Out of love for cows

by Ochan Hannington

Talking about a revolution (Issue II/2020)

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Dinka cattle. Illustration: Mauritius Images


At face value, a cow is worth $1000 to 1500 US dollars in South Sudan, but its social importance even outweighs that hefty pricetag. They are particularly essential among the pastoralist communities in the North and center of the country – where the lives of humans and cows are completely intertwined. The names people are given are typically derives from their cows, like the colour of the cows’ coat. For example, Alek is a cow of black and white coat with wide horns. Alek is also a common girls’ name. Owners will sometimes even sacrifice their own lives for their animals and there are some cows that are considered most important within families. When such a cow dies, the owners mourn, often crying for days. They starve themselves out of respect, until they can be convinced to start eating again and accept the loss.

Herders will walk many miles in order to find “good grass” and water for their cows, especially during droughts. And they will stay in the wilderness away from home for months, until rains falls and grass has grown in their usual grasslands. Losing your cows, automatically means shedding your pride, wealth and respect. That is the reason many would rather die during cattle raids than letting cows be taken by raiders. That is the reason many would rather die during cattle raids than letting cows be taken by cattle raiders.

And in the event they lost most of the cows, some families would choose to migrate to other areas, far away from their communities, in order to avoid embarrassment and humiliation. In marriages the groom’s family is charged to take a certain number of cows to pay his bride price, to the family of his bride. Although you could do the maths and pay in hard currency, this is socially frowned on, as cash doesn’t carry the symbolism and respect of a payment in cows.

Translated by Jess Smee



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