North Sudanese Culture

Core Concepts

  • Modesty
  • Dignity (karama)
  • Honour (sharaf)
  • Duty (al-wajib)
  • Hospitality
  • Generosity (karim)
  • Humility (tawadae)
  • Stoicism/Fatalism


The Republic of Sudan (also known as North Sudan) is a North African country bordering seven other nations. The territory of Sudan previously incorporated South Sudan. However, the countries split in 2011 following decades of civil war. The North Sudanese identity is closely associated with Muslim and Arab cultural traditions, as these are factors that differentiate the population from the South Sudanese. The people of North Sudan are generally considered to be very modest, humble and stoic. They also share certain cultural values, such as a sense of duty to support their community and be hospitable. While this profile will mostly describe the Sudanese Arabic-speaking majority, it is important to recognise that all descriptions of a mainstream ‘Sudanese culture’ are subject to variances between tribal and ethnic groups. The Sudanese population is very culturally diverse, containing highly differentiated lifestyles, livelihoods and ancestral backgrounds. 


Sudanese Arabs

The term “Arab” in Sudan has come to describe a cultural affiliation on the basis of being an Arabic-speaking Muslim. The majority of the Sudanese population identify as Arabs in this way. However, most are ethnically mixed (often descending from both Arab and African tribes) and have Cushitic ancestry. Indeed, many Sudanese Arabs know what their family’s original local language was before they started speaking Arabic, providing a linguistic link to their tribal heritage and ethnic ancestry. Due to the blended genealogy of most Sudanese Arabs, they may be physically indistinguishable from those who would consider themselves more ‘African’ or non-Arab.


Historically, Arabs were divided into tribes and sub-tribes on the basis of people’s descent from common ancestors. The traditional livelihoods of tribes were usually centred on agricultural production or nomadic livestock herding. These traditional lifestyles have been dismantled in most cities. However, they continue in some rural areas and settled villages. Agriculturalist tribes tend to remain in a specific territory, usually along the central Nile River (commonly known as Riverine Arabs). Meanwhile, tribes whose lives centre on livestock rearing are generally pastoral nomads in the plains (known as the Bedouins or ‘Badu’). Ultimately, Sudanese Arabs do not make up a homogeneous group. Today, the social landscape is so diverse that the term ‘Arab’ can be descriptive of both a cameleer in the plains and a businessman in the city.


Non-Arab Ethnicities

People who identify with a non-Arab ethnicity are generally distinguishable by the fact that they speak a local language rather than Arabic. Those that live in the major cities commonly learn Arabic as a first or second language to facilitate inter-ethnic communication and business. However, outside of urban areas, many non-Arab tribes continue to maintain the traditional lifestyles and customs, living in regions that represent their traditional homelands.


There are many non-Arab ethnic groups in Sudan, the most well known being the Nubians, the Beja, the Fur, the Zaghawa and the Nuba. Within each ethnic group there are multiple tribes, amounting to over 500 sub-tribes in total.1 It is not possible to give a comprehensive description of each tribe, its subgroups and their different cultural, religious and linguistic identities in the scope of this profile. However, from this brief overview, one can appreciate that the social landscape of Sudan is very diverse.


The ancestry and religious practices of non-Arab ethnicities vary. Groups that originate from the northern and eastern regions of Sudan often have closer ancestry to Egyptians and Eritreans. They tend to have more “Middle Eastern” cultural customs and traditionally practise Islam (such as the Nubians and Beja people).2 A very general observation would be that the further away from the Nile one travels in Sudan, the more “African” the social demographic and customs of tribes become. Some African tribes have adopted Islam over time. For example, the Fur and Zaghawa people practise Islam while incorporating some traditions specific to their ethnicity.3 However, many African ethnic groups practise Christianity or follow a traditional animist religion instead. The vast majority of non-Muslim tribes live in the central Nuba mountains or the southern regions of Sudan, such as the Nuba and Acholi.4 

 

Identity and Political History

To understand Sudanese culture, it is important to have a general knowledge of Sudan's political history and how events of the past century have affected the country. North Sudan and South Sudan were once ruled as a single country under a joint colonial relationship between the United Kingdom and Egypt. This period of colonial rule forced the population to see themselves as a unified nation, whereas previously people had been living in self-governing tribes. A strong Sudanese national identity was built and certain customs came to represent a unified idea of Sudanese culture. For example, the ‘tob’ (a long wrap-around cloth) became recognisable as a standardised “Sudanese” cultural dress, whereas previously people had worn clothing specific to their tribe or ethnic group. 

