The Dinka people of South Sudan are known all over the world for their height. Their homeland is sometimes referred to as the land of giants – understandably so, as on average, their men stand almost 6ft and women are not lagging much behind, either.
The Dinka, also called Jieng, is a Nilotic ethnic group of around 4.5 million people who live in the savanna country surrounding the central swamps of the Nile basin primarily in South Sudan, with a sizable diaspora population abroad.
The Dinka are known for their staggering height. Together with the Tutsi of Rwanda, they are believed to be the tallest people in Africa, and possibly the entire world.
According to a study conducted in in 1953–1954, the average height of Dinka men was around 182 cm (∼6ft). Today, however, the stature of Dinka males appears to be lower, possibly as a consequence of undernutrition and conflicts. Another survey of Dinka men conducted in refugee camps in Ethiopia in 1995 found a mean height of 176.4 cm (5 ft 9.4 in).
That said, other studies of comparative historical height data and nutrition place the Dinka as the world’s tallest.
But how exactly the Dinka became some of the tallest people in the world? Well, this has been somewhat of a mystery that has been long debated. The most popular explanation is nutrition – a high-calorie diet rich in dairy products, grains, and meat.
All organic, of course.
The Dinka mostly make a living from agriculture and pastoralism, relying on cattle husbandry for milk and as a matter of cultural pride. Instead of a centralized authority, they have many independent but interrelated clans. Traditionally, some of these clans provide ritual chiefs, known as “fishing spear masters” or beny bith, who provide leadership to the entire people (the title appears to be at least partly hereditary). The sacrificing of oxen by these ritual leaders is a central component of Dinka religious practice.
Otherwise, the Dinka’s religious beliefs and practices reflect their pastoral lifestyle. Most – especially those living in villages – revere one God, Nhialic, who speaks through spirits who, in turn, take temporary possession of individuals in order to speak through them. The Dinka attribute their religious power to nature and the world around them, rather than to a religious tome.
Age is an important factor in Dinka culture, and young men have to go through an initiation ordeal which includes marking the forehead with a sharp object in order to be considered adults. During this ceremony they also acquire a second cow-colour name.
Dinka call their language Dinka or “Thuɔŋjäŋ” (Thoŋ ë Muɔnyjäŋ). It’s one of the Nilotic languages of the eastern Sudanic language family. They write in Latin letters with some additional characters included.
The most famous Dinka is probably the late Manute Bol, who was a South Sudanese-born American basketball player and political activist.
Listed at 7 ft 7 in tall, Bol was tied with Gheorghe Mureșan as the tallest player in the history of the National Basketball Association (NBA).
A center, Bol is considered among the best shot-blockers in basketball history and is the only NBA player to retire with more career blocked shots than points scored. He ranks second in NBA history in terms of blocked shots per game and 16th in total blocked shots.
Bol is also known for his efforts to promote human rights in his native Sudan and aid for Sudanese refugees.
The future of the Dinka depends on whether peace can be maintained between the north and the south of Sudan, allowing the Dinka to follow their traditional way of life and maintain their deep-rooted human values.
But, of course, modern society is increasingly going right over everybody’s heads even without war, and the Dinka are no exception.