Cultural, Languages & Ethnic Groups of Sudan

Cultural life

Because of The Sudan's great cultural diversity, it is difficult to classify the traditional cultures of the various peoples. These traditional societies have diverse linguistic, ethnic, social, cultural, and religious characteristics. And, although improved communications, increased social and economic mobility, and the spread of a money economy have led to a general loosening of the social ties, customs, relationships, and modes of organization in traditional cultures, much from the past still remains intact.

The selection of four cultures that follows merely suggests some rather prominent cultural patterns that are illustrative of the wide range present. These four cultures are those of the Azande, African animists of the southwestern Sudan; the Fur, Muslim Africans in the far western part of the country; the Humr tribe of the Baqqarah Arabs, of the west-central Sudan; and the Otoro tribe of the Nuba, in the east-central Sudan.

The key to an understanding of contemporary Sudanese culture is diversity. Each major ethnic group and historical region has its own special forms of cultural expression, and the linguistic diversity of the country provides the basis for a richly varied written and oral literature.

One of the most important forms of cultural expression among nonliterate groups is oral tradition. The major language with a written literature in traditional Sudanese society is Arabic. The most widely known Sudanese literary works in this language are associated with Islam and its scholarship and include a large body of literature describing the lives and virtue of holy men. These works are best known through recitations on special anniversaries associated with pious persons. In the 20th century, the combination of oral and written literature remains of major importance to both traditional and Westernized segments of Sudanese society. Perhaps the best-known Sudanese novelist is at-Tayyib Salih, whose books Season of Migration to the North and The Wedding of Zein have been translated into foreign languages.

Poetry is another important form of literary expression. Modern Sudanese poetry reflects the mixed African and Arab cultural heritage of the country, as expressed in the works of Muhammad al-Mahdi al-Majdhub and many others.

In such arts as painting, weaving, and pottery making, each locality has developed unique forms and styles. However, in the 20th century, more unified national styles have emerged under the influence of artists in the cities. The College of Fine and Applied Arts within the Khartoum Polytechnic has served as the home of graphic arts in The Sudan, and a number of Sudanese printmakers, calligraphers, and photographers have achieved international recognition. Ibrahim as-Salahi, who is proficient in all three mediums, is perhaps the most widely known such artist.

Song plays an important role in all the cultural traditions of The Sudan and ranges from the unique cosmopolitan traditions of Qur'anic recitation in a melodramatic manner to tribal songs. A characteristically national style of music is emerging out of this diversity, as reflected in the music heard in Khartoum.

The Sudan is one of the richest African countries in terms of archaeological sites. The Sudan Antiquities Service manages the National Museum, a magnificent Khartoum landmark, and smaller archaeological exhibits in Marawi and Al-Ubbayid. The Ethnographical Museum and the Sudan Natural History Museum are affiliated with the University of Khartoum. Drama flourishes at the National Theatre and elsewhere in Khartoum.

In view of its religious diversity, The Sudan observes both Muslim and Christian holidays. One of the most popular religious festivals is that of the Prophet Muhammad's birthday.

Perhaps the most popular form of sports is football (soccer), and a number of clubs exist all over the country.

There are two broadcasting stations: the oldest is in Omdurman, and the other was established in Juba, the capital of the southern region, after the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement. Between 1986 and 1989 The Sudan had one of the freest presses in Africa, with more than 40 independent newspapers, but, after the June 1989 military takeover, civilian newspapers were banned, and today there are only a few state-controlled papers.


One of the most striking characteristics of The Sudan is the diversity of its people. The Sudanese are divided among 19 major ethnic groups and about 597 subgroups and speak more than 100 languages and dialects.

Identifying ethnic groups in Sudan was made more complicated by the multifaceted character of internal divisions among Arabic-speaking Muslims, the largest population that might be considered a single ethnic group.

The distinction between Sudan's Muslim and non-Muslim people has been of considerable importance in the country's history and provides a preliminary ordering of the ethnic groups. It does not, however, correspond in any simple way to distinctions based on linguistic, cultural, or racial criteria nor to social or political solidarity.

Ethnic group names commonly used in Sudan and by foreign analysts are not always used by the people themselves. That is particularly true for non-Arabs known by names coined by Arabs or by the British, who based the names on terms used by Arabs or others not of the group itself. Thus, the Dinka and the Nuer, the largest groups in southern Sudan, call themselves, respectively, Jieng and Naath

Ethnic Groups

Largest ethnic category in 1983 (nearly 40 percent of total, nearly 55 percent in north) comprises those considering themselves Arabs, but category internally split by regional and tribal loyalties and affiliation to various Muslim politico-religious groups. Major Muslim (but non-Arab) groups are Nubians in far north, nomadic Beja in northeast, and Fur in west. Southern non-Muslim groups include Dinka (more than 10 percent of total population and 40 percent in south), Nuer, and numerous smaller Nilotic and other ethnic groups.

About 400 languages, but Arabic primary and official language. English common second language in south. Other languages include Bedawiye used by Beja and various dialects of Niger-Kurdufanian and Nilo-Saharan.

Last Updated on Monday 4th August 2008