 

The common understanding of the ‘Sudanese national identity’ became informed by Islam and certain aspects of traditional Arab tribal culture. For example, much legislation became based in Muslim Shari’a law in 1989, embedding the religion in the country’s governance and political system (see the Religion section). This occurred as part of a wave of ‘public morality’ that required women to wear modest clothing, regardless of their religious beliefs. The government also promoted a policy called Arabisation (ta’rib) that sought to make Arabic the standardised language across the country.5 This vision of the national identity did not resonate with the Christian African tribes of southern Sudan. Two civil wars occurred over 50 years as the southern tribes resisted the cultural and political dominance of the Sudanese Arab government. The southern population gained independence as ‘the Republic of South Sudan’ in 2011. You can learn about the South Sudanese country and profile here.


The North Sudanese people are arguably more homogeneous as a result of South Sudan’s secession, as the majority of the remaining population share the Arabic language, Islam and certain customs. However, most individuals still tend to think of themselves as belonging to a certain tribe first and foremost, and Sudanese second. The sense of Sudanese citizenship is arguably stronger among expatriates living in other countries. 


The Darfur Crisis

In 2003, a serious conflict erupted in the westernmost region of Sudan (Darfur), leading to what has been described as “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis” by the United Nations (UN).6 To briefly summarise, the conflict has often been fought along ethnic lines between the Arab nomadic tribes and the African pastoralist tribes of the region. Members of the Arab nomadic tribes formed a militia (known as the Janjaweed) that carried out large-scale attacks against the Darfur farmers, such as the Fur, Zaghawa and Massalit people. This has involved burning villages, systematic sexual abuse of women and children,7 and targeting the refugee camps where displaced people flee to.8 However, the conflict has also been perpetuated by a complex combination of environmental factors (i.e. drought and desertification), government involvement and international interests. The Sudanese government is widely believed to have supported and armed the militia and has also carried out its own airstrikes on the farming villages.9 


The combined attacks have now been recognised as ethnic cleansing and genocide against the non-Arab pastoralist ethnicities of Darfur. The number of fatalities is undetermined and often disputed by the government, but is estimated to be many hundred of thousands.10,11 It is widely believed that the government planned the atrocities, with the Sudanese President wanted on an arrest warrant for crimes against humanity, war crimes and three counts of genocide by the International Criminal Court.12 Despite statements from Sudanese authorities that the conflict in Darfur is over, the US Department of State’s 2017 Human Rights Report states that violence is continuing.13 


Displacement and Hardship

The long-term conflict in the region and surrounding countries has led to widespread displacement. There are over 3 million internally displaced people within Sudan, and over 600,000 Sudanese refugees in neighbouring countries.14 The country also hosts roughly 375,000 refugees from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Chad, the Central African Republic and South Sudan (arrivals of which have grown given the continued instability within South Sudan).15 The UN estimates that 2.6 million people had been displaced from the Darfur region between the start of the conflict in 2003 and 2016.16 Prolonged experiences of displacement can affect the practice of culture and traditions. Some people may have spent years or decades in exile, involuntarily displaced to surrounding countries. In these cases, many reside in the marginalising and uncertain conditions of refugee camps or have joined the urban poor in cities. 


The majority of people living in Sudan face daily struggles as decades of conflict, corruption and dictatorship have created widespread poverty. Most of the population live in rural areas that lack substantial infrastructure and resources (estimated 76% in 2017).17 Many are affected by massive environmental challenges that have periodically caused famines. Life expectancy is low due to the effects of long-term conflict and poor access to health care. Therefore, consider that a person who has migrated from Sudan may have witnessed or experienced the effects of extreme poverty.


