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Karen Campbell on Dinka Gospel Songs

Meeting Dinka Christians and musicians decades ago in East Africa made a lasting impression on Karen Campbell, a pastor and musician. She reflects on what we can learn about God through the lens of other cultures.

From 1998–2001, Karen Campbell taught at Daystar University in Nairobi, Kenya. While there she researched hymnology among the Dinka tribe, the largest people group in what is now South Sudan. In 2007, Campbell became an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church of Ireland. She is now co-pastor at Church of the Servant Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In this edited conversation, Campbell talks about Dinka Christian music and Dinka hymn text composer Mary Aluel Garang. 

What and whom did you teach at Daystar University?

I taught semester courses in Christian music ministry and music theory and gave piano lessons—all in English. I also taught short intensive courses, for either a week or three weeks, on worship and music. My students were from Kenya, Cameroon, Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, and the Congo.

At Daystar, I often taught Sudanese refugees. In an early intensive on song composition, I met Mary Aluel, a very tall, elegant lady. Mary stood out because she was clearly so experienced in writing hymns rich in text and metaphor. Even though her English was limited and we weren't able to converse much, she made a strong impact on me. She wrote in Dinka and would give a rough English translation, explaining that the song arose from thoughts she had after meditating on Scripture. I can still see her standing beside a big drum that she beat with two sticks while singing. Her lyrics were poetic and contextual. She sang about God walking over the dark-red soil and among the people, about the cross-shaped center post in cattle camps, about seeing corpses as people fled to find refuge.

A note on names: This hymnwriter has been variously described as Mary Aluel, Mary Alueel, or some combination of Mary Aluel Garang (her father's name) Nongdit (nickname of great respect meaning "great feather") Anyuon (her paternal grandfather's name).

Meanwhile, you were working on a master’s degree in Christian ministries from Daystar.

Yes, my thesis topic emerged from attending local churches, where many worshipers were eager to practice speaking English with us. At Kenyan churches, we mainly sang repetitive praise choruses in Kenya's national language, Kiswahili. Since most worshipers weren't singing in their mother tongues, there was less possibility for songs to reflect their cultural contexts. But when we attended Dinka Episcopal churches, the songs out of Sudan also included lament and suffering. I was fascinated by how composing contextual songs with traditional Dinka religious idioms helped spread the Christian faith during war and displacement.

Then, in the year 2000, the two main researchers of Dinka hymnody passed away. Marc R. Nikkel, an American Episcopal priest, had worked among the Dinka for twenty years. He translated many songs into English, including famous songs by Mary Aluel Garang, in his book Dinka Christianity: The Origins and Development of Christianity among the Dinka of Sudan with Special Reference to the Songs of Dinka Christians. Stephen Dit Makok [also known as Diit Magok] was an Episcopal priest who trained so many young Christians in Kakuma Refugee Camp and helped compile the first hymnal in the Dinka Bor dialect. He had 54 songs in that hymnal.

A note on denominational names: The worldwide Anglican Communion includes the Church of England, the Episcopal Church in the Americas, and the Episcopal Church of Sudan, which now includes the Province of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan (ECSS). The main ECSS people group is often referred to as Dinka Anglicans, even though they are not part of a much smaller breakaway group called the Anglican Church of South Sudan.

How did your research build on the work of Marc Nikkel and Stephen Dit Makok, and whom else did you research and interview?

Nikkel researched the growth of Christianity and hymnody in South Sudan among the Dinka people. Dit wrote and collected songs that sparked Christian revival among the Dinka in the 1980s and early 1990s. I wanted to research songs written since 1995 to compare findings to their research. I also drew on the Faith in Sudan series of books edited by Andrew Wheeler and the work of anthropologists such as Francis Mading Deng. I did personal interviews in Nairobi and spent a week with Dinka Christians at Kakuma. 

David (my husband) and I went to Kakuma in April 2001, which then had 73,000 residents living in designated ethnic zones to prevent tension. We had asked church leaders there to select Episcopal song leaders who had been Christian for at least five years and belonged or had belonged to the Jol Wo Lieech (JWL) song ministry group. Jol wo lieech is Dinka for "look back on us, God," which was both a prayer and also a perception that God had forgotten their suffering. They selected sixteen men and six women, most in their twenties. David and I taught basic Western music skills—theory and keyboard—in exchange for their sharing songs with us. We asked for newer songs that helped their faith and were composed first in Dinka. 

What did you learn about Dinka culture while in Kakuma?

In Africa, there's a north/south division in attitudes toward time. The Dinka have an Arabic pride in keeping time. To get from the UN compound on the camp periphery to the Dinka zone, we had to walk, get a ride with UN staff, or find people who'd put us on the back of their bicycles. If we were ever late, we had to apologize and explain our lateness.

I learned that it's very important for a Dinka to make decisions concerning every moment of the day. A warrior in a cattle camp should meticulously plan for the future, and people who are less structured are scorned. This helped me understand the many Dinka Christian songs about decisively turning to God and rejecting local divinities, called jok (singular) or jak (plural). 

Among the 91 songs recommended to us in Kakuma, one by Tabitha Adit Deng talks about how turning away from Jok releases people into a new family. This was especially pertinent because so many Dinka have lost their entire families due to war. Also, Jok was worshiped mainly through divinities that were ascribed to separate clans and attached to the cattle camp. Therefore, because so many clans have been not only ruptured but also dislocated, it was an attractive prospect that following God, not Jok, should provide new family security.

