The Surma People
A Brief Reconstruction of the Ethnohistory of the Didinga-Murle Speaking Peoples in South Sudan and Ethiopia.
By Dr. David N. Mayo
The Didinga-Murle speaking peoples of South Sudan and Ethiopia are a protogroup or family, which anthropologists and ethnolinguists categorise as “Surma.” In the South Sudan, they include the Didinga, Longarim (Buya), Ternet (Lopit), Kachipo, and Murle. In Ethiopia, there are the Mursi (Tirima), Kwegu, Mela, Majangir, and the Omo Murle.
The Surma Nation is linked together by a common Oribi Soup metaphor, (or“Uci Cik Megerak”) which is so ingrained in their consciousness and oral history as descendants of the same ancestry. Indeed history demonstrates the power of oral history and myths in maintaining past and group identity. It is from this remembered history that we can trace the ethnohistory of the protogroup and the origins of each group’s formation into a distinct ethnogroup. Such a process is known as the “reconstruction of ethno-history.”
Indeed, scholars have suggested that this linguistic cluster be known as “Surma,” following a study by an Italian anthropologist who studied the Ethiopian groups during World War I. argued that the Surmic classification properly represents the protogroup’s unique language group. He was bearing an early form of anthropological consensus that this linguistic family was neither Cu####ic nor Nilotic but some independent Eastern Sudanic group – call them Surma.
The Origin of Surma
The word Surma is an Amharic word for Mursi (the ethnic group which the Didinga call “Ngitirima” or “Ngikoroma,” meaning “hill folks”). According to ethno-linguists, the Mursi language was in the median position between the farthest Majangir, whose relation with Didinga (according to existing research) is less than 25 percent association and the Murle whose relation with the Didinga exceeds 75 percent of shared nouns and pronouns.
Of course the other 25 percent are nouns related to manufactured or imported goods that reached these people after their separation with the Didinga. They may have also borrowed some words from their neighbours or influenced by the new geography of the new place: e.g. the Aqua culture of Upper Nile made the Murle to learn and adopt a fishing culture hitherto unknown in Didinga Mountains. (Fish, in Didinga customs, was considered holy and was not supposed to be eaten. It wasn’t a delicacy until very recently when those who went to schools included fish in their diet).
Moreover, even though the separation with the Murle occurred less than 200 years ago, it’s surprising that language morphology almost remains unchanged. This is in contrast with the Majangir, Kachipo, Kwegu, and Mela whose language association is low — suggesting a separation of more than five hundred years ago. But the affinity with the Mursi and Didinga languages is as Dutch is to German. This may be partly due to the proximity. For instance, the Mursi are located just east of Kapwata District inside Ethiopian border. But they have been kept apart from contact with the Didinga due to Toposa migration and settlement since the late 18th century.
The Oribi Soup Metaphor
According to Surmic mythology the Omo Valley is their “Garden of Eden” where the first Didinga family (meaning the whole protogroup) was created by Tammu (God) and descended upon the Earth by Thuti (Eagle). Those familiar with the Judeo-Christian tradition could easily think of Thuti as a metaphor for an “Angel of God”. In their Garden of Eden, the family multiplied to become a large group which, perhaps, may have been the natural impetus for going in different directions.
However, the remembered history among the Surmic speaking peoples is that they separated from each other after quarrelling over the oribi’s soup. This myth appears so powerful that without which the ethno-history of the Surmic people would be difficult to establish. Even today, the Didinga remember each of their brethren as “Eet bak Kengero uceni cik Megerak,” (or the people we separated with them over the oribi’s soup).
Nonetheless, the oribi soup metaphor is a myth outsiders can hardly comprehend. This is because even those early splits with Surmic people in Ethiopia say they separated with the others over the oribi soup. Why is it that each time there was a separation, it was caused by a quarrel over the oribi soup? Was an oribi a ritual animal?
Some social anthropologists believe that this mythic “oribi soup” was, perhaps, only a metaphor used to hide from outsiders the real causes of splits, such as: population explosion, hunger or prosperity, wars and so forth. Lack of time specificity in oral tradition often associated with the non-writing culture of our ancestors makes it even more difficult to understand the myth of the oribi soup and its occurrence.