Social Hierarchies

Due to widespread poverty, social mobility between classes is generally limited in Sudan. The majority of the population belongs to the lower class, living in small rural villages or sprawling urban settlements surrounding cities. Only a small minority belong to the elite. This higher class generally consists of those with access to government contacts. They are often distinguishable by conspicuous displays of wealth (such as owning entire plots of land or wearing a lot of jewellery). There is a sizable ‘middle class’ in cities who are not necessarily part of the elite or the lower class. For example, they might be families that receive remittances from relatives overseas, but do not have steady employment of their own. Due to the lack of infrastructure and resources throughout Sudan, these understandings of the ‘middle class’ and ‘higher class’ are very different from what is the norm in Western countries. 


Differences in wealth tend not to create much social stratification or exclusion within Sudanese communities. For example, during the Islamic month of Ramadan, entire neighbourhoods will gather together to share a feast. People might notice that the food one family provides is more plentiful than another’s, but will not mention it to avoid any sense of embarrassment or exclusion.


Being rich or well-educated does not earn a person automatic respect. A person’s integrity, honour and treatment of others is thought to be far more important than their affluence or privilege in Sudan (see ‘Honour (Sharaf)’ below). There is a saying in Sudan that “knowing how to write doesn’t necessarily make you a good person”. Furthermore, one’s profession does not guarantee community respect. On a day-to-day level, the only factor that may give one automatic respect on the basis of their identity is age. Elders are almost always given the most deference and attention in social situations.


Interdependence and Community

There is a very strong community focus embedded in Sudanese culture. People are often mutually reliant on their relatives and neighbours. This is due to the collectivistic nature of the culture, as well as people’s sense of duty (al-wajib). There is a general understanding that with privilege comes a greater responsibility to care for the community. Therefore, those in more fortunate circumstances often feel an obligation to help those that are struggling. Even people in difficult financial circumstances will often look to assist those around them with what they can afford, despite having to attend to their own needs as well. Assistance is usually carried out discreetly to avoid bring attention towards the receiver's difficult position. For example, a community leader may visit the family of a widow in the middle of the night and give her some money. Neither are expected to mention the transaction again to protect the leader’s humility, and also the receiver's pride.  


In some cases, whole neighbourhoods may be deeply involved in helping everyone collectively meet challenges. For example, when a family goes through a particular hardship (such as the death of a family member), it is customary for the entire community to rally together. Neighbours and friends will come to cook and clean for that family in order to give them time to mourn without the stress of daily activity. Sudanese families try not seclude themselves from one another as strong community networks help lighten everyone’s burdens. This dynamic often continues when people migrate to other countries.


Honour (Sharaf)

The notion of honour (sharaf) is central to Sudanese culture. People’s awareness of their personal honour tends to guide behaviour and interactions in almost all circumstances. Personal honour is deeply intertwined with family reputation in Sudan. Traditionally, one’s behaviour would affect the honour or reputation of the entire clan. This is still the case for some tribes in rural areas, while in urban areas it has changed to be reflective of the family alone. 


There are many factors that can determine whether one is perceived to have honour. One’s honour is deeply linked to an individual’s personal demeanour, treatment of others, integrity and modesty – specifically, the sexual modesty of one’s female family members. The Public Order Law prohibits some offences of honour, reputation and public morality in regard to this.18 In some conservative communities, the unproven suspicion of a woman’s infidelity can cause enough disgrace to ruin her family’s reputation. If a woman is perceived to be promiscuous, her family name (sumaat ahalak) is put to shame (aar). 


Public disgrace can have extreme consequences. It can cause social exclusion and have very serious effects on people’s future opportunities and circumstances. Therefore, the public perception of a family’s honour can be more important than their social or monetary position in Sudan. There is often a strong cultural pressure on individuals to protect their reputation. In some serious cases, a family may feel obliged to shun the member of the household that brought shame upon them in order to clear their family name. Ultimately, much behaviour may be motivated by a fear of shame (aar) or guilt. 


