The Kuku are a tribe of the Karo people from South Sudan. They inhabit the agricultural lands of Kajokeji County in Central Equatoria State. The Kuku speak a Bari dialect, also called Kuku.
They are chiefly a farming people relying on mixed farming. During the rainy season they grow substantial food crops, mainly sorghum, (also known in Sudan as dura) maize, millet, cassava, sweet potatoes, and beans (loputu). In the dry season they manage a small scale of cattle, goats and sheep herding. The Kuku are good beekeepers. They also practice collective hunting during dry season, hunting with bow and arrow. Their hunting practices also involve trapping animals in a net.
Demography and Geography
The Kuku are found in southeastern part of central Equatoria.
Their most important town is Kajo-Keji.
The Kuku number about 20,000-30,000 and a few of them are found in West Nile District of Uganda.
The Kuku people were part of a larger group known Bari-. There was a good deal of in-fighting amongst the larger group and so they decided to spread out into places where each group felt more comfortable. The Kuku was the group that decided to move south and settle. There are rainmakers who are very famous in the tribe. After the first Sudanese civil war in 1972, there was an agreement amongst south Sudanese groups, and prominent members of the Kuku joined south Sudan's leadership.
The land of the Kuku people is called Kuku and the administrative coverage area, which is the County, is given the name Kajo-Keji, after the name of the tribe’s chief (Kajok-Köji) who was in power during the British rule in the Sudan. Kajo-Keji lies in the southernmost part of the Southern Sudan near the Uganda border districts of Moyo and Yumbe. It has an area of almost 112,600 km² and composes of five administrative local areas known as Payams. These are:
At the border to Moyo, there is a remarkable landmark called Jale Hill. It is a historically renowned hill which is known to both the Kuku and their Ma'di neighbours.
The physical environment of Kajo-Keji exhibits mountainous terrain with undulating contours drained by a number of small perennial streams which cut deep meandering valleys in which these streams flow. Rainfall is abundant.
The influence of weather and topography have shaped the socio-economic activities of the Kuku. They are predominantly agrarian sometimes producing surplus product for the market. The main crops are sorghum, maize, groundnuts, cassava, simsim, tobacco. The Kuku also keep cattle. The proximity to Uganda has had tremendous impact and the monetisation of Kuku economy.
Oral tradition has it that Bari migrants - motivated by the desire for cultivable and grazing land - ventured southward in the early decades of the 19th century. These migrants were endowed with the powers for making rain. It was this small, but formidable group of the Bari that claimed legitimacy to the land and in subsequent years became known as Kajo-Keji.
Over time, the Kuku population increased, and new generations of families, and clans emerged. Consequently, the Kuku people criss-crossed the land, established farms and carved out grazing lands. The Kuku lost their cattle to tsetse fly, thereby abandoning animal husbandry as a full-time occupation and devoted much of their energies to agriculture.
The Kuku people speak a very similar language to some of the other groups in South Sudan like the Bari tribe. They speak the Bari language which originated from the Bari tribe. Their script was developed when the British colonized Sudan. They write using the Latin alphabet. In addition, they have a few other letters, and some letters familiar to English are omitted. Some letters that are not included like F and C. In their language, anything you pronounce has its own way of saying it. The way you pronounce it is totally unique according to the tribe.
Names that are given to a newborn child have many different meanings. The name of the first child is decided by the father unless he says otherwise.
The economy is almost entirely agricultural. Most live on farms in the village, but some become artisans like blacksmiths or potters. Wealth is largely measured in the number of animals. Other products that are made are spears, knives, gourds, drums, flutes, and guitars.
Crops consist of sorghum, maize, rice, millet and other grains. Most other items are normally gathered from the bush. They also care for cattle, sheep, and goats. The people trade in communities; it is usually done through barter.
Kuku have no centralized form of administrative authority. Their administrative system emerges from bottom to top as follows:
With their strong belief in God and God's works through their ancestors, the Kuku tribe has their chiefs associated with water. These chiefs are hence, responsible for rain controls during the crop growing seasons of the year.
The Kuku agricultural lifestyle is reflected in their religious belief and practices. They strongly believe that there is only one God and he lives somewhere above the skies. In practice, they believe that all happenings to a family, a clan or the whole tribe take place as a result of their deeds. God, who is merciful and kind, speaks and acts to the people through their ancestors. The word for God in Kuku language is Ŋun and for man is ŋuto analyzed as Ŋutu or separated into two words as Ŋu tu. The word tu in Kuku means exact. Ŋutu then gives the meaning of exact image of God. Ŋun is invisible and therefore speaks and acts to the people in spirit. The Kuku people believe that Ŋun sends strong messages to the people through the spirits of their ancestors. The word for Spirit in Kuku language is Mulökötyo. There are two types of spirits, good and bad. Good spirits are called Mulökö Lo’but٫ and bad spirits are called Mulökö Lorok.
With the penetration of Christianity missionary activity into southern Sudan, the Kuku traditional belief and religious lifestyle have been replaced with many Western Christian traditions.
