South Sudan is the world’s youngest country, and what a childhood it has been for this young nation! After a long struggle to finally achieve independence in 2011, the country faced a decade of tribal rifts and civil war. Only now is it finally showing some tentative signs of still-fragile peace.
Taking advantage of this welcome (and hopefully permanent) truce and of a downtrend in the pandemic (also hopefully permanent), I decided to explore a bit of the South Sudanese land, as it is home to many tribes. Of all the tribes in South Sudan, the one that has received the most attention is surely the Mundari, a people who spend their time and effort with their beloved cattle in a constantly hazy surrounding that makes for unforgettable images. So, it made sense to spend some time with them and experience this “dreamy” environment in person.
Indigenous to the Nile Valley, the Mundari is a small ethnic group of roughly 100,000 (very tall) people. As is the case for many other tribes in the area, for the Mundari, everything is about the cows. Cattle are the Mundari’s primary source of wealth; the cows serve as a form of currency (these days, an attractive bride can “cost” as much as 100 cows) and, as such, have become a symbol of status and power. And the cows are…magnificent. These Ankole-Watusi cows are gigantic and have impressive curly horns. They are also remarkably friendly, even with an uninformed foreigner who repeatedly walks in their paths and disturbs their activities.
The Mundari are a semi-nomadic people. Women, children, and the elderly stay in a permanent village, while the men and boys accompany the cattle in a search for grazing. To do so, they live in a temporary camp, where they can keep a close eye on their “property.” There are a few young women in the camp as well, helping out on some cattle-related activities, but mostly cooking and taking care of their infants or young children who accompany them.
The activities in a cattle camp are quite predictable. At dawn and dusk, fires are lit to burn heaps of dung that have been collected and dried. The ashes from the dung fire are turned into a light orange powder that is used to lovingly massage the cows, serving as both a fly-repellent and sunscreen. The Mundari also cover their bodies with those ashes, hoping for the same benefits. Over and over, was I offered this magic powder by a kind Mundari as they were concerned that my rather pale skin would not do well with this harsh sun. I initially tried to convey that I had my own sunscreen, but by the end, I let a young boy rub in his silky orange powder on my forearms to his delight. In retrospect, I should have let him apply it to just one arm allowing for an experimental test of the claimed benefits. Clearly, my research tools are getting rusty.
After the cows have been massaged in the morning, they are taken to grazing fields, where they stay for the day. At the end of the day, the cows return with their herders and go straight to their assigned “home,” where they are tethered to a piece of wood. Music is often played to welcome them back. After their return, the cows are sometimes massaged again or beautified in other ways, such as getting their horns trimmed. Men and boys sleep among the precious cattle at night, ready to guard them against a potential raid, be it from humans or wild animals.
Traditionally, Mundari’s men have sported a V-shaped scar on their forehead to indicate that they had completed their initiation rites into adulthood. However, we were told that the “modern” Mundari no longer practice this ritual scarification. One practice, however, that is still prominent is for boys and young men to color the top of their hair of a lighter shade, apparently as a way to attract young ladies. To achieve this, they immerse their hair in cow urine, preferably in the morning when it is most potent. Moreover, it is not unusual to see people rushing to catch the cow urine to wash their hands, using it as an antiseptic. For those of you who may find this practice unpalatable, I recommend looking into “urinotherapy or “peefacials,” which are now a beauty trend promising clearer skin. However, I admit that I will not suggest this process to my hairdresser.
But what probably stayed with me the most (besides the burning eyes and throat from the constant breathing of smoke and ashes) is how hard the children work. They are involved and often responsible for most tasks in and around the camp. Watching them reminded me of a line about the children in Congo from one of Barbara Kingsolver’s books: “In Congo, there’s only two ages of people: babies that have to be carried, and people that stand up and defend themselves. No in-between phases. No such thing as childhood“.
I hope the Mundari youngsters get to experience childhood one day, and I hope South Sudan does well in its adolescence.