Politeness (Adab)

A person’s honour is determined by more than their sexual modesty. Respectability and character are also reflected in the way people dress, the language they use, the hospitality they show their friends, the respect they give the elderly and their general demeanour. By remaining conservative, modest and respectable in all these aspects, one is thought to have ‘adab’ (politeness and manners). The direct meaning of adab is “the proper way to go about something”. It is important to note that the expectations and standards of adab are different for men and women. Generally, women have higher expectations of social compliance than men. For example, it would be seen as uncivilized for girls to laugh or speak loudly in public whereas the same behaviour would be less inappropriate for men.


Humility (Tawadae)

Humility (tawadae) is also a very important value in Sudan. Individuals tend to be very modest about their accomplishments. Indeed, successes are expected to make people become more humble. It is common to hear collective speech used to downplay achievements. For example, a Sudanese person may say “we completed it”, when in fact they did so single-handedly. This sets the Sudanese apart from many other Arab cultures where it is common to gain status by speaking openly of achievements and positive qualities. Most Sudanese tend to be modest about their educational and financial standings, sometimes preferring not to reveal these details.


Generosity and Hospitality

Generosity (karim) and hospitality are core Sudanese virtues, linked to people's’ honour. Dignity (karama) is found in being helpful, generous and charitable to others with everything (money, food, time, personal connections, etc.). People are often able to rely on the hospitality of strangers as the Sudanese feel an obligation to show hospitality. As an example of this embedded generosity, a person may be able to travel long distances in Sudan without comprehensive provisions. 

 

The Sudanese people often feel a duty to offer everything they can to guests or friends. This reflects a certain kind of hospitality, known as ‘diyafa’, that people are taught to practise from a young age. By the time most Sudanese reach adulthood, it is a quality that is second nature to them. Often individuals may offer their service or help as an expression of politeness. In Sudan, people usually read non-verbal cues and refuse these offers; for example, “I couldn’t possibly accept that from you”. After this initial refusal, if the person does not insist the offer upon their guest, it usually means that they weren’t really expecting the guest to accept. This is all a polite exchange.


It is important to understand diyafa as it is often the source of many cross-cultural miscommunications. For example, a Westerner may be overwhelmed by a Sudanese person’s generosity and accept the offer, unintentionally taking advantage of their politeness. A Sudanese person is unlikely to speak up (see Stoicism below), and may end up going to great lengths to perform a favour that they meant to offer out of politeness. The Westerner may also be unaware that upon accepting this offer, there is an expectation that they repay the person with similar generosity at some point in the future. 


Stoicism and Fatalism

The Sudanese are generally stoic people and private about their emotions. There is a dominant cultural norm that expects individuals to hide when they are in pain or struggling. Resilience, self-restraint and physical courage are admired. Therefore, people try to be as tough as possible when faced with difficult situations. This means it is often hard to detect when a Sudanese person has been emotionally hurt; they may not show their offence or upset in their facial expressions.

 

This aspect of Sudanese culture is related to a sense of fatalism. There is a common belief that all events are predetermined by God (Allah). Therefore, crying and complaining can be seen as an objection against God’s will or a lack of faith in his plan. In some cases, open displays of emotion can be discouraged. For example, there is a traditional cultural expectation that women do not scream when going through child labour. Similar standards apply to mental and emotional struggle. Displays or outbursts of negative emotion tend to reflect poorly on people, particularly men as they are thought to be stronger than women. People are expected to resolve their struggles by putting their faith in God (Allah) whilst maintaining emotional control.


1 Mwaniki, 2018; Minority Rights Group International, 2018

2 Sikainga et al, 2018

3 Minority Rights Group International, 2018

4 Sikainga et al, 2018

5 Sharkey, 2008

6 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2004

7 UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights, 2017 

US Department of State, 2017

9 Human Rights Watch, 2008

10 Al Jazeera, 2013

11 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2016

12 International Criminal Court, 2018

13 UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights, 2017

14 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2016

15 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2016

16 UN Office of the High Commission for Human Rights, 2017 

17 CIA World Factbook, 2018

18 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2016

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