Hygiene & Sanitation



Over the centuries, whatever their hardships, the Sudanese have cared for their bodies and have done their best to keep their environment habitable. The weather in most parts of the country is taxing. It is either extremely hot and dry, or wet and humid. To survive these extremes, people have devised appropriate methods of hygiene, constructed dwellings, made clothes and designed them so as to accommodate climatic changes. Water, which is scarce in many parts of the country, is used efficiently, and detergents are extracted out of some plants.

Bodily cleanliness is a religious requirement among Muslims and ritual purity (involving actual cleaning), is a part of sound religious practice.[1] Other hygienic habits are dictated by social norms. For example, it is mandatory to pare nails, remove armpit and pubic hair, and trim the moustache. Children are shaved, and not only for cosmetic reasons; the practice is believed to help keep their heads clean and to prevent infestation with qaml (lice). Teeth are brushed with twigs that make fine bristles when chewed and which also have a nice smell. The most commonly used are arak (Salvadora persica), neem (Azadirachta indica) and tundub (Capparis decidua).

Women indulge in dilka (scented massage) and dukhan (scented smoke bath) using karkar (scented oil) for skin care. Men favour being anointed with oil and massaged by their spouses. The British traveller James Bruce, who visited the Sudan early in the 18th century, implicated this custom in spreading disease among the locals. He reported that there were several ‘scirrhous livers and epilepsies’ in Sennar that were due to the native habit of using oils and greases on their bodies.[2]

Housing construction,[3] living arrangements and methods of sanitation differ according to the ethnic group, the locality, the degree of wealth and mode of life—whether nomadic, pastoral, or sedentary. Different communities have developed communal leisure-time activities that have contributed to making a healthier individual. The activities have included dancing, racing, wrestling, and religious performances such as zikr (Prophet Muhammad’s and Sufi remembrance dances). Many of these activities have virtually disappeared from rural societies and have already vanished from urban settlements.

Scented smoke bath (dukhan)

Taking scented smoke[4] baths is a universal custom in the Sudan, especially amongst Arab women, who indulge in it for pleasure, cleanliness, health, and for restoration after childbirth. Men try dukhan occasionally to alleviate rheumatic pain. The wood used in restorative fumigation is usually shaff and talh. Kilait is believed to darken the body and therefore used in scenting the house as bakhur.

When dukhan is performed for therapy, heavy scenting is omitted and various medicinal plants and other items are used instead. These include tundub, natron, and, occasionally, cow dung and hair. Therapeutic dukhan is used in treating syphilis, gonorrhoea and joint pain.

Body incensing is a simple procedure. A hole is dug in the ground and filled with burning wood. A nata (rounded mat) with a central opening the size of the hole, covers it. A woman anointed with karkar (scented oil) sits naked on top of the smoking pit, covered with shamla (a thick local woolen blanket), until the heat becomes unbearable. Dukhan is usually followed by dilka (scented massage).

The Sudanese have evidently noticed that the aromatic oils that come out when certain plants are burnt have beneficial properties other than being restorative and emollient to the skin and body. They give a nice aroma in the atmosphere they are burnt in and have preservative and therapeutic values. For example, it has been observed that dukhan preserves food, straw mats, and woolen covers; milk pots are sometimes fumigated with tundub wood until they become black, and when milk is stored in them it lasts longer before it gets sour. Food items that are usually ‘smoked’ for preservation, include fish in southern Sudan and sharmut (dried sliced meat) in the north.

When a young child gets diarrhoea and vomiting during teething, the lactating mother indulges in dukhan before she gives her baby the breast to feed on; her milk, then, is believed to be ‘cooked’. Alternatively, a small smooth stone is exposed to the fumes of medicinal wood. The precipitate on its surface is washed and given to the baby to drink.

Anti-microbial creams are prepared by the condensation of the aromatic oils of a variety of burnt plants. The volatile oils of lalobe (Balanites aegyptiaca), for example, are adsorbed onto the inner side of a wooden pot previously painted with oil. The condensed cream is then scraped and used topically for the treatment of some skin ailments. A similar practice uses luban dhakar, which is burnt underneath a small inverted pot; the resulting black fumes condense on the inside, and are scraped into a muk-hala (eye cosmetic pot) to be used in beautifying eyes and to protect them against various illnesses. Such eye treatment is particularly popular among brides and elderly women. Fenugreek is similarly used; its ointment is believed to treat various scalp ailments.

