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Spotlight on Culture

People that call this area Home

New Americans

Immigrants from other areas of the world

The South Sudanese people

Cultural Profile of their country of origin- South Sudan



Religious Traditions

Religion is generally spoken about openly and frequently in South Sudan. People are often very religiously engaged, both young and old. Meanwhile, the idea of atheism or agnosticism is unusual to most of the population. The three main religions followed by the South Sudanese are Christianity, traditional African religions (mostly animistic beliefs) and Islam. African traditional religion beliefs are often blended with Christian beliefs.

Historically, Christians and animists share a good and respectful relationship. While ancestor and spirit worship have been generally discouraged, many South Sudanese mix some of their tribe’s traditional practices with Christianity.


President Salva Kiir, himself a Catholic, while speaking at Saint Theresa Cathedral in Juba, stated that South Sudan would be a nation which respects freedom of religion. A 2019 study found that Christian Protestants outnumbered Catholics, and other religions. The most recent Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life report from December 2012 estimated that in 2010, there were 6.010 million Christians (60.46%), 3.270 million followers of African Traditional Religion (32.9%), 610,000 Muslims (6.2%) and 50,000 unaffiliated (no known religion) of a total 9,940,000 people in South Sudan.

South Sudan does not have an official religion.


Christianity

Christianity has had a long history in the region. Ancient Nubia was reached by Coptic Christianity by the 2nd century, and missionary activity from Ethiopia consolidated that community. Christians, primarily Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Presbyterian, account for about three-fifths of South Sudan’s population. Christianity is a result of European missionary efforts that began in the second half of the 19th century. In 1920, the Protestant Church Missionary Society originated a diocese, consolidating their presence in the country. Today, the majority of the population consider themselves Christians, and you can usually tell if a community is Christian by the presence of a church in the central area.


The South Sudanese practice of Christianity is different from the typical "Western" version in a few ways. People generally attend church services frequently: up to three times a week, as opposed to once every Sunday morning. Worship often involves singing and dancing in local languages. Many South Sudanese churches also facilitate a unique practice called ‘overnight’ where people go to a church service for 24 hours or more at a time. Sometimes this prayer session can last for days, with people sleeping and fasting in the church. Some see it as a deeply spiritual experience in which people get closer to God to the point of euphoria, shouting and dancing.

The South Sudanese Christmas tradition is for people to sing hymns in a procession down the road on Christmas Eve, followed by an overnight service in the local church. Christian groups from neighboring countries have also started offering outdoor sermons and prayer services in less developed communities.


Before independence, the predominant Christian population in southern Sudan viewed their religion as a symbol of defiance against Khartoum’s vision of an Islamic state. Today, Christianity continues to be a part of their identity. It is often considered to be the binding factor that brings everyone together across ethnic and tribal backgrounds.


Christianity plays a very strong role in providing a coping strategy for many people. For those living in South Sudan, placing faith and their fate in God often serves as a source of hope for the future. Churches also provide emotional and material support for refugees that have recently migrated to other countries. They encourage cross-community engagement, providing an open space for old and young generations to communicate with each other.


Traditional Beliefs

Traditionally, the South Sudanese had a strong belief in the spiritual and supernatural realm. This has diminished significantly since the introduction of Christianity.


Although the animist religions present in South Sudan share some common elements in their beliefs, each ethnic group in the country has its own indigenous religion with different, sometimes very similar, traditions. Each group may have a different god that has a particular relationship and degree of intervention with humans that is specific to that tribe alone. For example, the traditional Dinka god is called ‘Nhialac’. It is a universal creator and source of life that they can contact through spiritual mediums and rituals. Meanwhile, the Nuer animists have a conditional relationship with the god ‘Kuoth’, whereby an individual can get cut out of the community and spiritually rejected by Kuoth if they do something wrong.


Virtually all of South Sudan’s traditional African religions share the conception of a high spirit or divinity, usually a creator god. There are two conceptions of the universe: the earthly and the heavenly, or the visible and the invisible. The power of the dead and the ability of ancestors to intervene in people’s lives is a common theme. Each god is contacted in a specific way. There are often certain people within communities that are seen to be intermediaries between the tribe and the spiritual realm, usually chiefs or elders. For example, animists from the Jur tribe communicate with their god ‘Boko’ba’ through their ancestors, while Murle animists use chiefs as intermediaries between the community and ‘Tammu’ (God).


There are many beliefs surrounding the causes of misfortune. Some may believe that bad luck or illness is caused by malevolent ‘zar’ (spirits) possessing a person, ancestors that have been offended seeking vengeance, or witches within members of the community. There is also widespread belief in the ‘evil eye’ where a person with supernatural powers can curse another just by looking at them. The Dinka name for spiritual powers is ‘jak’.

The heavenly world is seen as being populated by spiritual beings whose function is to serve as intermediaries or messengers of a supreme God; in the case of the Nilotic peoples, these spirits are identified with their ancestors. This supreme deity is the object of rituals using music and dance in all of them. It is common to sacrifice animals and crops during harvest. Uses of magic, totems and traditional medicines are also often interrelated with everyday life for animist communities.




Islam

There are small groups of South Sudanese Muslims that mostly live in urban areas. They tend to follow a less conservative interpretation of Islam than the Sudanese in the North. Most Muslims welcomed secession in the South Sudanese independence referendum.



Stay tuned for more information on the South Sudanese people and their culture, and more places and their people in future posts. Our area is blessed to be called home by many people of many cultures, and they deserve to be acknowledged.