The Toposa People of South Sudan

The Toposa tribe, known as fierce warriors and cattle raiders, was the last tribal group I met in South Sudan. After hearing from the Larim tribe (The Larim Tribe of South Sudan) about the brutality of the Toposa, their lifelong enemy, I was a bit concerned about how they would welcome us. But luckily, when you don’t have cattle to fight over, the Toposa are rather cheerful and hospitable; at least they were with us. 

The Toposa is one of the largest tribal groups living on the South-Eastern border of South Sudan. They live in villages with thatched houses called “tukel,” similar to the Larim houses, except for the door being somewhat taller (one does not have to crawl to get in, bending is enough). And as I had seen in the Nyagatom villages (A Bridge Over the Omo River) in Ethiopia, they built granaries on stilts to prevent animals from accessing their crops. Interestingly, The Nyagatom are thought to be a sister tribe to the Toposa, both speaking Nilotic languages, as do the Turkana tribe from Kenya.  

And, if you have read the previous posts you will not be surprised to learn that cattle are central to the Toposa culture. As with the Larim, most men were away from the villages when we arrived, spending time with the cattle looking for water and pasturages. A few young men had stayed behind, presumably to ensure safety. But women were there, busy as usual, farming, fetching water, grinding the grains, cooking, raising children, and caring for the elderly. Though the young Toposa girls were wearing the same colorful short skirts worn by the Larim girls, the traditional dresses of the two tribes were quite different. The Toposa women also value beads, and they do stunning work with them, which they wear proudly.   Heavy magnificent necklaces, adorable headpieces ( which represent the symbol of their clan, here, a guinea hen,) beaded armbands, long beaded back pieces, and belts are adornments worn every day. Their skin skirts are entirely covered with beads, mainly of a pale green color and sometimes with intricate patterns. Many of the women wear a ring below the lip. They carry their babies on their backs and cleverly put a calabash over them as protection from the sun.

Though the village life was somewhat quiet, we were unexpectedly treated to a very energetic event, as a “wedding” took place in one of the villages while we were there. People from all villages showed up, men and women, and the whole process was amazing. Men had come back from the cattle camp for the event and were wearing their best outfits  (interestingly though the women mostly wear traditional attire, the men had been exposed to and have adopted and adapted western clothing) because of the war. The only men wearing traditional clothing were the men in the wedding party who had donned animal skins for the occasion. The men’s dances are mostly high jumps while brandishing sticks and spears. Women were also dressed up and would run in long lines, making use of their favorite (new) accessory: a whistle (that I can still hear). Everyone was treated to sorghum beer and had a great time. We later learned that the celebrated bride and groom had been married for quite a long time but could not afford the celebration until now. The celebrated wife was the third wife of the family, a common occurrence as a Toposa man can have multiple wives if he can afford it.  Part of the reason why cattle are so highly prized is because the “bride price,” a dowry that the prospective husband has to pay to the bride’s family is paid in cattle.   When I asked a local when a man stops acquiring new wives, he answered: “when he cannot walk any longer”. To this day, I am still wondering whether this is really what he meant to say.

Though we visited several Toposa villages, life seemed relatively similar from one to the next. In a few towns, women treated us to a festive dance consisting of jumping and tossing their tassel-adorned elbows up high. In one of the villages, the elders were happy to welcome us and gifted us a goat. I was hoping it was a symbolic gift and the goat would stay with them, but a young boy delivered the frisky animal to our camp later. So, although all of these tribes have historically fought one another to acquire and defend the meager resources they have to live on, they are still generous and caring people. One just wishes there would be enough for everybody to survive so that various tribal groups could learn to enjoy one another. Wishful thinking, I know, but one can dream.

On a personal note, this is an anniversary for me as this is my 100th story on this platform. Needless to say, when I started posting these pieces, I never imagined I would keep at it for that long. I have certainly been pondering whether this would be a good time to stop, but I do know I have one more story to share, so there will be number 101. After that, who knows.

Thanks for taking the time to read,

France

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28 Responses

    1. Thank you, Karl! #101 won’t be that different, I did not mean to set high expectations 😏, just that I had one more in the work! And then we’ll see, maybe it’s time to resume the drone training!

    1. Nancy, thank you to be a loyal visitor to the blog. I always enjoy hearing from you. You have seen so many of these places, it is always great to hear your reactions.

