The Mundari Tribe and their Treasured Cows

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 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 experience childhood one day, and I hope South Sudan does well in its adolescence.

France

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25 Responses

    1. Dear Magdalena, Thank you for taking the time and for your kind words. Not quite like the cows in Vermont, wouldn’t you say?

  1. Absolutely riveting France. Wonderful photos of a fascinating group of people. Love the way you tell us about each tribe, and so empathic.

    1. Thank you, Helen. A rather unique group of people for sure. I had seen cattle camps in Ethiopia but those were quite different. I had never seen people caring for their animals to the extent that the Mundari do. This was quite an experience!

    1. Thank you, Tricia. Well, the pandemic slowed me down for sure. It will take a while for me to catch up. But somehow, most of Africa seems to have lived thru it quite untouched. They were the lucky ones, for once.

  2. Muchas gracias por acercarnos a culturas distantes de una forma tan humana, tan bella. Transmite cariño en su excepcional trabajo.

  3. Quelle science du cadrage ! Le grand angle raconte une histoire beaucoup plus que plan serré. Beaucoup d’empathie et d’humanité.
    Un grand bravo. Je suis vos traces là-bas dans 4 semaines !

    1. Un grand merci. Et oui, j’avoue que le grand angle est ma prise favorite. Un bon voyage à vous, donc. Mais soyez prêt pour la chaleur excessive. Amicalement, France

  4. While each image standing alone communicates a world foreign to me, your body of work on the Mundari blankets me in a cloud of haze, inviting me to feel as if I am there with the majestic Ankole-Watusi cattle, braying and stamping and lumbering throughout the day with their herders of all ages! Fabulous, France! Thank you.

    1. Dear Kathy, Thanks for your poetic words inspired by my images. It is actually a strange feeling to be in the midst of a hazy cloud, day after day. Initially, it is quite seductive, after a while, your eyes burned constantly. I don’t know how they can keep doing it, I wonder what it does to their vision and their lungs. So grateful that you take the time to read my little stories.
      Warmly, France

  5. I cannot imagine how hard it is to survive in such a harsh environment .
    Beautiful but also quite haunting pictures for me .
    A couple of the kids looked like they had distended stomachs , did you find out anything about nutritional health problems ?
    No Schooling ?

    A most striking existence for adults and children…and their life of herding .

    1. Absolutely haunting, Emilie! As I said in the post, the country is recovering from years of war. There is so little available at this point. The Mundari children, at least the ones we visited, clearly suffer from malnutrition. Milk is probably the only source of protein they have. Very few of them manage to go to school (but a few do). International organizations are all there trying to help, I had never seen so many World Food Program airplanes anywhere before. But it will take a long time for anything to trickle down. As usual, we try to do our best, bringing food (mostly flour and grains) in and telling them that we are paying them “rent” because we are camping on their site. But the need is so great. Yep, this is the world we live in.

  6. Stunning photos! Especially the photos of boys are really impressive. They seem to be completely unattended and survive on their own. Their ill-fitting and unwashed clothes, maybe their only possession, eloquently tell their harsh life. Moreover, I can’t find any buildings, even shelters, in your photo. Then, where do Mundari boys sleep, urinate, or defecate…?

    1. Thanks for stopping by and thank you for your kind words on my photos. Cattle camps are mostly for boys and men and yes, the boys are mostly on their own. Though presumably, their fathers are there as well, they seem to hang out together, helping one another. It is like training for them to become herders when they are old enough. The younger ones are assigned to take care of the goats. It is a harsh life, they work hard and there is not much food other than the milk of the cows. As for sleeping, they typically have blankets that they lay on the ground, often near the cows. Only the women have “shelters”, mostly tarps or blankets on some wooden poles. Not much comfort there, for sure!

    1. Dear friend, thank you for taking the time and for your kind words. All the best, France

  7. I am deeply moved by your images, your narrative and your industry. Thank you, France.

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