This post is from the first trip for my ENEMIES Project.

Cows are everything in South Sudan.  At least if you want to get married they are.  Here, as in much of Africa, men pay a dowry to their future wife’s family in livestock, and in S. Sudan this means cows.  The thing that makes this part of the continent a bit different is that the people here don’t use their cows for anything else. They don’t milk them and they don’t eat them. They do eat beef, but the type of cows people raise here are not considered very good to eat. So here cows are simply currency, a sort of bovine bank account that has to be herded around the countryside until you, your son or a male relative needs to get married.

I’ve talked to dozens of people about dowry.  Even men living in Nairobi, Kenya, one of Africa’s most modern cities, pay dowry.  One local television actor who I met told me about the negotiations he had with his wife’s family and how many goats and cattle he had to buy to pay the dowry. One morning I was walked around Wanjyok by a young Dinka man named Justin, and at the end of our he took me to the market to sit and have tea. As we drank our mouth-puckeringly sweet tea I asked him about his life and if he planned to marry soon. Justin was fairly well educated having the equivalent of a secondary school degree and a moderately good command of english. He told me that he needed twenty cows to marry and that he would probably get them from the dowry his two sisters had received when they married. When I told Justin that we don’t pay dowry in the U.S. he simply could not understand. “Why would a father give his daughter away if he doesn’t get anything?” he asked.  I tried to explain that women’s lives were independent, and he seemed to grasp the point I was trying to make.

Warawar peace leaders

Cows are also the reason for many of the conflicts in the border areas where I traveled with the US Institute of Peace.  This photograph is of the two heads of the Warawar Peace Committee (one Dinka and one Misseriya), which was formed to deal with conflicts in the border area around Warawar, a trading town near the border of north and South Sudan. Warawar has a really interesting history in peace-building that I’ll write about next time, but the main issues that came up in the peace conference on this trip were related to cattle theft between the Dinka of the south and the Misseriya from the north.  Cattle aren’t the only conflict, but they are central.  The Misseriya are nomadic, and for centuries they have been moving their cattle down from the more arid north to graze in the south during the dry season.  Their need to find better pasture for their cattle has also become increasingly severe with an increase in desertification that is likely related to climate change.  There is a sensitive and difficult history between these communities including abductions, cattle raids, and violence during the war.  It is a complex problem.  On a visit to the governor before going to Warawar, the governor talked about his efforts to return a large herd of cattle that had recently been stolen from Misseriya herdsman.

Before I go on, here is a big callout to Jacki Wilson of the US Institute of Peace who started this grazing corridor peace building initiative.  I had heard her stories, and it was wonderful to see her work in real life.  So during the talks on this trip, Jacki asked how they go about finding and returning stolen cows.  This is a huge area and there are cows everywhere. We were told that the Dinka cows are all black and white while the Misseriya cows are red.  Okay, fine – so we started paying attention to the cows we saw from the road when we were driving, and we thought “hmmmm…”. Take a look at the herd of cows in this picture to the right being herded by a Dinka boy.

Cows, cows, cows, cows…

Cows in Wanjyok, S. Sudan

It was interesting talking with the Samburu about cows also.  The Samburu and Turkana will basically never sell their cows.  They have a massive traditional biases against the idea of selling cows, even in a drought when they know their cattle will likely die.  One Samburu man who worked for the Grevy’s trust told me a story about his own cows.  He had decided to sell most of his cows when this recent drought began several years back.  His family nearly disowned him – they could not understand at all why he would want to sell them, because you never, ever do that.  He sold them and made a fairly decent amount of money for them. Six months later his family’s cows were all dying, and by then the price of cows had plummeted to less than half what it had been before.


Lunch in Warawar, S. Sudan
Lunch in Warawar, S. Sudan

Parting image… Lunch in Warawar