Cattle currency

1 Comment

‘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 the young men who remained in Africa. Inflation in the cattle dowry payments is another concern to local authorities with the imminent arrival of returnees, says resident Abraham Deng Kuot.

Cattle are also kept for their meat and for milk. On significant occasions they can be ceremonially slaughtered. Dr Gerang’s visits to Dinka country are marked with the slaughter of prized white bulls over which Dr Gerang walks.

Cows are so highly valued by the Dinka that many people give their children a cow colour for a first name. The colour used for a name is typically that of the prized bull in the dowry of the parents. Children born of a marriage with a white bull, for example are called Mabior for a boy and Ayen for a girl. One can deduce that the famous Dinka supermodel Alek Wek was born of a light red and white bull dowry. Cow colour names are common and popular among the Dinka.

Unfortunately, the value of the cattle is not only appreciated by the Dinka. Neighbouring tribes, like the Nuer and Murle, also prize them. This has been the cause of the most rampant form of banditry in South Sudan. Cattle raiding, as it is called, is a constant source of conflict and angst. Every year raiders and herders are killed as the looting tribe snatch the most valuable bovine.

To minimise loss, the Dinka convene each night in ‘cattle camps’. These clearings are the meeting place for cattle owners as the sun sets and throughout the night. Herds from across a district gather at the central location. Here the Dinka herdsmen and women sleep with their cows. Paul Tito explains: ‘The smoke about the cattle camp is from burning cow dung. It keeps the malarial mosquitoes away from the cows and the people.’ Everyone is a watchman at the cattle camp. Rifles and spears are always at the ready for raiders.

Cattle is also the chief currency of the traditional court system of the Dinka. A panel of elders punish wrongdoers by a set number of cattle. Elder Athong Ajak Mabiei explains: ‘One cow can buy a basket, tools or clothes but it can also get you out of trouble if you break someone’s tooth.’ Murder costs 50 cows. Adultery, eight.

If you ask the Dinka residents of South Sudan, they agree that the years ahead will be ones of great change. A referendum of the southern Sudanese people is planned for 2010. Southerners will be given the choice of forming their own nation or remaining with the north as the poorer half of Africa’s largest country.

But some things will not change. ‘It will take time to change this because paying in cattle is still the most important thing,’ says Tito.

Whether returnees from the world’s longest-running civil war will agree remains to be seen.  

Recently returned from Sudan, Matthew Albert was named Victorian Young Australian of the Year for his work with local Sudanese communities.



submit a comment

Existing comments

good article
matueny marial | 13 October 2008


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up