Response to Dancing with a Wolf: A Reflection on Gambella Politics

By Magn Nyang, Minnesota, USA – Recently, I read an article with the above title written by one named Chuol R. Kompuok. For those who don’t know who Chuol is, I would like to give you some info about him. In 1987, my classmates (whom I grew up with from early childhood) and I were in 7th grade in Gambella Middle High School. If not all of us, most of us were classmates from the 1st grade. Here we are in the 7th grade (our first years in the Middle High School), when two tall skinny and one short skinny boy walked into our class. We looked at each other in a way that said “Who the hell are these boys?” Remember, almost all of us in that class of 1987 grew up together? We did not want any interruption to our coerciveness. We resented anyone who did not grow up with us to show up and become one of us. Therefore, we rejected and shone these three boys. Seeing this rejection of the new boys, our homeroom teacher, Tesfalem Mokonen, put one of these new boys in charge of our class. The boy was almost taller than all of us at that time. In Amharic, it was called ” ye kifil alefi.” We vigorously rejected our home room teacher’s choice of “ye kifil alefi.” My childhood friends namely, John Okello, Dang Ochalla, Obang(Agwa) Ochalla, Samson Ogalla, Kurabachew Abera, Jaffer Negash, Omot Akway, Dereje Haile and so on gave so much hard time to the “ye kifil alefi” until he resigned. I remember when Tesfalem walked into our class one day and Goaner Yer read his resignation in English. As he read, he mentioned me, John Okello, Dang Ochalla, Agwa Ochalla, and Samson Ogalla as reason for his resignation. We were taken to the principal office and punished severely. The principal, Ato Wakjera, bit us with stick.

These three boys who happened to walk into our class in Spring of 1987 happened to be one Choul R. Kompuok, one Goaner Yer (former vice president), and one Omot Obang Olom (former president). We knew that the two of them were Nuers from Sudan because neither Choul nor Goaner spoke one word of Amheric. We were told that they attended their primary schools somewhere in Sudan and one was the uncle of the other. I don’t even remember if they attended Amheric class with us. In those days, Sudanese students used to walk out of class when Amharic teacher walked in. Omot Obang Olom, on the other hand, came from Pinykaw we were told. There was no 7th grade in Pinykaw at that time. Therefore, he had to come to Gambella to attend Middle highSchool. My point here is that Choul, Goaner, and Omot (Okichi) were my classmates at one point.

I am not here to support or dispute Choul’s wordings point by point because my uncle has done that already. However, I will try to answer the question: Are Anywaa and Nuer ever going to live in peace in Gambella?

What Does Ethnicity and Land Means to the Anywaa?

The Anywaa believe that ethnicity constitutes the foundations of any society, for it shapes culture and the political structure. More importantly, it shapes the perception of group of people, defines their universe, and provides them with meanings, understanding and the power to interpret the world around them.

Ethnicity is important to Anywaa in many ways. First, it provides security both to the group, as a whole, as well as to the individual Anywaa constituting the group. The sense of belonging to an ethnic group means the members are safe together as one people, and ready to defend themselves against any external attacks on their existence and sovereignty. This notion of security also provides the groups with a sense of direction in their lives.

Second, to the Anywaa, ethnicity provides a common ancestry and history, which is an important aspect of the Anywaa peoples: they desire to know who or what gave birth to their ancestors and where they are destined, following their departure from this earth. This knowledge of a common ancestry creates a strong bond within Anywaa, for they realize that without the ability to support each other the entire group is doomed to die off or conquered by other groups around them.

Third, ethnicity also provides a common language to the Anywaa. Language defines a people giving them the power to think and reason logically based on their created world. Through language communication is possible among members, making it easier to share ideas and make any necessary changes required to benefit the people. The Anywaa believe that it is through the distinct ethnic language that the knowledge, skills, values, taboos and other cultural beliefs and customs are passed onto the succeeding generations, in attempts to keep the group from dying off.

Finally, the Anywaa believe that ethnicity serves as an organizing force, which assists in bringing people together to fight or seek a common goal. This creates a sense of communalism, family, and togetherness, which also deepens the sense of belonging. When it comes to land issues, the Anywaa believe that the land belongs to their respective clans. That is why the Anywaa tend to come together to defend themselves against intruders on their lands.

What Does Ethnicity and Land Means to Nuers?

