The literature on cultural practices for burial and care for the sick among individual ethnic groups in South Sudan was very limited. However, it clearly points to the importance of proper burials among all ethnic groups: these typically entail washing the body of the deceased; it can take several days before burial takes place; and graves are often located within or close to family homesteads.
South Sudan is incredibly diverse with over 60 different ethnic groups, within each of which there are further subdivisions. The largest ethnic group, the Dinka, for example, are divided into at
least 25 ethnic sub-groups that each have their own distinct cultural practices, dialects and traditions (Cultural Atlas, n.d.). Given the exceptional diversity of the social landscape of South Sudan, it is perhaps not surprising that there is a dearth of literature on the cultural practices of individual ethnic groups. Moreover, much of the ethnographic literature on South Sudan dates back several decades, notably the work by renowned anthropologist E. Evans-Pritchard who died in the 1970s.
This review found some material on burial practices of different ethnic groups in South Sudan, but virtually no information on practices of caring for the sick. Overall, the literature highlights that proper burials in South Sudan are seen as critical both for the deceased and for the living. The majority of tribes in South Sudan practise either Christianity or syncretisms of Christianity and
traditional African religion. Ancestors have a significant role in all ethnic groups. Graves are generally located within or close to family homesteads: they are important for maintaining connections with ancestors and family land, and increasingly, as proof of land ownership.
Findings for individual ethnic groups are as follows:
- Zande – relatives gather before the death of a person, staying with them until they die. Bodies are buried in a sitting position with a low roof over it, and covered by a pile of stones;
- Pojulu – burial usually takes place in the early morning or evening. There can be delays as traditional requirements have to be met before burial can occur;
- Kuku – burial takes place between 24 hours and 2-3 days after death and the body is laid out until then;
- Bare – before burial can take place, certain dues must be paid by the family to the maternal relatives of the deceased. The latter mount guard over the body until these are cleared;
- Acholi – funeral rites take place very quickly after death, but it is considered important that the deceased be buried in family compounds, where shrines to ancestors are maintained;
- Madi – proper burial of the dead is considered vital both to give ‘peace’ to the deceased and to prevent negative consequences (e.g. infertility, mental illness) for the living;
- Didinga – the dead are buried with their heads facing east in a deep grave outside the village.
No material was found about burial practices among the Baka, Kakwa, Lotuko and Toposa ethnic groups. The Lotuko1 and Toposa each number around 235,000 people, representing the sixth
and seventh largest ethnic groups in South Sudan, and both are found in Eastern Equatoria (Joshua Project, n.d.). The Lotuko’s religion is based on nature and ancestor worship; the Toposa believe in a Supreme Being and ancestral spirits.
This review also found a number of briefs/guides on funeral practices and caring for the sick in the context of the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. The Ebola Response
Anthropology Network (http://www.ebola-anthropology.net/about-the-network/) carries resource material from the last Ebola outbreak in West Africa, much of which would be relevant to the
current outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (and to any future outbreak in South Sudan).