“Have you come to see a cow?” The immigration official greeted me on arriving at Juba International Airport. 

I am in South Sudan, a county of 644,000 square kilometres (roughly two and a half times the size of the UK) and 10 million people. There are many more cows. So it was a good question.

Indeed it was an excellent question as a few hours later I arrived at a Mundari cattle camp. The Mundari are a semi-nomadic Nilotic peoples whose prize possession is their cattle, the Ankole-Watusi.

We entered the camp. Conical mounds of dung smoking away. The Mundari burn the cow dung to give off heat to keep the cows warm at night and for the smoke to keep away flies.

Young boys meticulously sweep the area, others attend to the conical mounds ensuring there is enough dung to create both warmth and smoke. Their bodies are covered in grey ash as protection from both sun and insects.

Mundari cattle camp, South Sudan

The Mundari women are on the periphery, preparing food and looking after the very young children and babies.

A few men are in the encampment, seated on rickety stick platforms. The password of greeting, “Adida”, is exchanged. Huge hands engulf mine in welcome. Questions are exchanged.

“Why do you only have three children?”

My reply of “Because I do not have enough cows,” creates a laugh, although I am unsure whether it is with me or at me, in terms of my diminished status for having too few cows.

As the power of the sun fades, the cows are brought into camp and we walk around largely ignored. The Mundari are more interested in their livelihoods – we are accepted, a vague curiosity – as they tether their cows with short ropes to stakes driven into the ground.

Tethered cows Mundari cattle, South Sudan

The camp consists of some 70 men, women and children and at least 10 times that number of cattle, a hundred or so goats, a handful of chickens and a litter of puppies. With each cow or bull being worth up to $500, the herd is quite some display of status.

Hence the cows are rarely killed for their meat. Instead, they are a walking larder providing both milk and yoghurt. It is not just the Mundari that benefit from the milk of their cattle. A young boy helps a kid – baby goat as opposed to one of his friends – suckle from the teat of a cow.

For the Mundari, their cattle are a resource maintaining not just a people, but a way of life. The Mundari cows act as a pharmacy – cow urine is used as an antiseptic. The cows give aesthetic choice – the ammonia in the cow’s urine is used by the Mundari men to colour their hair orange. Cattle are used as a dowry – the taller the woman the greater the dowry, the more cows. They act as friends, many having names.

The guttural bellow of the cows, goats bleating, bells tinkling, dust and smoke fill the air as the Mundari and their cattle bed down for the night.

Dawn rises. Negotiating the cattle lying on the ground, you have to be a little more mindful of your feet. Young boys are diligently and silently trying to clear up, sweeping the dung into piles with their hands to carry it to the edge of the camp where it is dried before it can be burned. It is hard work and some boys are still asleep by their cows, literally.

Cabals of men stand, chatting and chewing twigs of the arak tree (salavadora persica), an evergreen that is commonly known as the ‘toothbrush tree’. They begin to work, preparing to take their precious cattle out to graze. They lovingly rub the fine ash from the dung fires into their cattle’s skin and adorn them with ornamental tassels to keep off the flies.

Horns are blown; the cattle bellow in a guttural response. The expectation of imminent movement is palpable. Young boys scamper around collecting final jugs of milk before the cows depart.

The boys tug and pull the cows, urging them into motion. Others push from behind. There is obstinate reluctance from the cattle but eventually they are coerced into action and they are off. The herd moves slowly and imperceptibly out of camp, leaving behind many of the young.

Uninhibited by the scrutiny of their elders, the shyness of the young evaporates and they show a curiosity in me, not least the hair on my arms.

Many have phones – one even a small solar panel to recharge his phone – but not phones with cameras. They are intrigued by images of themselves – they love taking selfies with my phone – and so too of the cattle, mentioning many by name. They are less interested in images of Juba let alone images of where I come from.

One man is intrigued by the tent we slept in and its cost. He is told that it is roughly the same as a cow. I ask whether he would swap a cow for the tent. He guffaws in outrage.

Guyan, which means the ‘one who listens and understands’, has a church name Flora as many other Mundari do. Whilst retaining some animist beliefs the Mundari are largely Christian. Guyan speaks good English and is well named by her father: she wants to be a doctor.

I warm to Guyan. Her intent is genuine but the question remains as to whether she can fulfil that desire either through pressures of finance or community.

Thanks for reading

Justin Wateridge

Author: Justin Wateridge