Bari people (Sudan)

Bari people (Sudan)

The Bari ethnic groups in the Sudan occupy the Savanna lands of the Nile Valley. They speak a language which is also called Bari. The name “Bari of the Nile Valley” would be fitting because the river Nile runs through the heart of the Bari land. This definition would also distinguish them from any other ethnic groups that may be using the name Bari; there are apparently such groups in Ethiopia and Somalia, although no information exist as to whether they are all anthropologically related.

The Bari of the Nile are sedentary agro-pastoralist. They exploit the Savanna lands along the river Nile, and up to 40 miles east and west of the Nile. The Bari economy is based on subsistence mixed farming; their domestic livestock (small and large) are mainly raised for supplementing food, but mostly as a socio-economic and financial investment. Notably, livestock are exchanged as gifts in marriages, and other social functions or sacrificed in celebrations, and funerals; and whenever the need arises they are sold for cash.

The Bari are consistently under pressure: now from modern urbanization annexing their green lands and infusing different cultures into their lifestyles; and historically the Baris have been devastated by slave traders, and forced by Belgians (especially from the Lado enclave) into labor camps and used as porters to carry ivory tusks to the Atlantic coast. The two Sudanese Civil Wars (1955-1973; 1983-2005) have also affected the Bari social, economic and financial dynamics.

War (intertribal or resisting foreigners) is not alien to Bari history. Generally, the Bari have co-existed well with the neighboring ethnic groups, but have had to pick up arms to defend their land against slave traders, and plundering warriors. There is documentation of Bari resistance against invasion by Dinka, Azande (Zande), and numerous encounters with Turkish slave traders.

Traditionally the Baris believe in one Almighty God and existence of powerful spirits (good and evil). Today the Baris demography is made up of Christians (Catholics and Protestants), Moslems, and followers of traditional religions (not organized).

In the past it was a fashion among the Bari to undergo initiation ceremonies. Both boys and girls subjected themselves to removal of lower front teeth. The girls, in addition got tattoos: around the belly area, the flank, the back, and the face (on the temple) in the form of arrow shapes, or simple flowers.

Along the banks of the Nile, in the heart of the Bari land, lies the historical villages of Lado, Gondokoro(Kondokoro), and Rejaf (Rageef). The current capital city of the Southern Sudan, the town of Juba, is also in the Bari land, situated ten miles to the South of Gondokoro, and seven miles to the north of Rejaf.

Origin of the Bari

Based on Bari folklore, the Bari people settled in their current lands prior to the end of the grand trans-migration in Africa. By the time the Luo ethnic groups invaded and migrated through the Bari lands about 1650, the Bari were already sedentary agro pastoralists, living, and trading peacefully with the neighboring ethnic groups.

Bari forced into Slavery

The second Expedition to discover the source of the White Nile entered the Bari lands on 24 January 1841. Unfortunately with this progress in the quest for knowledge, came undesirable invaders in the form of European and Turkish traders looking for slaves and ivory. This was the first time Bari encountered Europeans travellers. The Bari were lucky in this encounter, as the Turkish army assigned to protect the Nile explorers behaved, unlike the brutality they unleashed on the ethnic groups (Mondari, Dinka, Shilluk) to the north of the Bari, Pojulu, Kakaw to the South and Kuku to the South-East. However, subsequent expeditions were different.

The third expedition (1841-42) to discover the source of the White Nile also discovered that Ivory was abundant in the Bari area. From thence onwards, the rush for ivory tusks in the White Nile valley escalated. Initially, both European and Arab traders began sponsoring trips to Gondokoro for ivory. And for a decade the Bari freely sold ivory tusks and other artefacts to the traders without intimidation, and no incidents of slavery was reported by that point in time.

On April 1854, the peaceful relationship between the traders/explorers and the Bari came to an end when a Turkish trader, without provocation, fired his guns into a crowd of Bari at Gondokoro. Accordingly, the Bari mounted a counter attack that was devastating to both sides. Subsequent to this the Bari became defensive and less friendly, and the traders (mostly Arabs, and Turks) resorted to violent means to procure ivory tusks, but also started taking people (young men and women) as slaves. Girls were raped, or taken as wives by force. Some of the merchants even built fortified depots near Gondokoro where people were kept awaiting shipment down the White Nile.

Diaries of European missionaries in the region, indicate that in the market of Cairo (Egypt), the number of slaves from the White Nile increased from 6,000 between 1858 and 1862, to approximately 12,000-15,000 per annum. These numbers reflected mostly, Bari, Dinka, and Mundari; but also included people of other ethnic groups neighboring the Bari, and beyond were hunting for elephant tusks was intense during that time. By 1863 when Samuel Baker arrived Gondokoro, boats of buccaneers (even one flying an American flag) were anchoring at Gondokoro, with the sole purpose of picking up slaves. By 1865 about 3000 slaves at any one time could be found waiting at Gondokoro to be carried down the Nile.

When authorities finally turned around and put pressure on the slave traders, the Bari people and land were already devastated. Bari Folklore tells us of how long ago the land flanking the Nile was full of strings of villages spread out to the horizon, as far as the eye could see. The slave traders reduced the Bari villages to a miserable few. Ever since then, recovery has been difficult, considering also the fact that the civil wars in 1955-1973; and 1983-2005 have further taken their toll on the Bari.