Scented massage (dilka)

Dilka (scented massage) is a universal custom practised in health and disease by women of Arab stock.[5] It is noted that women who use dilka frequently, have a supple, clean, fragrant and healthy skin. The anti-microbial effects of dilka are also utilized when it is given orally to a child suffering from diarrhoea. John Petherick, a traveller who visited the Sudan in the eighteenth century, submitted unwillingly to this procedure. He described its effects, saying:

“The following morning I woke quite revived; the feverishness had entirely subsided and with a calm and refreshing sensation through my limbs and body.”[6]

The dilka substance is prepared in 3-5 days. Its main ingredients is sorghum (dura) flour. Alternatively, millet flour or even orange peel are used. To either of these, different amounts of talh, shaff, mahlab, qurunful, sandal wood, kilait, musk, sugar, and liquid perfumes are added. The mixture is then made as a medium to adsorb the fumes of kabarait (a blend of traditional scents). First dura is made as porridge and painted inside several wooden pots. These are then inverted (kafi) over dug pits containing burning aromatic wood (shaff, sandal, talh). The material is covered with a shamla (woolen blanket). At regular intervals a handful of a local potpourri is added to the pots until the material is cooked. This is then scraped and spread on top of a mesh and scented with bakhur, then collected as small balls and preserved in huqs (air-tight wooden pots) until needed. Mature dilka stays soft longer than other types of similar paste.

Burial rites

The northern Sudanese have accepted death as an inevitable end to life. The dead are prepared with due respect according to Islamic teaching. Large gatherings of mourners accompany the body to its burial place. The corpse is buried in a dug pit, bricks and earth heaped on top and a tombstone erected. Men mourn their dead for an average of three days; women do so for a week. A bereaved family is given much communal support through the crisis, consoled by the community for the length of the mourning period, and never left alone throughout. In the firash, mourning reception, condolences are given, food is brought in, and the financial cost incurred during the mourning period is shared by neighbours. At different times after burial, offerings are made ‘to remove earth from the mouth of the deceased’ the day after burial or calm the soul of the dead later (Ritual sacrifice page 66).

The Dinka of Bahr Al-Ghazal, among other animist tribes of the southern Sudan, also accept natural death and mourn their dead. In the old days, they were also reported to have practised mercy killing of their dignitaries. This was usually done on demand by the person in question. The request may have been prompted by a fear of senility, or a sense of shame in being incapacitated. G.H. Titherington sent to the Sudan Notes and Records the following note describing an incident of mercy-killing among the Dinka in 1918:

“When a man, who has this right, is very old and his senses fail, he feels death is near, but is ashamed to die like a sick cow. So he calls his sons round him and explains his wishes and makes them promise to carry them out. The news is sent round and parties come from all the clans to say farewell, bringing bulls and goats, etc., to slaughter at the funeral feast.

A vast grave is dug in the man’s big cattle-house (mak) and at the bottom is tethered his favourite ox; at the other end of the grave the man is laid out on a sleeping skin (biok) with a ‘pillow’ under his head and another under his feet, and a second skin is placed over him to prevent earth falling into his eyes or ears. He is given a gourd of milk and a spear, and then a stage is built right across the grave and covered with grass. Once he enters the grave he usually does not come out, though I have heard of one successful change of mind. Someone watches the grave, while dancing, singing, and drumming go on night and day around the mak. If the man pushes up the spear the earth is immediately filled in, but if he does not, the earth is filled in on the tenth day, by which time he is dead; the ox generally dies in eight days.”[7]

Jean Buxton described death and burial rites among the Mandari tribes of the southern Sudan.[8] A death, she wrote, is announced by the wailing of the bereaved women, who lament again at each sundown and dawn until after the burial. Interment takes place as soon as possible, but conforms to the rule that it must take place at a physically and conceptually cool times of day, the early morning or late afternoon. The arrangement must also allow for important kin to assemble. Burial concerns the immediate family, which includes grandparents, parents’ siblings, and brothers and sisters of the deceased; it is not the affair of remoter lineage kin, or maternal relatives; these come later. Parents and siblings of a dead married woman do mourn at her grave immediately after burial if they live at a distance; her husband and his kin are responsible for the burial itself. The grave is sited in the homestead yard, opposite the doorway of the dwelling hut. Young, unmarried persons are sometimes buried in the family’s domestic goat-kraal, which is then abandoned. Burial is never done in cattle-camps unless it is impossible to transport the body back home.

Senior married women of the extended family wash the corpse and anoint it with butter oil, a ‘black’ oil described as ritually ‘hot’, which must therefore not be used for the ritual cleansing of the living. The black colour of the oil makes it suitable for use on the dead by colour analogy. A newborn baby may also be anointed with oil, which is believed to benefit the skin; it may also be that the obscuring qualities of ‘blackness’ (which can have protective significance) make it positively beneficial.

The head of a corpse is shaved and beads and ornaments are removed, ‘so that the dead may enter the grave black and nude as they came into life’. A married woman must be buried in her goat-skin loin covering the symbol of her full maturity -- but, like a man, she is stripped of decorations and shaved. Before it is placed in grave, a corpse is wrapped in a mat, or, if the deceased is a chief, sewn up in the hide of an ox killed for this purpose. Washed and anointed, the body is laid out under a raised veranda. The family sits round it taking care to leave a space; at this stage, adult mourners are restrained, and only children give vent to their sorrow.

