One fascinating, if somewhat gruesome, part of South Sudanese culture is the practice of facial scarring. These days it is much less common than it used to be but, nevertheless, even amongst colleagues at the Ministry of Education, it was not difficult to find men, who, as young teenagers, had undergone the scarring, that would be with them for the rest of their lives.
Dinka society, as we saw it in Rumbek, was strangely schizophrenic, particularly when it came to education. Most of the people we worked with at the Ministry of Education had been through some sort of schooling and some of them had completed university, either in Khartoum or in Cairo. They were educated people trying to run schools using a broadly Western curriculum within an education system not unlike our own. Then there was a whole different level of society that was unsophisticated, completely unschooled and living a type of life, in the cattle camps, that was extremely basic and which hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years.
Despite these huge differences, both groups were closely inter-related and were united by one fundamental fact, – the ownership of cows was at the heart of their culture. Indeed those in the educated group would have their cows looked after, in the huge cattle camps, by members of their own family, many of whom spurned the very idea of formal education and saw no reason to send their children to school.
By the way, you never ask a Dinka how many cows he has. It is an unacceptable question, the equivalent of asking people in our culture how much they earn or how much they have in the bank. But, like money, cows are a sign of wealth and status, and, more significantly, in Dinka society every man needs cows in order to pay ‘bride price’. Without the cows that your daughters bring into the family when they marry, your sons will not be able to find brides and start families and your name will not be carried on.
A colleague of mine was bemoaning the fact that he had so many cows that they were becoming ‘a bit of a challenge’ for him. Because of the ever-present danger of cattle raiding, he had had to split his herd up amongst relatives in several different cattle camps, which meant, in turn, that he had to visit all of these places from time to time to see that his animals were healthy and being well looked after. He told me that, in order to alleviate this problem, and reduce his cow-management headaches, he was thinking of a radical solution. He was planning to take another wife, – his third.
Not only that, but he was planning to marry the daughter of a former government Minister, which was tantamount to marrying into the aristocracy, and marriages at that level don’t come cheap! When all the negotiations were over and done with, a process that took more than five weeks, they level of the dowry was finally agreed at three hundred cows!
But I digress. We were talking about scarring.
Life in a cattle camp is hard and often brutal and Dinka boys are brought up to be tough. You have to be able to defend your cattle, and those of all your relatives, against raiders and, if necessary, be prepared to fight other tribes, or other sections of your own tribe, for access to grazing land and water during the dry season. Fighting is part of daily life and boys, in particular, are brought up, and taught to fight.
A significant part of this ‘toughening up’ process takes place, in traditional Dinka communities, at the age of about twelve when boys will have their four front lower teeth removed, with a spear, – but without anaesthetic.
This is followed a couple of years a later by the scarring ceremony. Boys of the same age are all brought together for a public ceremony in the middle of the village, and the deep cuts are made in their foreheads and sometimes all around their heads. The elder who carries out the procedure will use either a razor blade or a knife.
Different ethnic groups have different patterns cut into the boys’ heads.
During this procedure, regardless of the pain, you do not flinch. You do not cry or show any kind of reaction to what is being done to you. If you do, you will have brought shame onto your family. You will be condemned as a coward and, at worst, you could even be banished from the village and forced to fend for yourself without any family support. We were even told of cases where boys had been killed by their uncles for the injury done to the family honour, although a pinch of salt might be appropriate at this point of the story.
When the whole ordeal is over, you must leave the wounds to heal naturally but you are allowed to wear a red headband as a sign that you have now put your childhood behind you and achieved manhood. You will probably be about thirteen or fourteen years old.
From this time on you can no longer be asked to milk cows or look after goats, that being the work of women and children. You will now be allowed to carry a spear and take responsibility for the cows, their protection and care.
You will have a life-long bond with the other boys who went through the ceremony at the same time as you. They will be your ‘age-mates’ and even if you have cause to introduce them to someone thirty years later, that’s the word you’ll use.
The government of South Sudan has outlawed scarring, but laws passed in Juba often have little significance in somewhere like Rumbek. We quite often saw groups of newly-scarred young men strutting through Rumbek market, with faces as hard as nails, daring anyone to get in their way. We usually moved quietly away.
There is a chilling postscript to this topic arising from the current trouble in South Sudan.
The fighting that has been raging for the past month in South Sudan began at a heated meeting of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, (SPLM), the ruling party, in Juba on 15th December. Tempers flared, violence broke out and eleven opposition leaders were arrested, accused of staging a coup against the government of President Salva Kiir. Of these eleven men, only three were from the Nuer tribe, the tribe of the main opposition leader, Riak Machar. Most of the others were Dinkas from the President’s own tribe.
So at the start of the trouble, it was difficult to argue that the fighting that broke out was an ethnic conflict, since it arose from deep-seated political differences, involving people from a number of tribes. However, once the blood-letting started, it soon descended into a straight Nuer/Dinka fight, as old enmities were re-awakened and old scores started to be settled. (Remember that one of the reasons that the civil war against Khartoum took twenty-one years was the fact that the Dinka and the Nuer spent a lot of blood and treasure fighting each other, rather than joining forces at key moments to defeat the Arab north.)
After a month of fighting, international observers are accusing both sides in the conflict of .committing atrocities against the other side and, of course, once mayhem is let loose, tribal scarring is one infallible way of identifying someone with one ethnic group or the other. For some people, the symbol of manhood and strength on their foreheads will have become their death warrant