Common Sense Notes: Why South Sudan is Poor - Part 2


Common Sense Notes: Why South Sudan is Poor - Part 2

By Atem Yaak Atem - March 31, 2017


The problems with cattle

In the first instalment which appeared on Monday this week, this column ran a piece that promises to explain why South Sudan is a poor country. Little came out of that, predictably because it was an introduction. Since the reasons to be given are many, the approach is to pick a subject at a time and explain its contribution to poverty, after which I move to the next topic. This, I hope is the appropriate way to build that profile in the hope of making the argument convincing.  In this piece, we look at the role of cattle owned by rural communities as one of the factors contributing to shaping cultures and attitudes that are incompatible with social change, hence indirect or direct causes of poverty.

In Dinka society, cattle used to, and continue to be a major source not only of wealth but also of personal pride to their owners. Paradoxically, these domestic animals have also been a cause of certain problems through history, whether in real life or preserved by legends. 

For example, in one of his books, Francis Mading Deng, a leading authority on the cultures of the Dinka people, retells a fable about came Weng (cow) to be domesticated. According to the folktale, Raan (Dinka word for human being) one day went out hunting. In the forest, he killed two animals, one a female buffalo and a cow. The two victims were mothers to young ones.

The orphaned heifers were grief-broken. The young buffalo, however, took courage and told her comrade-in sorrow, the cow heifer, that while it was proper that they should mourn their mothers, they had also to do something to avenge them. From that time, the young buffalo said whenever she and her progeny would come face to face with Raan and his descendants, it would be an instant unprovoked war to the death. The cow heifer, said she had decided to join and live with Raan. She explained in that situation she would be able to create problems after problems that would make Raan miserable. And according to the fable, the two animals lived to their words: implacable enmity with the human being- the killer of their mothers- expressed by a) open warfare (buffalo), and b) creation of conflicts and pain for Raan through diverse means. 

The story is both an allegory as well as a fable. In real life, ownership of cattle in pre-literate societies is one of major sources of conflict and litigation within the Dinka society.  Cattle rustling, too, has always been a leading cause insecurity among pastoral peoples, often resulting in loss of lives and destitution for those whose stock are looted. 

Most of lawsuits and even brawls involving members – including brothers and close relatives- arise out of disputes over cattle. That the rural Dinka herdsmen are seen as the most litigious people in South Sudan can be understood in that context. Money may be the root of all evil as scriptures say but livestock belonging to traditional communities are also responsible for numerous conflicts and soured relations among kin and neighbours.

One of the Western anthropologists has recorded that the Dinka people slaughtering a cow for meat was regarded as “people do not kill a cow for nothing”.  And when foreigners came with money, cattle continued as the most important currency. Sale of cattle for money happened only under extreme emergency such as payment of fines, poll tax or for treatment of a sick person. No matter how rich a man happened to be- always men as women rarely owned them or had the power to dispose of them- in money and as long as he had no cattle, nobody within the cattle owning community would count him as such or as a respectable person. 

Money could not be given in marriage; only cattle (this has changed in recent times due to war and displacement). The love of cattle by traditional rural communities is so deep that this sentiment borders on the irrational. A personal experience will help to illustrate this point.

In the late 1990s while I was working with international humanitarian organisations in rural Southern Sudan, I broke to a large gathering of local chiefs and their subjects the news of the arrival of health personnel in the area to vaccinate children and women of child-bearing age. There was silence. However, when I added that the team included veterinary workers to vaccinate and treat cattle, the report was received with rousing clapping.  I don’t intend here to insult those people: they were extremely intelligent parents who loved their children as well humanity and their welfare. That they preferred the health of their animals to that of humans, including their own, was a reflection of prevailing thinking that stressed that cattle were the lifeline of their community.

More than an economic asset and concomitant attitudes

There is no denying the benefit that cattle are the most important domesticated animals to their owners in traditional societies and the rest of people worldwide. Cattle provide rural inhabitants with milk (and other dairy products) which is staple food for many pastoral peoples, blood from live animal, fuel (dung), meat (rarely), hides for various uses which until recently, were used for dress and as an item used for sleeping on or covering self when cold.

But these intrinsic benefits from cattle become of secondary importance when compared to the overrated value their owners attach to the animals. They may be economic assets but on top of that, someone who owns a huge herd of cattle considers himself as a man of prestige, an aristocrat; others hold him in high esteem. With such attitudes, snobbery cannot be far from the thinking of some members of the public; everyone wants to keep up with the Dengs, the Garangs or Gatluaks who are famed for owning huge herds. And some pray that one of their sons of those rich ones would come along to ask the hand of one’s daughter in marriage; a winning lottery ticket. 

As a result, a worldview developed with complete with its own vocabulary. Someone with a few or not a single cow- even if he had enough food from other sources such as cereals, fish or bush meat to sustain his family all year round- would not only be despised; he would be called derogatory names such as abuur (from bur or camp of fishermen and hunters); atooc (for a fisherman) or ayuur, poor and lowly or acok (starving poor or mean one).

