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Socio-Cultural Determinants of Food Sharing in Southern Sudan

By Emmanuel Mandalazi and Saul Guerrero, Valid International Ltd

Emmanuel Mandalazi is a Social & Community Development Advisor working for Valid International. Over the last three years, he has worked on community-related issues in a number of CTC programmes in Ethiopia, Malawi, Southern Sudan, Zambia, and Uganda.

Saul Guerrero is also a Social & Community Development Advisor working for Valid International. Over the last four and a half years, he has assisted in the design, implementation and evaluation of community mobilisation strategies for CTC programmes. He has also been involved in a wide range of operational research projects. He has worked in Ethiopia, Malawi, South and North Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Zambia, Niger, Chad, Sierra Leone and Indonesia.

The authors would like to thank Concern Worldwide for funding the research and publication of this paper.

This field article explores the socio-cultural determinants of food sharing amongst the Dinka of Southern Sudan and explores the implications for humanitarian programming.

In 2004 the Concern Worldwide Southern Sudan Supplementary Feeding Programme (SFP) faced sub-standard recovery rates (vis-à-vis Sphere standards), long lengths of stay, and children becoming severely malnourished in spite of the supplementary rations provided. Anecdotal reports pointed to food sharing as the primary underlining cause. A field study was commissioned by Concern Worldwide to explore food sharing as a cultural phenomenon, to determine its roots and its implications for the Community Therapeutic Care (CTC) programme, as well as possible responses. Much of this article is based on the findings of this study.

Local Dinka volunteers

Food sharing has been, and continues to be, an important feature of the identity of the Dinka of Southern Sudan. Kinship structures play an important role in how food is utilised in the Dinka society. The Civil War that engulfed North and South Sudan for over two decades has led to an increased reliance by Dinka (and other) communities on these kinship structures for their survival. These important features have gone largely unacknowledged by humanitarian practitioners working with communities, such as the Dinka, in which sharing plays a prominent role. This article argues that sharing, as a primary pillar of Dinka identity, cannot be ignored because it ultimately determines the degree of success of humanitarian interventions.


The writing of this article was prompted by what was perceived as a deficit of information on food sharing practices amongst the Dinka of Southern Sudan, and the impact that such practices and obligations had on humanitarian programming. The main bulk of the data were collected in 2004 as part of a month-long research study, funded and supported by Concern Worldwide in Aweil West and North, Bahr-el-Ghazal (Southern Sudan). Further field visits to Aweil West and North in 2005 and to Tonj County in 2007 provided additional research opportunities. During these visits, information was gathered using qualitative research methods including Focus Group Discussions (FGDs), in-depth interviews and informal discussions with key stakeholders.


The Dinkas, or Moinjaang, are the largest ethnic tribe in Southern Sudan, inhabiting the swamplands of the Bahr el Ghazal region of the Nile basin, Jonglei and parts of southern Kordofan and Upper Nile regions. The group has an estimated population of around 2 million, constituting about 5% of the population of the entire country1. The numerical strength of the Dinka's has historically made them a force to be reckoned with in the political and economic direction of Southern Sudan2. Their involvement in the Civil War was particularly prominent, with Dinkas filling the ranks and providing much of the strategic direction of the Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M). The interaction between Dinka socio-political identities and the Civil War has been multifaceted and has been extensively explored elsewhere3. For the purpose of this discussion, however, two elements are worth exploring. First, the impact of the conflict on the Dinka's traditional source of livelihood (pastoralism), and second, the war-induced changes in traditional marriage practices and polygamous households in particular.

The Dinkas have traditionally considered themselves pastoralists. Recently, however, environmental factors such as flooding and erratic rains have led to the emergence of agropastoralism as the primary livelihood in much of the Upper Nile region4. Livelihood changes aside, cattle continue to play a central social, political, cultural and economic role in the Dinka traditional identity. Cattle have been the historical measure of a family's wealth, and the means by which further wealth is sought. Cattle are the primary means by which households and clans are expanded, as it represents the main form of dowry (known locally as arueth) used in marriages. The Dinka are polygamous, and the number of wives taken by a man has been closely linked to the number of cattle that each man (and his clan) posses. The cattle given by a man to his wife's family, is then redistributed between the man and his close relatives, thus expanding their communal wealth.

