Other divine authorities contested the hakuma
’s implicit claims to be divine. They did this by challenging the government’s power to kill with impunity. The rest of this chapter provides an example of how Kolang Ket challenged the divinity of government. Kolang Ket was one of the first Nuer prophets in the western Nuer and went on to be significant in this region. His own seizure can be seen as a cultural and cosmological development that, in Graeber’s words, ‘creatively refused’ the assertions of the hakuma
’s sovereignty. The history of Kolang’s own death then contests the hakuma
’s ability to kill with impunity and be god-like. At stake are divergent definitions of divinity:1 This insight is thanks to Joseph Hellweg and his review of this book.
the defining of what can be divine is intimately linked to assertions of power.
By the late nineteenth century, Kolang Ket, living to the east of the Bilnyang River, had become a victim of repetitive crises and had become an extremely poor man. He was the only living man in his family and he had two sisters – Nyanyuot and Nyaboura. Both of his sisters gave birth to sons, but shortly afterwards a smallpox outbreak killed both the sisters and the sons. The death of his sisters’ sons left Kolang with a significant spiritual and moral obligation.2 Discussed in Jedeit J. Riek and Naomi Pendle, Speaking Truth to Power in South Sudan: Oral Histories of the Nuer Prophets (Rift Valley Institute, 2018).
Despite new experiences of death and economic loss, existing posthumous social expectations were still being upheld. Kolang had the responsibility to provide a posthumous wife for these sons and Kolang married wives on their behalf. However, the bride-price requirements left Kolang with no cattle. The wives then gave birth to sons for whose care he was also responsibile,3 Interview with Paramount Chief Dingding Kuol Kolang Ket of the Jabany Section, Bentiu UN Protection of Civilians (POC) site, 16 July 2017, in Nuer.
thus leaving him a poor, struggling man.
Kolang Ket’s poverty was the result of the new diseases and economies associated with the coming of foreigners (discussed further in Chapter 2), and the continuity of moral norms shaped in different political and economic times. This impacted Kolang’s ability to resolve disputes peacefully; peace relied on cattle given in compensation and he had no cattle left. Kolang ended up in many fights and, during one fight, he killed two men. He did not have the cattle to meet the compensation demands of the families.4 Ibid.
Therefore, he could expect them to seek revenge. In his poverty-induced vulnerability to revenge, Kolang Ket sought protection from Jiath Kor – a powerful figure among a neighbouring section of the Jagei Nuer, a section of the Nuer based around the area of greater Koch.5 Ibid.
Jiath Kor was an example of public authority and protection remade through the acquisition of a gun. Jiath did not have historic or divinely inspired authority. Instead, Jiath’s power was cemented by his acquisition of a gun from one of the foreign traders. Living in one of the closest Nuer settlements to Meshra-el-Rek, it is likely that this gun was given to Jiath Kor by traders stationed there in exchange for Jiath’s support in acquiring ivory or other goods, or for his promise of security. At the same time, Jiath was not only building his authority through the power of the gun, but was also drawing on older idioms of leadership. Through his offer of protection to characters like Kolang, Jiath invited comparison between his powers to protect using the gun and the physical and spiritual protection offered by the kuaar muon to those who had killed. Jiath’s protection also directly challenged the necessity of compensation for safety after killing. He was able to offer protection that was not so intimately linked with histories of Nuer divine authority. The gun could offer physical protection while ignoring spiritual protection.
Kolang Ket, while living under the protection of Jiath, committed adultery with the wife of a powerful kuaar muon. These acts were not just an affront to this specific man, but showed a brave defiance of previously feared hierarchies of authority and codes of morality and purity. Such a daring act as committing adultery against a powerful kuaar muon was an affront to the priestly power itself, and conveyed a confidence acquired from being protected by the safety of Jiath’s gun. Jiath’s power through the gun had allowed Jiath to protect Kolang from paying compensation after killing when Kolang had no cattle to pay. This challenged the laws of compensation and the divine monopoly on protection. The question now arose of whether the power of Jiath’s gun could also protect Kolang from the direct wrath of a kuaar muon.
In the end, Kolang decided the priest was more powerful than the gun, and he submitted to the power of the priest. While Kolang initially hid from the kuaar muon
, he eventually came to believe that protection by the gun would not have the power to protect him from the kuaar muon
’s ability to kill. Therefore, even if the gun was being compared to the divine, the divine moral authority of the kuaar muon
was still seen as more powerful and feared. In the context of this continued divine fear, Kolang Ket then begged forgiveness from the kuaar muon
to the point of offering himself up to death.6 Riek and Pendle, Speaking Truth to Power in South Sudan.
In a theatrical act, he laid himself before the kuaar muon
in the presence of Jiath Kor, and told the kuaar muon
to kill him. It was a vivid recognition by Kolang of the kuaar muon
’s continued power to kill with impunity.
The kuaar muon
‘creatively refused’ the hakuma
’s new culture of government sovereignty; he asserted his own divine power by showing mercy. Showing mercy and favour is also indicative of being god-like.7 Graeber and Sahlins, On Kings, page 8.