    1. Thank you, Michele. Yes, 101 is coming, but I am not sure about 102! Maybe time for something else. 🤗

    1. Thank you, Jeremy. Always nice hearing from you. On a roll? Why am I on a roll? Because of having written so many? That is the point, I think I am getting out of steam… we’ll see!

  1. #100! That’s an impressive milestone, France. My world has expanded greatly thanks to you and your insightful narrative accompanying such powerful images. I always look forward to your photographs and appreciate the time you spend to make them accessible to those of us who will not have these experiences! Thank you!

    1. Kathy, yes, quite a milestone. As always, thank you for your kind words! I am amazed that you always take the time to read and be supportive. It is great to hear that someone else (other than me) is getting something out of these stories. Thank you for that!

  2. Absolutely fascinating. Loved readying about the Toposa. Had a a giggle when you mentioned the Nyagatom’s houses being similar but the doorways sensibility bigger in the Toposa villages. Found it impossible to crawl out of a Nyagatom’s house, with it’s miniature tunnel a few years back. I got stuck! Thought I may have had to steal the beautiful house, and spend the rest of my life looking like a very large snail. In my late 60s. 🙄😳🤦🏼‍♀️😂🤣

    1. Thank you, Helen. And yes, I can relate to the experience. A very large snail is a good visual descriptor, or a turtle maybe! I am glad you could make it out of the Nyagatom’s house (and I am sure they were too) 😏!

  3. Oh, France, don’t stop now! The photos are spectacular, and you’ve done such an amazing job of introducing us to this hidden world.

    1. Thank you, Rosemary! You are very kind. But you have seen most of these places with your own eyes. And now, I am sure South Sudan is on your list 😏! Anyhow, just thinking about doing something different, maybe I am just reacting to the number, 100 seems to be enough!!! We’ll see. All the best, France

  4. A fantastic story for your 100th post .

    Stunning images .

    I cannot imagine what it must be like to live in such stark conditions or be wife number 3 .

    An incredible people living their traditional way of life .

    The guy dancing in the video ..many similarities across other cultures in the dance movements.

    The beaded work is beautiful…where do they source the beads , are beads made locally?

    Several people had patterns carved into their skin ..one can only imagine the healing process of this .

    Is there a designated person who does this practice?

    In anycase ..as terrific as ever to see your work …loved their houses too

    Looking forward to 101 …and more ..

    Sending love and congratulations on this milestone.

    🥰🌺🙏👏

    1. Greetings, dear Emilie! Yes, 100th!!!! It makes me feel old 😏! I agree these tribes are fascinating, both the Larim and the Toposa. Because of the war with Sudan and then the civil war in their own country, they have been kept away from the modern world for much longer than any other groups I have seen. Sadly, their only contact with “civilization” was that there were given guns to fight in the war, which has made these cattle raids devastating. And I would not want to be wife no. 3 either (nor 1 or 2 for that matter), women work very hard and do not have much power but I have to say that there are very supportive of one another. The scarification is done early on, it is done by cutting (these days with razor blades), and typically they put ash or mud to try to create inflammation which will them develop into keloids (ouch). Anyhow, many tribes from Sub-Sahar Africa do it but I thought the Sudanese create very interesting and unique pattern (though some of them are representations of AK-47. So glad you like the work, Emilie. Also happy to read your comments. 😘

  5. .. like always – wonderful pictures and perfect words for it – once again, I loved your post. Congratulations!!! I’m looking forward to the next – and 102 will be Angola.? … have a great trip – all the best …🌼

    1. Thank you my dear friend, I am glad you liked the post! 101 will be Angola, not sure whether there will be a 102. All the best, France

  6. Stunning photography. You know just how to frame each and every shot! What a privilege it is to be part of these people’s wedding and dances. Love your work and your descriptions!

    1. Dear Vera, Many thanks for your kind words. The wedding was unexpected but so fascinating. I sincerely apologize for my late reply. I was traveling without internet access for quite a while, and somehow I miss your comment. So sorry. All the best, France

  7. I am from the Toposa tribe and the story is brilliant and all true, though i am laughing it loud since i am reading from the other side (Know more on the cullture). The Toposa are generous and hospitable tribe in South Sudan unless you tamper with their women and cows. great job and nice story flow.

    1. So so happy to hear from you and I am so glad you like the story. Are you in Juba? I would love to chat with you if I ever go back and learn more about your beautiful culture. I promise not to tamper with the cows 😏.
      Warmly, France

Would love to hear from you!

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