The lack of chaos in nuer society
Describing Sudan’s Nuer society as chaotic is incorrect because it imposes Western criteria for social development and order on a traditional African people. Assuming that “chaos” means disorder, confusion, and lack of organization, one can understand how nineteenth-century Westerners (particularly the British) may have looked at the Nuer and seen little discernable order, since had no well-developed governmental structure, sophisticated commerce, or obvious social or cultural institutions.
However, the Nuer were not a wholly anarchic, uncivilized people, despite lacking Western-style institutions. They have a well-defined patrilineal social structure and place great importance on monogamous marriage and child-rearing; indeed, both family and marriage are the most vital Nuer social institutions. (If they lacked these, then perhaps the “chaos” accusation would be more valid.) In addition, they have an economy, albeit not a complex one like Westerners have long embraced. A pastoral, cattle-herding society, they have a close attachment to nature, particularly to the land and seasons, and this forms the basis of their traditional economy rather than trade or manufacturing. Cattle also form the basis for their animistic religion; though very few have adopted Christianity or Islam, it is incorrect to believe that they have no religious order at all.
The Nuer were dismissed as a chaotic people partly because they did not acquiesce to British efforts to conquer them. Thus, they were likely dismissed as a chaotic people (and therefore of little use to Westerners), and the stereotype has persisted. However, the truth lies in the fact that they are a traditional people who have resolutely maintained their traditional culture in the face of the world’s increasing modernization and complexity. The fact that their culture is relatively simpler than that of the West by no means makes it chaotic.