By Samuel Reech Mayen
The people of South Sudan used to be guided by their own values. For centuries, these ideals kept the societies together. These standard principles impliedly acted as unwritten constitution. Moreover, everyone in these societies was willing to abide by these values, and those who deviate were seen as lesser humans in these societies.
In this article, we shall explore and stress on some of these principles that had guided the societies for hundreds of years. These standard principles are many but for the purpose of precision of this article, the emphasis is centered on the following values:
First, Respect for Human life was a superseding ideal; in the past, people of South Sudan had great reverence for human life. It didn’t matter what circumstances, human life remain paramount. Hence cases of murder were lesser compared with the contemporary days. But should it happen that someone murder another one intentionally, full blood compensation to the relatives of the deceased would only be the remedy though the murderer would not stand as morally upright person in the community.
On this basis, Customary Laws did not provide for death penalty in most societies that are today in the contemporary South Sudan. The murderer would be left to be haunted by the act and would lose social status in the society. In most of these communities, the feud that resulted from murder could not allow intermarry between the family of the murdered and the murderer till purification ritual that ended this bitter feud is conducted.
Despite the facts that fighting could frequently broke out amongst different sections of the South Sudanese communities, there were many ways of reducing death cases; these include the abolition of indiscriminate killing that involve women, elderly people, children and the wounded. These vulnerable groups could not be slaughtered despite the circumstances that caused the conflict. The widely divine believe was that, killing a helpless person would result to the death of that merciless murderer and concequently would not have descendants in the future generations so that such an unethical act does not reoccur.
As part of reducing fatalities, those elders with divine powers in the communities could also stop the battle when sections are fighting by doing an act such as breaking a wooden handle of a spear (wai tɔŋ in Dinka/ taŋ mut in Nuer). This was a common practiced in the Nuer and Dinka communities for stopping bloodshed. In the Dinka community, a respected person of some divinities traits would step in the middle and yell kääc kë (from kɔng kööc which means stop first) and the rioting youth would response positively.
Nuer elder could draw a line on the ground in the middle of the furious youth and warn them from crossing such a line. Anyone who could not response to this call was perceived as a thoughtless or a heartless person and could be liable for curse.
Since homicide was a bad act that could not be executed by lawful sanction, a person who committed provocative act would always ran to the house of a chief or a king depending on the system where he would be protected until the matter is resolved as provided by the customary laws.
The second value was the secrecy and sacredness of sex. Sex was only meant for the marriage couples. Sluts or players were rarely heard of in the South Sudanese societies. And could it happen that such people existed, they enjoyed less respect and were always liable for their immoralities. For instance adultery was treated as a moral wrong that contravened the norms of the people. Adulterers suffered stigma as well as fines and compensations imposed on them as deterrence for the future offenders of this immoral behavior.
There were no prostitutes like the ones that are loitering in the board day light in the towns of South Sudan. Would it been in accordance to the values of the South Sudanese, foreign prostitutes would have been evacuated and the indigenous ones would be forced to calm down. It may sounds controversial to Human Rights provisions today but in those days it could be shocking news for a woman to dress and stand in readiness for sex with strangers in exchange for something of value.
Despite the fact that force marriage existed in the communities of South Sudan, rape was a rare phenomena and its commission was treated as one of the worst immoralities. Even if a dispute broke out between certain communities, women were excluded and had the rights for protection. Those who committed rape during the conflict were inferred to be potentially vulnerable for supper natural being’s punishment.
This was one of the reasons the men from the communities which practice kidnapping couldn’t marry the girl children they kidnapped. One would nurture a girl child he kidnapped and latter would be married off to another person. The one who kidnapped such a child is more like adoptive father. He would only benefit by receiving the dowries paid on the girl he kidnapped.
The third value was hospitality, in those days anyone can host a total stranger for a night or more. It was common that a leader like Sultan Jambo of Moru would host a huge number of travelers almost every week. Since the communities were enjoying these values, there were no chances for suspicion.
The fourth value was honesty; in the past, cases of theft were barely heard of and anyone who did the act tarnished his reputations, the reputations for his children and the reputations for his grand children. This could sometime be echoed by a song compose in mockery of that particular thief. It was even hard for someone from thievery background to marry in the most respected families. It was believed that such poor quality could result into poor qualities of children in the future. No one wants bad name. It was a belief that stealing is ethically wrong. Not like these days when thieves are the rich and accorded much respect. Today, those who are stealing cows and money are using those to pay for their wives in the very month of stealing that wealth.
The fifth value was the high respect for customary laws. Some communities were organized in Kingdoms as seen in the Shilluk and Anyuak communities. Majority of the tribes such as Nuer, Moru, Azande, Bari, Dinka, Kuku, Taposa, Acholi, Lotuko and many others were organized under Council of elders. These councils of elders later developed into chieftaincies. Both Kings and Chiefs’ courts determined dispute amongst the parties. Their decisions were executed without difficulty due to the respect that people had in their leadership systems. There were no armed police for execution since no one resisted chief or king’s decision.
Respect was an obligation that was expected of every one. Leaders for example could not be called names or insulted. Today leaders are described as idiots, fools, corrupt and so many damaging utterances. Perhaps these leaders do not meet the expectations of their subjects or whatever reason.
However, in the past there was no threshold in which respect could be accorded. This does not mean that the traditional leaders could not be challenged. They could be challenged but in the most honorable manner. Cases against these traditional leaders could be instituted in the customary courts and no presiding chief would fear to pronounce the guilt of the accused chief. At their levels, leaders work hard to preserve their reputations.
Generally South Sudanese societies were living in a principled atmosphere and everyone was enjoying peace as a result of these cherished values. The respect for leaders is clearly indicated on how the communities’ names were linked with their leaders. The people of Cueibet up to today are popularly known as Gok Arol Kachuol, the people of Guit County in Bentiu as Jikany Gatkek Luom, people of Mayom County as Bul Chuol Gei, People of Tonj East as Luach Aguer Adel, and the Dok of Bentiu under Riek Dong as well as Sultan Jambo of Moru in Western Equatoria.
Respect was usually accorded to all, and a child would refer to any elder as a mother or an uncle as determine by an elder’s sex. Any elder would call any child his or her child. This was the relations that existed among the people. It was not like today when an old man can stand quivering while a teen ager is sitting in a chair in a public bus claiming that he paid for the chair first.
Regrettably, these values have been eroded by many factors; first the civil wars that were fought for the liberation have been in the expenses of these values. The annihilation of these values can be traced back to the earliest time of the slave trade, the colonial era and 1960s horrors of the Anyanya Movements. The recent wars of SPLM/A against Khartoum oppressive regime, the 1991 split in the SPLM/A, the wars with in south Sudan that include, the ones waged by Olony, David Yau Yau, the Late Gen. George Athoor government have also contributed negatively on the social setting. The worst one, is the present war of the second major split within the SPLM/A. Because of these horrible experiences, people have been traumatized, minds have been corrupted and the crucial principles have been scraped off.
The suffering that people have been subjected to and the ethnic politics have led the previously coherent society into clusters that see themselves as enemies. Each ethnic group fears the threat of extinction from the other. Consequently, people have developed murderous attitudes and behaviors. Trust and confidence have been lost. Those with abilities to raid or steal cattle commit these acts freely, and the powerful proudly embezzle public funds. The guiding values have gone. In these state of affairs, the demanding question is who can revive these eroded values?
The author is a student who lives in Kampala and can be reached at: email@example.com or +256 772 727 857.
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