In the last post, I wrote about cattle camps in southern Sudan. The camps are an important part of the culture of South Sudan, and generally people look forward to going to the camps where they can be close to each other and to their beloved cattle. But there is a downside to the cattle camps: deadly raids take place there, in which one group tries to steal another group’s cattle.
The need for young men to raise dowries drives much of the cattle raiding. In southern Sudan, when a man marries, he must pay a dowry of cows to the bride’s family. Typically around 30 cows are paid, but in some cases as many as 100; the groom negotiates with the men of the bride’s family to decide the exact number. By the time he is ready for marriage, a man will have acquired a small herd of cows of his own. To collect the rest of the dowry, he asks his relatives to contribute some of their cattle to his herd. After the wedding takes place, the cows are transferred to and distributed among the various members of the bride’s family. This procedure bonds together all the members of each family who have participated in the exchange.
In recent years, families have been requiring increasingly large numbers of cows for dowries. Young men often cannot obtain the required number through peaceful means, so they stage raids to steal each other’s cattle. During the dry months from December to May, when herders must compete for smaller amounts of resources and also move their cattle toward the Nile River in search of water, the raids increase. Cattle raids have become very violent since the early 1990s, which was the height of the civil war in Sudan. At that time civilians easily acquired guns from soldiers, and began using them when seizing cattle. People of both sides in the attacks are often maimed or killed, and the raids ignite feuds among the different tribes which last for years. Some tribes abduct young children as well as cattle during the plunders.
Occasionally, when a young man cannot raise the demanded number of cattle, he will choose to elope with the girl rather than conduct raids to try to obtain more cows. However this choice often generates even more conflict than cattle raiding. Because of the dowry she will bring, a girl is a source of wealth to her family. So when she elopes, her father may organize a rescue party to go after her and try to bring her back.
Pictured below is a patient who suffered gunshot wounds while raiding cattle, being tended by nursing staff at the Peace Village Clinic in Kuron. This small clinic is not prepared to treat wounds of the severity he has, so he was encouraged to seek treatment at a better-equipped hospital perhaps 75 km away. The patient was fearful of doing so, because the hospital lies in territory claimed by the tribe whose cattle he was raiding, and he feared retaliation if he ventured there to seek treatment.