After spending time in a cattle camp with the Mundari (The Mundari tribe and their Treasured Cows) in an area relatively close to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, we went on to visit more isolated tribes in a region that is part of the Eastern Equatoria state, in the southeast corner of this new country.
The two tribal groups we visited in that area, the Larim and the Toposa, have been enemies for a long time as they are both cattle herders and compete for water and pastures. The Toposa are also known to engage in cattle raiding, which sadly, given the new availability of firearms, often results in the death of herders. But both tribes were very friendly and welcoming to us (maybe because we sensibly decided to travel without any cattle).
We first spent time with the Larim (also called Boya as they live near the Boya Hills). The Larim live in permanent villages, though like the Mundaris, they also have cattle camps where men take the cows to graze during the dry season. The villages are quite charming, made of thatched houses, often surrounded by thick fences, reminding me of some of the comic books I read in my childhood (Asterix, anyone?). The dwellings have a rather low front opening, and one has to crawl to get in (at least I did); roofs are often decorated with shells. A thick thorn fence encircles the village area, probably for defense against attack by their nemesis, the Toposa.
Visiting these tribal villages at this time of the year is an interesting experience as it is primarily women and children that are staying in the villages, the men being away at the cattle camps. The only men in the village were the elders and a few young ones who hopefully can protect the women. The children, like the ones I have met all over the world, were curious to get to know us, after initially (very briefly) hiding in their homes.
As men are out with the cattle, women are in charge of everything else. They grow seasonal crops, such as sorghum, millet, beans, raise chicken and goats, and fetch the water. Over and over, we saw women (and children who were –barely–old enough) clean, separate, and winnow the grains, then grind them using stones on a rock. Women also gather bamboo from the forest to build or repair their houses. They carry the long stacks of bamboo back home on their head.
Larim women mostly wear traditional clothing, typically a beautiful skin skirt decorated with beads, or they sometimes cover themselves with a large piece of cloth that they tie over their bodies. Interestingly, young women and girls often wear short skirts made of colorful pieces of fabric sewn together. (I am not sure where this practice comes from, but it is prevalent at this point. I find it pretty attractive, and I can easily imagine it becoming a trendy item on a fashion runway). Larim women practice scarification, but somewhat differently from what I had seen in other tribes. The design almost looks like Asian characters, and they do it all over their body. They adorn themselves beautifully, particularly the “ready to be married” young women who wear a chain that goes from the piercing in their nose to one in their ears decorated with beads. They also wear beaded belts, bracelets, and headbands. Widows (sadly, they are many of them) also have their own sartorial traditions. They dress in a beige color and wrap palm fronds around their foreheads, arms and legs.
With the help of a local translator, we had a chance to “chat” briefly with a large group of women, asking one another about our respective lives. Asked how they chose a husband (actually, they don’t really choose as the family does it for them), it was unanimous that the only factor that matters was the number of cows he owns. (None of the women in our group had mentioned this as a criterion). Asked what their favorite activity was, they seemed surprised by the question but then came up with dancing as an answer.
And we were lucky enough to see that they were not lying as women in two villages we visited got together and danced at the end of the day. They were jubilant, thoroughly enjoying themselves, seemingly forgetting about their demanding lives.
Off to the Toposa.