Given the proximity to the border between North-South Sudan, Dinka communities experienced some of the heaviest attacks and raiding by murahaleen (northern militia groups) coming from the Kordofan and South Darfur regions in the north. The socio-economic costs of these attacks were immense. For example, in areas such as Paliau, the decline in cattle number was so significant that it led to agriculture entirely replacing pastoralism as the primary source of livelihoods5. From an economic perspective, raiding and looting precipitated a decrease in the socio-economic status of most Dinka families in the affected areas (particularly in Bahr-el-Ghazal and Upper Nile regions). This impacted not only on the overall vulnerability of households, but also has led to the loss (almost overnight) of significant wealth amongst the richest families and clans. Polygamous men (often married to tens of women) became unable to sustain and support the individual female-headed households linked to them through marriage. Individual Dinka family units, and in particular female-headed households, have had to become increasingly self-sufficient. In this context, food aid has proved useful in supporting households - but it has been kinship support networks and obligations that have proved essential in safeguarding the most vulnerable6.

Dinka Kinship Structures: a brief overview

For the Dinkas of Southern Sudan, kinship structures have been and still remain an important mechanism that dictates their lives. There are three kinship structures in the Dinka society that regularly influence people's lives - from marriage, to allegiance in local conflicts to food sharing. First, there is dieth or 'clan' - the largest kinship structure that an individual belongs to which an individual belongs, membership being inherited patrilineally (from one's father). Clans tend to comprise a large number of families in a given area. For example, there are five dieth (panchol, panayuel, panrec, panayik and panakuol) amongst the Bor Dinkas of Paliau7. The second significant group is the paruaidie or 'in-law', which generally includes the clan and close relatives of one's spouse. Thirdly, is the mac thok - the smallest and closest group in the lineage with which a person identifies. It generally comprises members of the nuclear family, parents, siblings and their nuclear families. The boundaries of the mac thok are individually determined, and do not seem to follow rigid kinship or social lines. It is from the mac thok that the dowry (or bride wealth) generally derives - and to which the dowry for a married woman is in turn distributed.

Food sharing mechanisms

Food and asset sharing is a multilayered process; essential to everyday life amongst the Dinkas, and equally central as a coping mechanism in times of food insecurity. Not only is food sharing widely recognised as a social norm but it has also been firmly imprinted on the traditional legal system of the Dinka. Broadly speaking, food sharing relies on two regular mechanisms; informal but regular 'meal' sharing, and the more formalised sharing of foodstuff and assets.

Informal Meal Sharing

Informal meal sharing is a regular practice that takes place between different households but mostly (though not exclusively) amongst members of a mac thok. This communal sharing of meals is widely referred to as buro and has traditionally been used as an informal forum to discuss community issues, retell stories and share advice from one generation (older) to another (younger). Our own field observations showed that buro is conducted along very strict gender lines. Men over the age of eight come together in one central place (usually in one of the participants' households) while women and children have a separate and usually distant location8. Another subdivision is made where women have their own buro whereby young children are given their own dish to eat from. The Dinka often explain this arrangement by pointing to the difficulties for children to eat their fill if they had to 'compete' for food with older siblings or adults. The civil war, and the resulting loss of resources and displacement of entire communities, has weakened this practice - but it remains an active and relevant institution for the Dinka. From a food sharing point of view, buro relies on individual contributions of food according to individual capacity - it is not imperative to contribute, thus allowing for food insecure individuals to rely on the more food secure. Although the pracpractice of buro is reportedly decreasing, there is evidence to suggest that it is still part and parcel of the Dinka culture and everyday community interaction.