Closely-related males dig the grave, but a father’s sister who is past her menopause may help if necessary. Unmarried girls or young married women must never dig graves or they may damage their fertility, and the widow herself is also forbidden to do so. The square grave-hole, about the length of the corpse and reaching to the chest of a standing adult in depth, is lined with wood slats similar to those used in hut-flooring and the body, rolled in the mat, rests on these. Another mat covers it, then more wooden slats, sloped to form a roof and prevent earth touching it.

The body is laid on its right side (a woman is laid on her left side) with the head pointing towards the east—‘the place from which Logobong, came and the feet pointing to the west—‘the direction to which Logobong travelled’. If the corpse is wrongly placed illness in the family may follow. The east-west orientation symbolizes the passage of human life, from youth, through maturity to age and death, ‘as the sun arises in the east, crosses the sky, and sets in the west’; it also calls to mind the journey of Logobong as the dead faces the good, his feet pointing towards evil and sin which are behind him.

‘Ritual direction’ in laying the dead is also observed by the Nuba. In the burials of Heiban and Otoro the direction in which the head of the body is placed varies in accordance with the clan to which the dead belonged. The same orientation is also observed in many rituals of the living; it determines which way one faces during a sacrifice, in which direction one thrusts a sacred spear or lifts an offering to God or the spirits. The ‘ritual direction’ is not an absolute one; it is orientated, not on the points of the compass, but on a concrete landmark—the flank or peak of a mountain.[9]

Professor and Mrs. Seligman have reported on the burial customs of the Lotuko describing them as unusual and particularly interesting. Among these tribes the body is buried outside the house of the deceased as soon as possible after death. It lies on its side with the knees slightly flexed, and the hands under the face, the vertex eastwards if the deceased be of Lomia or Lowundo, westwards if of Igago or Lomini.[10] A fire should be kept burning by the grave for thirty days. The mourners rub themselves with dust and succeed in looking most dishevelled. Later the bones are dug up, a sacrifice is made, but no drumming takes place. The exhumation is never done by the members of the clan to which the deceased belonged, but always by the members of the clan into which the deceased had married. The bones themselves are deposited in pots which are placed in rock shelters under rocks or big trees, often only a short distance from the village. When the Lotuko were asked why the bones were exhumed, the answer in almost every instance was that it was done to prevent or cure the illness of a near relative of the deceased, often a child or brother, and so firmly is the belief held that, whenever a Lotuko applies to a medicine man for a cure for illness, the first question that the latter is likely to ask is “have you dug up the bones of your father”’ and if the answer be in the negative, then the matter will assuredly be put in hand at once. Other explanations offered included that to leave the bones in the ground would be likely to render the women of the house sterile.[11]


[1] There are three kinds of ritual cleansing (ablution) required of an individual before performing certain religious functions. The cleansing performances symbolically restore the individual to a state of ritual purity as well as physical cleanliness. The first is ghusl (greater ablution), involving washing of the whole body, and is imperative after all causes of janaba (the consequences of sexual intercourse, intromission, ejaculation with or without coitus, menstruation, childbirth, major blood-letting and contact with a corpse). Converting to Islam, consecration for pilgrimage, entering a mosque or handling the Arabic text of the Quran also need ghusl. The second type of ablution is wudu (purification for prayer). This removes the impurities of ahdath (the consequences of the bodily functions, breaking wind, touching a dog, minor bleeding, loss of consciousness or sleep). Wudu is required before the canonical prayers and other religious functions. The third kind of ablution is tayammum where through lack of, or legitimate aversion to, water—a substitute of sand, earth or unfashioned stone is used ritually instead of water. (See also C. Classe, Concise Encyclopaedia of Islam, page 17).

[2] Bruce, James (1765-1777). Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile (in the years 1768, 69, 70, 71, 79, & 73). Edinburgh; 1790. Vol. 4; 5.

[3] In most regions of the Sudan, houses are built out of mud or mud bricks and plastered with cow dung. The dung is mixed with soil and hay, watered, and covered for several days to ferment into zibala that is used for plastering the walls. People have always known that the ferment makes a suitable breeding place for flies and are careful to cover it with soil so that no soggy part is exposed. Sanitary overseers have devised regulations to make this procedure safe.

[4] Useful smoke is called dukhan, the useless type generated by fire, etc. is called ‘ussab.

[5] The word describes the process and the material used, and a woman either massages her self, her woman partner, or her spouse.

[6] Petherick, John. Egypt, the Soudan and Central Africa. London; 1861.

[7] Titherington, G.W. Burial alive among Dinka of the Bahr Al-Ghazal, Sudan Notes and Records; 1925; 8: 196-197.

[8] Buxton, Jean C. Op. Cit.

[9] Nadel, S.F. Op. Cit. Pages 95-6.

[10] These are other Lotuko-speaking tribes.

[11] Seligman, Charles G.; Seligman, Brenda Z. The social organization of the Lotuko. Sudan Notes and Records. 1925; 8: 1-45.


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