Opinion | The Dinka myth: How a South Sudanese ethnic group lost identity
I received a heartwarming email from David Nyuol, Research Coordinator of the South Sudan Peacebuilding Opportunities Fund and a renowned Author of The Boy Who Wouldn’t Die. Receive my sincere appreciation from the depth of my heart. Thanks for your warm and encouraging response. You have no idea how appreciation can change someone’s life for the better. This article is in response to your question seeking more information about the nouns Muonyjang and Dinka. First of all, I would like to point out that I am not an expert in Dinka History or language. I am not even an anthropologist! However, being a community member, I may have something to voice about my identity. To avoid misunderstanding, my identity is South Sudanese first and Dinka second. Since your question is specific, I will keep myself to what I can defend, and I will try to provide evidence of my argument where necessary. I would also like to point out that I stand corrected where necessary. I do not monopolize the Dinka question or its wealth of knowledge.
To understand how I came to prefer Muonyjang to Dinka, a little about my background may shed some light on the topic. I hail from Warrap State, Bahr El Ghazal Region, specifically from among the Rek Dinka of Tonj East County. My community is Luackuoth, the Realm of Bol Malek, the former traditional Paramount Chief, who the community uses to identify themselves. From the time I was born, I had never heard the word “Dinka” until I joined the school in 2001. Instead, our people refer to themselves as Muonyjang with occasional Jieng here and there. I grew up with people calling me “Muonyluackuoth”, meaning Muonyjang from Luackuoth by other neighbouring Dinka Rek Communities or “Muonyrek” by non-Rek Dinka subtribes. I grew up speaking “Thuɔŋrek”, a dialect of the larger “Thuɔŋjäŋ” or “Thuɔŋ ee Muonyjang or “Thuɔŋ ee Jieng” -a language used throughout Dinkaland.
While in school in Kenya, my ignorance about the size and diversity of the Dinka was exposed. I knew of the Agar dialect and Gok dialect because we fight them for territory and cattle. I also knew the Luacjang dialect because we share the same County with them. These dialects are different from the Rek dialect that occupy much of Tonj, Gogrial and, by extension, Aweil in Northern Bahr El Gazal State (although I am not 100% sure if they speak Rek dialect or their own distinct Dinka Malual. However, we communicate with them easily compared to others. Their language and that of Twic Bol Nyuol is closest to the Rek dialect). I met various people who identify themselves as Jieng more commonly than Muonyjang, mainly from Jonglei State, Unity State and Upper Nile State. They also speak multiple dialects that were initially strange but intelligible for us to communicate. None of these people refers to themselves as “Dinka” but rather as “Jieng or Muonyjang”.
However, to my dismay, all the books I read in school identify our people as “Dinka”. This name got me curious, and I decided to explore it further, especially in its meaning and origin. My interest was to reconcile the contradiction between how our people call themselves and what the world actually calls them. I started reading any content I find about Dinka by various writers, anthropologists and native scholars such as Anei Madut, Francis Deng and many others. There is no single source that may give you the answer you seek, brother Nyuol but rather a conclusion from various sources will give you an answer.
For example, encyclopedia.com listed the Dinka ethnonyms as Muonjang or Jieng. It states, “Dinka was invented by outsiders, and no one knows the origin of the word. The people known as “Dinka” actually call themselves Muonyjang or Jieng. Among the Dinka, only an educated minority knows that they are called Dinka”. These beg the question, who has the right to define our identity? The People themselves or the outsiders? Further studies reveal a shocking theory about the origin of the word Dinka or how it came to be. According to the strategy leader Resource kit, titled: “People Profile: The Dinka of South Sudan”, the term Dinka is derived phonetically from the term or name Deng. It went on to state that the people actually call themselves Muonyjang, meaning People of People. Here, I remembered an important episode while I was in class five from my Social Study teacher worth mentioning because the story is connected to Deng and how it came to be used as a Community name.
According to my teacher’s theory, at the advance of the white man or the scramble and partition of Africa, certain white explorers entered the Shilluk Kingdom from the North. They were welcome and taken to the Shilluk Reth or King. While at the palace, the white explorers came across a man communicating with another Shilluk man in a different language than that of the local natives. Curious to know about his community, the white people asked him where he came from. Due to the language barrier and poor translation, the person thought they were asking for his name, as it is customary among the South Sudanese Communities after meeting a stranger. He told them that his name was called “Deng Kak”. This guy was likely a Dongjol or Nyiel from Renk in Northern Upper Nile Region. The white men mistook the name as that of the community and, due to pronunciation difficulty, simply put it as “Dinka”, and it became its English name.
Another theory stated that the European explorers reached River Kiir in the Modern-day disputed area of Abyei and found people fishing while others were moving about along the river bank naked. The translator called them and asked where they came from. They replied that they were from “Wut Diing Kang”, meaning Community of Diing Kang, their Paramount Chief during that time. It is common among the Jieng People, especially in Bahr El Ghazal, to identify themselves using the names of their traditional Paramount Chiefs. The Europeans took the name and due to pronunciation challenges, they corrupted it as “Dinka” and anyone who spoke a similar language came to be referred to as such.
Let us examine how South Sudanese media houses refer to us. According to Southsudan.net article titled: “the Jieng People of South Sudan”, It stated that in the Nilotic languages, the Dinka refers to themselves as Muonyjang (Singular) and Jieng (Plural). According to this same paper, Dinka is simply an English term for Jieng. Gurtong News’ People Profile records Dinka as Jieng (Upper Nile) or Muony-Jang (Bahr El Ghazal). The news site also clearly states that the Nuer call them Jaang, the Shilluk refers to them as Jango, while Arabs and Equatorians call them Jiengge, all stemming from Jieng. The evidence is clear for all to see. We refer to ourselves as Muonyjang or Jieng, and all other Sudanese and South Sudanese communities call us the same name with varying degrees of pronunciation according to their mother tongue interference.
The more I learned, the more questions I had until I decided to put the pieces together and slowly, a picture emerged, and an identity surfaced. We are not Dinka but rather Muonjang or Jieng. That is who we were, who we are and who we shall be. Outsiders corrupted our name and gives us a name that we can neither define nor trace its origin. There is power in a name. Knowing your name is the first step in knowing one’s self. I am a South Sudanese, and I can say that many times with pride because I can define my South Sudanese identity. I know my nation’s land, her people, her history, her culture and her diversity. With all our mess, I can define my South Identity without a doubt. Does the same apply to my ethnic “Dinka” identity? Can I define my ethnic identity? The answer is yes, not as a “Dinka” but as Muonyjang. There is a group of young South Sudanese from the Jieng community that are slowly challenging this wrong belief that we can simply accept the name imposed by outsiders without questions. The Jieng people are the only ones with legal, moral and, above all, historical authority to define themselves and decide how they should be known among themselves and to outsiders. Our identity is wrongly recorded by world history, especially in its name and needs an immediate remedy. I wish the Ministry of General Education and Instruction to revisit this debate and replace the term “Dinka” with “Muonyjang” or “Jieng” in all the books taught in schools.
Dinka is a myth. A foreign imposed name that we cannot even define. We are Muonyjang!
The author, Mading Peter Angong, is a South Sudanese Student at The University of Stirling in Scotland, UK. He can be reached via email@example.com
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