The Settlement in Didinga Hills
It is believed that the Didinga (which included all the Western Surmic groups today: the Didinga, Longarim, Ternet and Murle) first settled in Didinga Hills nearly 300 years. They had migrated from the Omo Valley, the present Maji Province in southwestern Ethiopia, and moved overtime in a south-westernly direction through Mt. Mogilla (the hill overlooking Lokichokio) and through the Lotholia Hills until they reached Mt. Lotukei. They were probably the last in a series of migrations following those of the Bari, Jie, and Lotuho from the Lake Turkana Delta. However, upon arrival the Didinga found that the Jie (now in Uganda) were already settled around the eastern fringes of Mt. Lotukei.
The Didinga harassed the Jie and forced them to flee. On the western sides of Mt Lotukei the Didinga also found strangers were already settled there. These were the Lotuho and Labwor (both of whom spoke the same language then). The Didinga faced these groups in battles and finally pushed them across Kidepo Valley. The Didinga then occupied the land, and settled on the fringes of Bohorora and Locyoto. Later on they moved to Kaula on top of Didinga Mountains.
The Arrival of the Luo Group
It should be recalled that what’s today Didingaland was at the crossroads of many African migratory routes and civilisations for centuries before the Didinga got there. Indeed, not long from their settlement at Kaula, a new immigrant group from the north arrived and settled down at the foothills of the Didinga Mountains. This was the Luo group which ethno-historians suspect to have broken off from Pari (Lokoro) group. The new immigrants were few and did not pose any immediate threat to the Didinga. They settled down in a place known as Lokuti (named after one of their clans) in Idoto Valley. But soon thereafter, the Lokuti Village was decimated by a bubonic plague known as Turuhudang. The remnants moved to Ukuti (Akilok) in the present north-eastern Uganda.
The Split with the Murle
In Kaula Village, on top of Didinga Mountains, the tribe lived and prospered. As the main population may have been dependent on hunting, gathering wild honey, fruits and tubers, a large population couldn’t co-habit peacefully in a small space for a long time. Hence, Kaula soon started to have internal problems. As legend goes: one day the hunters went hunting, but could only kill an oribi, the small brown gazelle. But since the animal is so small for a multitude of people, the hunters decided to boil the meat so that some could have soup for the night. But as the soup got ready, some drank all the soup – leaving nothing for others.
Nonetheless, a quarrel ensued in the hunting camp all night. The following morning the hunters decided to abandon hunting and took the rage home. In Kaula, the dispute engulfed clans. And to those people then, conflict was resolved not through courts but through “rimenit” (i.e. by others moving away from the scene). Indeed, those who became Murle, Ternet, and Longarim (Narim or Buya) decided to move out of Kaula Village and descended to the Thingaita Valley, the river flowing through Kapwata town. They thus earned themselves a nickname as Muur-lill — meaning the people who descended from the mountain (muur) to the valley (lill) in anger. Murle is only a corrupted form of Muur-lill. According to some estimates, this split may have occurred in the 1750s – just less than a century from the time of their original settlement.
The Arrival of the Toposa
After living in Thingaita Valley for a while, the Murle were confronted by another intruder: the Toposa. That was the Ngikaloto group or the first wave of Toposa migration (that came through Kidepo Valley around 1780s). Currently, this section of the Toposa continues to inhabit the western localities of Kapwata County: Mothingo, Riwoto and Ngikarengak. While the second wave of Toposa migration (Ngikalohide) came during the Loparanat famines of 1820s that swept the central Jieland in what is today Karamoja District in Uganda. However, the Didinga repulsed the Ngikalohide group and denied them sharing the Didinga Hills. The Ngikalohide proceeded to settle at Loyoro – on both sides of Lokalyan River. In Loyoro, the Toposa planted their holy stone, Kwoto — the stone they had carried along right from Loyoro in Jieland – as a sign of new settlement.
But the Toposa oral history suggests that the Toposa migrated from their original homeland in search for pasture for their livestock. Ethnohistorians, however, discount this and instead establish that famines and warfare synchronised the dispersals of various Ngikarimojong peoples during these periods. Indeed, ethno-historical studies in 1970s and 80s on the central Jieland have revealed that Loparanat famines had also been responsible for breaking off the Turkana, Karamojong and Dodoth moieties from Jieland to migrate into their present locations.
However, the arrival of Toposa had two implications: First, they cut off the Didinga-Murle contact with their brethren in the Omo Valley, thus erecting a permanent barrier. Second, these migrations seriously squeezed the Murle along Thingaita Valley forcing them to move northwards. Other Murle groups may have been integrated with the new migrants, as the Buya (Bulani) clan is predominant among the Toposa.
A detailed account of this social history is forthcoming in the author’s manuscript: The Changing Universe: A Narrative Social History of the Didinga People of South Sudan, 1890-1953.