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.