There are different types of dances performed by the Kuku tribe. Young members of the tribe often do a rain dance when there is a drought. Elders sometimes participate when they really want/need to. There are dances of mourning during funerals. Family members of the deceased abstain from dancing to show their grief. After a bountiful harvest, the whole community gathers and dances to show their happiness and thanks to the Spirits and God.
They make baskets from reeds and long grasses that they obtain from the landscape around them. They rarely use color for decoration in their tribe. Other handicrafts include making containers from gourds or other big fruits and from animal skin.
The Kuku are very fond of songs. They create songs for all kinds of subjects. Each and every song expresses a certain intense feeling. Most of the songs are based on true stories. For them, anything can be made into a song. While story-telling, the Kuku largely use animals as characters in their stories. Elders are often the ones who tell these stories to the children.
For housing, they get bamboo from the mountains for their roofing and thatch it with grass. The walls are made from mud taken from an anti hill and neatly speared with soil taken from a river back to help keep the temperature cool inside.
For clothing today, they use modern Western clothing. Previously, they used fiber from trees that is flattened out and then wrapped around their bodies. They also used animal skin as clothing. They only used to cover the necessary parts of the body, like their midsection. They walked around barefoot. During special occasions, some of them wear a cow tail on their wrists for style. Sometimes, they wear feathers on their heads. The feathers come from a variety of birds, and the type or quantity worn shows status. Earrings for women are made using pieces of scrap metal.
For body art, men have a choice to burn a scar onto their body in a design they desire. Scarification is a personal choice and not an obligation. It is done as body decoration for others to admire. Only men are allowed to do this practice.
The Kuku play a game that is very similar to baseball called wuri. It involves hitting a hard fruit with a stick and running. The rules are exactly the same as baseball.
Elders play a game that they play on the ground. They make many indents and then use rocks (small gravels) as characters in their games. The game is called soroo.
Children stay away from elders as a sign of respect. They are not supposed to talk with them at all. During some occasions, parents/adults will invite elders to come to their home for dinner.
After or during good rains, the whole community comes together to celebrate. The same can be said for harvests.
There are not strict working hours in Kuku society. People can take a break when they desire and at any time of the day.
The Kuku have a special drink called yawanatakbe. It is an alcoholic drink made from sorghum. They eat foods like beans and meat every day. Their first meal is usually at 7 in the morning, Lunch at around mid-day and dinner in the evening.
When it comes time for a young man to be married, a family will go to a neighboring community and get information about a girl in another family that is old enough to get married. If her personality and reputation is acceptable, a dowry (usually a pre-determined number of animals) is paid to the bride’s family. The couple then are declared married by the elders. The couple will go and make a new house and stay there together, or the wife will go and stay with her husband in his parents' house.
When a child is born, the community comes together and celebrates the new addition.
After a person has died, the people are always gloomy, especially the family. They bury the deceased and then have a community meeting to bless the person and give him or her a good life with the spirits and God. They bury after two or three days normally. They talk about the cause of death with the relatives. If they come to a decision, the person is buried. This ceremony lasts for about a week.
Men normally go hunting and farming during the day. Women spend most of the day working at farming and other chores. The women come home one hour earlier than men to start preparing the meal for the day. Young boys and girls are free to play and often assist in chores around the home. Occasionally, a father will take his son to teach him how to hunt and farm. A mother teaches her daughters how to do household chores. Adults, in general, must work very hard as a community to help the village to survive. Elders keep the law and order in the tribe/community.
In the village, the highest respect goes to the elders, then male adults, followed by adult women, and lastly, the children.
A person is viewed highly if he has a wealth of money or animals, or if he has many children or wives. Others respect him because having a large family means that you have enough wealth to care for a large number of people. The importance of a person in a community is normally attributed to their wealth (puet), how they have helped the community, or their age.
For a spouse to be chosen it takes a very long time and there are a lot of procedures. First, the groom’s family goes to another community and finds a girl with a good background and personality. If the groom has a bad reputation, he goes very far to find a bride. Then the bride’s family usually decides to go to the groom's village and find out information about the groom's family, to learn about their status in the community. If the family of the bride agrees, they are officially married. The girl would normally say yes to show respect. In the old days, the girl does not have a say in who she wants to marry. If the guy was rich, he could have any girl he wanted. If she resists, she is kidnapped by the husband. Now, there has to be a yes on both sides for a marriage to happen.
A family unit in the tribe normally consisted of a husband and two wives with children. Extended families live in separate housing. The average number of children is seven. Wives could be as many as the husband desired, but it was limited by his ability to care for them and provide the dowry. Since the arrival of Christianity, marriage has become monogamous. The father is always the leader of the family, and if he is gone, the first wife is then in charge of the family.
At first, the people of Kuku beliefs were pantheistic and often worshiped a river or a big tree in their village. People would go to these places whenever there was a need and they prayed to the rain God to give them water. Religion was not formal or important because they wanted to believe in something that would help them. As time has passed, most Kuku are Christians and now pray on a daily basis.