Participants of Music Workshop in Kakuma.jpg

How important is music in Dinka culture?

Past research has shown that music, rhythm, and dance are integral to Dinka culture. Potential suitors must court women through song. Songwriting skill is highly prized, yet the Dinka value participation more than performance. Kakuma participants informed me that music is not really music unless it is accepted by all people in the community and then sung by them, emphasizing the communal aspect of music. 

They described more than a dozen traditional song forms, including songs to praise men, their cattle, or jak; songs for dancing, harvest, or celebration; songs to insult enemies or to sing while fighting; and songs women sing while shaking milk in gourds to produce buttermilk. Song form influences content, rhythm, tempo, who sings it, and type of accompaniment. Dinka Christians adapted many of those forms for worship. For example, Diet ke Yai were traditionally songs of morale and motivation, sung either to welcome an important person or incite people to fight. Elders sang Diet ke Yai quietly, seriously, and without drums. By the 1990s, this form was being sung at the start of church services to welcome the presence of the Lord. 

How would you describe the aesthetics of Dinka music? 

Kenya, Sudan, and what is now South Sudan are all sub-Saharan countries. Yet Dinka music picks up more on Arabic influence. It is pentatonic, often in minor keys. The melodic line goes up and down in ways that Western notation doesn't capture well. It's very hard to notate because it has lots of little trills and incidentals happening between notes. Dinka singers teach and learn music by hearing it, not reading notes. In fact, the Dinka hymnal has just words, not notes.

People sing mostly solo or in unison. They accompany their music with clapping, drums, or other rhythm instruments. In Kakuma, we would see people carrying large crosses and pulsing them up and down to the beat. 

How did the Kakuma participants decide which songs to share with you?

Many Dinka learn the Bible through music, so the Kakuma participants chose faith-building songs based on passages from throughout Scripture. I asked them to translate the songs into English, describe the song form (including how it was used in traditional culture and in church), and identify Dinka symbols or themes. When I expressed surprise that only three collected songs were clearly songs of refugees, they replied that they wanted to teach songs that would apply to the church universal. Talking about displacement did not apply to every Christian, whereas suffering did. The JWL song-teaching group changed words in some songs from refugee camp to bush because bush is less specific.

Common symbols included blood, sacrifice, covenant, and cross, because traditional worship included sacrificing cattle to jak at cross-shaped center posts in cattle camps. Common themes included decision making and contrasts between light and darkness or peace and confusion.

Were any chosen songs by Mary Aluel Garang?

Yes, she had recently written a song about refugees. It was a Din ke Lon (song of prayer), traditionally used when sacrificing at a jok shrine, sung mainly by older people, dancing while singing, sometimes with instruments. Mary's song asks God to overcome the confusion that prevents people from making good decisions: "Let your peace turn our hearts, God. / First faith and then listening have gone. / Confusion drives out faith in our hearts. / Give us the strength not to be chased from corner to corner, like an easy animal. / Look at Jok; the murderer is hunting and roaring like a lion. / Jesus, add to our faith so that we may defeat the devil through prayer." 

How did Mary impact your life?

You can ask anyone from what is now South Sudan and they will know of Mary Aluel Garang and her songs. They'll also know about Stephen Dit Makok and Simon Yak Deng. Simon was one of our Kakuma research participants, has written many songs, and is now helping to produce a new Dinka Episcopal hymnal. 

The church I'm at now has many New Americans (refugees and immigrants). One of our parishioners was able to help her mother immigrate from South Sudan. The mother, Pastor Elizabeth, is an ECSS lay minister. On one of my Sundays off, I went with her to Sudanese Grace Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids. The service was in Dinka, but I could follow the liturgical pattern, especially for things like the Lord's Prayer. One song they sang was clearly by Mary Aluel Garang. I looked in the back of the hymnal and was astonished to see just how many songs she had written—deep, rich text songs. And the tears began to flow, because I knew God had used Mary to reach her people. 

Why should people pay attention to Dinka Christian music and Mary Aluel Garang?

As other people groups in Sudan accepted Christianity, and as war devastated their beloved land, Dinka Christians had the perception that God had gone ahead and left them behind. They formed the JWL song ministry movement, which spread like wildfire. Through songs of lament, they asked what everyone was wondering: "Lord, have you really left us behind?" These theologically rich songs created hope for connecting with God.

Mary Aluel Garang's most famous song, "Let Us Give Thanks," also known as "Day of Devastation, Day of Contentment," promises, "God has not forgotten us." Its chorus begins: "Do not look back: we are the people / who have received the life of Christ."

Mary Aluel Garang was at Daystar University for only a short time, yet she made such an impression. She wrote the most beautiful poetry about a God who uses suffering and death to reveal life, . . . who walks slowly through her country, . . . bringing "salvation slowly, slowly / All of us together, with no one left behind." Her songs helped inspire revival among the Dinka and are still sung in South Sudan and diaspora congregations. It's important to tell her story because people like Mary are one in a million. The fact that here in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I saw her name in the back of a hymnal helped me realize her powerful legacy. 


This 1994 letter from Marc R. Nikkel explains how church membership and memorizing hymns gave structure and hope to Sudanese refugees in Kakuma Refugee Camp. Read Karen Campbell's chapter in All the World Is Singing: Glorifying God through the Worship Music of Nations. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Karen and David Campbell drew on the psalms to write their album Your Love Dispels Our Fear. Learn more in this Psalms for the Spirit podcast episode