The Nuba - Who are they?

by Suleiman Musa Rahhal*

The Nuba people who live in the geographical centre of Sudan are the largest of many non-Arab groups in Northern Sudan and are the descendent of Kush kingdom of 8th century. They are in fact an amalgam of dozens of different tribes with different cultures and languages.

For thousands of years Nuba have occupied most of what is known today as Kordofan Province. But because of successive attacks by various Arab tribes who invade Sudan in 16th century on wards, they retreated to the mountains of South Kordofan which became their permanent homeland and took the name of "Nuba Mountains". During the British rule in Sudan (1896 -1956 the Nuba Mountains region was a separate province with its own administration and its capital at Talodi until amalgamated in 1929, into the larger Kordofan. It then remained a 'closed district' until shortly before independence in 1956.

The Nuba share South Kordofan with Sudanese Arabs, cattle herders and these are Misiriya Zurug and Hawazma (collectively known as "Baggara"-which means simply "cattle people"). Some Nuba groups historically developed close relations with the Baggara while others were isolated from them, but the relationship was always one of underlying suspicion. The advent of the Baggara was one main factor in driving the Nuba to the mountains. A second category of Arabs includes Jellaba traders from Khartoum and the Northern Nile valley, and Arab soldiers and administrators. These urban Arabs represent the power of the Sudanese state, and the basic reason for their presence in the Nuba Mountains was-and is-to bring the area and its peoples under the writ of central government.

The central theme of Nuba history is the tension between political incorporation into the state of Sudan and the maintenance of local identity. There is an irony here. Local, tribal identities are strong. But, until recently, many Nuba villagers had no conception of the wider community of the Nuba as a whole. They had little reason to travel to other Nuba areas.

Geography of the area
The geography of the region is central to its history. The Nuba hills themselves rise sharply from the plains, sometimes in long ranges, sometimes as isolated massifs or single crags. They rise some 500-1000 metres from the surrounding plains. The mountains are rocky, with cultivable hill slopes and valleys. Though they dominate the landscape, the area covered by the hills themselves is less than a third of the total area of the Nuba Mountains; the remainder of the land is extensive clay plains, some forested, some farmed. It is some of the most fertile land in Sudan-a fact that is both a blessing and a curse to the Nuba. While drought-induced famine is almost unknown in the Nuba Mountains, the fertile soils have also attracted the attention of outsiders.

Nuba Population
The total number of Nuba is not known. The 1955/6 census was the only systematic attempt to enumerate Sudan's different ethnic groups, and found 572,935 Nuba, 61% of the population of South Kordofan. But by that stage there was already large-scale labour migration, so at least another five per cent must be added to the figure. On the basis of subsequent censuses and population growth statistics, it can be estimated that by the time the war intensified in 1989, the Nuba population was more than 1.5 million, plus migrants. Since then, the number in the Nuba Mountains has probably decreased, due to deaths, fewer births, and mass out-migration to Khartoum.

There has also been massive population movement within the Nuba Mountains, with hundreds of thousands forcibly displaced to government towns and "peace camps", and a large number living as internal refugees in the areas secured by the SPLA. Currently, the best estimate for the population under the administration of the SPLA is between 350,000 - 400,000 people; those under government control number about one million.

Most of the people in the Nuba Mountains belong to the myriad Nuba tribes. But the presence of other groups indigenous to the area must not be overlooked. Perhaps one quarter of the inhabitants of the region are Arabs, mainly pastoralists, traders and civil servants. There are also non-Arab groups, principally the Daju (an offshoot of a Darfur tribe, living south of Lagowa) and Fellata communities spread throughout the area. The Fellata are descendants of West African immigrants to Sudan, and are farmers, herders and traders.

Nuba Cultures
The Nuba peoples possess extraordinarily rich and varied cultures and traditions. Sometimes it is said that they live on "ninety-nine hills". A measure of the variety of Nuba cultures can be obtained by looking at the linguistic variety, as summarized by an early anthropologist of the Nuba, Siegfried Nadel, 1947:

"It has been said that there are as many Nuba languages as there are hills. This is but a slight exaggeration. Students of the Nuba languages have reduced this bewildering complexity to certain comprehensive categories..."

The famous linguist of the Nuba, Roland Stevenson, 1984, classified more than fifty Nuba languages and dialect clusters into ten separate groups. There is thus more linguistic diversity within the Nuba Mountains than the entire rest of Sudan, and indeed as much diversity as the whole of Africa south of the Equator.

To give one illustration: the Katla language is linguistically closer to Shona and Ndebele than it is to the Nyima language, whose speakers live on the next range of hills. (Nyima belongs to the Nilo-Saharan language group, along with Dinka, Acholi and others, whereas Katla, like the majority of Nuba languages, is in the Niger-Kordofanian group, which includes Bantu languages.)

Cultural diversity is equally marked. The common elements in traditional Nuba culture essentially reflect the way in which dissimilar groups have adjusted to living in similar conditions. One of these common elements is the farming system.

The Nuba are largely farmers, cultivating fields in the hills, at the foot of the hills, and in the plains. The hill farms (sometimes called "near farms") can be elaborately terraced, or gardens divided into small plots by lines of stones, and sometimes they are irrigated. Farms in the clay plains (sometimes called "far farms") are generally larger and more productive. The main crops are sorghum, beans and sesame, grown during a single rainy season that lasts from May-June until September. The harvest is gathered during November-January. All small-holders cultivation is by hand.

Dependence on the rain has contributed to many rituals around rainfall in many Nuba tribes, with ceremonies to encourage the rain. These ceremonies are usually conducted by rainmakers known as "kujur" whose power in some Nuba tribes is equal to that of the chief of the tribe.

*Suleiman Musa Rahhal is head of Nuba Survival, the former INCC. This text is copied from the Nuba Survival website at