‘Age-sets are very important, both in village and in town. Even when someone is abroad, they’re in an age-set. You can’t find anyone without an age-set‘.

What are the age-sets

The age-sets, also sometimes known as generations, are social groupings primarily for men within a certain age bracket for which one will usually belong all his life. Age-sets are a defining social structure among the Murle community and a source of unity, social solidarity and support, but increasingly also violence. Each age-set has its own red chiefs, with a hierarchy of authority determined by the clans, which establishes seniority within each age-set and across the Murle as a whole.

Age-sets are primarily a male institution and girls and women will usually belong to their father’s age-set until they marry (or are ‘booked’, ei. promised to marry someone), when they shift to belong to their husband’s (or future husband’s) age-set.

Every Murle man belongs to an age-set, regardless if he lives in urban or rural areas or in South Sudan’s capital Juba, in the diaspora in a neighbouring country or a continent away in Australia. It is an inescapable and very important part of life – part of politics, networks of protection and support, economy and business, marriage and family dynamics, authority and conflict management, and every aspect of social and political life.

Age-sets are a significant lifelong identifier and provide individuals with a sense of identity, networks of protection, support and loyalty across the community. Age-sets establish relationships. As Murle boys reach puberty they are assimilated into the youngest age-set and most often remain in that group for life. Alternatively, they may choose to drop to a younger age-set when it is formed later (leading to conflict), or occasionally, they may also be invited to join an older age-set as a sign of respect because they are the eldest male in a family and thus hold particular responsibilities. However, usually, one will identify with the age-set of one’s age mates and peers although there are also exceptions here. Notably, a son cannot be in the age-set following his father and will have to thus join the succeeding age-set. Brothers will also belong to different age-sets as a means to have family representation across age-sets.

It is rare but also possible to move age-sets, although it can sometimes lead to conflict among the age-sets involved. This can occur with no controversy if the oldest son of a family dies, where the second in line will be brought up to replace him in the older age-set (he will usually have double membership to his original age-set and ‘honorary’ membership in the older age-set). Dropping an age-set can also be used instrumentally by political and military leaders as a means to garner support for their cause.

Internal age-set loyalties and allegiances are often stronger than those between blood brothers, and certainly supersede loyalties that one may have based on one’s formal position. As explained by one Lango red chief ‘the age-set is more important than the position you hold in government or in the SPLA. [If one is in the SPLA] they may put the gun down [as SPLA] and go fight [for the age-set]. Or if you’re in government, you’ll find ways of supporting your own age-set.’

Internal and external alliances, loyalties and divisions among age-sets are quite complex. There are ties between every second age-set, which often can be said to be the age-set of one’s father. For instance, Kurenen will be aligned with Bothonnya, who will be aligned with Muden. In turn, Langgo will be aligned with Thithi, who will be aligned with Dorongwa.

Within an age-set there are also important internal sub-groups (or sometimes known as teams in English) loosely based on age and region. Usually age-sets are sub-divided into three to four sub-groups known as ‘kem’ or nyakenet, organised per village area or town. For example, among the younger Kurenen age-set in Manyirany village north of Pibor town, there are at least three sub-groups. Each sub-group has specific identifiers with their own name, particular symbols inscribed on the body and dancing styles. Among the Kurenen, the older sub-group are named as ‘Doctors’ and identify with scars of pens, boreholes and other symbols of modernity, all connected to the idea of Hospitals and Doctors. The sub-group in the middle are known as ‘Koliam’ (or SPLA) and have scarring symbols of military ranks, thuraya phones and guns; the youngest sub-group are known as ‘Suar’, a named used to identify the soldiers of the Cobra Faction, and their symbols include RPGs, Thuraya phones and AK-47s scarred on their bodies. The youngest sub-group are often those who will eventually ‘defect’ to form a new age-set.

