The Toposa tribe, known as fierce warriors and cattle raiders, was the last tribal group I met in South Sudan. After hearing from the Larim tribe (The Larim Tribe of South Sudan) about the brutality of the Toposa, their lifelong enemy, I was a bit concerned about how they would welcome us. But luckily, when you don’t have cattle to fight over, the Toposa are rather cheerful and hospitable; at least they were with us.
The Toposa is one of the largest tribal groups living on the South-Eastern border of South Sudan. They live in villages with thatched houses called “tukel,” similar to the Larim houses, except for the door being somewhat taller (one does not have to crawl to get in, bending is enough). And as I had seen in the Nyagatom villages (A Bridge Over the Omo River) in Ethiopia, they built granaries on stilts to prevent animals from accessing their crops. Interestingly, The Nyagatom are thought to be a sister tribe to the Toposa, both speaking Nilotic languages, as do the Turkana tribe from Kenya.
And, if you have read the previous posts you will not be surprised to learn that cattle are central to the Toposa culture. As with the Larim, most men were away from the villages when we arrived, spending time with the cattle looking for water and pasturages. A few young men had stayed behind, presumably to ensure safety. But women were there, busy as usual, farming, fetching water, grinding the grains, cooking, raising children, and caring for the elderly. Though the young Toposa girls were wearing the same colorful short skirts worn by the Larim girls, the traditional dresses of the two tribes were quite different. The Toposa women also value beads, and they do stunning work with them, which they wear proudly. Heavy magnificent necklaces, adorable headpieces ( which represent the symbol of their clan, here, a guinea hen,) beaded armbands, long beaded back pieces, and belts are adornments worn every day. Their skin skirts are entirely covered with beads, mainly of a pale green color and sometimes with intricate patterns. Many of the women wear a ring below the lip. They carry their babies on their backs and cleverly put a calabash over them as protection from the sun.
Though the village life was somewhat quiet, we were unexpectedly treated to a very energetic event, as a “wedding” took place in one of the villages while we were there. People from all villages showed up, men and women, and the whole process was amazing. Men had come back from the cattle camp for the event and were wearing their best outfits (interestingly though the women mostly wear traditional attire, the men had been exposed to and have adopted and adapted western clothing) because of the war. The only men wearing traditional clothing were the men in the wedding party who had donned animal skins for the occasion. The men’s dances are mostly high jumps while brandishing sticks and spears. Women were also dressed up and would run in long lines, making use of their favorite (new) accessory: a whistle (that I can still hear). Everyone was treated to sorghum beer and had a great time. We later learned that the celebrated bride and groom had been married for quite a long time but could not afford the celebration until now. The celebrated wife was the third wife of the family, a common occurrence as a Toposa man can have multiple wives if he can afford it. Part of the reason why cattle are so highly prized is because the “bride price,” a dowry that the prospective husband has to pay to the bride’s family is paid in cattle. When I asked a local when a man stops acquiring new wives, he answered: “when he cannot walk any longer”. To this day, I am still wondering whether this is really what he meant to say.
Though we visited several Toposa villages, life seemed relatively similar from one to the next. In a few towns, women treated us to a festive dance consisting of jumping and tossing their tassel-adorned elbows up high. In one of the villages, the elders were happy to welcome us and gifted us a goat. I was hoping it was a symbolic gift and the goat would stay with them, but a young boy delivered the frisky animal to our camp later. So, although all of these tribes have historically fought one another to acquire and defend the meager resources they have to live on, they are still generous and caring people. One just wishes there would be enough for everybody to survive so that various tribal groups could learn to enjoy one another. Wishful thinking, I know, but one can dream.
On a personal note, this is an anniversary for me as this is my 100th story on this platform. Needless to say, when I started posting these pieces, I never imagined I would keep at it for that long. I have certainly been pondering whether this would be a good time to stop, but I do know I have one more story to share, so there will be number 101. After that, who knows.
Thanks for taking the time to read,