The introduction of humanitarian food rations into Dinka society has had mixed effects on buro. The use of Corn Soya Blend (CSB) in SFPs has introduced quantities of flour, which even though may not be considered sufficiently 'large' to be shared as an asset (see below), have certainly entered into the communal meals in cooked form (e.g. porridge). Our research indicates that the porridge prepared by mothers of targeted households, is openly and systematically shared amongst the children of all households participating in buro9. Whilst CSB may be shared during buro, our research found little evidence to suggest that Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Foods (RUTFs) such as Plumpynut® undergo a similar sharing process. The exclusion of RUTFs from the systematic means of food sharing such as buro are, arguably, the result of two factors; first, the individually packaged RUTF rations are more difficult to add to a communal meal on a regular basis. Secondly, nutrition programmes have consistently presented RUTF as a 'medicinal food' - a hybrid between medicine for the child's condition, and food to fulfil its daily nutritional requirements. As such, mothers may be less willing (at least during the initial stages of treatment) to allow other seemingly healthy children to consume the product.

Formal Sharing

A group of Dinka elders

The more formalised type of sharing takes place in times of need or shortage and mainly involves borrowing foodstuff and livestock during food insecure periods or when individuals are entitled to request assistance from members of their mac thok. During these periods, individuals may request items such as grains, pulses and livestock from close relatives such as nephews, uncles, in-laws and siblings in order to meet their food needs. During marriage, an individual is also entitled to ask the members of their mac thok for assistance to raise the required dowry (mostly in the form of cattle). In turn, the bride wealth that the bride's family receives from her husband is shared amongst members of her mac thok so that it is also used as dowry contribution during marriages of their male children. When the dowry is to be collected, a bull is slaughtered and a meal prepared for all people from both sides except for the groom who waits for lok thok10 to be performed. Repayment mainly depends on the quantities shared; no immediate or future repayment is generally expected when very small quantities - such as 1 tin of sorghum - are exchanged. Only when the quantities are large (over 3 tins of sorghum for example) - is repayment generally expected. There is evidence that food aid sharing is also part and parcel of the formal sharing. For example as Ntata reports, "during the 1998 emergency, food, after being distributed to women, was subsequently taken to a secondary distribution point where it was redistributed by the leadership structure based on its own definitions of vulnerability"11. Our own evidence supports Ntata's findings of 'secondary sharing' at household (or mac thok) level.

Enforcing and formalising food sharing options

Amongst the Dinka there are a few general rules, such as legal action, social exclusion and shaming, that govern the way sharing is conducted.


As Harrigan (1998)12 reports, the Dinkas use shaming as a mechanism to advocate for a fair distribution of resources amongst a larger majority of people - especially one's mac thok. People who do not share food with members of their mac thok (i.e. who do not engage in practices such as buro) are often branded as kor (lit. 'lion'). This has elsewhere been attributed to the notion that like lions, people who eat alone give nothing to others, and should expect nothing from other members of the group13. Sometimes if one refuses to share food with those in need it could lead to death - through spear masters who may invoke the wrath of the ancestral spirits. Whilst selfishness is socially shunned, sharing is socially rewarded. A wife who is generous to the children of her in-laws, for example, will be highly esteemed by the members of her husband's family. Shaming, traditional beliefs and appreciation are the socially constructed and powerful enforcement mechanisms that promote food sharing.

Legal action in traditional courts

The ability of households to rely on members of their mac thok in times of food insecurity is also firmly protected by traditional Dinka law. Traditional law allows individuals to bring to court members of one's mac thok who are unwilling to assist in times of need. In exceptional cases, in-laws can also be brought to court if they fail to complete dowry payment. These courts, known locally as luke, are run by village elders and socio-political leaders (e.g. Executive Chiefs). The courts are responsible for cases ranging from adultery (luke ting ci kor) to stealing (luke cur) and murder (luke tier). During the pre-harvest months, the courts also witness a significant increase in food/hunger related cases (luke ecok). These cases are mostly founded on refusals to share food, or failure to pay for cattle given or promised during marriage. The system allows people to 'file' cases against any member of the mac thok for failure to honour a debt or promise. The system also ensures that sharing of food and assets such as livestock eventually takes place, especially in situations where the accused does not sympathise with his/her relative's plight and/or needs. This makes sharing food with one's disadvantaged relatives not only an issue of social or moral responsibility, but also a legally founded obligation.

