The report that South Sudanese church leaders intend to travel to Israel to fulfill an alleged Old Testament prophecy by Isaiah has sparked off yet another religious debate on the internet. It is not so much a debate about Isaiah and the Bible as about one of South Sudan’s own prophets, the nineteenth century Lou Nuer, Ngundeng Bong.
What Ngundeng said, or did not say, has become an emotional topic because of the way he has been invoked by some of the actors in the recent fighting in Jonglei State. The internet debate is mainly between members of South Sudan’s diaspora, and it is clear that neither those correspondents who denounce Ngundeng as Satan, nor those who revere him as a divine prophet are writing with any clear knowledge of what he is supposed to have done or said.
There are a number of ways to approach Ngundeng (or any other historical religious figure, for that matter). You can approach him as an historian, trying to find out what he said, did, and meant to the people of his own time. You can approach him as a believer, where what he meant in his own time is less important than what he means to you today. Or you can approach him as many evangelists do, dismissing him (and all other traditional religious figures) as evil Satanists to be swept aside by a more militant Christianity or Islam. As neither a believer nor an evangelist it is probably unwise for an historian (and a foreigner) to intervene in a religious debate; nevertheless there is some value in trying to establish what we can know about this important historical figure.
The Nuer move with their cattle, and in the nineteenth century this meant that they move into a vast territory both north and south of the Sobat River. The Nuer have the reputation of being fierce fighters, but they also have a reputation for assimilation, and Nuer society underwent profound changes in the nineteenth century as a result of their contact with and absorption of the peoples in what is now Jonglei State. The old cohesion was strained both by movement and the incorporation of new persons with kin-ties extending beyond Nuer society. Feuds were more difficult to resolve if one group could just move off to occupy new territory. Attacking old enemies like Dinka or Anyuak could cause problems closer to home if people in you own section now also had close relatives among those you attacked.
Ngundeng claimed to speak with voice of Deng – a divine figure known to both Nuer and Dinka as well as to many peoples throughout the Upper Nile basin. As a prophet of Deng he addressed many issues affecting the social cohesion of Nuer society, and Nuer relations with their neighbors as well. He opposed the use of private magic for personal gain, so much so that he banished his eldest son for dabbling in it. He condemned both inter-sectional feuds among the Nuer and cattle raids against the Dinka – something that the British, no friends of Ngundeng, later confirmed.
But the paradox of Ngundeng as a prophet of peace was that he secured his reputation through victory in a major battle. In about 1879 the Lou Nuer were attacked by a coalition of Dinka and Gaawar Nuer, led by an ex-soldier from Egyptian army (he was described as being circumcised and carrying a sword or bayonet), but Ngundeng decisively defeated them at Pading, near Khor Fulus [Dinka for pul luth or mud fish pond]. Some of the earliest recorded eyewitness accounts of this battle indicate that Ngundeng laid an ambush for the invading force and push them back into the swampy area where they were defeated. Later versions, however, attribute his victory entirely to his spiritual power. In these versions Ngundeng killed his attackers through the power of his decorated stick – the dang (rod or baton). He raised it to the sky, invoked his divinity, and his enemies died.
The problem with gaining an early reputation for military victory is that people expect you to repeat it. When a British-led armed column approached Ngundeng’s village in 1902 the Lou expected him to repeat his victory at Pading. Ngundeng raised his dang, announced that his divinity was not present, and disbanded his force. Whether Ngundeng acted through divine inspiration, or he made a shrewd assessment of the chances of the spear-armed Nuer against the rifle-armed soldiers of the Anglo-Egyptian army, we will never know for sure. The soldiers demonstrated their pacific intentions by burning down Ngundeng’s village and confiscating the ivory tusks surrounding his shrine.
By refusing to fight Ngundeng avoided the fate that finally befell his son Guek Ngundeng in 1929. When the government of the day accused Guek of plotting a rebellion he at first tried to evade the army but was rebuked by his age-mate, who claimed that if Ngundeng were alive he would have defeated the army just like he had defeated his foes at Pading. When Guek finally confronted the Sudan Defence Force in front of hos father’s shrine and tried to re-enact his father’s famous victory he was shot dead along with a number of his followers, and his body was hung from a tree for all to see his fate.
This is a bare outline of what can be determined through a combination of Nuer eye-witness testimony and contemporary British documents. I published a more comprehensive account nearly twenty years ago in a book entitled Nuer Prophets. But the eye-witnesses are now all dead, the documents inaccessible in foreign archives, and the book too expensive for most South Sudanese to afford. In these circumstances it is not surprising that alternative versions of Ngundeng’s life are circulating among believers. In these versions Ngundeng’s victory at Pading is conflated with his encounter with the Anglo-Egyptian army near his shrine. Far from dispersing his own force Ngundeng is now said to have defeated the British through the use of dang. Even Guek is credited with shooting down one of the RAF’s (Royal Air Force) airplanes. This, interestingly enough, is almost true. The government deployed four biplanes against the Lou when they were chasing Guek. These were wood and fabric constructions that did not offer their pilots much protection. One pilot was hit in the thigh by a shot from below by a Nuer rifleman. He did not crash, but while he recovered from his wound back at base there was no one to fly his airplane, and the RAF squadron was reduced from four to three.
The attempt to reenact prophecy can be dangerous and cost Guek his life. Trying to anticipate the fulfillment of prophecy might not always be so dangerous, but it is, shall we say, just as unpredictable? At the time of Guek’s prophecy attributed to his father circulated concerning the road the British wanted the Nuer to build by hand. The road would stop at place called “noor bor” and “things would be finished” – the government would go away. That did not happen. Some fifty years later this prophecy was revived, only now it was applied to the building of Jonglei Canal. The canal was halted and remains unfinished today, and “noor bor” was taken to mean the 1983 Bor mutiny and the founding of the SPLA. You would expect that much a convincing concurrence of events would establish the final interpretation, but not so. Some now say, “noor bor” refers to the 1991 attack on Bor by Nasir faction and Lou Nuer White Army. Perhaps the most persistent prophecy, and the one so constantly re-interpreted, is the one about the “Turuk col”, the “Black Turks”. This, too, became current during the time of Guek, when it was said that foretold a time when Nuer would be turned into “Black Turks” (the Nuer word for the Anglo-Egyptian invaders and anyone associated with the government) before becoming free. In the 1920s, this was taken to mean the chief’s police, Nuer recruited into the service of the newly created Native Administration. In the 1970s the “Black Turks” prophecy was applied to the formation of the Southern Regional Government. Today it is applied to the government of the Republic of South Sudan.
Let us not even try to identify the figure in Ngundeng’s prophecy that peace would be brought by a left-handed man. Ngundeng was left-handed. So is Abel Alier, the leader of the government delegation that negotiated the Addis Ababa Agreement and the first president of the High Executive Council. Some people hope it might mean Riek Machar, South Sudan’s current Vice President. But US President George W. Bush and Barak Obama are also left-handed. So, take your pick, there are enough left-handed men and women to go around. Let us hope that there is now enough peace to go around, too.