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Program 9844
November 3, 1998


Francis Deng, senior fellow, The Brookings Institution

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: This is Common Ground. a program on world affairs and the people who shape events.

FRANCIS DENG: The family was divided into three main sections, headed by the three top wives. And the other wives were lined up under them. And if there were grievances or if there were legitimate claims, they were channeled through the senior wives.

DAVIDSON: Polygamy is practiced in many cultures. But few man have married as often as one chief of the Dinka tribe in southern Sudan. On this edition of Common Ground, we hear from one of the sons of Deng Majok about his extraordinary father. Common Ground is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Mary Gray Davidson.

[sound of African vocal music]

DAVIDSON: [with music continuing in background] Deng Majok, a tribal chief in southern Sudan, died in 1969. This music from his funeral was recorded by his son, Francis Deng. Francis Deng thought it was important to capture on tape what would probably be the last funeral of a Dinka chief buried with the elaborate rites of the traditional system. In a biography of his father titled The Man Called Deng Majok, Francis Deng wrote about his unusual father, including his desire to expose his children to the wider Sudanese culture. The children were sent to northern Sudan, which was primarily Muslim, for part of their education. Then they switched schools and studied in the south, which was primarily Christian.

DENG: We are a huge family as you might know. Some are Moslems, some are Christians, many are of traditional African religious beliefs. And for me, moving from one context to another was almost part of the educational process. And over the time I developed a philosophical outlook which was, which I expressed in the words of the invisible bridge that one has to construct within oneself. A bridge which enables you not only to go to where you are going but be able to come back and make the link between your starting point and wherever you happen to be or happen to go. That way you maintain physical as well as conceptual and cultural linkage.

DAVIDSON: How many of your siblings were educated in this way?

DENG: Well, you know, we had a large family as I indicated to you. I guess I am quite safe in saying that it was probably the largest—I know for sure it was the largest in the Sudan, possibly the largest in Africa and may well be the largest in the world. My father had a family of over 200 wives and on the average if you say each of those wives had three to four children you are talking about close to a thousand brothers and sisters. Now my father made it a point that all his boys were sent to school. At the earlier stage girls were not. It was considered at the time that the destiny of the girl is to get married, attract cattle—which was part of the exchange in Dinka culture—and there wasn’t really a market for educated girls at that time. But later on he sent his daughters to school too. But on the whole it is the boys who were really educated. Which frankly, now that I think back, is grossly unfair because the boys, the educational system in the Sudan was such that you rose up according to your merit. And so many of us dropped off in the process, finished elementary school or secondary school or some went to universities, some went even for higher studies. Medical doctors, lawyers, what have you. We have all kinds of professions within the family. Now, before the Sudan was plunged into the civil war and you would go to any of the several universities in the Sudan and you would find the largest number from one family were from our family. So that my father’s vision of educating his children was paying off very well until the civil war disrupted all that. We now have literally, as a result of the war, members of the family everywhere in the world. Because, either as refugees, or asylum-seekers, or part of the rebel movement. But then we also have brothers and sisters back in the Sudan. We even have a brother who is a tribal chief in the place of our father. And a number of others who are cooperating with all concerned in order to maintain some semblance of order in a situation devastated by the civil war.

DAVIDSON: Is there a record of your family?

DENG: Well, there isn’t a centralized record of the family but in writing a book about my father, titled The Man Called Deng Majok, which Yale University Press published I think in 1986, there I documented the family, quite, I suppose, accurately. Even though we don’t have—I’m sure somewhere there are records because his marriage was a controversial one. So there were from time to time…

DAVIDSON: Even within Sudan?

DENG: Oh yes, yes. Even among the Dinka itself, because it never had happened before that a chief married so many wives. My grandfather probably had about 40.

DAVIDSON: Was polygamy common at all?

DENG: Yes it was common. But for instance my grandfather, who had the largest number of wives in the tribe, had 40.


DENG: Yeah. Forty. And there are many other chiefs, Dinka chiefs, who had many wives. But nowhere near what he had.

DAVIDSON: Nowhere near 200?

DENG: And I think it’s quite a dramatic story. Because I think his marriages as well as his excellence as a chief, the way he excelled, were all part of a process of proving something. And that something was while he had all the qualities of leadership his father preferred another son, his half-brother, who was the son of another wife. So against his father’s judgment my father tried to prove himself to the administration of the British, to the Arabs, to the neighboring tribes. And was acknowledged as really a much more competent leader, far ahead of his brother, whom his grandfather—whom their father still preferred—and I think all this about marriage, generosity, tremendous ability to relate to people, his power of articulation—all those were part of a struggle to prove himself to his father. And it was a combination of excelling but maybe outpacing his own people. Because in many ways he was far above his own tribe. And that later on became the tragedy of the tribe because when he died his position could never be filled.

