17 January, 2011Issue 15.1AfricaSocial Policy

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Cattle Camps or the Classroom

Naomi Pendle


A stream of slender youths from the Apuk Dinka tribe meander past us and disappear in the direction of the Jur River. Bare-foot, guns slung over their shoulders, they wear impassive expressions despite their lethal intentions. We are standing in the pounding Sudanese sun; beyond this final mud hut there is nothing but the nomadic cattle camps that line the last couple of miles to the Jur River. This morning, on a scrap of paper, with frayed edges and a crumpled corner, we collected the names of the 16 tribe members killed in the raids the day before. Now the youths are leaving to claim back their cattle and avenge their tribe’s dead. During January 2010, over 150 people were killed and over 50,000 head of cattle were taken in this kind of inter-tribal raiding between the Apuk Dinka of Warrap State and the Nuer of Unity State (South Sudan).

In the vast wilderness of northern South Sudan, the dry months of November to April bring the necessary movement of cattle from the villages to the waters and swampy terrain near the river. This draws the opposing tribes into physical proximity, with the river marking their only boundary. The cattle are the prime store of wealth for the semi-nomadic pastoralist tribes, allowing them to save for marriage, times of famine, and illness. The proximity of the tribes during the dry season induces the temptation of violent raiding. Although these raiding patterns are thousands of years old, in the peace between North and South Sudan since 2005, inter-tribal raiding in the south has escalated in scale and frequency. In 2009, more people died in these raids in the south than died in the notorious conflict of Sudan’s Darfur region.

Simultaneously, in this post-war era, schools are starting to emerge, with trees as classrooms and sticks for stationary. It is these schools that finally offer an alternative to this insidious and increasingly violent cultural habit. Since the 1990s, in the most remote reaches of South Sudan, a growing demand for formal education has been driven by a personal desire for survival. With this increase in classroom education, there is finally a promise of pacifying the raiding of the Apuk Dinka cattle camps.

When formal education was first introduced amongst the Apuk Dinka by Europeans, it was seen as nothing better than a punitive measure for delinquent youth. A former commissioner from the Apuk Dinka, Deng Mariak, recalls the attempts by the British authorities to force him to attend education. Not only did he flee school for days through lion-laden scrub land, but his family hid him from armed soldiers searching the mud huts of the village to return this escapee to the classroom. No respectable father would allow his child to attend school, and adulthood was found in the training and rites-of-passage of the cattle camps.

This attitude prevailed until the late 1990s when circumstances demonstrated how formal education could lead to survival. Conditions had conspired to create one of the 20th century’s worst famines amongst the Apuk Dinka. A failed harvest, bombing raids from the north, and local militia raids on the ground resulted in a shortfall of food which caused the deaths of over 100,000 people. Locals still remember the road to the market lined with the corpses of those who had starved to death on the journey.

The food aid provided was consistently sourced and organised by the World Food Program. Coordination of the delivery of food involved the recruitment of local staff, and crucially, literacy and some English language were a key condition for employment. Employees and their families were guaranteed adequate provision of grain prior to its distribution to the rest of the community. For the first time, the local community equated literacy and education with survival and prosperity. Education suddenly made sense.

The continued, active, quasi-governmental involvement of the United Nations and international nongovernmental organisations (INGOs) in South Sudan has further cemented this perception. Demand has caused the price of education to rise to five cows per year in the leading schools, and even first-born sons are now being sent to classrooms instead of the cattle camps.

The increase in education is likely to result in a reduction in deadly cattle raiding for at least three reasons: first, the educated youths have new values and aspirations; second, the educated youth have alternative means of wealth acquisition; third, alternative means of wealth storage, other than cattle, are emerging.

The younger generation of literate Apuk Dinka profess to have abandoned some of the traditional values and aspirations that have historically fuelled cattle raiding. In order to acquire a wife, men pay from 31 and up to 200 cows (based on costs in 2010 amongst the Apuk Dinka). Conventionally, men would marry between three and five wives throughout their lifetime, requiring the acquisition of hundreds of cattle. This practice, in combination with the depletion of herds during 50 years of civil war, has inflamed the tendency for raiding.

In contrast, the educated youth repeatedly claim to aspire to take only one wife. Having received their education in the refugee camps of Kenya and Uganda, education in South Sudan has become synonymous with the adoption of their moral code, including the one-wife policy. Therefore, this changed aspiration results in demand for fewer cattle and a reduced propensity to raid.

Second, the educated youth have an alternative source of income that vastly exceeds that available through the herding of cattle. One INGO amongst the Apuk Dinka, for example, employs over a hundred literate, local staff. Employment for these INGOs often equates to a salary of ten cows per year. Traditionally, in contrast, a labourer in the cattle camps receives a wage of just one cow per year. With the possibility of amassing enough cattle for a good wife over a decade, the relative benefit of raiding is depleted. Because of the high cost of carrying out a raid, largely due to the significant risk of death or serious personal injury, it has become, on balance, more sensible not to raid.

Third, education offers understanding of an alternative means of wealth storage. Local and international currencies are in increasing usage, changing the economic mechanisms away from a barter economy with cattle as the central means of exchange. Exposure to global culture through education has also brought alternative expressions of wealth. Not only cows and wives, but also inanimate property such as permanent home structures, technology, clothes, and vehicles are now the desired acquisitions. Such items of wealth storage and expression are not found in the cattle camps where vulnerability to raids is more extreme. Instead such possessions foster a more sedentary lifestyle that does not create close tribal proximity.

The dichotomy between the choice of the classroom or the cattle camp can be exaggerated. Many youth will find themselves at the camps in the dry season and the schools in the wet season. Yet, the choice to return to the village for school, motivated by the desire for survival, offers the hope of an end to the ever more deadly inter-tribal raiding. With altered aspirations, sources of income, and sources of wealth storage, the educated youth, who have been in the classroom, are starting to reject the raiding of cattle camps.

As the sun sets Deng Mariak’s son walks home with me. “Yes, I’m scared for my brothers. The oldest brother just left to head north to the Jur River to see if our cattle and our younger brothers are okay. But I was away at school so long that I never learnt to fire our gun.”

Naomi Pendle graduated in 2005 with a BA in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from Merton College, Oxford. She currently teaches at Marol Academy in Warrap State in South Sudan.