In the community, most decisions are made by the elders, and solutions depend on the situation. If another group comes and raids or attacks their group, they will fight back to get back what was lost. In some situations, all the elders will come together and discuss on an appropriate solution. If a law is broken, the person that commits the crime must pay a number of animals to the family or tribe that was offended. If a person has committed murder he must pay seven cows, four goats and five sheep. This will be given to the family of the deceased.
Community rules include:
All children are supposed to be taught by their parents. They teach about life and what they should do for a good life. Before being colonized, moral education was the most important. There was no formal schooling prior to colonization. Children were taught at home. "To know what to do in life is always the most important feeling in life."
The Kuku society is built on social and moral values which emphasize on virtue, identity and tradition that has inner meaning to their daily social life. Being predominantly agrarian, the Kuku demonstrate a high sense of independence and very few social events bring the people together. They however, have very stringent traditions and customs
Marriage traditions and customs are very strict among the Kuku. They are exogamous and marriage to blood relatives is forbidden. The Kuku pay 2 cows and a bull, 4 goats, 2 spears, a number of hoes and now, money in dowry. Once the dowry has been paid, the bride is taken to the groom’s home in a ceremony. The bridesmaids stay with her for up to 10 days.
There is a practice of elopement with a lover if his proposal had been rejected. The Kuku practice polygamy but each wife has her own quarters and the widows can be appropriated by the elder son. Divorce is difficult when there are offsprings, but should it happen for whatever reason the dowry is returned. Birth to twins brings sorrow because it is viewed exceedingly as a bad omen which may entail the death of one of the parents.
The news of death is announced by loud wailing of women followed by the beating to a sad tone of a drum and the performance of funeral dance in a war-like demonstration. A bull is sacrificed. The burial takes place after 24 hours. Before the entombment, the widow or widower is led to the nearby stream and kept there until the burial has been completed. The body is laid with the head facing eastwards. The widow is led out of the house by the wife of the blacksmith to the adjacent stream and has her head shaved. She is stripped of all ornaments
10 days after birth, the male son is named after his grandfather but the female gets the name of her father’s grandmother. The second son is given the name of the mother’s grandfather and so on. The child may have pet-names and nicknames.
The Kuku are very particular about telling the truth (kuye). Particularly, for the people in position of authority no matter the circumstances. It is performed by holding two long sticks while speaking out the truth.
This used to be an infamous custom among the Kuku for human poisoning by administering snake poison. This custom is disappearing although in some remote areas it is still being practiced.
Kuku society is ruled by several independent chieftains assisted by a number of sub-chiefs and clan elders. The chief exercises administrative, political as well as spiritual powers of rain-making.
The Kuku believe that a human being is made up of a mortal body and immortal soul. After death, the soul is liberated and continues to exist in a sphere in which, it directly associates and communicates with God (Ngukaitait) but communicates with living relatives by causing them to be sick - in default of necessary sacrifices.
A miniature house is therefore built for the spirits in every homestead where the living communicate with their departed ones. The Kuku believe that the souls of neighbours exchange visits whenever there is a ritual sacrifice in the neighbours house. The Kuku believe in the spiritual powers of mediums or medicine men or women (kujur), who wield much respect among the people on account of their mysterious communication with God (Ngukaitait). On setting out on a mission of doubtful result, the Kuku would make a rope of green grass and bury it under a stone beside the road as a sign of good omen for the mission.
Kuku culture like that of other communities is essentially oral and is transmitted from generation to generation through song, dance, music and folklore which exalts virtue, identity and a sense of independence and self-reliance.
The Kuku have advanced arts and exhibit enormous skills in iron-smelting and production of iron implements (bows and arrows, hoes, spears), canoe-building. This has greatly improved their methods of land tilting, hunting (trapping of leopards, hunting elephants) and fishing practices.
Any Kuku male who exhibits unique skills or expertise in hunting, fishing, canoe-making, and iron-smelting and manufacture of iron implements was referred to as blacksmith or ''''tumunit'''' (singular) or ''''tomonok'''' (plural). Indeed, there were men in the Kuku society who had the unique skills of killing elephants, rhinoceros, and hippopotamus. They specialized in making snares or nets for trapping wild animals.
The Kuku neighbour Bari, Nyepo, Kakwa, Pöjulu, Madi and Lugbwara. The Kuku high sense of self-identity and success shaped their relations with neighbours and foreigners. The Kuku co-operate with other people as far as there is mutual trust and respect. They are known to boycott people or goods from people who may have mistreated them such the boycott of Arab merchandise or Dinka butcheries in Kajo-Keji.
Kajo-Keji, the Kuku main town used to be part of Yei River Administration. It has been separated and made an independent administrative unit. Kajo-Keji was liberated in 1997 and this event witnessed the return to their homes of many Kuku people who had hitherto lived as refugees in Uganda.
As a result of the long running civil war, many Kuku people have migrated and settled in West Nile District of Uganda. Some have travelled further a field into other parts of Uganda, East Africa and the rest of the world.