Religious Songs of the Nuer

Today we’re featuring some religious songs from the Nuer, brought to you by Nyanchan Gatkuoth and James Chuol, both attendees at a Nuer church in Addis Ababa around Megenagna.

We’ve mentioned the Nuer before: originally from the southern Sudan, the first Nuer group to migrate to western Ethiopia’s Gambella region were the Jikany in the latter half of the 19th century. Most Nuer, however, came from the 1960s onward as a consequence of the Sudanese Civil Wars. Now, many Nuer are born Ethiopian citizens, although plenty are still resettling from Sudan (now South Sudan). The South Sudanese Nuer and Ethiopian Nuer I’ve talked to consider themselves pretty much the same: the language, cultural practices, et cetera are quite similar across the border. The Nuer speak a Nilo-Saharan language and are traditionally semi-nomadic pastoralists, with cattle forming an important part of their everyday life and society. That being said, you find many Nuer now who are quite educated, living and working in urban areas in sub-Saharan Africa, Australia, the United States, and Europe.

Nyanchan is originally from Nasir in South Sudan but has lived in Ethiopia for the past few years. She first came to Gambella and now lives in Addis Ababa. Her father is living in the United States, and she is currently in the process of trying to get her visa so that she can reunite with him. Nyanchan is a singer in the church and shared some of her favorite songs with us after the service.

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The lovely and talented Nyanchan just after the church service

One of the songs she sang is translated from a very well-known western hymn, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” Many Nuer Christian songs, actually, are translations of Western hymns, and I heard several familiar melodies throughout the church service I attended (stylized, of course, according to Nuer music aesthetics, with different vocal timbre and altered rhythms). Nyanchan learned this particular song when she was still a child, only twelve years old, in Sunday school.

I asked her why this song was her favorite, and she said, “This song is about a promise. Once I decide to do everything in the name of God, I don’t go back…[These songs] changed my life. Especially when I get into temptation, I sing a song, and that makes me very strong.”

Our second featured musician, James Chuol, sings and also composes original music. He is from Ethiopia, born in Gambella and grew up in the Newland neighborhood of Gambella town. About five years ago, he moved to Mekelle (in northern Ethiopia, Tigray region) then Addis Ababa in pursuit of his education. Just last Saturday, he graduated with his bachelors in accounting and finance. That is quite an accomplishment, and we congratulate him!

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James Chuol, church composer and singer

James first became interested in music while he was living in Gambella under the tutelage of two music teachers, one from Kenya and one from Ethiopia. He didn’t start composing, however, until 2013. “It came like a dream,” he said. “I slept at night in my bed, [and] the song came…I woke up and I remembered that song, and I sang it…The spirit inspires me to sing, the spirit of God. Because there is a spirit that makes me not to forget that song, so when I wake up, I remember [it]…[and] sing it…to praise the Lord.” He still remembers the first song that he composed was about, “All the opportunities that God gives to us…if you put your faith in God and you praise God in song, then God opens the door for you and he will give you all the opportunities that you need…When I sing a song, just, I feel, it inspires the people. It makes people to think about how they praise the Lord.”

James has some recordings that use keyboard and other technologies, but, unfortunately, had left them in Gambella. Much to our benefit, he agreed to sing some of his compositions for me to record during our interview. The song we are featuring today is, in Nuer, “Cien bi dier mi wa guath koor, kahoo taa luak mi leny ti dial,” which, in English, means, “If you go to war, our power is Jesus Christ.”

I asked James what kind of war the song refers to, and he said, “That’s the war by the devil or physical war…if you go to physical war, just put your faith in Jesus, then you will be saved.” He wrote this song about two years ago and described his inspiration, “So, something happened in 2013…in South Sudan. There was big fighting in South Sudan. My brother was there, my youngest brother. So, at that time, he was killed. He was a soldier in there…that was what made me to write this song.”

Probably many of our readers are vaguely aware of the Sudanese Civil Wars that occurred post-Sudan’s independence, but are perhaps less aware of the most recent conflicts in South Sudan. Initially, South Sudan and Sudan were one nation, but South Sudan became its own country in 2011. In December 2013, another conflict broke out in South Sudan between President Salva Kiir’s and former Vice President Riek Machar’s forces. It is unknown the exact number of casualties that have occurred throughout the conflict, but it is likely in the hundreds of thousands, including civilians, women, and children. Gross human rights abuses and war crimes were committed on both sides (see the AU’s Commission of Inquiry or HRW’s reports). Many have fled to refugee camps for internally displaced persons and across the borders to Ethiopia and Kenya. Although a peace agreement was signed in August 2015, renewed clashes broke out in Juba in July 2016  and, in fact, were ongoing during the time that I interviewed Nyanchan. There were many tears during the church service as people worried for their friends and family members in Juba. The situation has hardly improved since then, with worries that ethnic cleansing on the scale of the Rwandan genocide may be poised to take place. And, as with Rwanda (and Aleppo and Darfur and the Rohingya…among others), the world looks on and hasn’t been of much help. UN officials couldn’t even manage to vote for an arms embargo (thanks, guys).

At any rate, we’re glad Nyanchan managed to escape safely and wish her all the success in the world as she tries to reunite with her family members in the US. And, James’ transformation of the pain of his brother’s death into a song that can now encourage others is certainly an inspiration to all of us who may have experienced adversity. To close, we’ll leave you with the English text of this song, translated from Nuer with the assistance of the illustrious Kunen Nyak.

I will not be worried when I go to war in this world, because God is my helper
I have one who helps me: Jesus Christ is fighting hard for me
We must believe in righteousness and put on our shoes to fight Satan
We must stand strong, because our protector is Jesus Christ,
He is helping us in our fight against Satan
We are not fighting against flesh and blood, we are fighting a spiritual war against Satan
We must be wary of anything that leads us to temptation
We must fight for the kingdom of God.
God is the one who has the water of life,
We can fight for the kingdom of God in Jerusalem
When the Lion of Judah becomes angry, the whole world will fear him and run away
The only thing you can do is fight the spiritual war, and God will be there to help you
The only thing you will do as a believer is fight in righteousness, and God will be there to support and help you
We are not fighting against flesh and blood, we are fighting a spiritual war against Satan
Satan is tempting us to join the devil
Prepare yourself, because the coming of Jesus Christ is near, and we must be alert
The coming of Jesus Christ is near
Let us go to God, and let us not involve ourselves in the devil’s issues, in worldly things
Let us fight this war—our protector is Jesus Christ
Do not rely on the traditional spirits, believe in Jesus Christ
We are not fighting against flesh and blood, we are fighting a spiritual war against Satan
Let us be alert and keep ourselves away from all temptation that diverts us from Jesus Christ
I believe I have a protector named Jesus Christ.
I will not worry, because he will protect me from any kind of problem in this world
My weapon, Jesus Christ, will fight for me
Jesus Christ also tells us not to worry: I am together with you, do not worry, brothers and sisters
Fight this war, stand strong with Jesus Christ: I am together with you
Our protector is Jesus Christ, and Satan will not be against him
In our fighting, God is there to help, because all our strength comes from God
Did you know that we are not fighting against flesh and blood? It is a spiritual battle against Satan
Let us be alert and keep ourselves away from all devils that are tempting us

*** This post also would not have been possible without the help of Gatwech Koak Nyuon, who assisted me in finding and interviewing Nuer composers living in Addis. Gatwech is from South Sudan and is a prominent peace ambassador and commentator on issues relating to the young, war-torn nation. We thank him for his efforts!

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