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Cattle currency

  • 14 May 2006

‘We are concerned,’ explains Panchol Jongkuc, ‘that people will return from other countries to a peaceful Sudan without retaining an appreciation of our cows.’ As the secretary of the rebel-led Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, Jongkuc’s view reflects popular opinion.

Local resident Paul Tito agrees: ‘People will return with the concept of money having value here too. But here cattle pay for many different things.’

Across East Africa the cow is a central figure in society. Cows are not sacred (as in India) but their place in social interaction and hierarchy is pivotal.

Certain tribes are especially famous for their cattle culture, none more so than the Dinka, the largest and most powerful tribe in South Sudan. Dr John Gerang, the founder and commander of the rebel movement the Sudanese Peoples’ Liberation Army, is Dinka.

Dinka families, including Dr Gerang’s, keep herds of cattle. Dinka cows are not your average cattle-station variety. They are big. Very big. The largest bull is 170cm at the lowest point on their back. Their long and menacing horns and camel-like hump increase their stature. Such a bull will fetch over US$250 in neighbouring Kenya where the average person survives on $1 a day. In the presence of such impressive animals, it is little wonder they are pivotal to local culture.

The size of the cattle herd owned by a family is a sign of its wealth. A chief will have a large herd of big cows. The cattle are all branded with a seal unique to each family. Keeping these cattle healthy is so important to the Dinka that recent efforts to increase food production by employing the use of an ox-plough for cultivation have been coolly received or rejected outright.

The Dinka use their cattle for numerous social purposes. Cattle and goats are still used as the primary means for the payment of a dowry. The ‘bride price’ is determined by negotiation.

Dinka families know that a cattle dowry will only come from raising a girl to maturity. As such, finding foster families for girls orphaned by the civil war in South Sudan has been easy. For the orphaned males, the ‘Lost Boys’, this has been more difficult.

The Lost Boys were resettled as a group to the United States in 2000. As they are now approaching marriageable age, locals note that the offers made by the Lost Men in US dollars to purchase dowry cattle are dwarfing those made by