Ambling under the shade of a tree canopy on Yirol’s main street, we lazily ‘observe’ the struggle of a hulking disgruntled cow against a tall, thin, distinctively Dinka man fighting to reign it in. The trees, like much else here, were brought by the British from one of their many eastern colonies. Nepal, Burma, Malaysia? Almost all of the permanent structures in Yirol, the second largest town in Lakes State, are remnants of British colonization. Weathered stones, missing glass panes, thickly rusted screens. These severely dilapidated buildings are the primary structures utilized by government authorities. A pragmatic decision to employ already existing structures instead of starting from scratch.
While South Sudan relies on the UN as life support, one continent over, this approach of advancing what already exists may lead to the UN Security Council’s newest member.
One of the reasons given for the success of India’s thriving economy is the institutional and infrastructural penetration of British colonization. When transitioning to independent statehood, the structural skeleton needed for modern day statehood was already in place, but required takeover by already British-trained Indian elites and civil servants. The project inherited was not so much of state-building, as state-molding – with the goal of reshaping the system to suit the desires and needs of an independent India.
As the Crown’s jewel, the nature and extent of colonization in India drastically differed from Britain’s other colonies – places like South Sudan where a more indirect model was used. Here, ‘chiefs’ were either selected or created by the British in communities where such hierarchies did not exist in order to collect taxes.
This historical lack of involvement in Yirol is evident. Colonization here does not appear to extend beyond the bare bones necessary for revenue extraction, along with some minimal agricultural and forestry endeavors.
Now, as South Sudan struggles for the independence to form its own state, the legacies of a ‘traditional’ system are vying against the ‘bureaucratic’ system for authority. Academics and policy-makers are struggling to fashion a functional governance system by fusing the two.
The present day Dinka, the dominant tribe in South Sudan comprised of numerous sub-clans, are stuck in this perceived dichotomy between tradition and modernity.
It is not uncommon to find a naked man, topless woman, or Dinka of any age going about their daily chores covered in ash left over from cow dung fires as cows are highly revered. The Dinka creation myth tells that as a gift, God offered the first Dinka man and woman a choice between cows and a mysterious object called the “What.” In their wisdom and gratitude, the Adam and Eve-like figures chose the cow which would provide them with meat, milk, and wealth.
Crucial to survival, cows are the source of both wealth and honor in society. If money is somehow acquired, it is normally used to purchase more cows. As cows are the currency, they are absolutely necessary to reach the goal shared by all life forms, reproduction. Dowries must include a cattle payment, if not be the sole form of payment.
Cattle-raiding between neighboring tribes, or sub-clans in the case of Yirol, occurs frequently. The causes are unclear and differ in each region – local rivalries, rising dowry prices, bored and armed young men. Currently there is a standoff between East and West Yirol counties; residents of one county do not enter another county for fear of being shot.
Barring the political elite and some of the people living in town, many of the Dinka have resisted integration into the cash-economy. Even the assimilated keep a stock of cows cared for by brothers, cousins, and uncles in their village. Businesses are owned and managed primarily by Kenyans and Ugandans.
Some of the Dinka are geographically isolated from the cash economy because they live in inaccessible places. However, large groups of cattle herders often travel in and out of towns moving their cattle with them. They set up temporary cattle camps assembling tents of twisted branches and tattered scraps of vibrant cloth. When the water supply finishes, they move on to the next place with their herd of hundreds if not thousands of cows (no exaggeration). An average cow is valued at SDG1000 (roughly $300); yet, there are people who bathe in mud puddles on the side of the road, at least look as if they barely have enough to eat, and can carry their few belongings with them.
In an era where authoritarianism was acceptable, whether from a local or outside ruler, a population could have been forcefully integrated (i.e. had their mode of life disrupted) in the name of modernization. In the era of human rights and protecting indigenous populations, people are, to some extent, left as they are until they choose otherwise.
At least some of the Dinka have some exposure to the life available in towns – one with the possibility of education, safety, and food security – but they have still chosen to lock away their wealth in cattle. This element of choice in a lifestyle that partially depends on WFP food drops and USAID shipments presents a conundrum. Barring circumstances of natural disaster – droughts, floods, heatwaves – is there an obligation to give international aid since this lifestyle is a choice? Which leads to the questions, who makes that choice in the power structure, and is it really everyone’s choice?
Some of the youth are challenging traditions by refusing tribal scarring and seeking out access to conventional education and jobs. They desire the connectivity offered via recently purchased Chinese cell phones, Ugandan beats on their mp3 players, and soccer team updates via the internet.
Others defiantly cling to the ways of their ancestors. Bands of roaming armed young men still scour the land in search of lush grazing pastures for their cattle. Proudly, they weekly join in the rituals of wrestling and dancing to show off their prowess.
There are individuals who understand the value of both, but so far, they seem to be few and far in between.
I do wonder: if the latrines, hygiene, and the constant supply of food available with converting some cows to cash, have not appealed to many people, will it be the technological gadgets – cell phones, mp3 players, satellite dishes, computers – and a desire for global connectivity that will lure the curious, younger ones into the cash-economy, and ultimately slowly pull the rest of society into a different way of life?
(The author understands the problems with generalizing “the Dinka” as, in the very wise words of her tenth grade world history teacher, “there are no monolithic groups.” The term here is used for the sake of communicative clarity and refers to the people she encountered in Lakes State.)