In South Sudan, Cows Are Cash And Source Of Friction In South Sudan, a man's worth is measured by bovine wealth, and ever-increasing dowries are paid in cows. Cattle-rustling is an age-old problem. But recently, these raids have become markedly more violent, and the new nation is having difficulty stopping them.
NPR logo

In South Sudan, Cows Are Cash And Source Of Friction

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
In South Sudan, Cows Are Cash And Source Of Friction

In South Sudan, Cows Are Cash And Source Of Friction

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


For the rural people of South Sudan, cattle are at the center of the culture. They use the animals as currency, treat them as objects of beauty, and fight tribal wars over them. That long tradition of cattle raids has turned deadly in recent years. Tribesmen don't just steal cattle, they slaughter rivals, burn villages, and abduct women and children. As NPR's John Burnett reports, South Sudan is attempting to broker a shaky peace between the tribal cattle raiders.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The 38-year-old man sitting in front of me named Toonya, with cloudy eyes and scarified forehead, has seen terrible things. He has done terrible things. Last December he helped lead a vigilante force of Loh Nuer tribesmen, estimated at 7,000, who attacked the Murle tribe. A U.N. investigation reported that over 12 days the Nuer White Army, as they called themselves, killed more than 600 people with machetes and AK-47s, including many innocents. It was in retaliation for a Murle raid on the Nuer a year ago.

TOONYA: (Through translator) The distance from our lands to Murle lands is a five-day walk. From there, when the battle starts, you might be running constantly for six hours, stealing cows and taking children and women. If someone does something bad to you, you need to do the same to them, so that he also feels pain.

BURNETT: In May, Toonya was one of the signatories of a peace treaty between warring tribes in Jonglei state. Nearly the size of North Carolina, Jonglei is the biggest, least developed, and most violent state in South Sudan. Its young men are unemployed, heavily armed, and deeply suspicious of other tribes.

TOONYA: (Through translator) If Murle stop raiding our cattle, we'll stop raiding theirs. But if they start again, we'll get the young men in my village and we will fight them again.

BURNETT: This peace accord is the tenth attempt in six years to stop intertribal cattle violence. So far they've all failed. South Sudan Vice President Riek Machar says this time is different because the six tribal chiefs traveled together throughout the state to deliver the message: the atrocities must stop.

VICE PRESIDENT RIEK MACHAR: For the last four months there have been no cattle raiding. There have been no abduction of children and women. I think the message has been heard.

BURNETT: Small-scale cattle raiding has gone on for generations in South Sudan and other parts of East Africa, always tolerated by the authorities. But in recent times it's gotten out of hand. Abductions, once unheard of, are now commonplace. Raiders seize women as wives and snatch children to sell as shepherd boys. And they kill noncombatants indiscriminately, says Reverend Tut Kony, a Presbyterian pastor who is part of the peace process.

TUT KONY: They are killing elderly people, disabled people, women, kids, even the infants. We have never seen that in Jonglei state.

BURNETT: The South Sudan army has deployed 15,000 soldiers to Jonglei to confiscate weapons. It's the third disarmament campaign in seven years. Locals say raiders give the army one rifle and keep two. Bona Majok, mayor of the Dinka village of Anyida, regrets to inform the peacemakers...

MAYOR BONA MAJOK: (Speaking foreign language)

BURNETT: On July 17, he says, Murle raiders stole 13 cattle grazing near the village. The fact that no one was seriously harmed or abducted counts for progress during this tenuous truce. The purloined livestock belonged to Garang Mading, who was found sitting dejectedly under a thorn tree next to the tin-roof city hall. I asked him, what does it mean for a Dinka man to lose his cattle?

GARANG MADING: (Speaking foreign language)

BURNETT: You find yourself weak and less of a man, he says, because everything you own has been taken. He adds that he planned to use his cows as a dowry to get a wife. Increasingly, critics are saying that bride payments are the root of tribal violence in this bovine-obsessed culture.



Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.