A rapturous reception of a forgotten heritage of South Sudan
May 17, 2009 (JUBA) – "I have been telling people for several years that if the words of Ngundeng were true, the dang would be found and returned to our land,"said elder Gatkuoth Deng. "hen I heard this news about dang last month that it was found and be brought home, I could recall my arguments about it,"he continued.
- A rapturous reception of Ngundeng’s dang as the plane carrying it got engulfed in the middle of the runway by a crowd of thousands of people wanting to touch or see it, Juba, May 16, 2009 (photo ST - J.G.Dak)
It was in April this year that news began to spread about the coming back of a historical artifact which many people forgot about, but some believed it would return to South Sudan someday. This is an artifact called ‘dang’ or rod which was divine to Ngundeng Bong. He was believed to be a prophet in some parts of Upper Nile region from around 1840’s until his peaceful death in 1906.
The dang arrived Juba on Saturday, 16th May 2009. Anticipating its arrival time, thousands of people began to gather at Juba airport looking up at each plane that was landing from eastern side of the airport. They were told the plane would come from Nairobi at around 11:30AM. That did not stop them from starting to stare up in the skies from around 9:00AM looking for the unidentified plane.
Police and airport security personnel were deployed ready to maintain calm and order if the normal protocol personnel were to be overwhelmed by the huge crowd. That did not help either. The plane arrived at around 11:30AM. "That is the plane," said one informer. In a matter of few minutes the plane found itself engulfed by thousands of people in the middle of the runway as police and security personnel were overwhelmed and could not stop the roaring and fast moving crowd.
Douglas Johnson stepped down from the plane. "That is probably the white man bringing the dang," murmured some. I approached Biel Kong, a man among the crowd and standing near me. "How would you know it is the original dang when you have never seen it or known how its looks like?" I asked him. "Ngundeng talked of ‘dang mi yiel juoc," he replied. His answer in Nuer was referring to a foretold Ngundeng’s description of his dang with a ‘broken tip from one end.’
I decided to ask another person a similar question to see if the answer would be the same or not. The other fellow I asked, and who happened to be a university student in Juba, gave me a different version of proving that the dang was the original one. "You know, those Europeans are not like us. They understand the importance of history and so they preserve it for centuries," he confidently assured me.
The crowd continued scanning every single luggage that the airport personnel were unloading from the plane hoping to detect the bag carrying the dang. Little did they know that the dang was already among the bags they were looking at in front of them. Organizers were waiting for the region’s VP Dr. Riek Machar to receive it. He was still in the VIP’s lounge with AU delegation, led by former South African President, Thabo Mbeki, who had paid a one-day visit to Juba for talks on peace efforts with the semi-autonomous government.
Suddenly pushing began as bodyguards tried to open a narrow space through which Dr. Machar could get to where the bag was. He got hold of the bag and began to struggle through his way back. A peaceful chaos ensued. The crowd encircled him, grabbing his shoulders trying to stop him as every body wanted to touch the bag or see it at a close range. “If I can get a chance to touch it I would be very happy indeed,” shouted one struggler.
A bull got slaughtered beside the plane for ’kier’ or sacrifice to welcome home the dang. At Machar’s residence thousands of people began to gather in anticipation of a celebration where he and Douglas would open the bag and display the dang for people to see. More government ministers, MPs and elders began to arrive. By about 1:00PM the celebrations began. Musicians and traditional dancers took to the stage to entertain the already exciting crowd. Traditional songs by group dancers from different tribes could be heard from all corners. Others were chanting the songs of Ngundeng amid ululations and blowing of trumpets. Understandably, Dinka and Nuer group dancers and traditional singers dominated the scene, probably because of their long time knowledge about Ngundeng.
After several speeches by dignitaries, it was time for Machar and Douglas to open the bag in front of the people. Every one was eager to see it. The dang, black in colour and looking old but straight and strong, confirmed the expectation of Biel Kong. It is broken on the tip of one side, which earned its description by Ngundeng as ‘dang in yiel juoc.’ The broken piece (tip) was still held to the main body by strings which looked like they were made of steel. Another bull was slaughtered after it was taken out of a long bag.
Nuer elders I spoke to could not tell exactly when the dang was made. Some say it could be around 1860s some years after Ngundeng assumed his role of prophet while others are not sure. If the estimation of 1860s is correct the dang would be about 150 years old. It was taken by the British colonial administration to England more than 80 years ago in 1927.
Ngundeng, whose name means ‘Gift of God’ in Nuer language, was born around late 1830s. His father, Bong, originally came from Bul-Nuer in Western Nuer (present day Unity state), but moved to Jikany-Nuer in Eastern Nuer (present day Upper Nile state) where Ngundeng was born. Ngundeng was the only child of his mother, Nyayiel, who came from the Lou-Nuer in Central Nuer (present day Jonglei state) where he conducted most of his activities.
According to Ngundeng’s book written by Professor Douglas Johnson, Ngundeng’s mother gave birth to him after she was barren for dozens of years and her hair turned grey and reached menopause as she was very old.
Nyayiel then left her husband, Bong, in Jikany-Nuer and lived with her parents’ relatives in Lou-Nuer until a dream came to her at night commanding her to go back to Bong so that she would give birth to a child whose name would be called ‘Ngun-Deng.’
Some elders recall that Ngundeng’s prophecies during his lifetime generation were challenged. Whenever he prophesied about future, he would be ridiculed and called a liar. He would only defend his words by saying that it was God who gave him the messages and that God could not lie, but "his delays in fulfilling prophecies are his only lies."
When asked whether this generation’s elders believe his prophecies, elder Makuach could not mince his words. "Yes, we now believe them unlike his [Ngundeng’s] generation because his prophecies are being fulfilled during this generation," he said. "When we compare what he said and what is happening now in Sudan, you can without any doubt see that he was very accurate," Makuach continued.
Ngundeng also built about 60 to 70 feet high pyramid at Bieh around 1880s. It was bombed and demolished by warplanes of the British colonial administration during their 27-year on and off war with the Nuer, leaving a small part of it intact.
Mary Boya, a musician from Murle community, told the crowd that she could hear about Ngundeng when she was still a very small child in her community. "I could hear about Ngundeng since I was small but couldn’t understand what it was all about," she explained.
"Ngundeng is a prophet of God, his words are true, but he is not God and cannot be worshipped like God," replied a young man from Nuer traditional dancers when I asked him why would some people call Ngundeng God and others call him Prophet. "People should understand the difference between a Prophet, God’s son and God himself," he said.
Deng, a Dinka youth member from Northern Bahr Ghazal who attended the occasion declared that Ngundeng was a prophet, not only for South Sudan, but for all the black people of Africa.
"ogether, together, all of us together,"chanted the crowd as they referred to the unity of the people of South Sudan. Elders who volunteered to educate people about Ngundeng at the occasion explained that the prophet was a peace-maker among the black people of Sudan. According to them, Ngundeng’s lifetime witnessed peace among the Nuer and with their neighbours. They said he stopped the Nuer from raiding their neighboring tribes and encouraged good neighborliness. They explained that the dang was used for peace-making by Ngundeng and never used it to threaten others unless in self-defense. "This action of self-defense occurred once when he struck dead invading neighboring tribal warriors with it," the elders further explained.
16th May was declared during the event as a day on which the return of dang Ngundeng would be commemorated every year, probably at his religious headquarters, Bieh, in Wec Deang, Jonglei state. The day also coincided with the historic day on which the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) was founded in 1983. However, the major SPLM/A annual celebration in the capital, Juba, has been postponed to 26th May this year.