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The Nuer - please comment below

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Film Review: The Nuer

Film Info


75 minutes

A poetic film concentrating on evocative images of life among a group of Nuer living in Ethiopia. Creates a strong and memorable impression of the people, their cattle, their artifacts, and their land. On occasion, an English narration is used to give a more anthropological account of events, especially; a bride price dispute, a ghost marriage, a revitalistic ceremony intended to combat a smallpox epidemic, and the climax of the film, a gar initiation where two boys receive the forehead incisions of manhood
Numbering approximately one million, the Nuer are the second largest people group (second to the Dinka) in south Sudan. Traditionally, they are cattle herders whose complete way of life revolves around their livestock. Cattle are used for payment of fines and debts and as bride prices in marriage. Children mold clay figures of cows out of clay, ash, wood or any other available material. Young boys have a favorite ox who they give a name and treat as if it was a puppy.
Unfortunately, Sudan’s civil war, which has lasted for over a decade, has devastated this traditional way of life and displaced many Nuer to the safety of the neighboring country of Ethiopia or to places in northern Sudan, such as the capital city of Khartoum. Many Nuer serve with the Sudanese rebel army, although some are at odds with the rebel leader, a member of the Dinka tribe. In the past, war and tribal fighting has broken out between Nuer and their Dinka neighbors.
Following the film, we will have a discussion on the following topics:
The environment of the Sudan
The Nuer settlement pattern
Gar ceremony and significance
Economic life
This film as a reflection of broader cultural phenomena

[Dan Lilly, djl5@geneseo.edu, 10/30]
The Nuer
As I was watching the film I was noting differences between the Nuer and our own culture, so these are all IDEOLOGY based on that.
-Animals are very respected among the Nuer because of their importance, which leads them to believe that they are very clean. In our society, farms and barns, places where animals reside in general, are seen as being very dirty (Your room is a pig sty!). For the Nuer, however, the opposite is true. They start each morning by rubbing themselves down and even brushing their teeth with ash from a dung fire. The one man was washing his hands in the pee from a calf. The child spreading the dung had no qualms with getting right down in it, something that seems disgustingly dirty to us.
- When the narrator said the old man was one of the oldest in the village, I immediately wanted to know how old he is. It wasn't until this desire went unsatisfied for a little while that I realized, at least in the terms we know, he probably doesn't have any idea how old he is. Just an example of how we like to classify the world according to our own ideas.
-When I saw them eating the corn, I wondered why they took the time to pick the kernels off the cob and eat them in handfuls. It has to be quicker eating it right off the cob, the way we do. Once I really thought about it, though, I realized how much is left on a cob of corn once we're finished with it. Our method of eating corn would probably seem extremely wasteful to the Nuer, because we're used to living in (contrived?) abundance. By picking the kernels off, they make sure to get all the "meat" of the corn.




[Larkin Kimmerer, llk5@geneseo.edu, 10-30]

The Nuer

1. KINSHIP/MARRIAGE: 25 cows are given as a brideprice; I wondered if, given the number of cows and simultaneously the importance of cows in Nuer culture, is that considered a lot or a little? Is it always 25 cows or does it vary by family or situation?

2. KINSHIP/MARRIAGE: The idea that each family knows the history of the cows they own--the families they came from, the brideprices they were given as, etc--was very interesting, in that it created a living account of clan relationships, and who married who. We haven't seen that in many other cultures.

3. ECONOMY/IDEOLOGY: The cows of the Nuer are their entire lifeway, and thus their economy, but they also are such a big part of the culture that they invade every aspect of society: politics, economy, kinship, even ideology. As the old man said, "they are our happiness." Awww...cows:)



Alfred Dilluvio ajd12@geneseo.edu 10-30


The Nuer


1. I suppose this falls under the category of ideology. I was extremely interested by the old man who proceeded to brush his teeth with ash from the dung fire. There was also the young boy who spread the cow dung out on the field in the morning to dry. And there was also the man who washed his hands with cow urine in the early morning. This strikes us as filthy and unsanitary, because we view ourselves as removed from nature, and above it. The Nuer seem to have an intimate relationship with their environment, and therefore such acts dont bother them.


2. Economy: The reliance on cows as the source of everything they have is extremely interesting. I wonder what would happen to their economy, or their entire way of life if the cattle were to all become sick and die. Would they be able to maintain life in their environment?