DAVIDSON: Well, I was wondering, because you are one of the oldest sons of your father, if that same rivalry came into play?

DENG: In a way it did. And frankly I never thought about it consciously until I wrote my father’s biography and began to work on my own story. Because my mother was number four. I was the eldest son of my mother. And so we grew up more or less competitive as individuals and in my case, for instance, to a degree I was struggling against the subordination of my mother as number four compared to those brothers with whom I was of the same age and with whom I was, I would say, had certain comparative advantages in schooling and things. But resisting the fact that I would be subordinated because my mother was number four.

DAVIDSON: Did each wife have a separate family, a separate household? How exactly did it work?

DENG: It was very well organized. And you could say there was a constitutional system that is almost comparable to how you run a tribe. The family was divided into three main sections, headed by the three top wives. And the other wives were lined up under them. But throughout the tribe there were villages. In each village a number of huts, there would be three leading wives, representing the top three wives. And this pattern was repeated everywhere. Now although every wife had access to the husband there was a hierarchy of information-sharing, of reporting. And if there were grievances or if there were legitimate claims, they were channeled through the senior wives. And in fact it was the structure of seniority and the importance of influence based on seniority which encouraged some of our father’s wives to make him many more. Because if a woman saw a girl, that, from a family, and she was particularly attractive to have for one reason or another, she came and persuaded our father that, you know, this was someone she thought he should marry. And that gave her advantage to have this woman affiliated to a section as her junior wife. It would give her power over that…

DAVIDSON: So if you’re number 150, if you have…

DENG: Absolutely.

DAVIDSON: …if you have 151 you’ve got someone…

DENG: That’s right.

DAVIDSON: …below you.

DENG: And people had vested interests in his marriages. And he married until his death. And he died in his early ’70s.

DAVIDSON: Did he treat them all, as far as economically, equally?

DENG: Well, you know, there can never be absolute equality. But there were certain principles which were observed with religious commitment. Number one, jealousy must never be expressed. I’m sure, we all knew that there were jealousies, particularly among wives, but it was repressed. And when it surfaced…

DAVIDSON: There were harsh consequences…

DENG: …consequences were quite severe. The same was true of the boys and girls. You were supposed to show more affection, more love and affection, to your stepmother than to your own mother. And to your half-brothers and sisters than to you own brothers and sisters. We shared everything. We had our meals together. They came from the different houses and we collectively sat together. You were not supposed to go and have something in private with your mother. So there was a spirit of unity and solidarity fostered that was very strong, even though everybody knew that the potential of divisiveness due to the jealousies of polygamy, were there. And it’s a known fact that as a function of the heart, people knew you were closer to your mother. But as a function of the mind, you were brought up to identify with your father and with the larger family, and to fight that kind of tendency towards affiliation with your mother

[sound of African drums and chanting]

DAVIDSON: [drums continue in the background] We’ll pause here for a short break. You’re listening to Common Ground, a service of the Stanley Foundation. My guest is Francis Deng, now a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. A former law professor, Deng served as the Sudanese Ambassador to several countries, including the United States and Canada, and was Minister of State for Foreign Affairs from 1976 to 1980. The Stanley Foundation a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs. Printed transcripts and cassettes are available of this Common Ground program. At the end of the broadcast, I’ll give you details on how you can order.

DAVIDSON: [drums continue in the background] Nearly four decades of civil war have taken a huge toll on the Dinka. A half million Sudanese refugees have poured into neighboring countries, many of them Dinka. Their land and cattle have been ravaged, and cattle are one of the primary symbols of Dinka identity and culture. In a traditional Dinka marriage for example, the boy’s family would give the bride’s family cattle for a dowry. That is one reason, says Francis Deng, that Dinka men have few wives today.

DENG: Now among the Dinka, and the Dinka are probably among the wealthiest in cattle, even though now the civil war has devastated….

DAVIDSON: And cattle has been the mainstay…

DENG: …and cattle was…

DAVIDSON: …of Dinka culture.

DENG: That’s right. So that marriage meant exchanging cattle. The man marrying had to pay cattle for the woman. And she, from her relatives, from their own cattle, had to pay what we all, so-called the reverse bride wealth, which is a fraction, usually one-third of what one pays. The average among the Dinka would be forty to fifty cows per wife, but in the leading families they married or had their daughters married for sometimes as much as over a hundred cows per wife. So that marriage in many ways was an investment. You invested into a family in which you began to share in the marriages within that family. You began to have daughters who were married very handsomely. The daughters of the chief in particular would invariably be married in the range of a hundred and more cows. So that by definition you had the largest family but also had the largest source of accumulating wealth.

