Family is the most important aspect of life in South Sudan. “Family” can refer to an expansive kinship network, including the extended family and distant relatives, as well as the relatives of spouses that are married into the family. In this way, the organising principle of society is often based on a broad community of relationships rather than the nuclear family.
The basic household structure is traditionally large and multigenerational. People generally try to have as many children as possible, sometimes up to 20. South Sudanese living in other countries may seek to have smaller families due to the expense of raising multiple children; however, nuclear family units generally remain larger than what is standard throughout the English-speaking West. The extended family generally lives with the nuclear family, unless uncontrollable circumstances prevent this arrangement. Even in the situations where they cannot live together, all relatives usually live within close proximity of one another.
Extended relatives expect to be able to rely on one another in times of need. For example, older family members are cared for by younger generations as they age. The decades of conflict have also left many people orphaned or widowed that are usually taken in and cared for by extended family networks. Considering the size of some families, they may make use of public spaces such as parks to congregate.
Children typically live in their parents’ home until they are married, or even beyond that point. The age of marriage varies between tribes, sometimes occurring in one’s teenage years or later on in adulthood. It tends to happen later on in urban areas. However, most people aim to be married and settled with their partner by their mid-20s. Females usually move into their husband’s family’s home upon marriage. However, for men, it is common to have their wife move into their parents’ house with them. As such, the average South Sudanese household usually consists of three generations: (1) the eldest couple, (2) their sons, sons’ wives and any unmarried daughters, and (3) their grandchildren.
Childcare is often shared among all adults within a family, or sometimes the community at large, as opposed to singular parents. Generally, any adult concerned can discipline a child. The use of corporal punishment is common. Despite the fact that many people play a part in raising Sudanese children, a child’s misbehaviour is generally considered to be a reflection of their parents alone. Error on their behalf brings shame on the family and its ancestors. In some tribes, women sleep in the same bed as their child until the child is around 7 years old while fathers sleep in a separate room.
Gender roles are quite rigidly defined in South Sudan. It is expected that young girls follow their mother’s behaviour and boys learn from their father. The man is the breadwinner and the decision maker, while females are the house maker and child bearer. This also translates into a gender divide in tasks. Women generally grow the crops and complete the domestic chores, whilst men are encouraged to socialise and look after the family’s animals. However, the role of women has been broadening as many have been left widowed by the conflict and have had to take on tasks traditionally associated with men.
South Sudanese society tends to deeply patriarchal. The father or eldest man leads the family and holds the most authority. Family assets and inheritance are also passed down through the male line. On the other hand, a paternalistic attitude generally surrounds women. Parents are often particularly protective over their daughter’s safety and sexual propriety out of fear that she will do something to bring shame upon the family. This can mean that women have less freedom than their brothers and husbands to socialise in public, stay up late, etc. Part of the reason behind this attitude is that women are traditionally seen as sources of wealth. The custom of bride price attaches a monetary value to them at marriage (see more information on this in Marriage and Dating below). As such, the more wives or daughters a man has, the wealthier he is perceived to be. It shows he was rich enough to afford the dowry of one wife (or multiple wives) and will be receiving further wealth when his daughters are married off.
However, this perception of females is transforming as more women receive a formal education. NGOs and aid agencies have also put pressure on South Sudan to change women’s human rights treatment under customary law. Furthermore, many people change their ideas about the role of men and women upon moving to host countries (such as Australia). Living in these societies with increased empowerment often sees women exercise their social rights and power. Men can sometimes struggle adjusting to Western cultural family structures. Having solely understood their role as the provider and head of the house, the increased social power women and children gain can make some feel as if they have lost their manhood. Many may think that they are not fulfilling their social obligations as the family breadwinner if they have to rely on financial assistance, their wife earns more than them or they have to share childcare duties.
Dating and Marriage
Dating practices (as they are understood in the English-speaking West) are almost nonexistent in South Sudan. It is considered very improper to socialise with a member of the opposite gender alone in public unless the two people are married. Such behaviour can warrant punishment in certain circumstances, especially for females. A couple can generally only be public about their relationship once they have settled and announced engagement. South Sudanese marriage practices vary significantly on the basis of one’s ethnicity, tribe and religion as well as people’s socioeconomic background and occupation. The main purpose of marriage is generally to procreate and extend clan networks; women are expected to bear a child very soon after getting married.
Marriage is seen as the merging of two families that broadens and strengthens communities; therefore, parents’ approval of the couple is essential. There are many factors that are considered when choosing prospective partners. Primarily, people are concerned with their family’s ethnicity and mode of living (e.g. cattle herders, merchants, etc.). Some have reported that the younger South Sudanese generation is becoming less obedient of their parents’ wishes regarding whom they will marry. However, it is common for men to to return to South Sudan, marry and bring their newlywed wife back to their host country.
Once a couple is engaged, both families make sure to be on their best behaviour and maintain good relationships with everyone in the community. Marriages have the potential to be delayed or prevented if there is a confrontation or argument of any kind, or suspicion of the other family’s reputation. To cement an engagement and bond between families, the relatives may eat together and will often exchange goods or pay a bride price/dowry to the bride’s family. This dowry can be large and may require contributions from the groom’s whole extended family (e.g. 100 cows). The terms of the dowry vary between tribes and it does not always have to be in the form of assets or money. For example, the family of the groom may agree to cultivate the soil of the wife’s family’s farm. This is compensation for the family’s loss of their daughter/sister’s labour when she leaves to be married. In the past few years, dowry prices have inflated to become very expensive. South Sudanese families may need to wait multiple years between each of their son’s marriages so that they can accumulate the necessary wealth.
Interethnic/tribal marriages do occur, but tolerance of it varies between groups. Furthermore, many tribes have different customs surrounding the bride price that can be complicated to navigate. For example, a Zande man could find it quite difficult to marry a Dinka or Nuer woman as the tribes follow a different traditional form of livelihood; it would be a complicated process and the dowries would be large. Meanwhile, Nuer men may find it easier to marry outside of their tribe.
Most people will have a Christian ceremony followed by a traditional ceremony. However, there are many other cultural practices relating to marriage that may or may not be followed. For example, polygyny can occur among all socioeconomic backgrounds in South Sudan. This is a polygamous marriage in which the man can have multiple wives, usually two or three. Nilotic tribes may also practise the tradition of wife inheritance. This is the custom whereby, in the event of a man’s death, his brother inherits his widow as another wife. However, incest is strongly condemned. Tribes can trace their ancestry back for generations to prevent this.
Divorce is very rare as marriage generally solidifies a lifelong merging of two families. Furthermore, the custom of the dowry complicates the process. The man usually gets automatic custody in compensation for the high price he originally paid for his bride. This can deter women from seeking divorce. Sometimes, if the couple has had no children, it may be more feasible to return the dowry to the groom’s family and split. Nevertheless, it is more common for South Sudanese children to be raised by a stepmother than a stepfather.