3. The procedure we have come to know as the Gar is of great interest to me. I am excited to see the way the film portrays such an intimate and important act as a rite of passage for Nuer man.The fact that such importance is placed on the cutting of the forehead is extremely interesting to me. The video makes it clear that a man who hasnt recieved the Gar is not really a man. I wonder if the Nuer feel as though the presence of a camera during the Gar could "taint" the ritual act.




[Shamiran Warda, sw11@geneseo.edu, 10/31]

Film Review: The Nuer

Environment: What I noticed with these people is how they lived in their environment. Their village seemed more advanced as seen with their homes compared to that of the Congo’s huts. Another thing I noticed was the importance of cattle, and how their livestock basically lived with them in the villages, which I must say I found very interesting just because one would assume diseases would spread living in such conditions. In all, their environment seemed to provided them with what they needed; it was opened enough for the animals to run around yet secure enough for them to live in. In addition, their body structure seemed to be approved by the environment; tall and lean people to help them cool down, whereas the Eskimos were short and stubby to absorb more body heat.

Ideology: What else I noticed in this film was how much these people respected their livestock especially the cattle (their main livestock). To the Nuer people cattle is seen as a very important animal in that it not only provides them with food but in that it is also used to please the Gods. They sacrifice cattle to their Gods in order to please them, to overall thank them for what they have, and in some cases to ask the Gods for more food such as grain. I found it quite fascinating how cattle were also used to clean their pots and bowls, such as with the tails and how the urine of these animals was also used to wash ones hands.

Kinship/Marriage/Symbolism: Lastly, another thing I found interesting was how their cattle livestock was used in their marriage. I believe it was said that 25 cows are given as the prize for the new brides’ family. It seems that the more cattle one has the more power he is seen with. Another thing I noticed was how when a boy enters manhood and gets the marks of Gar on his forehead, he receives an Ox along with a new name, this is just fascinating how their kinship and marriage works; from the coming of a man to marriage and how often times this is tied to their main livestock. -END-

[Elen De Oliveira, emd10@geneseo.edu, 10/31]

Film Review: The Nuer

1.Envirment- The simplistic style of the film really highlighted the simple life that the Nuer led. The first half an hour or so of the film that we saw was in the same location with minimal movement or diologue outlining how their lives revolved around their environment and their cattle. They were constantly surrounded and in the midst of their cows as if they were one with them which showed how much they respected and cherished them.

2. ideology- The old man made a point to inform the person filming that they valued their cows greatly and never killed them unless there was a reason. They would make sacrifices when necessary but would never simply kill for no reason. You can see that cows were of great importance also from the fact that as part of the gar ceremony, where a boy became a man, an ox was given to the boy and the boy was renamed after that ox.


3. Environment: When first viewing the film and noticing how the people are washing their hands in urine, brushing their teeth with ashes, and wiping their faces and bodies with sand it can be easy to assume that they are extremely uncleanly. A closer look and an open mind allows you to realize, however, that it is the exact opposite. They lack the proper resources to properly wash themselves, so they use whatever they have and make that work. This opens the viewers eyes to different our lives are today.




[Dave Roberts, dlr4@geneseo.edu, 10-31]


1.) Near the beginning of the film, they show a bunch of Nuer faces. Many of the younger ones seemed to have pretty white teeth for people without toothbrushes and conventional dental care. So naturally i wondered what they did to take care of their teeth. Burned poop would have been my second guess.


2.) I forgot what exactly what the man said, but it was along the lines of: "our bulls are everything. they are our happiness." i love this statement for it's earnest, loving, and genuine nature. I wonder if this sentimentality pervades throughout the entire culture.


3.) A male without his Gar is just a boy. He cannot marry, nor can he go to battle. What does a boy need to go through or accomplish to get his Gar? And who is it up to to determine when and if the boy is deserving of his Gar. What does having your Gar and being a man get you besides the rights to marry and fight?


[Skye Naslund, sjn1@geneseo.edu, 11-1-07]



1-Ritual-The forehead scaring, or Gar, is the sign of a man in Nuer culture. When boys hit puberty they undergo a ceremony in which a boy becomes a man, changing his name and gaining his first Ox. The Gar is cut into the forehead of the boys during the ceremony while they are in a period of seclusion. The scars that are left are said to give the man strength.

