NUER (Ethiopia) (EHRAF




IndexAfricaEthiopia → Nuer


Also featured: Kaffa, Udhuk, Nuer, Majangir, Afar, Amhara, Qemant, Oromo


Evans-Pritchard (1951:p56)[1], along with Huffman (1931:p36)[2] observed that children grow up within a marital paradigm.


“Sexual activities are from their earliest manifestations given the stamp of cultural values. They are from the first associated with marriage, which is the final goal of the sex life of men and women. Even the very poor and the disabled form domestic establishments of some kind and talk proudly of 'my father-in-law' and 'my mother-in-law'. It is the chief ambition of a youth to marry and have a home (gol) of his own, for when Nuer speak of marriage they speak of a home. They say of a youth: 'He is married -- he has a gol.' Even in childhood it is clear to Nuer that marriage and the birth of children are the ultimate purpose of the sexual functions to which all earlier activities of a sexual kind-play, love-making, and courtship-are a prelude, a preparation, and a means.

So long as there is no erotic behaviour in public, no inhibitions attach to sexual interests and their expression, and no one tries to hide from children the facts of sexual life, which they can learn by observing their elders and the flocks and herds among which childhood is spent. A boy who is seen by his elders in sexual play with a girl of his own age will merely be told not to act as though be had been initiated -- he can do what he likes then -- and at the most might receive a cut with a grass switch. No one considers his conduct immoral, and the older people will joke about such things among themselves.

Children start playing at marriage from the time they begin to walk, at first as uncomprehending observers of the games of older children and then as participants in them. They make cattle byres and huts of sand, and mud oxen and cows, and with these conduct bridewealth negotiations and perform marriage ceremonies, and they play at domestic and conjugal life, including sometimes in the game, I was told, imitation of coitus. In its earliest expression, therefore, sex is associated with marriage, and the first sexual play occurs in imitation of one of the domestic routines of married life. It occurs in response to a cultural, and not to an instinctive, urge.

Girls and boys, the girls rather earlier than the boys, begin to perform the simpler and lighter tasks of household and kraal from about the age of seven. From then onwards till they are about fourteen, marriage games continue when the children are by themselves, and though within them sexual play begins to be indulged in for its own sake and not merely in imitation of adult behaviour, it is subordinate to the whole make-believe relationship of conjugality of which it forms a part. During the rainy months the girls visit the boys in the grazing grounds, bringing them balls of porridge as presents, which each gives to the boy she has chosen as her 'husband'. She also milks the goats for her 'husband' and may even bring him a gourdful of cow's milk from the kraal. The boys cut millet stalks in the gardens and after roasting and eating the immature grain send the sweet stalks with their outer husks removed to their 'brides'. Older boys also send their juniors with mud oxen and cows to one of the senior girls, who plays the part of mother-in-law. I was told that in these games sexual intercourse may take place, but is neither a usual nor a prominent feature.

Girls witness serious love-making and courtship earlier than boys. At dances small girls follow their more experienced sisters and cousins, imitating their movements during the dancing and afterwards sitting with them while the young men pay them compliments and try to persuade them to retire with them into the long grass. When a girl is about twelve or thirteen initiated boys begin to court her, and when she is about fifteen or sixteen she has at least one lover and probably one in each of the villages neighbouring her own. She passes through a succession of love affairs, besides more casual affairs. I doubt whether any girl in Nuerland goes to her husband a virgin”.


The same was observed by MacDermott (1972:p101)[3]: “Children may be strictly controlled in some ways but they have a freedom in their games that might shock the modern world. One day I saw a boy and girl aged about seven or eight playing at marriage in front of her elders. They disappeared to the grass where they attempted to make love; seeing my surprise, the elders asked: “What harm can they do? No babies will result!” ”. Seligman and Seligman (1932:p223)[4]:


“Boys and girls play at marriage together, choosing partners and mimicking all activities, even sending clay oxen as bride-wealth. The sexual act has its place in this play, although it is by no means the only interest. It is, however, at this age that children are taught the meaning of incest, and that play marriages with relatives are not permitted, though it is not until puberty that they will learn from the parents the full range of their relatives”.


“There is a considerable amount of pre-marital freedom. […] An unmarried girl should never have a child […]. It is only after initiation that courtship is socially recognized as a serious matter. A girl may be courted by several boys at the same time as long as they do not come from the same hamlet; likewise, a lad may pay court to two or three girls” (p226).

