The Nuer people are a Nilotic ethnic group primarily inhabiting the Nile Valley and Baro River of Gambella. The majority of Nuer are found in South Sudan. However, a significant portion is found in south western Ethiopia in Gambella Region. Although they only inhabit 5 weredas of the region, the Nuer are the largest ethnic group consisting of more than 60 percent of the population in Gambella.
Until very recently, cattle have historically been of the highest symbolic, religious and economic value among the Nuer. Cattle are particularly important in their role as bride wealth, where they are given by a husband’s lineage to his wife’s lineage. It is this exchange of cattle which ensures that the children will be considered to belong to the husband’s lineage and to his line of descent. The classical Nuer institution of ghost marriage, in which a man can “father” children after his death, is based on this ability of cattle exchanges to define relations of kinship and decent. In their turn, cattle given over to the wife’s patrilineage enable the male children of that patrilineage to marry, and thereby ensure the continuity of her patrilineage. A barren woman can even take a wife of her own, whose children (obviously biologically fathered by men from outside unions) then become members of her patrilieage, and she is legally and culturally their father, allowing her to participate in reproduction in a metaphorical sense.