Rumbek Women

For the Agaar women of Rumbek (Lakes state, South Sudan) cultural attire plays a pivotal role in many social, reciprocal and traditional customs.

For many generations the Agaar woman’s traditional attire has been sustained as an infinite testament to the Agaar people’s rich heritage as well as the magnanimous diversity within the Dinka tribes of the South Sudan. Conjunctively, the Dinka tradition of oral literature tracks the evolution of the Agaar woman’s traditional attire from the original goatskin skirts and decorative jewelry worn by women of the older generations to the modern day designs used to recreate the original tapered-end goatskin skirt.

Over the years I have heard countless nostalgic retellings from many influential Agaar women, in particular my mother and grandmother. These tales have described beauty and self-presentation in the Agaar culture as a complex and somewhat abstract concept, which is shaped by many influences. I learned that these influences range from how one carries themselves, the intricate details of one’s attire, and ones interactions with their surroundings, the internal and external qualities which shape the individual and most importantly the individual’s skills and ability to execute everyday duties in a methodically obedient and honorable manner.

From these teachings I have learned that for my people beauty is not just a one sided sphere but a well rounded figure which consists of the individual, extended kin and other relations as well as a wide variety of cultural and traditional beliefs systems.  So basically wearing the Agaar woman’s traditional attire is a representation of these conceptions of beauty.

Personal grooming and decorative accessories are highly valued thought-out many fields of the Agaar culture. Both Men and women rub their bodies with oil made from boiled butter in order to give the skin a glistening, silk smooth texture. On many occasions, for example if the family is residing in the cattle camps (Wut) baked dung ash is worn on the body as a natural repellent to ward of insects.  Both Men and women wear vibrant beads, bangles and other decorative jewelry around the neck, waist, wrist and ankles daily and on special occasions.

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Height is also observed as an important symbol of beauty in the Agaar culture. During the early generation’s young girls walked naked, sometimes a bright fabric maybe strapped over one shoulder, while Married women wore skirts. Going in this manner was observed as an emphasis of height, grace and elegance. Another notable beauty ritual practiced by the Agaar tribe and many other Dinka tribes is the cutting of decorative designs onto the body (primarily on the face, arms and lower stomach). The Agaar people also remove some teeth from the bottom row as a beauty symbol. Also, the urine from a cow hair is dyed to a deep maroon color and decorated with beads and feathers.

Despite the transformations which the Agaar woman’s traditional attire has endured over the past generations and many of the mentioned beauty rituals may not be practiced by the Dinka communities in Diaspora, it is of great comfort to witness small pockets of resistance moving against the gradient of change. The Agaar women of Adelaide who took part in this project to showcase cultural attire, for example are a distinguished example of how vibrant, machine crafted gowns can be used to mimic the trail of a culture ‘removed’ from its original setting and placed in an awkward disposition. A culture which continues to thrive.

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PHOTOS: By Michelle Neale ‘Commes des Michelle‘. Special thanks to the Rumbek women who participated in our photoshoot: Mary John Akec, Rebecca Akur Adut, Agum Manyoun Madem, Adut Gur, Ayen Madit, Amer Majak, Sara Banok and Flora Chol.

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Flora is a South Sudanese-born Australian citizen, and has lived in Adelaide for nearly 12 years. Currently Flora is in her second year of studying a Bachelor of Development Studies at the University of Adelaide and is a passionate lover of all forms of artistic expression particularly in the fields of creative art, poetry and writing. Her aspiration is for a career in diplomacy or as an ambassador for one of the major international NGOs.

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