Loss of Culturally Vital Cattle Leaves Dinka Tribe Adrift in Refugee Camps


Loss of culturally vital cattle leaves the Dinka Tribe Adrift in refugee camps. The dance starts at 7:25 a.m. as the thump of a drum breaks the chilly morning air for displaced people in the Mangalatore camp—the horn of a bull wails. The air is filled with a song. Young men are running and springing; legs are spread, Jordanesque, heads rise over the jump, shouting, singing, and ultramodern crowd.

Hundreds of Dinka tribesmen and women assembled for a typical dowry festival at the Duk-Fuel family center. The moment is marred by what is missing: today, there will be no livestock, traditionally the core transaction in this rite, for the Duk-Fuel kin.

Instead, the Duk-Fuels must make tentative commitments. The family whose boy wants to marry a Duk-Fuel girl promises to offer enough cows when the four-decade war ends in the largest country in Africa. “We’re going to uphold our deal,” the uncle of the boy states.

The Dinka dowry Tradition tells Dinka families with all its joy that war has deprived them of a sign that is fundamental to their identity and community – livestock.

Mabil Duk-Fuel sits next to his niece Nyandier Duk-Fuel,17, in the family compound. Mabil’s brother Mayar and another niece, Agot, join them.

Both girls will get married soon, though Nyandier’s is mainly the next day’s dowry ceremony.

The men state that the lack of cattle has changed the dowry method. Negotiations used to take place in which the boy’s family decided to offer Dinka girls’ relatives cows, often up to 100; many families were going to render those openings to a single girl, in a phase which was like competitive bids.

The talks continue today, but they are about handshakes and commitments. No cattle are available to swap hands.

Mabil says that holding a ceremony without cattle teaches Dinkas that they have no land.

“You can’t get your land back,” he told an interpreter.

“That is a great loss. We hope our politicians strive hard to get us back our land. “

Before the war destroyed structures in Southern Sudan, the Dinka were farmers and cowherds and high judges, civil administrations, and physicians. They were the wealthiest and proudest group in the south.

The cow has always been their culture’s priority. Cattle were at the center of almost every significant Dinka life tradition and ceremony. Myths rose around the animal, and the community wrote songs about it. And to respect it, they produced dances.

Dinka sees the animal as the highest source of capital. Some Dinka still maintains their livestock, but many of them lost their herds killed in combat or abandoned in a rush to the camps for displaced people.

A Life Shattered


The defeat has pierced the Dinka so much that it has changed its ruling myths. Stories that once praised the glory of the tribe — believing that they are God’s chosen citizens — now represent a people full of fear and doubt. One tale, how Dinka came to love livestock, became a story of woe in which God punishes the tribe for devoting too much to the animal.

“They have been shattered,” said Francis Deng, a Dinka senior fellow at Washington’s Brookings Institution.

“For the first time, they perceive themselves in a bad way. “You can see how [war] shattered their sense of self-worth and dignity.”

War has clearly had a well-documented effect on Sudan. In 1955, with the 11-year recession, the conflict between the government in mostly the Islamic north and militant groups in the Christian and the animist south left the country without institutions or infrastructure.

The large South, which covers 322,000 square miles, has a four-mile paved road, and 90% of the populace of certain regions has little access to healthcare.

In the words of an old aid worker, the war has ruined so many schools that “a whole generation of Sudanese is… illiterate.”

Approximately 500,000 Sudanese refugees have gone to neighboring countries, and several tens of thousands have migrated to the West, particularly professionals. Fighting has also displaced approximately 4 million people in the country.

But the struggle is still a case study on how war changes nations deeply and subtly. As the largest group in the South, the Dinka were among the most impacted.

Dinka soldiers have long been at the heart of the southern separatist rebel group and have paid a high price in terms of life and limb, while the Dinka’s more diverse non-fighters have been left with long-cherished customs and ideals.

The turmoil of war in Sudan has resulted in dialects destroyed, customs diluted, and shaken convictions. It has shaken the conventional family system such that millions of older people – normally looked for by their immediate family – have to defend themselves.

An unforeseen advantage of the war is that it has forced further contact between tribes. In several camps for displaced persons, communities that were previously among the most isolated in the South often need to accept one another as neighbors.


“The positive aspect is the blurring of tribal lines,” said Deng, from the Brookings Institution.

In the past, “Intertribal marriage, or even marriage with a member of the same tribe from another part of the country was very difficult. You didn’t marry outside the tribe. “


Although maybe the biggest effect is that many Dinkas don’t have livestock. “They are fish out of the water literally,” Deng said. “They were robbed of what makes them productive, healthy, dignified people.”

