Is the bravery of Nuer an innate or a learned trait?
Yien Wil Mayuak Nyoch,
February 25th, 2021.
People sometimes think that the character which is common in the tribe is in the gene and transferable from generation to generation through that gene. In my own understanding, I believe that there is no tribe with a similar genetic makeup; it is only the family that has a similar genetic makeup.
I understand that characters are taught and become dominant in the tribe and this for some instances induces an ideology among the people that such characters are in the gene and unique to that tribe. The behaviors of every ethnic group are influenced by culture. Culture as the way of life has a greater influence on the characters and the person’s behavior is influenced by his/her culture.
For example, if love is common in your culture, you should be taught to love since your childhood and become lovely. In this case, culture influences people to have a similar character that is adaptable from generation to generation through teaching.
In the Nuer culture, the legacy of the Nuer man is bravery while the legacy of the Nuer woman is respect. A great man in the Nuer culture is a man who is brave while a great woman is a woman who respects herself and other people. Bravery and leadership in Nuer culture go hand in hand.
You cannot be a coward and a leader at the same time in the Nuer tribe. As bravery is the legacy in the Nuer tribe, every Nuer man is brave not because bravery is in the gene but because it is imparted to boys by their parents since childhood. A cowardly man in the family is a great disappointment to that family in the Nuer tribe. In the Nuer families, the boys are taught to have courage and confidence in whatever they do. Being called a man in the Nuer tribe is not easy; you are always expected not to fear anything including death.
Fear is considered as a character of women in the Nuer culture and a man who fears is not considered as a man rather he is considered as a woman. A man in the Nuer tribe is respected if he is brave and the reverse is true; a coward man is not respected.
Criticism against cowardice makes every man in the Nuer tribe brave and bravery is always the prominent behavior of the Nuer men.
The Nuer boy starting from the age of 4 is taught to be brave by his family and his age mate. The family, age-mate, and the lover (girlfriend or wife) are the factors that make Nuer men brave. At the younger age like 4-15 years of age, a boy is made brave by his parents and his age mate while from age 16 and above, his girlfriend or wife makes him brave. As a result, a Nuer man fears nothing in the world. A good example of the bravery of the Nuer man is the action of the white army after the 2013 Juba massacre. The white army did so many incredible things;
I was told that in certain battles the white army fought against the government troops, the white army used to catch the soldiers alive. I was told that they would tell each other when defeating government soldiers not to shoot the soldiers; instead, they preferred to catch them alive so that the military uniforms which the government soldiers used to wear could not be destroyed by the bullets so that they could use them, imagine catching someone with a gun in hand alive. That is incredible bravery that is predominantly common throughout the Nuer land.
Starting from the age of 4, the Nuer boy in the village is encouraged by his family not to fear his age-mate. At such a young age, the Nuer boy is not expected to cry by his parents after being hurt by the other boy during the fight.
Even if the boy is injured, he is not expected to cry by his parents; if he cried, his parents would beat him instead of beating the boy who hurt him. While growing up in the village, I witnessed the whole of this teaching. I remember the words parents would tell their sons when defeated by other boys; they would say do you think that the other boys have no blood and these encouraging words tell the boys that their opponent can even feel the pain of being hurt which makes them strong.
Every family in the Nuer villages does the same. The boy is always praised for bravery by his family. The boy is always beaten by his family as well when found to fear his age-mate and that teaching makes every Nuer boy brave. The families always tell their sons that fear is a bad thing and no matter how bad the situation is, do not leave your brother in the problem. This is a very important part of the teaching; the boys keep this as they grow up and it is applicable in the battle where the Nuer men do not leave their fellow brothers in the battle.
If the Nuer men are in a difficult situation like a battle, they unite themselves and say that if it is a death, we die together and if it is a life, we live together. This character is very unique to Nuer men and it is what makes them most of the time undefeatable in the fight.
In the battle, what the Nuer man does is not to care for himself; rather he cares for his brothers. The Nuer man in the battle keeps his eyes on his brothers’ safety and his brothers do the same.
That unique character of not leaving your brother in the problem is what took the Nuer men to Congo in the midst of chaos by the regime of Juba alongside all their allies including Uganda. The effort that was used by the regime to catch or kill all those who traveled to Congo for forty days was beyond imagination.
It was only bravery that took them to Congo, any of them was not caring about his own life, rather he was caring about the life of his Nuer brothers and such an ideology created a situation whereby each of them submitted his life to die for his brothers. The belief that Nuer men have among themselves is what makes them undefeatable most of the time in the battles. Every Nuer man in the battle believes that his brother can die for him as he can die for his brother.
Age-mates also contribute to the bravery of the Nuer boy as he grows up. While the Nuer boys leave the village for the bush looking after cows or calves, what always takes place is fighting, and when they come home none of the reports what took place in the bush to his family. The Nuer boy who fears his age-mates is always mistreated. He would be ordered to do anything by the boys he was afraid of.
For example, he would be ordered by other boys to bring water, look after all the cows or calves while others only sit. Such mistreatment makes the Nuer boys brave to the extent of fighting bravely in order to get rid of that mistreatment.
There is something the boys call joke sharing or “kueth” in the Nuer language. Joke sharing is the situation where only those boys who think have the same power share the jokes and insult each other while the one who fears you cannot involve in the jokes with you or insult you.
To know who should share the jokes with who in the village, the Nuer boys always have a program they call cancellation or “wuocni” in the Nuer language. That program takes place in the bush without any elderly people and it is a wrestling program where the boys fight until one cries and proves that he is canceled. In that program, the age-mate fights to see who has the same power with who.
The one who is defeated in the fight is canceled and can no longer share the jokes with that opponent. But if both opponents have equal power in the fight and none is defeated, they can share the jokes and each can insult the other as he wishes without any fight again. Such a situation makes Nuer boys in the village very brave as they grow up. Each boy always tried his best to fight bravely so that he would not be humiliated by the other boys.
Girls do their part in making their boyfriends brave. A girl always expects her boyfriend to be brave. A cowardly young man cannot have a girlfriend. The girl plans to give you a skirt if she finds out that you are a coward and calls you with all sorts of names like “yagak,” “buoch” and so forth which all refer to cowardice in the Nuer language. Due to such a situation, every young man proves his bravery when involved in a dispute with other young men or in battle so that his girlfriend would know that her boyfriend is not a coward.
The village life creates brave men who fear nothing in the world. Among those men are/were the Nuer men who resisted the Arab oppression, those who fought the British, the almighty white army who did incredible things by responding bravely to the Massacre in Juba, and the Nuer men who left Bentiu alongside Latjor Diyian, encroaching a large area of land dislodging some ethnic groups through power.
That teaching is no longer applicable in the cities and those Nuer boys who are born in the cities have no such bravery. To me, genes have nothing to do with the Nuer bravery; it is our culture that makes us brave. The Nuer are among the bravest people in the world.
The author is a Pan Africanist and an African cultures activist who can be reached via his email at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.