Now under the conditions of today people don’t have that degree of wealth. So that if you are, for instance, a government official or your source is salary, there’s no way you can accumulate that kind of wealth. Nor do you have the means to sustain that family. In the tribal set-up every one of those wives had her own plot of land to cultivate, with the help from my father or labor, which is, can easily be found by various tribal customary ways. And a few cows or several herds of cattle located to the houses of those wives. So that you had the milk, you had your field to cultivate and the needs were minimal. Today in the city there’s no way one can afford to have several wives and have several houses and sources of sustenance. So it has dropped considerably.

I mean, if you take us, for instance, the boys, the sons of my father, many of us became Christians and married only one wife. And that was quite a story when we first came home having become baptized as Christians and the idea that you would marry only one wife was unacceptable to, for the son of a chief to be married to only one wife. But after awhile, my father took it with a sense of humor and said, “At least you will reduce the number of cows I have to pay for wives.”

Then we have brothers who are Moslems. Islam allows up to four wives. And so some of them have two, three, maybe even four wives. But no one has gone anywhere near what our father did. Hardly a reaction.

DAVIDSON: And you yourself married a non-Dinka wife.

DENG: That’s right.

DAVIDSON: Was that a difficulty for your father?

DENG: Well, at one point I talked to him about that. And he was very liberal-minded about it. After all, the man who was marrying the way he was marrying, from all tribes of the country, which was part of his strategy was political influence through marriage. He was, it was not at all rigidly committed to tradition. And so the most he said to me was that “As long as you remember that in marrying you do not marry just the individual woman and that marriage is a link between families. And so in choosing a wife you must also choose her family. You must be careful.”

DAVIDSON: Wise words.

DENG: And it is true that, you know, my wife, although she is American of Gimeric?? background, she has, she comes from a tradition where there is strong family solidarity and we have been very close to both sides of the family.

DAVIDSON: And you yourself have four sons, mostly grown now, and have you raised them primarily in the United States? I know you live here now.

DENG: Well, you know, my first posting as ambassador was to Scandinavia and that that’s where our first son was born. Our second son was born while I was ambassador in Washington and the third was born in Bethlehem—Pennsylvania

DAVIDSON: [laughing]

DENG: [laughing] And when my wife came to stay with her family and had the baby there, and the third, the fourth was born in Canada, when I was ambassador there too. So they’re really quite international. Then we lived in the Sudan also when I was Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. So the children have a sense of identification with a broad scope of experience but we have now lived in Washington over the last ten years or so. And they went to school, Washington International School. We deliberately wanted them to have that international orientation because of their background and being an interracial family. Although that ironically also made them become more aware of their African-American, you know, African and American identities. Our second son who is now in Africa in the Congo doing humanitarian work, ha also become much more conscious of the multiple sources of his identity. And I think in the end the boys identify quite well with all the strands. With their African background, with their African-American identity, with their mother’s side of the family and therefore an interracial perspective. And we’re quite satisfied with the balances they have made in their identity.

DAVIDSON: Were there aspects of Dinka tradition and identity that you wanted to be sure to instill in your sons?

DENG: That’s a very good question. You know, I suppose over the years I began to study Dinka culture, both Dinka law, Dinka social anthropology, and what have you, to articulate fundamental values of the society and then see how those conditions, the way we live our lives in every aspect. And those values, if you take Dinka culture, the principles of procreation which we consider to be a form of immortality through the family line, is a very important concept. And although it changes form according to the modern way of looking at it, I think it is a cross-cultural, universal principle, whether it is physical presence of children or people we have touched in this world—friends, family, all of that—that’s one.

Principle of unity and solidarity, unity and harmony. Coming from a family background in a tribe where tensions were inevitable because of, as we said, polygamy and all that, the unity of the community was a very important principle. And you can say that in the larger tribe the principles of coming together and yet individualistically asserting yourself were part of this immortality through the lineage. It was both individual and collective. And so while it is very individualistic and every individual has to be immortalized through the family line, it is a vested interest of the whole clan. And you reconcile those by emphasizing principles of unity.

The third is a principal of honor and dignity and pride. Which again, if you’re going to be immortalized, remembered, you must have certain attributes that make people respect you. So that you have to live up to certain aesthetics; aesthetics of social relationships, of personal integrity. All those values are what give every individual an importance that then make you become remembered in the clan with respect and continuity.

These values, although they are abstract social principles, we try to inculcate in our children. And to cut across all the cultural differences.

