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By James Gatdet Dak - 24 Jan 2020

Opinion | Nuer girls courtship: Was there guided freedom of girls?

Lou Nuer Youth during a past event in Jonglei [ Photo: Jacob Achiek Jok]
Lou Nuer Youth during a past event in Jonglei [ Photo: Jacob Achiek Jok]

First, please excuse my social or cultural story on previous freedom of Nuer girls, in case it doesn’t prescribe to your lifestyle!

I hope some young people may want to read it and learn some cultural aspects from it. Let me also note that this is not an academic work. It is mainly based on my own observations as a participant in the Nuer culture.

I also beg or admonish that any public comment on this story should be respectful and free from vulgar language.

Some modern Nuer girls used to complain and challenged me that in the Nuer culture there is/was no freedom for girls to socialize among themselves, or with boys. They used to tell me that what was happening was total parental restriction and confinement to their homes until marriage.

We are now free to do as we want, they said.

Well, I disagree!

Apart from the Christian teachings which are understandably more restrictive to some negative socialisations, and which I strongly recommend, Nuer girls had free but also guided social interactions culturally in their villages.

They were allowed to chat with boys or men, but respectfully.

The difference between ’some’ modern Nuer girls and Nuer village girls is on how the majority of Nuer village girls handled their freedom!

No intimate relationships were allowed outside marriage, although some mistakes used to occur with dire consequences.

It was very shameful those days for a girl to have an intimate relationship with a man, or be impregnated by a man, outside marriage.

A girl always protected her name, dignity and the name of her parents. She also calculated the risk of being rejected by the man who did it to her. They knew freedom comes with consequences.

For instance, they were allowed to chat among themselves, and with boys. They were allowed to mingle with boys, respectfully, during evening traditional dances (which were like parties), weddings, etc.

Like in the songs of King Solomon and his lover in the Bible, the Nuer girls were allowed to declare publicly names of their boyfriends during their evening gatherings. There was a play called ’pat during which girls would sit in a circle, clapping their hands, repeating a single love song over and over again, during which each girl takes her turn and mentions her best boyfriend’s name at a certain point in the song.

Competing boyfriends would also be standing around as the girls’ play, eager to hear their names, and chanting as they hear them.

Everyone in the village knew who was the boyfriend of choice for so and so girl!

Girls, as ’noong’ or companion team, were also collectively publicly allowed to express themselves using vulgar language during ’muot nyaal’, which prepares the newlyweds for a honeymoon. This is whenever girls accompanied their newlywed friend to her husband’s home, chanting and singing.

The girls are allowed for this special occasion to use vulgar language in order to strengthen their newlywed girl or groom, and psychologically readying her for a honeymoon so that she is not afraid or becomes nervous as a virgin.

A honeymoon, or ’tuur’ in Nuer language, is officially done at the home of the bridegroom, where she is given a special room by her parents. The bridegroom would usually come in the evening hours and leaves early in the morning at around 5am.

Also, the expressions of vulgar songs by noong were meant to, I observed, free spirits of these other accompanying girls and assuring them that their time will come, but should be waiting patiently. By singing that way, they relaxed their minds.

Also, let me note that in Nuer traditional marriage, or maybe in eastern Nuer, there are three stages before reaching the honeymoon. The first stage is called ’yoat’ or engagement or proposal to the girl. About five cows are paid as down-payment dowry to the family of the girl at this first stage.

In the second stage, which is the main wedding event, called ’bul’ or ’nguut’, all the remaining available dowry is paid. A bull or so is then slaughtered, signifying a blood contract of marriage ----kind of a marriage certificate ---and also providing feeding for all the invited guests and relatives coming from afar.

The third and last stage is ’muot’ in preparation for a honeymoon as briefly narrated above.

These three stages may take years to complete, depending on both readiness of the family of the bridegroom to meet all the requirements, and depending on whether the girl or groom has biologically matured enough for a honeymoon.

Well, having said these, and coming back to freedom; there is a big difference between restriction/confinement, or total freedom to do some crazy things, and guided, morally-based freedom to socialize.

Nuer girls, as far as I know, were among the most free girls to socialize in their villages in South Sudan and in Ethiopia. They even had boyfriends, or I can call them ’initiated manfriends’, but who were respectful, or expected to be respectful, by their girlfriends, girl’s brothers and girl’s parents, etc. They were not allowed to behave like husbands, or like today’s boyfriends ---if you know what I mean.

Growing up between villages and towns in eastern Nuer ---which cultures may be slightly different from central Nuer and western Nuer ---I used to see that Nuer girls had a lot of freedom to socialize, even with boys, but with a high standard of morality, dignity and respect. They protected themselves, very, very well!

They were very proud to remain intact, and it was a source of great pleasure to them in their hearts! It was also security or guarantee in ensuring that someone will be eyeing a girl for marriage, enrich her parents with a dowry and establish a home of her own, etc.

It was also to avoid an insult from her future husband who maybe reminding her of how he got her. Such insults were not taken lightly during those good old days.

Men used to value the dignity and purity of a girl so much those days. It is like if you have won a very, very special soul. Good heart, with dignity and respect, was always number one in choosing a future wife, while beauty comes in the second place.