Courtship, and Marriage

Marriage among the Bari is by consent following an era of courtship. Long time ago, it was not uncommon for two Bari families to fortify the bonds of friendship by arranging marriage between their children. Such arrangements were sometimes made when the children were even under 10 years or younger; and amazingly, such marriages did work and love was evident in the family. Where pure friendship underlined the bondage, dowry was not sometimes involved until the two betrotheds reach marrying ages. In the event where dowry was handed over, the motivation for arranging such a marriage was often driven by the need for unwealthy parents to procure dowry for a son who is ready to marry.

Bari Wedding

After a suitable era of courtship, the suitor usually presents himself at the house of the girl's parents to declare engagement (Nyera in Bari). He is usually accompanied by a few close relatives and friends. Following that (months later) comes the wedding day (Budu in Bari) preceded by two to three days of negotiation for the amount of dowry the bridegroom is obligated to offer. This occasion takes place in the house of the bride's parents, and involves relatives or friends representing parents of the bride and bridegroom. The biological parents are never directly involved, although they usually monitor and direct matters behind the scenes.

Once the dowry negotiation is successful, the marriage is blessed by both families; and a feast is mounted--eating, drinking and dancing. The bridegroom then returns home alone, but not long after that (two weeks or so) the bride arrives to take charge of her house. The conversion of Bari into Christianity, and the religious obligation for Church matrimony complicated this last step for Bari couples or any bridegroom marrying a Bari bride. After the Bari wedding, Bari Christian parents demand blessing of the marriage in church before allowing their daughters to join the Christian bridegroom.

Two weddings in one Bari marriage

Hence, after the coming of Christianity into Bari land, the trend became one of first performing the Bari traditional wedding, to be followed in a few months by a Christian matrimony/wedding in the European style. It is obvious that this tradition of "two weddings in one Bari marriage" is a burden in many aspects, especially financially. The fact is that by the end of the Bari traditional wedding, the couple and their respective families would have been financially exhausted. Therefore, most couples, put off holding the Christian matrimony/wedding for a year or sometimes years while saving money for the occasion. In the meantime a child or two may even be born during this waiting period. Hence, the young couple in trying to honor a religious commandment ends up violating another.

The concept of merging the Bari and Christian Weddings

A conceivable reconciliation between the Bari wedding and “Christian wedding” is possible, and would benefit both cultures.The Vatican Council II (1962-65) declaration opened the door for adaptation of some African cultures and tradition into the church. Four decades later the Bari are still trapped in the dogma of “two separate weddings”.Hence the dogma of adaptation of Bari wedding into the Christian church should take care of this bondage, and with that would come the benefit of alleviating the financial, and socioeconomic pressures associated with the current trend.

It should practically be possible for a Bari couple to prepare simultaneously for a Bari wedding and a Christian matrimony. The church matrimony can be performed the day after an agreement for exchange of Bari dowry is reached; therefore, in essence coinciding with the Bari wedding. The couple could then immediately start their family without fear of unacceptable sanctity. Such an arrangement would be financially, economically and socially beneficial to all families, and friends.

The Dowry in Bari Marriage

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines dowry (based on European cultures) as: 1) the money, goods, or estate that a woman brings to her husband in marriage; 2) a gift of money or property by a man to or for his bride. The Bari dowry falls into the second definition by Merriam-Webster, since it is traditionally the family of the Bari bride that demands for this token of friendship. The giving of dowry among many African ethnic groups holds a similar status to that of the Bari. Therefore, it would be illogical to misconstrue the dowry as being a price for "buying a woman"! It should be pointed out that, despite the involvement of dowry in the marriage of a Bari girl, there is courtship and love involved. There is no doubt though that, given the huge amount of dowry involved in Bari marriage, this tradition needs to be kept in check to hinder unnecessary surcharges.

Currently, the net dowry in a Bari marriage is not reached at arbitrarily, but rather each component in the composite dowry is accounted for as a form of honorarium. However, it is not uncommon for some bride families to request unprecedented tokens. Some Bari community organizations are currently mounting campaigns to discourage any extra exuberant dowry demands from becoming adopted into Bari culture; otherwise as some Bari wise men put it: “young men will shy away from courting Bari girls”.

The components of a typical traditional Bari dowry are made up of live animals, averaging 23 heads of cattle (cows, calves and bulls), 40 goats and sheep. This animal based dowry structure probably originated from the fact that the Bari are primarily agro-pastorolists. In the event of drought or other natural disasters, the Bari accept money in-lieu of animals. In 2006, a heifer costs approximately the equivalent of US$300 (three hundred); and hence the bride's parents usually expect that amount in-lieu. Fines (animals or liquid cash) due to disrespectful behavior such as premarital sex, eloping, and aggression towards in-laws may be imposed on the bridegroom. The case may be settled during the traditional dowry negotiation or in a modern government civil court.

Bari language

Bari is an Eastern Nilotic language. Bari is a tone language. It has vowel harmony, subject-verb-object word order, and agglutinative verbal morphology with some suppletion.


#Crabites, Pierre. "Gordon, The Sudan and Slavery" Greenwood Press, 1970. ISBN 0-8371-1764-X
#Northrup, David. "Beyond the Bend in the River: African Labor in Eastern Zaire, 1865-1940" Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1988. ISBN 0-89680-151-9
#Udal, John O. "The Nile in darkness: conquest and exploration, 1504-1862" Michael Russell Publishing, 1998. ISBN 0-85955-238-1
#Speke, John Hanning. Journal of the discovery of the source of the Nile. Edinburgh/London:Blackwood and sons, 1863.

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