A Sense of Place
In the Southern Sudan village of Yondoru, as throughout the world, women are the ones who carry water, here bringing it from a nearby river to their homes. Families here are rebuilding their lives after returning from refuge in Uganda in 2006 following the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the north and south. Photo by Paul Jeffrey.
The largest country in Africa, Sudan encompasses an area the size of the United States east of the Mississippi River.
Once it declared independence from the United Kingdom in 1956, Sudan has been at war, for no easily described reasons. Economic, political, racial, religious, and cultural influences all played their part in this ancient land. Sudan’s many ethnicities and languages both enrich the culture and become touch points for conflict.
Its conflicts have created shortages of everyday resources like food and water for the many—and consolidated in the hands of a few the riches of oil from one of the world’s largest oil basins. That in a nutshell is the cause of so much despair and violence in present-day Sudan.
Nine Million Years of Human History
Sudan is ancient. Human populations have lived there for at least nine million years. In the Hebrew Testament the land bordering the Red Sea below Egypt was known as the land of Kush. Numbers 12:1 suggests that a wife of Moses (the text does not name her) was a Kushite woman.
The center of Kush culture was at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles—present day Khartoum, the capital city. Khartoum is a large city, but not the only one. Darfur and Southern Sudan are home to four other urban centers, three with populations over 200,000.
Sudan’s history includes migrations of tribal groups from the Mediterranean and northern Africa, conversions to Christianity and then to Islam, colonial occupation by the British and Egyptians (still contributing to today’s tensions), and many conflicts over control of resources and political power. In its 5,000 year written record Sudan has been at peace for only about 600 years.
Riches and Resources
Sudan is rich in natural resources. Oil is the major one. Small reserves of iron ore, copper, chromium, zinc, tungsten, mica, silver, and gold are among other natural resources.
Sudan also exports livestock, cotton, sesame, groundnuts, gum arabic, and sugar to markets such as China, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, India, and France.
To see a timeline on the history of Sudan from the Sudan study guide by Maxine West, click here. (PDF, 26K) (From The Beauty and Courage of Sudan.)
• As many as 583 tribal people, speaking some 400 languages
• Common language: Arabic
• Major tribes of the South: Nuer, Dinka, Shilluk, Misseriya
• The Nuba live in ancestral homelands around the Nuba Mountains in Central Sudan
• Major tribes of the North: the Fur, Zaghawa, Baqqarah
Sudan is a land of diverse heritage with as many as 583 tribal peoples, speaking some 400 different languages. Arabic is the common language, and most of Sudan’s 40 million inhabitants are Muslims. Small minorities of Sudanese people practice traditional religions, such as animism, and Christianity. Today most of the Christian population lives in Southern Sudan.
Major Tribes of the South
The major Southern tribes are the Nuer, the Dinka, the Shilluk, and the Misseriya. The Nuba live in Central Sudan. Together these tribes make up about 20 percent of Sudan’s total population. For many in the South the Nile and its tributaries have been a key source of food, protection and cultural richness.
Major Tribes of the North
Major tribes of the North include Arab and non-Arab groups. Most people in Sudan are ethnically mixed. So the distinctions of “Arab” and “non-Arab” have chiefly political meaning. If any group in the North could be called indigenous, it is the Fur, with origins dating to the 14th century. The word dar means “home” in Arabic; Darfur means “home of the Fur.” Another non-Arab Muslim group is the Zaghawa tribe. They live as neighbors with an Arab group, the Baqqarah (an Arabic word meaning “cattle herders”), descendents of Egyptians.
Rural Sudanese in both North and South engage in subsistence farming. Stationary farmers cultivate small plots of ground leased from tribal chiefs in return for a share of the crop. Migrating farmers feed cattle, sheep, and camels across wide territories for sale at the market or for butchering. Some Sudanese, including women, work in the oil fields or other industrial jobs.
Islam in Sudan
The faith of Islam and its influence in the world in general and in Sudan in particular has often been difficult for Westerners to understand. From its beginnings, Islam inspired fear and prejudice among many Christians.
A unique characteristic of Sudan’s Sunni Muslims is their formation, beginning in the 16th century, of Muslim brotherhoods. These ancient groups became the basis of some of Sudan’s present-day political parties.
Indigenous Religions in Sudan
• Each ethnic group has its own practices—but there are shared links:
• Worship of a divine creator
• Embodiment of the divine spirit in everyday life
• Felt presence of the creator in the sky, surrounding air, nourishing plants, animals
• Invisible world of ancestral spirits
About a quarter of Sudanese people practice indigenous religions such as animism. Though each ethnic group has its own religious practices, they share some common linkages, such as worship of a divine creator, the embodiment of the divine spirit in everyday life and surroundings, and the invisible world of ancestral spirits whose presence not only suggests the mystery and power of creation but also plays an important role in daily life.
Many traditional religions celebrate the presence of the creator in the sky, the surrounding air, nourishing plants, and the animals so important to the people’s sustainable existence. Ethnic Sudanese who farm or raise animals often comingle agricultural rituals and religious practice.
Christianity has a long history in Sudan. Many believe that the Ethiopian eunuch baptized by Philip (Acts 8:26-39) came from this land. The arrival of Coptic Christians from Egypt during the 4th century signaled the formation of the oldest church in Sudan. Not many years later Melkite missionaries with Greco-Byzantium links arrived in 543. Christianity flourished until the 14th century, when Islam dominated the remaining Christian presence.
Roman Catholic missionaries arrived in 1861, although their mission was largely destroyed during an insurrection in 1881. Anglicans pioneered girls' schools in both the North and the South. The African Inland Mission moved into Southern Sudan in 1949, establishing an outpost from its origins in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. All missionaries were expelled in 1964 during a governmental change.
Today, the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches are by far the largest denominations in Sudan. There are also Coptic, Ethiopian, Greek Orthodox and United Methodist churches.
The Sudan Council of Churches, headquartered in Khartoum, was established in 1965 and includes Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches. A council wing, the New Sudan Council of Churches, is based in Nairobi, Kenya.