Again, boys were freely allowed to court girls, but with respect. A girl was free to chat with her multiple competing boyfriends (manfriends). In the evening hours (after dinner), a manfriend, or with his best friend(s) accompanying him, would come and stand behind the house of the girl’s parents. Any person would see them: be it the father, mother, brother, sister, of the courted girl, etc. This was to give their daughter free visible interactions with men in order to try to avoid her being stressed or maybe making a wrong decision to do it secretly somewhere else.

A younger girl may first be sent to the manfriends to identify who they are, as they stood in the garden. She would then come back and say, he is the manfriend of so. Then the wanted girl would come to him (them), or with her best friend(s), to chat with the manfriend.

The small talks may continue into the middle of the night. Parents would go to sleep, leaving their daughter and her female agemates friends outside, chatting with the men. They trusted that she would not spoil herself, as she personally holds her dignity very dear.

Her conversation with the boys was simply playing games of intelligence, using and exchanging funny and sweet words, with no actual problem to solve. A manfriend would make an intelligent guy his best friend to help him win the mind of the girl. A manfriend without friends to help him talk to the girl is looked at as lonely and untrustworthy by girls.

This is partly because a girl would like to know that she is collectively adored by all those close to the manfriend. Secondly, the girlfriend also wants the male friends of the manfriend to serve as future witnesses, in case she may fail to protect her dignity ----in rare cases ---- and she is impregnated by him. It is a must that the manfriend married a girlfriend he impregnated!

Since there was no DNA test to prove it, the male friends, and female friends of the girlfriend, would testify during a customary court hearing that, yes, the manfriend was the number one culprit, in case he wanted to deny it.

A male best friend to the manfriend would not attempt to turn on the girlfriend for himself. It would be shameful, and the girl would shame them both and reject them.

Also, manfriends during the chat were so careful NOT to say anything with vulgar connotation to the girl, because such a language would be deemed disrespectful by the girls and would dearly cost the manfriend rejection by the girlfriend. The girlfriend may refuse to chat with him next time.

In case different competing groups of manfriends arrived at their girlfriend’s house at the same time, the girlfriend will apply a tactic. She will first chat with the groups she didn’t like, giving each group about ten minutes of time and kicking them out. Then she will now have plenty of time to chat with her favoured group of manfriend.

The aim of this continuous daily, weekly, monthly and even yearly small funny talks between manfriends and girlfriends, were for the manfriend to acquaint himself with the girl, win her mind ---not necessarily her heart --- and then win the title of simply becoming her best-chosen manfriend of her "drum’s agemate", or "ric buol."

It is generally called the drum’s agemate because these boyfriends or manfriends are usually slightly or much older than their girlfriends, with age difference ranging approximately between 5 to 10 years. But because they shared the drum-beating dance as agemates in brackets, or in the same generation, they are generally called ’ric buol.’

But in some cases, the manfriend and girlfriend end up getting married, in case the manfriend was ready to get married at the time, and loved the girl for a wife!

The usual sought for a result of all these years of small funny talks between the boyfriend and the girlfriend will come, only on the day when the girlfriend gets married, more often to a different man, who simply showed up to ask her hand for marriage.

On her wedding day, the girlfriend will then inform or publicly announce the winner, or the boyfriend whom she liked the most or she enjoyed his chats over the years. She will give him a bracelet as a special gift of appreciation for being his best chatty boyfriend. It is called ’luum.’

Upon the announcement, the winner’s group would chant, celebrate and dance with their unique traditional costumes, in a special line at the wedding ceremony. The news would then spread to other nearby villages that the so girl has chosen the so man as her best chatty manfriend.

A girl has only one announcement in her lifetime.

And when she is now ready for her honeymoon with her husband she suddenly got married to, she will inform her best boyfriend who won the love game, and other friends who competed but failed, that she is now a wife of somebody, and hence, none of them should seek to chat with her anymore.

She is also obliged to honestly and truthfully inform her husband about identities of her former chatty boyfriends. This is to show to her husband that she has nothing to hide from him and to show that she has no secret agenda in keeping those boyfriends anymore.

Well, in such a game, maybe only 10 per cent of girls had an intimate relationship with their boyfriends, while the majority of 90 per cent of boyfriends, in a given village, just got the bracelets gifts in return for years of chats. And worse, the winning boyfriend is obliged to pay a cow to the girl’s family to compensate for her time of special attention of years of companion, special chats with her and for choosing him in the competition as her best boyfriend.

The manfriend is ever proud to have defeated all the other men in the selection. He is also free to court other girls for the same purpose to count the number of girls who have chosen her as the best chatty manfriend.

And many more stories...

I also read about some past European cultures as they evolved, in regard to girls’ respectful courtship, and even arranged marriages. There was no much difference from the Nuer culture.

Unfortunately, in this world of today where the spirit of immorality seems to be overwhelming the spirit of morality, there is a thin line between living a reckless, disrespectful life, and dignified, respectful life.

The point is that a girl in any culture: modern, western or old cultures, can be free, but dignified and respectful if she so chooses.

The choice is yours, girl!

And I wish that you choose dignity and respect over recklessness!


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