nile, others took refuge in Dar Nuba, others in the hills of Dar Fur farther west. Thus the situation is roughly that a sea of Arabs surrounds the black peoples of the hills, though there is much intermixture, and several tribes have the race or language of one kind combined with the religion or culture of the other.

The colonial powers used the Arab tribes to help "pacify" the Nuba, and this divide-and-rule policy was continued by the state of Sudan. There is a bitter divide between the north of the country, which is mainly Arab and Muslim, and the south, whose many black tribes are generally described as being a mixture of Christian and "animist". The Islamist military regime based at Khartoum in the north has tried to impose Islamic Shari`a law on the whole country; the south has been in a long rebellion for autonomy. Though the Nuba region is not part of southern Sudan, the government has treated it as being part of the rebellion. Government forces have systematically burned dozens of villages, looted cattle, raped women, kidnapped thousands of civilians, killed others. One government offensive started in June 1996, burning and shelling towns, churches, and mosques; people were killed by land mines, or burned inside their houses which had been set on fire by helicopter gunships.

(Have you ever been a hundred feet under a passing helicopter? The noise is terrifying before the thing is even near enough to be seen; as it thunders overhead you flinch, even though you know what it is and know it isn't coming straight at you with flames and steel.)

It's not easy in dry remote mountains to maintain marginal subsistence, and an ancient culture, even without the attentions of helicopter gunships.