2-Economy-The principle role of men in Nuer society is to take care of their cattle. Cattle is the only way that the Nuer can accumulate wealth and therefore is crucial to the Nuer people. Unique about the accumulation of cattle is that they are one of the few things that passes down from Father to Son in the Nuer culture.

3-Ritual-Cattle can only be sacrificed, in Nuer culture, for a reason. Cows are often sacrificed for the Gods either for a good reason, such as a ceremony or to thank the Gods for something they have received, or for a bad reason, such as illness or death.








[Anne Kim, ak13@geneseo.edu, 11/4]


Film: The Nuer


1. Economy – Although there is no exchange of direct capital, it can still be seen that there is some sort of economic structure. The Nuer people own cattle and pass that along to their sons. They use these cattle as their source of milk, food, and dung. They use the dry dung to start fires and such.

2. Ideology – The Nuer people do not kill cattle just for the sake of killing them. The usual reasons for killing their cattle is for a necessary sacrifice. For example, when the people need rain or some help in their living conditions, they sacrifice a cattle to their gods.

3. Ideology – it is interesting to see how a boy becomes a man after he gets his gar, which is a scar on the forehead. Without this gar, the boy has not become a man even though he may be of age.







[Jonathon Baker, jlb22@geneseo.edu, 11/5/07]

The Nuer

Religion/Ideology?- The first thing that struck me about the video was the fact that the Nuer use cow dung and urine for “washing.” We think of this as very grotesque, but apparently for them it is sterile. I can’t imagine the smell though…I know that fresh urine is sterile and should be okay to clean your hands with but I don’t see how brushing your teeth with dung could be overly safe as dung is typically loaded with bacteria.

Religion/Ideology- How cool is the Gar ceremony?.., I saw this video in Anthro 101 freshman year and this I remembered this scene vividly. Most societies have their youth’s do something dangerous as a rite of passage…I wonder what would be the equivalent in our society? Drinking binges in college?

Religion/Ideology- Do they not eat the cows? They raise them and obviously use the milk and the dung, but I guess they don’t regularly butcher and eat them? Their size makes me think that they don’t eat a whole lot of meat. The Nuer also appear to be the epitome of Allen’s Rule.




[Dilek Canakci, dc11@geneseo.edu, 11/13]

The Nuer

Kinship/Marriage: Bride price was deeply emphasized in this film. The number of cows that was to be given in order to marry your bride was important because the more you give; the better you look to the people around you and to the family that you become the son in law to.

Environment: It was obvious how important the environment was for the Nuer. It is what provides them with life and keeps them together. From their children to the cattle, it is their environment that they get everything they need in order to survive.

Ideology: For men to have a Gar is very important when it comes to maturity and manhood. A man will never have a good chance of getting married or respected by others if he does not get the Gar done.


(Cameron Mack, cfm6@geneseo.edu, 11/15)


The Nuer


-The people of the Nuer truly take advantage of everything that they can attain. To me, one of the most unique aspects of the Nuer was the use of cattle excriments in beneficial ways. In our society, we view this dung as something useful in only farming and little else. Not versed in our preconceived notions of what should be done with the cattle's excriments, the Nuer find use in many interesting manners. When the older man in the tribe used the ash from the dung fire to brush his teeth I was amazed. The Nuer go further, using the cows urine to wash their hands. They also use this dung to fertilize their land, which is traditional in both of our societies. The Nuer have an intimitate relationship with the cattle and their environment, showing purpose in much of their behavior. Some aspects of their culture that we may find gross or revolting, are essential in their exploitations of what their environment has provided them.



[Heather Warren, hrw1@geneseo.edu,11/15]


The Nuer



  1. Environment: Wow! Those people are so tall and skinny! The people look like walking skeletons only not skin and bones and their cows only come up to their hips.
  2. Culture Practices: I wonder why they smear themselves with ashes.
  3. Culture Practices: “A Nuer does not kill his animal without a reason. He must sacrifice it to god.” That seems to be rather frequent in traditional cultures probably because the animals produce more milk (and cheese with the milk) in the long run and thus is more valuable alive. Not to mention people probably sometimes become sentimental of their animals as well.