Ethnicity does not mean anything to Nueres. Ethnicity can change at any time. One does not have to be born from Nuer mother and father to be granted Nuer ethnic identity. One can become an Ethnic Nuer based on his/her cultural competence (Dereje, 2004). Unlike, the Anywaa, Nuers do not believe in blood purity. In fact, what we call Nuer Ethnic group today is a combination of several tribes and ethnic groups. For Nuers, Ethnic identity is based on ones cultural competence. You can be an Anywaa today and then tomorrow you may move to a Nuer village. If after a year, you master Nuer’s culture, and then you are Nuer, no question asks. I remember when some Tigrians tried to escape to Sudan in 1986. On their way, they were captured by Nuers. They were given Nuer names and traditional Nuer marks were put on their faces. Years later they were totally assimilated into Nure’s Ethnic group. These people do not even look like Nuers, still, they were assimilated.

For the Anywaa land belong to their respective clans. For Nuers, land belongs to God. Look at how Choul accused Omot Olom of repatriating thousands of Nuers from Ochom village and Gambella souroundings back to Jikaw and Akobo. He didn’t even bother asking himself whose land is Ochom and Gambella? One has to known Nuer’s psych to understand what angle Choul was coming from. In Nuer’s psych, Ochom and Gambella land belongs to God and therefore, they belong to everybody including Nuers. Accordingly, any Nuer can move to Ochom, Gambella, Itang, Akobo, and if that same Nuer wishes, he/she can move back to South Sudan land anytime he/she wants to do so without any interference by anyone. This is the kind of psych and thinking that made a man who claimed to have a Ph.D to not even asked himself the simplest question before accusing others of repatriating Nuers.

Another point that Choul made that I disagree with is the claim that Nuers are the majority in Gambella region. To claim that Nuers are the largest ethnic group in Gambella region is just laughable. How can one count the population of Gambella and come up with the exact ethnic group population numbers? Since Nuers believe that the land belongs to God, they move across South Sudan and Ethiopian bonders freely. Thousands of Nuers could be included in Ethiopian’s Census today and tomorrow the same group crosses the border back to South Sudan. I suggest that the Ethiopian Nuers in collaboration with the regional government should do a better job in weeding out those who are not Ethiopian Nuer. Untill this is done by Ethiopian Nuers and regional government we will continue to have a problem in the region.

Can Anywaa and Nuer live together in Peace?

One can see from my analysis above that the Anywaa and Nuer differ on their outlook on Ethnicity and land ownership. However, I believe that they can still live together in peace and harmony.

The principles of coexistence and tolerance are important as bases for building mutually acceptable relationships between diverse ethnic groups within a society. If the integrative system is to work–that is, if it is to be able to hold a diverse community together as a single entity (for example, in the region of Gambella)–there must be a certain level of tolerance between the different ethnic groups living in that state. In the absence of tolerance and willing co-existence, societies will be in perpetual conflict, with each side trying to somehow get rid of the other, either by forcing them to leave, or by one group completely dominating and de-humanizing the opposing group(s).

How co-existence is structured can vary widely. Generally, there are two approaches–one seeking to minimize or ignore differences between groups, and the other recognizing differences, but honoring each group as valuable and unique. My suggestion is that Anywaa and Nuer should minimize their differences,honor and appreciate each other as distinct and valuable. After all, The Anywaa and Nuers are not so different and they are facing similar problems each day in Ethiopia. In my opinion, there are few steps that the Anywaa and Nuers need to take in order to co-exist in harmony

My recommendations for peaceful co-existence

  1. Educated Nuers should work hard to change Nuers’ psych about land that says land belongs to God. This kind of thinking has been the very source of conflicts between the Anywaa and Nuers for decades. Nuers should not grab Anywaa land forcefully. If Nuers want to live with Anywaa, they should do so peacefully.
  2. Conservative Anywaa have to recognize that Nuers are here to stay and instead of fighting to kick them out, find ways to accommodate them.
  3. For a much better peaceful co-existence in the future, educated Nuers should move out of segregated Nuers’ shanty towns (eg. New Land in Gambella town) and rent apartments throughout Gambella town. Have their children mingle, play soccer, and go to school with Anywaa children. The analogy is that children who grew up together will be good citizens. They will not look at themselves as Anywaa and Nuer. The will see each other as Gambellan with a common interest.
  4. If and when peaceful Nuers decide to move their famils into Anywaa neighborhood, the Anywaa should not reject the move. It is all for our better society.
  5. The Ethiopian Nuers should work hard to be loyal to Gambella and draw a clear line between them and South Sudan Nuers. Not having a clear line between these two groups has also been source of conflict between the Anywaa and Nuer. I leave the responsibility to Ethiopian Nuers to draw the line since they know who is who.

Let us work together for our better future. The Anywaa and Nuers are equally responsible for creating a better peaceful Gambella for us and our children.

The writer, Dr. Magn Nyang can be reached