DAVIDSON: You seem to have a really positive world view. It seems that particularly in light of the civil war in Sudan and all the refugees and the difficulties foisted upon the Dinka people, that you have a positive way of viewing the evolution of Dinka culture. Is that really….

DENG: Well, part of that may be just the truth of one’s background and upbringing and what one remembers of the culture. Part of it might be instinctive survival mechanism. Because, you know, we cannot really afford to be pessimistic and still have enough….

DAVIDSON: …and just mourning…

DENG: …drive…

DAVIDSON: …the past.

DENG: That’s right. Enough drive to do something. Now in my study of the Dinka one of the most painful aspects is the degree to which I have seen even new myths being developed where the Dinka begin to struggle with the realities of their world, so that the positive image they always had, and which was very well documented by anthropologists, where they saw themselves…

DAVIDSON: Very positive self-image.

DENG: Yeah, very positive self-image, in an isolated world of their own where cattle was the gift of God and the perfect symbol of wealth. They had this land that they thought was the best in the world. They themselves saw their culture as, you know, a tremendous sense of pride. This was when they were more or less in isolation. As the now become part of the modern world, modern Sudan, interacting with the rest of the world in a situation where being among the least developed, they’re being relegated and seeing themselves as victims of forces beyond their control.

DAVIDSON: And their wealth of cattle has been taken away.

DENG: Is being diminished. They begin to reinterpret, even their mythology that gave them that importance, they’re beginning to question it. For instance, one of the myths of tremendous importance to the Dinka is that cattle was, cattle were the gift of God; when God created the Dinka He asked, “What would you like to have? The cow or something called ‘what’ which is mysterious and unknown?” And the Dinka chose the cow because he was certain that the cow had all the attributes of great wealth of dignity. And what was later on given to other races, like the white race and the Arabs. Now in the past the Dinka told this myth with a great deal of pride about their choosing the cow over the thing called “what.” Today they are beginning to reinterpret that myth to say that “Because we chose the cow, the thing called ‘what’ was given to the white world and the Arabs and that became the source of their scientific inventiveness” and you know, “and to some extent the source of knowledge. And that therefore we were disadvantaged by our choice of the cow.” This is beginning to be a negative self-image that is…

DAVIDSON: Because they made the wrong choice.

DENG: That’s right. And I have one, two, three, several myths of a similar nature where to begin with, for instance, the black race, they were born as twins, some say triplets with the brown and white race, and the black child was so favored by the mother, he was so attractive and so appealing to the mother that she favored the child with breast-feeding, with attention, and neglected the others. So the father came and pleaded with God to please take care of these kids who are being mishandled by their mother. And so those were taken to be fed by God and later on. In the past it was to show how appealing the black child was to the mother. As a positive thing. Now, they’re saying that because our mother loved us so much we were deprived of the things that God could have shown us and they were shown to the other races. This is a new negative self-image beginning to emerge. But I do believe that as a reaction…

DAVIDSON: And this is after centuries of the old myths? Is that…

DENG: That’s right. This is new myth evolving. And part of my hobby is to record songs and folk tales and try to analyze them. And the sad part of it is that in the situation of the civil war, or the positive side of the whole process, is that there is a reassertiveness, a struggle for equality within the Sudanese context, with the Arabs. So that the old myths of superiority are beginning again to be reasserted by the warriors, in the modern war, in the modern civil war. Here you have a negative self-image emerging from tradition but it is being countered now by a new myth of self-assertiveness where the Dinka are saying, the whole Sudan, which has been distorted as Arab and Islamic and all that, is truly ours. And therefore they’re claiming not to separate from the Sudan but to redefine the country so that it is an African country in which the black African element is reasserted and has some pivotal role. This is a positive side in a way, even though of course it means militancy.

What in the end it means is if we do not find strategies of development that builds on, that build on the traditional sense of identity and worth, even as it moves people forward, we run the risk of people beginning to see themselves as poor. The Dinka do not, or have not until now, recently, seen themselves as poor. But of course we define them in modern terms as poor. Because of certain objective criteria. Now I believe that there are certain objective indicators of poverty or wealth, but there are also subjective elements of self-image. And those subjective self-images for the Dinka did not recognize them as poor. But now with the pressures of the world they live in, they are beginning to recognize that reality. Shall we let them descent to that level of poverty? Or shall we build on some of their positive self-images and maybe build bridges that will leave them positive?

DAVIDSON: Francis Deng has been my guest on Common Ground. He was Minister of Foreign Affairs in Sudan from 1976 to 1980. He’s now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. Francis Deng has chronicled the life of his very unusual father, a Dinka tribal chief, in a book titled The Man Called Deng Majok. For Common Ground I’m Mary Gray Davidson.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

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