It’s beginning to look increasing unlikely that we will be going back to South Sudan. Despite the cease-fire that was signed recently, the political situation seems far from settled and I suspect that VSO will not want to risk sending volunteers back to the country until they can have a bit more confidence that everyone will be safe. They will also want to be sure that partners will be in a position to work productively with volunteers, without being distracted by the extremely delicate security situation.
Linda and I are in discussion with VSO about being redeployed, and we have said that if new placements can be found for us elsewhere in the world, we would extend our period of service to enable us to offer a full year in the new posting. Discussions are at a very early stage at this point, but if and when we get any concrete news, the blog will be the first to know. Well, the third to know after me and Linda.
The idea of not going back to South Sudan leaves me with the dilemma of what to do with the last few sets of photos that were ready for inclusion in the blog, but have been overtaken by events.
Oh, to Hell with it. They are all part of the story, so I am going to include them anyway.
The set that follows this piece are all to do with cows, which form the very basis of Dinka society and permeate life at all levels.
Cows are a sign of wealth and a source of prestige. They are at the root of the ‘bride price’ system and they are the cause of much of the fighting and insecurity that has plagued South Sudan for centuries and which continues today.
In terms of a source of wealth, cows are unbeatable. I have an ISA with the Nationwide. It pays 1.6% interest per year. If I had £1000 in my ISA today, I would have £1016 in a year’s time. On the other hand, if I had ten cows, the chances are that this time next year I would have twenty cows. That’s 100% interest, a pretty impressive return in exchange for a few veterinary drugs and the need to be nice to your second cousin who lives in a cattle camp.
The other good thing about keeping your wealth in beef is that it is not difficult to pull the wool, (or the cow-hide), over the taxman’s eyes. “Those 500 cows over there? No they are not mine. I don’t know who they belong to. I am a poor man. I only have these two scrawny cows here, the black one and the white one.”
The problem with cows is that they need to eat and drink, which means it is necessary to move them to new pastures and new water sources from time to time, and that is when the fighting starts. When men from different tribes, or even from different sections of the same tribe, are in competition for dwindling water and pasture resources, it can turn very ugly. And once the killing starts, then a whole tribal tradition of revenge comes in to play.
In Rumbek recently a Headteacher and one of his teachers were gunned down in front of their students at a school sports day. There had been conflict between two clans in the same area and some members of one clan had been killed. The young men from that clan went looking for members of the opposing group to exact revenge. The perpetrators themselves had long since disappeared so the revenge-seekers just went looking for anyone from the other clan. Finding two educated members of the other clan was a bonus and so two completely innocent educators died.
The other source of conflict is the need to pay ‘bride-price’ in order to get married.
Apparently, the 20 years of civil war that ended in 2005 caused serious inflation in the level of bride price. Before the war, it was common for a man to have to pay four or five cows to the family of his prospective bride in order to gain their permission for the marriage. These days, bride prices of 30-50 cows are quite common and it is not unusual for the price to go over 100. When my counterpart in the County Education Office got married last year, he was expected to pay 300 cows, 150 as a down-payment and 150 to follow, in order to marry the daughter of a former National Government Minister.
Which begs the question “What is the bride’s role in all this?” Well, the short answer is “None.” Indeed, not even the bride’s parents have much of a say in the whole affair. Dinka society believes that the girls’ parents are too close to their daughter to be objective in deciding what is good for the tribe or clan when it comes to marriage. It is the uncles who will decide whether a proposal of marriage should be accepted and, if so, how many cows should change hands.
But South Sudan wants to move from being a war-riven, tribally-divided and completely under-developed country into a modern nation state. So, on the one hand you have this very traditional, male dominated society where the role of women is limited to keeping house for men and bearing children for the clan. On the other hand the Government of South Sudan has signed up to all of the international conventions relating to women’s rights and gender equality.
Girl’s education is a major priority for the education system according to all of the policy documents. Women’s rights to equal treatment are enshrined in law at all levels, and there is no shortage of donor money for projects geared towards improving the situation regarding women in society.
The problem is that for the vast majority of the male decision makers in Dinka-land at least, and they are almost all male, the idea of equal rights for women just does not make any sense. Why would you educate a girl when there are not enough school places to accommodate the boys? Why would you want to get women into the work place when there are so many men without jobs? And if you do educate girls, they will just become dissatisfied with their lot, have different ideas, and where will that lead?
And in any case, if a girl goes to school, that might delay her being married, which might, in turn, put off the day when cows will come into the family to enable her brothers to be married.
So talking to people about gender equity and the rights of the girl-child can be challenging at times and it is clear that change will be a long time a-coming. We shouldn’t forget that the kinds of attitudes that we met in Rumbek were not at all uncommon in Britain not so very many years ago, and you would not have to go very far to hear men expressing them even today.
Of course, if you are living in a cattle camp and you do not have enough cows to get married, then one easy option is to get together with a gang of young men from your clan and launch a raid on a cattle camp in a neighbouring state and steal some cows. And so the cycle of violence will start off again.
So, cows are central to any understanding of Dinka culture and thinking. They were our constant companions while we were in Rumbek. We had to ride around them, past them or through them on our bikes on a daily basis. Cows and the Governors motorcade, had automatic right of way on the road and since I didn’t dare take photos of the motorcade the cows have to have their place in this blog. I hope you like the pictures.