Implications of food sharing practices for humanitarian programming

Much of this article has focused on the social, economic and cultural roots of food sharing - as an integral feature of local livelihoods, and social norms, as well as a legal obligation in Dinka society. In doing so, it has highlighted the importance of the system for the Dinkas themselves. Food sharing is not merely a characteristic or feature of Dinka society and humanitarian programmes should recognise it as an operational variable and a factor to be acknowledged and accounted for in order to maximise humanitarian programme performance. Doing so would ensure two of the most fundamental principles of humanitarian programming - minimising the negative impact on local support networks, and maximising the impact of proposed interventions.

A homestead in South Sudan

A clear understanding and recognition of the Dinkas as a social group with a social and cultural structure that leans towards a collective way of life would help minimise any potential negative impact on local support networks of humanitarian programming. Members of the community and, in particular, from the mac thok, may try to help those in need and overlook their own individual requirements in order to conform to societal obligations. Food sharing may play an essential role in humanitarian programming in that food sharing mechanisms and obligations will ensure that all families benefit from the food that is available, especially when some families have surplus food reserves. However, it must be recognised that in situations where the majority of families have limited food, food aid will still be shared out in the wider community. For example, the humanitarian food rations such as CSB in SFPs have been part and parcel of communal meals (buro). The rations effectively become diluted so that the nutritional requirements of the most vulnerable, e.g. the malnourished, are least likely to be met.

In order to maximise humanitarian programme performance, food aid meant to benefit the vulnerable directly may need to be marked as medicinal food as it will be less exposed to sharing. However, even where food is 'medicinalised' this may not be enough since in Dinka culture, a person is regarded as vulnerable mainly on the grounds of the kinship structures that an individual has around them to support them. Local people often say that rather than targeting, it is better to get a handful for everyone as it makes them all equal. In these and in other instances when food aid might not be easily medicinalised, programmes may be more effective if they are accompanied by 'civic education' through community sensitisation, to highlight the importance of only making the food available to the most vulnerable. Key people, including leaders of clans, community and traditional courts, directly involved in the decision making around food and asset sharing, should be targeted.

All in all, food and asset sharing is deeply rooted in the Dinka culture. It is therefore imperative for the humanitarian practitioners operating in Southern Sudan to invest adequate resources in exploring and recognising cultural traits that will ultimately enable programmes to become more culturally amenable.

For further information contact Emmanuel Mandalazi, email: or Saul Guerrero, email:

Show footnotes

1FAO/WFP (2006). FAO/WFP Crop and food supply assessment mission to Sudan (Special report).

2Jok, Jok Madut and Hutchinson, S. E, (1999). Sudan's Prolonged Second Civil War and the Militarisation of Nuer and Dinka Ethnic Identities.

3See reference 1. p126

4Johnson, D. H. (1989). Political Ecology in the Upper Nile: The Twentieth Century Expansion of the Pastoral 'Common Economy'. The Journal of African History, Vol. 30, No. 3. p463

5Harrigan, S and Changath, C. (1998). The Sudan Vulnerability Study, (Save the Children Fund- UK, Nairobi)

6Ntata, P. R.T (1999). Participation by the Affected Population in Relief Operations: A Review of the Experience of DEC Agencies during the Response to the 1998 Famine in South Sudan. (Chancellor College, University of Malawi, unpublished report). p21

7See footnote 3, p33.

8See footnote 3, p21.

9Guerrero, S. (2004). Socio-Cultural Assessment of Food Sourcing and Sharing in the Communities of Aweil West & Aweil North, Bar-El- Ghazal, South Sudan (Valid International & Concern Worldwide, unpublished report)

10The lok thok is a traditional Dinka ritual amongst the Dinkas that is performed when dowry is paid for and is collected by the bride's family. It literally means 'cleansing one's face with water' a necessary step to allow the groom to eat together with his in-laws. Prior to the performance of lok thok, the groom is traditionally considered 'dirty', 'impure' and too immature to eat together with his in-laws. For the ceremony, a bull is slaughtered for the groom and he eats it with his peers as a way of bidding farewell to them and graduating into adult life.

11See footnote 4. p14.

12See footnote 3

13See footnote 3

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Reference this page

Emmanuel Mandalazi and Saul Guerrero (). Socio-Cultural Determinants of Food Sharing in Southern Sudan. Field Exchange 32, January 2008. p21.



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