Written by Sophie Ibbotson and Max Lovell-Hoare
The Toposa speak a Nilotic language that is mutually intelligible with Turkana and are engaged in long-running conflicts with the neighbouring Didinga Hill tribes.
According to the Toposa’s own stories, they originally came from the Losolia Mountains in what is now Uganda. A fierce quarrel between the Lwo and Tap tribes in the late 16th century caused severe famine and the Tap (the ancestors of the Toposa) fled, first to Losilang and then to the area around Kapoeta.
Today, the Toposa are found across Eastern Equatoria and, to a lesser extent, in the southern part of Jonglei State. Their familial lands centre on the fertile pastures alongside the Singaita and Lokalyen rivers, although they migrate seasonally to Moruangipi and the Ilemi Triangle. When the Toposa periodically drive their cattle on to Didinga lands in the dry season, it brings the two communities into violent conflict.
The Toposa are known to have settled around Kapoeta by the 1830s. They were heavily involved with the area’s ivory trade, which brought them into contact first with the Europeans and then, when the Mahdi took control of Sudan in 1881 (effectively blocking trade to the north), with the Ethiopians. The Toposa developed strong relationships with other mercantile communities, in particular Swahili traders, and the trade of ivory for ammunitions gave the Toposa the capacity to subjugate neighbouring tribes.
The Toposa were largely unaffected by the First Civil War, but the Second Civil War was catastrophic for them. They attempted to play the SPLA and government forces off against one another, siding with whoever would give them food and arms. The SPLA swung between violent attacks on Toposa civilians and more conciliatory approaches; the government armed the Toposa in a bid to exploit traditional rivalries with the Dinka. It is thought that the Toposa were given more than 50,000 small arms in the 1990s alone.
Toposa is a Nilotic language that is mutually intelligible with Turkana. Toposa culture is transmitted orally through music, poetry and storytelling, as well as through dance. However, literacy is low: as little as 5% of the population is thought to be able to read. Toposa society is based on raising livestock, including cattle, camels, sheep and donkeys. The importance of animals and access to pasture impacts upon all aspects of life: from the division of labour and the education of children, to the relationship with neighbouring tribes and the strategies of warfare. Status and wealth are measured in terms of head of cattle and loaded guns.
There is no clear political hierarchy within the community, although respect is shown to elders and to the ancestral spirits, who are believed to help in times of disease or famine. Decisions affecting the tribe, including peace and war, are made at meetings attended by the men, usually held in the hours just before dawn.
The Toposa and Didinga Hill Tribes have long been in conflict over access to pastureland and other resources, and the combination of a breakdown in order and the proliferation of arms during the civil war led to an escalation in violence.
In May 2007, Toposa tribesmen attacked a group of Didinga resting in their fields, killing more than 50 women and children as well as five men. They also took 300 head of cattle and 400 goats and sheep. Territorial disputes across the border in Kenya, where many Toposa took refuge during the war, are reported to have led to more than 40 deaths and the theft of 40,000 livestock.
Some developments are more encouraging, however. A small number of Toposa children have started to attend school in the towns of Kapoeta, Narus and Natinga, and women are said to be taking a more prominent role in the community’s dispute resolutions. The Governor of Eastern Equatoria, Brigadier General Louis Lobong Lojore, is a Toposa from Kapoeta East County, suggesting some reconciliation between the SPLA and the Toposa has indeed taken place.