Life in the camp

A dirt road runs through the Mangalatore camp near Kajo Keji, some ten kilometers north of the border of Uganda. The 14,000 people here live in mud and stubble huts surrounded by limp and lean maize plots.


The camp is virtually all Dinka, with its characteristic look – very dark skin, slender square shoulders, almond-shaped features, tribal scars on their foreheads, and they’re pretty tall. Former Washington Bullets Core Manute Bol is a Dinka. He’s seven feet, seven inches.

There is a health center and a primary school, and groups, including the American Refugee Committee and Norwegian People’s Aid, often provide food and supplies.

People are committed to making life as normal as possible. They also opened stands selling cigarettes, soap, sugar, and batteries. Under a tree, men opened a bicycle repair store. One lady has set up a clothes shop with polka dot dresses hanging on the bamboo line, turquoise, violet, and black and white.

But the apparently regular existence cannot conceal signs of the upheaval of the Dinkas. Many kids have lost all their parents here, and the camp is full of old couples abandoned without family to look after them.

In a little hut, the flesh and hair of Beer Lual are as white as the mound of ashes at his bedside. His teeth are mostly missing, and his skin is tight around his chest. His respiration is superficial and wheezy. Small as ash, his limbs are limp.

Lual, 72, is lying on a tarp. His hut, which he shares with his wife, Yar, 60, contains their belongings: a half-bag of sorghum, leather sandals, a ragged trench coat, a pair of corduroys, an empty plastic cup, and a can filled with rags.

Lual and his wife didn’t want this to happen. In the company of 10 children who lived around them in Bor, nearly 200 miles north, they expected to live on their last day.


Four years ago, before the war, he was forced to move to Mangalatore. Lual had hundreds of cattle, had several goats and chickens bred, had fish taken out of the lake by his farm. He and Yar have been living a happy life.

But the war took their five sons’ lives; marriage split them from their four daughters. Their 14-year-old daughter attempts to look after them in vain.

“Nobody takes care of us,” Beer Lual told an interpreter in Dinka. “I would depend on them if my children were alive. I thought my kids would be around me. ”

Yar Lual digs and scratches every day from 6 a.m. to noon, attempting to cultivate maize in her plot. This year, though, drought snuffed the crop; wind snapped some parched cornstalks into two.

Beer Lual never feeds. He has become accustomed to drinking milk regularly, but no milk is available without livestock. (One assistance group supplied milk before last year at the feeding center in the camp.)

“I try to prepare food for me and him… but he’s not eating food,” Yar said.

“And we have no money to buy.”


A Dowry Ceremony

In recent months, the longest armed war in Africa has taken a drastic turn. Since March, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army has been churning down government-held territory, taking over at least nine cities in the south.

The rebels are supposed to be in Juba, the capital of the southern hemisphere. Still, the government keeps holding the city and refuses to encourage anybody to come or go — in reality; its inhabitants are practically unable to fight the rebels.


However, “we are in a better position than we have been in the last 14 years,” Rebel President and Chief Commander John Garang, a Dinka, told Nairobi in an interview. “It is not possible for the government to change the situation and recover the initiative. The war has ended. ”


Garang’s words sound distant on the morning of the dowry ceremony when thirty young men are passing across a field in a line. One of them has a multicolored parasol — red, orange, yellow, and blue. He is Galuak Gek Kuryom’s brother, 25, Nyandier’s suitor. Galuak, Nyandier’s distant cousin, is in another city caring for a sick buddy this morning.

Without him, the celebration still rumbles. Around 100 men, women and children are crowded into the Duk-Fuel compound in minutes. Someone from the family of Galuak plants the flag in front of the hut of Nyandier.

Another party of about 75 camp occupants assemble on the fringes and observe silently. Nyandier and Agot are on the margins, too. Nyandier is wearing a beautiful yellow clothing, a nose-gold stud, gold and silver earrings, and a silver bracelet on her left hand. Her hair is done. She has a black parasol and a white handkerchief.

And when the time comes, she and Agot point out young men’s groups to perform for them. Two or three young men run into Nyandier and Agot’s inches and flip, wave, jump, clap, hum, and yell. Some young men and teens do the same to other girls, while many people dance around a mango tree.

More than 100 people shape a huge circle and dance, including Nyandier and Agot. The men chant, voices like a wave. Dust plumes hug their feet.

The dance lasts two hours.

Dowry talks are about to begin in the yard. The relatives of Nyandier sit under a dense trunky tree in front of the kin of Galuak. The two sides are silent, around 20 men in total.

The kin of Galuak is sitting in a narrow circle. They have a courteous yet intense chat, and they map numbers to the ground.



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