Saturday, May 21, 2011

Sudanese Cattle Camps

     Cows are at the center of life for the people of South Sudanese tribes. Cows provide milk for food, and in a society that has little use for money, a family’s wealth is stored in its cattle. The number of cattle a family owns determines their worth and standing in society.
     In South Sudan, families traditionally keep a permanent home in a small village-like setting. Crops such as maize, sorghum and millet are grown nearby these permanent communities. But they keep their herds of cattle on the plains, in cattle camps. In order to protect the animals from predators and cattle raiders, a large number of herders will band together to form a cattle camp, and hundreds of animals will be kept in each camp. The head of the camp identifies a good location for the camp: one that is near good grazing land and a source of water, and able to be defended from cattle thieves and predatory animals. The herders carry spears and guns to protect their livestock. During the dry months from November to May, when water is scarce, the herdsmen move their camps toward the Nile River.
     The most capable of the young men are sent to the cattle camps to care for and protect the cows. Older men, women and children also go to the camps. For young boys, the camps are a kind of school in which they can learn the skills necessary for their traditional way of life: how to milk cows, how to give commands to the cows, how to help cows give birth, how to castrate a bull that is not desirable for breeding, how to burn cow dung to keep away insects and use the residual ash as a skin protector. They also learn how to make a paste from ash, dirt, and cow urine, and spread it over the horns of the cows to prevent insects from biting the cattle, and how to fish. When not learning how to care for cows, they are busy tending sheep and goats. Women and girls in the camps take care of young children, prepare food, and do the majority of the milking. They make butter and yogurt from the milk in large gourds, and take the surplus milk they collect to nearby towns to sell or trade for other goods.
     The camps are rough settlements: full of dust, and teeming with cattle, cattle dung, and insects. People sleep on thin mats under the stars and make do with very few possessions. In the evenings when the youths return with the cattle from grazing, the community gathers together and the camps take on a party-like atmosphere. Men decorate the horns of their cattle with tassels and other ornaments, and parade them through the crowds. There are wrestling and jumping contests, singing, and dancing to the beat of goatskin-covered drums. Stories are told, which teach morals and other lessons. Boys and girls are free to flirt, and often engage in sexual activity.
     Today, the youth of Sudan increasingly must choose between going to the cattle camps, or staying in town and getting an academic education. The long wars are over, peace has returned, and oil has recently been discovered in South Sudan. A new way of life may soon take hold there. Sudanese elders must decide whether to continue passing down the traditional skills and rituals, or help the young prepare for urban life and modern jobs. In a few decades, life in the cattle camps may be a thing of the past.

     Below, a family heads off to cattle camp near Kuron, South Sudan.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Landmines in South Sudan

     During Sudan’s 21 year long civil war, armies on both sides – the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Sudan Armed Forces - planted landmines thickly near major battlefields. Mines were laid on main roads, in villages, near wells and across fields. This limited people’s ability to travel from place to place and restricted their access to drinking water, grazing land for their cattle, and farmland. All aspects of life were affected: women were afraid to go out and collect firewood, children could not go to school, people could not trade with each other, hospitals and other infrastructure could not be built. After the war ended, the fear of stepping on mines blocked the return of refugees and interfered with the delivery of humanitarian aid.

     Today, 19 of the 25 states in southern Sudan are still strewn with explosive devices. The densest presence of mines in South Sudan has been found in Eastern Equatoria and Central Equatoria, the states which share borders with Kenya and Uganda. It is also believed that a high concentration of undetonated charges exists along the borders with Eritrea and Ethiopia in the east, but these areas have not yet been surveyed to determine the extent of the problem.

     In 2010, a study was conducted to determine the extent of the damage that had been done by landmines. Between the signing of the Peace Agreement that ended the civil war in 2005 and 2010, a total of 661 persons were either killed or injured by mines and other explosive devices in Sudan. 41% of them were children, and 13% were women or girls. These numbers do not include the number of people killed or maimed by landmines during the long war.

     Clearing mines from a space of ground is painstaking work. De-mining teams mark out a small area, then work their way across it inch by inch while listening for a beeping sound coming from their monitors that indicates the presence of metal parts in devices buried under the ground. They work 45 minute shifts at a time in the burning sun, wearing plastic face shields that make it impossible for them to drink water. They must work in the dry season, when the soil is so compacted they cannot activate a mine by stepping on it.

     Since 2005, efforts to clear the most densely contaminated areas have been in progress, and a whopping 19,000 landmines and 800,000 other unexploded ordnances have been found and destroyed in southern Sudan. Many kilometers of roads have been cleared, and assistance has been provided to large numbers of people who are victims of mine blasts. In addition, over four million people have received mines awareness education. Nevertheless, explosive devices still pose a significant threat to the safety of people in South Sudan: it is estimated that only 20% of the total land has been cleared of mines, 64% has yet to be cleared, and 16% still has not been assessed for the presence of such devices. 

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Hair Braiding

     Hair braiding has been around for many centuries – in Africa, it can be traced back as far as 3500 BCE. It was practiced by the ancient Egyptians and is still a popular activity today in many parts of Africa, including South Sudan.

     Hair braiding is done to enhance a woman’s – or a man’s – beauty, but it is also a social event among women. It can take a long time to complete a hairdo – up to several hours – so there is plenty of time to talk. Girls learn the skill by watching as older women in their communities make knots and braids in the hair of young children. They practice the designs on each other, learning traditional patterns and inventing new ones. Some of the styles are tribe specific, and often the length of the braid is extended with string-like materials. Sometimes colorful beads or other materials are woven into the hair.

     Micro braids, or invisible braids, are a popular style among girls in South Sudan today. These are braids that are very thin - from a distance they appear to be threads woven into the hair. Once in place, micro braids will stay in place for months if left untouched. Below, students at St. Bakhita School in Narus, Sudan, are engaged in the art of hair braiding during their free time.