[Kaitlyn Northrop, krn3@geneseo.edu, 11/19]


The Nuer


Economics/Ideology- It was interesting to me how important the cattle are to every person in the Nuer community. Cattle is everything to them; it represents money as well as wealth to the individual. It is given as brideprice to families when two people are about to marry, it is given to a boy when he reaches the age for gar, it represents everything to a man and to individual families. There are also rules about how much cattle is necessary to be given and how much a boy must have to his name to marry. If a boy gets a girl pregnant before he marries her, he must have sufficient cattle to his name to marry the girl, otherwise she will be married to another boy in the community who does have the right amount of cattle. It was just interesting to me that an animal can be so important and mean so much to people in a small community.





[Steph Aquilina, sma8@geneseo.edu, 11/25]


Film Review: The Nuer


KINSHIP/MARRIAGE & IDEOLOGY: Cows are quite significant to the Nuer people; not only are they the topic of many praise songs, but they are also considered to outline inheritance between a father and son. This transmission was originally from god, which is why cattle are never killed without a sufficient reason, such as a sacrifice for good grain crops or to alleviate sickness. When agreeing to the social contract of marriage, 25 cows are given to the bride. Not only does this show that women’s work is valued in Nuer society, but it was interesting that the origin of the cattle line is well known – this traditional marital exchange is rooted in living relationships and past associations with cattle and people alike.



Charlie Genao cg7@geneseo.edu 12/10/07


Environment: In my opinion the environment was the most striking. The environment is like a wasteland. The weather is so hot that nothing grows and you can tell that they are starving because they are so skinny and they have almost no meat to them. Although they do have cows they dont eat them because the more cows one has the richer that person gets and when you focus on marriage, families compensate for the women labor in giving cows to the bride's family (bride price).


[Jennifer Ritzenthaler, jkr5@geneseo.edu, 12/13/07]

The Nuer

Economy and Spirituality: The flashes to scenes with cattle are a great way of showing the importance of cattle in the Nuer culture. The movie is a very insightful since it shows many different aspects of the Nuer lifestyle. Particularly interesting is the gar ceremony, where the boys received cuts on their forehead to symbolize initiation into manhood. Older men were shown who had the gar and they were able to tell about its meaning.



[Lok Yung Yam, ly5@geneseo.edu, 12/13/07]

The Nuer

Gar reminds me of so many different coming of age ceremonies we've studied this semester. It seems that wherever we go, men have to prove their worth for some reason. Testosterone is a funny thing.


[Dan McConvey, dpm5@geneseo.edu, 12/14/07]


The Nuer




                The Nuer have cattle ingrained into their culture.  People’s worth can be determined by the cattle.  The cattle have gone past their primary use in of simply providing the people with food and taken on a symbol and meaning well beyond that.  Cattle is even used as a brideprice.

                The more I think about this “cattle culture” of the Nuer, I can’t help but look at our own “cattle culture” in the form of automobiles.  The primary use of our “cattle” is no longer the sole purpose for having one.  It is not solely for transportation, but something that involves politics, environment, status, prestige, economy and our way of life in general.  It has become a symbol within our own culture.  We have an initiation at age 16 in NY to when one is worthy of this “cattle”.  We destroy our environment, paving highways and parking lots, using “gas-guzzlers”, NASCAR et cetera all because of what this symbol in our own culture has become. 

Its interesting for me to think about this because it makes me understand the Nuer’s dedication to their own cattle.  Cattle being used to pay fines and debts, children idolizing cattle through making clay figures and having a favorite ox doesn’t seem as foreign to me.  I think about NASCAR being the number two watched sport (after the NFL) in the US or wanting the Aston Martin that James Bond has, or being able to know the wealth of someone through 4 linking rings on an Audi or any other symbol and I understand more what its like.  I compare cattle to cars and understand a little more how important it is to their culture.  I see how ingrained it is in their history and way of life, but I also see how easy it would be for outsiders to disregard all of these outside factors.  To treat the cattle just as a bunch of cows that are simply expendable, instead of seeing that they really aren’t just cows, “they are their happiness”.