Existing age-sets

At present, the existing age-sets, from the youngest to the oldest, are:

Age-setYearColour (beads) and token animalComment
GuzuleeBorn in the 2000sSpotted, guineafowlAge-set under formation, imminent split from Kurenen
Kurenen (pl.) Kurech (sing.)Born from mid-late 1990sWhite and brown, gazelleMany took part in the Cobra Faction; in competition with Lanngo, not yet fully allowed in towns.
Lanngo (pl.) Lanngoch (sing.)Born mid-1980s–early 1990sYellow and black, antelopeMany took part in the Cobra Faction; currently in competition with Kurenen and Bothonya.
Bothonya (pl.) Bothoth (sing.)Born late 1970s–1980s–early 1990sBlack and white, knob-billed duckSaid to be the first age-set to fight competing age-sets with guns rather than sticks; age-set of David Yau Yau and many that took part in the Cobra Faction.
Thithi (pl.) Thithoch (sing.)Born 1960s – 1970sGreen, blue-capped cordon-bleuThe age-set of a large number of the Cobra Faction leadership and those in leadership in government. Was also active in the Pibor Defence Forces (PDF) as soldiers, and as Red Army in the SPLA
Muden Mudech (sing.)Born 1950s – 1960sBlack and red, giant pouched ratAn age-set that joined the PDF as soldiers
Dorongwa (pl.) Dorong (sing.)Born 1940s –1950sOrange and blue, hartebeestLate Ismael Konyi’s age-set, as well as many of those in the PDF
MaraBorn 1930s –1940sGolden and blue, lionLate Barchoch Lual’s age-set, almost few other active members
NyerizaBorn 1920s -1930sSpotted, guineafowlDisappeared almost completely, guineafowl will be used again by Thubezwa
NyakedemoBorn 1910 – 1920s Disappeared almost completely

Membership and identification: beads and scarification

Each age-set chooses to identify with certain token animals, based on the qualities of those animals, and relate to the colour of those animals, represented also by the beads they choose.

In rural areas, as mentioned already above, members of age-sets also have similar body scarification patterns. Until Thithi age-set, scarification designs and symbols reflected the animals selected by the age-set (for instance, a gazelle or rooster) but since Bothonnya these have shifted to incorporate symbols of power, modernity and military strength such as ranks, AK-47s, RPGs, pens, watches, among other such symbols, and ultimately reflect young people’s hopes and aspirations.

Roughly since 2005, when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in what then southern Sudan eventually leading to the independence of South Sudan in 2011, the younger Murle age-sets have shifted from exclusively scarifying age-set token animals to concentrating on other symbols of power and modernity, reflecting the fragmentation and militarisation of age-sets.

These new images and motifs range from symbols alluding to wealth and modernity such as wrist-watches and Thuraya satellite phones to hyper-violent and hyper-masculine AK-47s on chests and military ranks on shoulders. Other designs and themes such as pens and boreholes hint at admiration of urban symbols, education and access to basic infrastructure. Others, still, reveal the intense presence of the United Nations and the large international aid presence in the area, with young men engraving the UN accronym and other symbols connected to the UN on their bodies.

Body scarification practices are a powerful way through which young people identify and communicate internally and reflect changing political circumstances and inter-generational relations.

Lanngo youth arriving at an age-set dance, Lotilla River Kubal area, April 2015. Photo by Diana Felix da Costa
Lanngo age-set dance, with black and yellow beads. Kong Kong River, Pibor May 2015. Photo by Diana Felix da Costa
Various age-sets seen dancing together. Lotilla River cattle-camp, Kubal area April 2015. Photo by Diana Felix da Costa
Bothonnya age-set token animals, with the colours black and white, painted on a tree in a dancing place, Lotilla River, April 2015 (Photo by Diana Felix da Costa).
Body scarification of a hartebeest from Dorongwa age-set. Photo by Jon Arensen (circa 1980s)
Photograph of scarification of AK-47s, Lanngo age-set. Kong-Kong River, May 2015 photo by Diana Felix da Costa
Photograph of man’s back with a borehole, Kurenen age-set. Manyumen payam in Pibor, September 2019. Photo by Diana Felix da Costa