Evans-Pritchard (1947)[5] stated that children sleep in the same room as their parents until age five to six, with no efforts to hide parental sexuality. Children may be observed playing at marriage including mock coitus. Girls are courted beginning at ages twelve to thirteen, and will have a series of lovers by age fifteen to sixteen. Males are said to practice penile self-mutilation beginning at age twelve, which appears to be a gradual autocircumcision by causing atrophy of the subcutaneous tissue. Contrary to Evans-Pritchard, Akalu (1989:p27)[6] stated that there are no observations on parents’ sex life, and no questions asked. “They seem to carry with them so many questions until they reach the age of around 10 to 12 when they take up discussion about their interests in their age-group”. Sexual intercourse may, however, be observed in the forest or savannah. “From their early years [children] are treated as responsible beings. No instructions and no reprimands are given to them. The children simply and without being told imitate the conduct of the adults. [...] imitating without request and without approval or disapproval” (Akalu, 1985:p56)[7].

Boys are initiated (ages 9-15) by horizontal incisions on the forehead, girls are not. Youths have considerable sexual freedom. The girl is nude until marriage (Beidelman, 1968)[8].

Hutchinson (1996:p291)[9] stated that the age range of initiation was lowered for a number of reasons.


“Due to this decline in age of the average initiate, it was not uncommon during the early 1980s for boys to be scarified before reaching “puberty” (juel). The fact that many newly scarified “men” had to wait for years before enjoying the sexual privileges ritually conferred upon them at initiation while more and more bull-boys were actively engaging in courtship and marriage further complicated this situation. “Manhood” was increasingly considered a matter of degree rather than a definitive status. There were numerous occasions, for instance, in which I heard older men publicly ridicule and belittle these pubescent wuuni as no better than “boys” since they “still know nothing of girls”. I also heard such “men” derogatorily referred to by older men as wuuni g[.]ri (sing., wut g[.]ri), an expression that suggested that they were men only in the sense of bearing the marks of gaar. Similarly, a young man could praise himself in song by declaring “I’m not [merely] a wut g[.]ri," thereby implying that he was, rather, a fully grown warrior, capable of assuming all the social privileges and responsibilities appropriate to “manhood” ”.


Evans-Pritchard comes to


“[…] two conclusions: that there is wide sexual freedom before marriage, and that sex life is from the beginning stamped by cultural interests. Apart from rules of incest, adultery, and good form, there are no checks placed on the expression of sex from its earliest manifestations. Nevertheless, even at the outset the compass is set towards marriage and children. Simulated coitus between children is part of a game of domestic and marital relationships. After initiation, young men make love to girls as much as they can, but though there is much casual intercourse it is considered rather gross, and the aim of both youths and girls is to form attachments of the lover-sweetheart kind, in which coitus, when it takes place at all, is only part of a more complex relationship. The lover-sweetheart relationship has within it the purpose or pretence of marriage. […] So strong is the cultural idea of marriage that, though devoid of irksome restraint and inhibitions, the path of sex life runs from childhood towards that of union and, though circuitous, leads always to marriage, home, and family. Marriage is the end of a full sex life”.


“Parents teach their sons at an early age the rules of sex: to avoid the wives of others and those who teke mar, have kinship”[10]. However, “[…] it is not thought that children will fall sick if they have incestuous relations in their play ‘because the children are ignorant of having done wrong’. They know no better”[11].






Janssen, D. F., Growing Up Sexually. Volume I. World Reference Atlas. 0.2 ed. 2004. Berlin: Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology

Last revised: Sept 2004


[1] Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1951) Kinship and Marriage among the Nuer. Oxford: Clarendon Press

[2] Huffman, R. (1931) Nuer Customs and Folk-Lore. London: OxfordUniversity Press. 1970 impression. The Nuer girl’s thoughts, “even when a child, are upon her future husband, who he may be, what he may pay as the marriage price”.

[3] MacDermott, B. H. (1972) Cult of the Sacred Spear. London: R. Hale

[4] Seligman, C. G. & Seligman, B. Z. (1932) Pagan Tribes of the Nilotic Sudan. London: Routledge & Sons

[5] Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1947) A note on courtship among the Nuer, Sudan Notes & Records 28:115-26

[6] Akalu, A. (1989) The Nuer View of Biological Life: Nature and Sexuality in the Experience of the Ethiopian. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell

[7] Op.cit.

[8] Beidelman, T. O. (1968) Some Nuer notions of nakedness, nudity, and sexuality, Africa 38,2:113-32

[9] Hutchinson, Sh. E. (1996) Nuer Dilemmas. Berkeley: University of California Press

[10] Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1949) Nuer rules of exogamy and incest, in Fortes, M. (Ed.) Social Structure. Studies Presented to A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. Oxford: Clarendon Press, p85-103

[11] Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1956) Nuer Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press, p19