Marked for Marriage: 19th Century Gender-Based Political Transformations in the Eastern Upper Nile
Posted: 16 Apr 2013
Date Written: April 16, 2013
For over a century various writers have described a dramatic 19th-century ‘Nuer conquest’ of territory occupied by Dinka and Anywaa-speaking groups in the eastern Upper Nile, but none of their interpretations adequately explain why initially tiny Nuer bands assimilated tens of thousands of Anywaa and Dinka-speakers. This paper utilizes new field research to argue that 19th- century Nuer communities imported an age-set system that equated manhood with scarification and barred unmarked males from marrying their daughters. As a result, many Dinka and Anywaa males of relatively marginal standing in their own communities chose to undergo Nuer scarification to gain legal access to these daughters and to pool their resources with fellow age-mates rendering bride-wealth affordable. Dinka and Anywaa elders, who did not wish to see their communities disappear into Nuer initiation classes, reacted by inventing traditions which shaped the modern ethnic contrasts enshrined in the classic ethnographies of the eastern Upper Nile including creating their own scarification systems, developing ideologies of ethnic purity, and switching from exogamy to endogamy. Thus the major 19th-century political transformations were not inspired by military action nor environmentally predetermined but driven by parents and their daughters who created new standards for marking males as marriageable.
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