As members of scorned and socially shunned group, young people especially men from families without cattle would find it hard to get spouses since bride price had to be paid in cattle. Having this all-powerful and all-purposeful currency was a key that opened nearly all doors in life for those people in those days. It is therefore not surprising that in such communities, any form of wealth, grains or money, had to be converted to cattle through barter.

Underutilised resource

During the same period when I was working with the international relief bodies I was getting lessons from one of a UN veterinary expert. Mario, who was from Argentina, one of the countries rich in livestock, told me that the prevailing husbandry methods in Southern Sudan did not optimise the benefits owners would get from their herds. Long horns- favoured by the population- were not good for the health of the animals (he advocated dehorning which was a taboo because cattle are treated there as aesthetic objects); there were too many animals living on a small and unsustainable grazing land, all not conducive to high milk yield; that the traditional breeding methods insistence that only thoroughbred bulls (comparatively very few in ratio) were allowed to service thousands of cows was responsible for infertility in the female animals. But would their owners listen?

Consequently, despite the fact that many rural dwellers who had many cattle- estimated to be in the region of 5 million- and which made them rich, people remained largely poor. The situation hasn’t changed much for the better for them. There are several reasons why ownership of livestock could not get people out of poverty trap. 

We have seen above that milk yield from such cows is so low that even “rich” families rarely have enough to drink. Even sufficient milk- in the past and maybe still is the case now- used to be channelled to göm (a container made out gourd for churning milk to make butter); many family members being denied the consumption of fresh milk which is a full diet good for health of everyone and growth for children. The mountains of butter so obtained would be converted to lakes of ghee, then bartered for heifers and bulls or sold for money which would then be recycled to buy more cows. Little from the proceeds of livestock is invested in projects that would improve the lives of the people who own them.

(Ghee used to be a favourite flavour added to meals, mainly cuïn/kuïn (thick porridge from sorghum) served at special functions such as weddings or religious ceremonies). 

Then there was the “fattening” competition- fortunately outlawed by the SPLM/A in late 1990s following the Bahr el Ghazal famine of 1988- by which young men would be given much of the milk which would normally be for household consumption. That wasteful practice- to show who was the fattest and therefore the proudest men in the village or clan- deprived other family members who desperately needed the milk for their daily intake.

Wealth- whether money or in livestock- is a form of hedge against hard times. Until recent times, Dinka heads of households would not be ready to slaughter for food or sell a member of their herd even during lean periods, especially between harvests when grains of pervious season had run out and cattle were giving little milk due to disease of poor fodder. I recall childhood days when families would be low in food- no grains at all and insufficient milk. Despite that it was considered a weakness of character and lack of power of endurance for a family to sell an ox or heifer for money which would be then used for buying grains from the Northern traders who had stocked dura imported from Renk.

Detrimental cattle culture

In the preceding paragraphs we have seen how owning cattle indirectly shaped attitudes of most of pastoral peoples. What may be called cattle culture or complex, like any other way of lifestyle in any society, has a very strong influence in the way people live, for example, in how they organise their economic lives, set goals for themselves and define social relations and their value system. 

In such a cattle owning society, especially Dinka, for most of their lives, young people used to spend much time in cattle camps which were their alternative homes, away from home. With the exception of rounds of going out to look after the cattle, dancing, composing and singing songs along “personality oxen”, palaver most of the time, and occasional gök (formal conversation between men and girls which takes an art form, these energetic young people would do nothing remotely related to an economic activity (apart from occasional fishing in streams of the swampy area during dry season). 

Although it would be unfair to brand such youths as congenitally lazy, that kind of lifestyle excluded productive work, for example, on family plots for growing dura, pumpkins, tobacco, pulses and so on, for local consumption. The consequence of that was that it used to be parents- more likely to be old- who tilled the land, planted grains, tended the field, harvested crops. Since this section will be dealt separately in another piece, the young people could not contribute to family granary was one of the reasons why poverty has always endemic in pastoral communities.

Problem of inherited wealth

With the exception of few cases of some people acquiring cattle through means such earning money- in recent years of paid labour- the majority of rich Dinka families had two main sources of wealth in cattle: family cattle which fathers passed to sons, and cattle from bride price of sisters. In this regard, the rich young man has nothing to show for his wealth as he did nothing at all, by way of hard work or business acumen, for instance, to acquire his riches.

Although some of the rural inhabitants of Southern Sudan were rich in cattle, they remained poor; as their “wealth” was not being managed in a way that would make them economically useful to their owners and the wider society. 

To be continued.


The information and views set out in this publication are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the publishers. Neither the publishers nor any person acting on their behalf may be held responsible for the nature, veracity or accuracy of the information contained herein or the use which may be made thereof.