History

WORDS, WAR AND WORSHIP – THE BARI SPEAKERS

In the late 1800s, during the days of Sir Samuel Baker and Emin Pasha, both former governors of colonial Equatoria province, the Bari were a numerous and warlike tribe, rich in cattle. But under Dervish rule (Mahdiyyah) they suffered severely and the tribe became a small one, with very few cattle (R.C.R. Owen: 1908). Some like the southernmost Kuku and Kakwa eventually became predominantly sedentary farmers, while the northernmost Mundari retained a relatively nomadic cattle rearing lifestyle.

At the turn of the twentieth century, many young men from the Bari ethnic groups were forcefully conscripted into the infamous British colonial army, making up the 3rd, 4th and 5th battalions of the Kings African Rifles (1902-1963). A great number of those young men lost their lives fighting in the ‘white man’s wars’ across the savannahs of Tanganyika and the forests of Burma/Myanmar.

Prominent members of the KAR included late Ugandan President Idi Amin Dada, who was a Bari speaker from the Kakwa ethnic group of North Western Uganda.

After world wars 1 and 2, many of the remaining Bari speaking soldiers from the KAR settled in the new East African urban centres instead of returning to their ancestral villages. They married local women, multiplied and became part of a new ethnic group called the Nubi or Nubians. Nubi is short form for ‘Junubi,’ Arabic for Southerner, in references to their origin in the former colonial territory of Southern Sudan.

The Nubians settled at Kibra (which means forest in Nubi/Juba Arabic). Kibra or Kibera is currently one of the largest slums in the world. It is located right on the periphery of the Kenyan capital. In Uganda the Nubians settled in various urban centres, including Kampala and Jinja where they once formed a bulk of the labour force at the Kakira Sugar Works factory and cane farms. My own great grandfather was among the few KAR men who walked back to South Sudan after the war ended in 1945. These were the men who started the formal armed struggle for the liberation of South Sudan after the Torit Mutiny of August 18, 1955.

The BaNubi or Nubians of East Africa still speak the colloquial form of Juba Arabic that was the lingua franca especially among the South Sudanese KAR recruits. The Nubian language is a dialect of the ancient Juba Arabic and is still similar to the language spoken on the streets of Juba today. And it still retains a high percentage of the Bari vocabulary with words like ‘keyini’ meaning co-wife still in use. A word like ‘fulata’ meaning ‘down’ in old Juba Arabic has been replaced by ‘tehet’ in contemporary Juba Arabic but it is still in use today in the Nubian dialect.

Although the East African Bari/Nubi/Nubians became predominantly Muslim, the remaining nine Bari speaking ethnicities of South Sudan, Uganda and DR Congo, who are also linguistically related to the Turkana of Kenya and the Karamojong and Teso of Uganda, became mostly Christians, worshiping their Supreme deity, “NGUN.”

The name Ngun means, ‘that who is the representative of goodness and therefore is not to be feared and requires no sacrifices.’ If you can remember a fellow called Mobutu Sese Seko who the Congolese once greatly feared and was treated like a demigod, referring to himself as Kuku Ngbendu wa Zabanga, colloquially translated into English, “The all-powerful warrior/cock who, because of his endurance and inflexibility to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.” then Ngun is more than a trillion-trillion good Mobutus and he is powerful mighty kind and merciful. I mean not the fearful version of ‘God’ that the missionaries tried to whip into their African converts’ buttocks.

The Bari noun “Ngun” comes from the obsolete verbal root ‘ngun’ (to be big) and from it the word “to’ngun” (meaning to be bigger or to surpass) is cropped. If a man is old and afraid of death, he is asked, “Do ‘a Ngun?” Meaning, “Are you God?” that is to say, ‘Do you want to live forever?’ The belief being that a man who has lived to his fullest life shouldn’t fear death.

The Bari speakers also have an expression for the evil spirit, to whom they are obliged to appease by offering sacrifices or (Robanga, pl. robangajin). They called the spirit (ajok pl. ajokan or juek). The contemporary word often used is jok-jok. Visit a funeral somewhere in Kajo-Keji or Juba today, and you might catch sight of the Jok-jok phenomena in action.

And did you know that: some old Bari speakers called the viper their grandmother, and would often offer it milk as sacrifice? Well, look out for my next piece on sorcery and the perils of being a ‘Rainmaker’ in ancient South Sudan. Cheers.

Dedi Seyi – Author/Anthropologist/Historian.

Pic: Men from the Kings African Rifles in Action.

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