In response to Kolang’s theatrical act, the kuaar muon
blessed him and his seizure by MAANI (a divine power) followed. This seizure made Kolang a ‘guan kuoth
’ (‘owner of a divinity’) which meant he had special abilities including the power for the divinity to speak through him.The kuaar muon
’s favour creatively made space for a new divine authority figure who could be understood as continuous with his own power, but who would go on to have the power to challenge the hakuma
Kolang Ket was one of the first guan kuthni
(pl; sing. guaan kuoth
) in the western Nuer. The emergence of the guan kuthni
, later becoming known as ‘Nuer prophets’, is the most known example of religious rupture at this time.8 Douglas Johnson, ‘Prophecy and Mahdism in the Upper Nile: An Examination of Local Experiences of the Mahdiyya in Southern Sudan’, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 20:1 (1993), page 47.
They are seized by a named divinity, and claim power over life and death. Seizures by divinities have long been part of cosmic polities among those living around the Bilnyang. In the late 1940s, British anthropologist Godfrey Lienhardt had recorded that there were a number of active, ‘free divinities’ among the Dinka of Gogrial including DENG, GARANG and MACARDIT.9 Lienhardt, Divinity and Experience, page 56.
These free divinities or ‘sky divinities’ (kuoth nhial
), distinct from lower, earthly powers (kuuth piny
) and from divinities that are bound to certain clans, made their presence known through illness and then through declaring their name and instructions through the words of this seized person.10 Ibid., page 57.
Each of these free divinities had their own personalities and ‘biographies’.11 Ibid., pages 81–95; Cormack, ‘The Making and Remaking of Gogrial’, page 246.
These free divinities were not seen as necessary competitors of the baany e biith
but within the cosmological order in which the baany e biith
held their priesthood. Demonstrative of this was the necessary involvement of the baany e biith
in the initial recognition of the seizure of a person by a free divinity. ‘Men of divinity’ were from the clans of the baany e biith
but with additional powers. They are seized by a divinity known by a special name.12 Lienhardt, Divinity and Experience, page 76.
Therefore, these powers relied on clan membership but also on divine recognition. Lienhardt described ‘men of divinity’ as uniting clan divinities and divinity itself. The most powerful ‘men of divinity’ were from the clans of the baany e biith
,13 Ibid., page 74.
indicating that these prophetic figures were situating their claims to authority within existing registers.
Seizures allow for the emergence of new cosmic powers and focus, and to this extent represent a rupture. At the same time, they are within the existing cosmologies and divine authority structures. Seizures make the appearance of new divinities an expectation, and the role of the baany e biith
subsumes these figures into these existing structures. Ariathdit was the most famous Dinka prophet of the time and likely seized in the second decade of the twentieth century.14 Cormack, ‘The Making and Remaking of Gogrial’; Lienhardt, Divinity and Experience, page 76.
While based among the Malual Dinka near what is now Aweil, his influence is said to have extended as far east as Meshra-el-Rek and as far south as Tonj.15 Cormack, ‘The Making and Remaking of Gogrial’; Lienhardt, Divinity and Experience, pages 76–77;
Their overlapping spheres of influence make it also certain that Ariathdit and Kolang Ket would have been aware of each other’s divine powers. Dinka sought the intervention of Kolang Ket and later his daughter – the prophetess Nyuarac. Nuer in turn sought help from Dinka prophets.16 Lienhardt, Divinity and Experience, pages 74–75.
MAANI’s seizure of Kolang Ket pre-dated that of Ariathdit by two or three decades. It took place when Kolang was fishing in the rivers near the Bilnyang. Divine power came to Kolang Ket from the river, just as divine authority had come to Longar in riverside encounters and just as the hakuma had come from the rivers. The power of the hakuma and the gun had also come through the rivers at Meshra-el-Rek. Therefore, the Nuer prophets’ arrival did not equate to a discontinuity with previous notions of divine authority. Instead, the prophets were new authority figures who drew on previous religious idioms but who resembled new forms of authority to help preserve a previous moral order in times of incredible change and daily displays of the divinity of the gun.
The claims of MAANI and Kolang Ket to power were also intimately tied to the martial youth and the need to bring them under the authority of reconfiguring hierarchies. Shortly after being seized by MAANI, Kolang Ket demanded that the next cohort of youth not be initiated into a new age set until he returned from a journey. Initiation would give them new rights but also fighting responsibilities. When someone else initiated them in his absence, she was cursed to death by Kolang. This resulted in a recognition of his authority from the youth.17 Riek and Pendle, Speaking Truth to Power in South Sudan.
It is hard to imagine that new forms of cosmic power and ontological uncertainties that came with the hakuma
were not connected to the new prophetic seizures of people like Kolang Ket. This does not mean that prophets are inherently rebellious, but it is inconceivable that prophetic idioms were not at least partly shaped by experiences of the hakuma.
They are best understood as acts of ‘creative refusal’ by carefully nuancing culture and cosmologies to allow the divine to contest the unrestrained power of the hakuma.
Johnson has carefully argued that prophets emerged to the east of the Nile to form new moral communities after flood and famine induced migrations.18 Douglas Johnson, Nuer Prophets: A History of Prophecy from the Upper Nile in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Clarendon Press, 1994).
Flooding, famine and disease undoubtedly played their role. Yet, Johnson has been too eager to ignore the context of the coming of the hakuma
. He was writing at a time when governments too often saw prophets as inherently anti-government, but hidden in this work is the assumption that governments do have some value and right to rule, and that Nuer prophets would have less moral value if they were opposed to government. It is not that Nuer prophets are inherently opposed to hakuma
, but we also cannot ignore the seismic political and cosmological shifts that the hakuma
was creating at the time the prophets emerged.