The Social Order

The Social Order

Local ethnic communities remained in the early 1990s the fundamental societies in rural Sudan, whether they were fully settled, semisedentary, or nomadic. Varying in size but never very large, such communities formerly interacted with others of their kind in hostile or symbiotic fashion, raiding for cattle, women, and slaves or exchanging products and sometimes intermarrying. In many cases, particularly in the north, local communities were incorporated into larger political systems, paying taxes to the central authority and adapting their local political arrangements to the needs of the central government. Even if they were not incorporated into major tribes or groups, many people considered themselves part of larger groupings, such as the Juhayna, the Jaali, or the Dinka, which figured in a people's system of ideas and myths but not their daily lives. In the north the Muslim religious orders were important. They brought religion to the people, and their leaders acted as mediators between local communities. Despite these connections, however, the local village or nomadic community was the point of reference for most individuals.

Most of these communities were based on descent, although occupation of a common territory became increasingly important in long-settled communities. Descent groups varied in hierarchical arrangement. In some, the people were essentially equal. In others, various lineages held political power, with their members filling certain offices. Lineage groups might also control religious ritual in the community. On the one hand, people who held ritual or political offices often had privileged access to economic resources. On the other hand, many communities granted formal or informal authority to those who were already wealthy and who used their wealth generously and with tactical skill.

Theoretically, descent-group societies are cohesive units whose members act according to group interests. In practice, however, individuals often had their own interests, and these interests sometimes became paramount. An individual might, however, use the ideal of descent-group solidarity to justify his behavior, and an ambitious person might use the descent-group framework to organize support for himself. Sudanese communities always have experienced a good deal of change, either because of forces like the Muslim orders, or as a result of dynamics within the groups themselves, like the expansion of Nuer communities.

The Anglo-Egyptian condominium (1899-1955) weakened the role of hitherto autonomous communities and created a more stable social order. Warfare and raiding between communities largely ended. Leadership in raids was no longer a way to acquire wealth and status. Although many local communities remained subsistence oriented, they became more aware of the world economy. Their members were introduced to new resources and opportunities, however scarce, that reoriented their notions of power, status, and wealth and of the ways they were acquired. If one invested in a truck rather than in a camel and engaged in trading rather than herding, one's relationship to kin and community changed.

The central authorities--links with the world economy and with services like education and communications--were located in the cities and large towns. Urban centers therefore became the sources of change in the condominium era, and it was there that new occupations emerged. These new occupations had not yet changed the social strata, however.

In rural areas several large-scale development projects were introduced, resulting in major rearrangements of communities and authority structures. The most significant example was the Gezira Scheme, located between the Blue Nile and the White Nile, and considered the world's largest single-management farming enterprise (about 790 hectares were covered by the project). The scheme involved small-scale farmer tenants producing cotton under the administration of the Sudan Gezira Board, a state subsidiary.

Northern Arabized Communities
Southern Communities
Urban and National Elites
Women and the Family

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