[Jennifer Mahoney, jrm30@geneseo.edu, 12/16/07]


The Nuer


This movie displayed the harsh environment of the Nuer.  Though I had read about the conditions of Nuerland, seeing it in this film helped me better understand their land and how they are able to survive in it.  It is astonishing that the Nuer are able to survive in this hot, barren dessert of the Nuer.  It was also interesting to see how tall and lean the Nuer are, as their bodies have adapted to maintain their body temperature in this environment.  It seems to be the opposite of the Inuit's short and wider bodies that have adapted to keep them warm in their very different harsh environment.




[Brendan Ryan, bmr4@geneseo.edu, 12/16/07]


Cattle and the exchange of cattle seem to be the two pre-eminent concerns to the Nuer.  Cattle can be used as a form of compensation after causing an injury to another, they can be used in trade negotiations for wives and can even be used as a means to communicate with the spirit world.  Cattle are the currency of the Nuer and seem to be the most outstanding characteristic feature of their culture. -END-



[Rebecca Coons, rsc2@geneseo.edu, 12/17/07]


The Nuer – The significance of cows to Nuer culture reminded me of the Hindu belief system and I found it interesting how they are able to trace cultural lineages and marriage patterns through the bride price of cows. Also, it was interesting to learn that they not only keep their own lineages but those of the cows they own, similar to the Bedouin and their horse culture.


[Laurie Sadofsky, las22@geneseo.edu, 12/17/07]

Film Review: The Nuer

Ideology: The Nuer treated their cattle like we treat our house pets.  Most Americans would not spread their pet’s dung on the ground or wash their hands in urine, but the respect given to the animals is parallel.  The older man pointed out that they do not kill the cattle unless they have to.  This is because, as Anne stated, the cows provide, milk for nutrition, dung for starting fires, urine was cleaning themselves, and when necessary, animal meat.  These animals truly are their source of survival.  Compared to the traditions of many cultures, the way animals are grown and killed in slaughterhouses here are disgusting.  Our animals are physically mistreated by their confinement in spaces far too small, not to mention the hormones given to them that are clearly not a part of their natural diets. 



[Geni Beninati, gb3@geneseo.edu, 12/17/07]


The Nuer-

The most important thing to the Nuer culturally seems to be their cattle.  In anth 100 with Dr. Zhao we were told that the Nuer have over 100 words relating to cattle. The film definitely showed the importance of the cattle to the Nuer.  As Laurie mentioned, the difference between the importance of animals in the US and to the rest of the world is incredible. The rules concerning cattle are incredibly extensive for a culture that doesn't seem to have many set "rules."





[Adam Saunders, ars11@geneseo.edu, 12/17/07]


“The Nuer”


Economic life- Their economic life is largely centered around their cattle and driven by the trading of cattle and other goods.


Politics – It is interesting that the Nuer have no real head figure in the community, and that the closest thing to such a figure head would be the Leopard Skin Priests. Without such a figure head we seem a much more peaceful community with everyone at the same level of society, this paves the way to less conflicts motivated by status differentiation.


Religion- The Nuer religious system is a totemistic and spirit driven belief system. There is a God, or head god and a sort of hierarchy of the spirits in retrospect to this head god. They also practice totemism, with spirits belonging to living things and animals.




[Justin Wilmott, jmw23@geneseo.edu 12/17]

“The Nuer”

At first it seems as if the Nuer are very different from us in that they do not use a currency or paper money as we, and so many other countries do.  However, that is because we often limit our selves to our own way of thought.  The Nuer’s currency does not reside on paper but on the backs of cattle.  This idea is exactly the same as ours, only with the Nuer, their cattle is something that has actual value, as the dollar only represents something of value.  This belief is interesting to think about with the recent decline of the worth of the dollar.  Could we soon rely on cattle as our currency.



{Isobel Connors, icc2@geneseo.edu, 12/17}


The Nuer


ECONOMICS:  This film depicted the importance of cattle in Nuer culture.  The Nuer live in camps and rely heavily on pastoralist techniques to subsist.  I was intrigued by the multitude of ways the Nuer utilized this resource:  they washed their hands in the cattle's urine and rubbed their hands and bodies in the cow dung.  Often times when looking at these different cultures, students are repulsed by some of the different ways of life portrayed.  Urea is actually very common in cosmetic lotions and is very good for the skin; however, when we look at more simplistic cultures, we forget that we have much in common with them, yet in a highly over-produced and commercialized sense.


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