The Significance of Livestock in South Sudan

Posted: February 14, 2019 by aljokd in Junub Sudan, Malith Alier

By Malith Alier, Perth, Australia

Cattle camp

Thursday, 14 February, 2019 (PW) –— While skimming opinion articles on this website (Paanluelwel) I was nonplussed to read a piece penned by one Peter Bullen (name shortened) for the sake of conciseness.

In the said article, Peter talked about what is currently occurring at Marol, the largest market in Bor (the locals informally called it Mading Bor in contrast to Mading Awiel). That opinion talks about dogs and pigs that are competing for scraps of food in the market. The article also talks about the hard work or patriotism of General Kuol Manyang who encouraged, to no results, the complicated Borans (my own invention to refer to the citizens of Bor) to produce their own food. Gen. Manyang was vehemently opposed until Kiir recalled him to Juba in 2013 where his hard work could be of use.

Interesting that some people in Bor named their pet dogs derogatorily as Kuol failed (Ce-Kuol-guut). Maybe this author will dedicate an article one day for that (Ce-Kuol-guut affair) because it’s a long story. “Guut” in Dinka, translates as “can’t go any further” for some reasons including failure.

Those pigs got introduced in Bor somewhere between 2008 and 2013 by the supposedly hard-working son of Bor, Gen. Kuol Manyang during his time as the second governor of Jonglei State after Comprehensive Peace agreement (CPA) of 2005. No wonder, the growing number of pigs adds to the number of mushrooming livestock in Bor today.

South Sudan is thought to be in the top ten in Africa if ranked by its livestock endowment. According to Inter Press Service (IPS), cattle, goats and sheep number 11.7 million, 12.6 million and 12.3 million respectively. The population of the country is somewhere between ten (10) to thirteen (13) million according to latest estimates. The 2008 census put the population at 8 million. If distributed equally each South Sudanese will have at least a cow, a goat and a sheep. In addition, a chicken or two maybe possible for each person as a bonus.

Cattle are classified as Nilotic which are reared by Dinka, Nuer and Shilluk. Zebu or short horn are classified as the Mongallacattle, Mundari cattle, Kukucattle, Toposa cattle, and Murle cattle. There are also the mountainous cattle perhaps the Lotuho or Didinga ones.

Traditional uses of cattle in South Sudan include: paying bride price, compensation in cases of murder or adultery. Among the Nilotes, cattle especially cows are kept for prestige. The cattle keepers composed praising songs for their best herd particularly the most colourful oxen. Bulls are highly praised for bravery and their ability to produce strong and beautiful offsprings. Big and small bells (Loth and Ayom) are attached to the oxen’s necks and songs are composed in the process. Dead Animal tails are chopped off and used as decorative ornaments on the oxen’s horns. Animals like horses and buffalo are highly priced for their ponytails. The youth in the cattle camps acquired prestigious aliases of which they’ll be known for the rest of their lives. For instance, the one who always follows his cattle is nick-named “No-home” (Acinbai).

According to, a typical Dinka song goes something like this;

“O Creator

Creator who created me in my mother’s womb

Do not confront me with a bad thing

Show me a place of cattle,

So that I may grow my crops

And keep my herd.”

Songs can tell us a lot about a person, a group, what they do, and their values. In the above song is the Creator or God, the mother, the cattle and the crops. There is also the acknowledgement of the existence of misfortune (bad thing) which only God can prevent.

No wonder, the cattle keepers named children after the various colours of their cows. Maker, Mabil, Majok etc for males and Yar, Amer, Bil etc for females are too common. Malith happened to be one of the names derived from cattle – a bull grey in colour. For some other Dinka sections Malith means lion or it’s colour thereof. The Late Karbino Kuanyin once questioned why his name was “Kuanyin” but not “Thon” as his peers mostly from Bor carried that name.

During the 1983 – 2005 civil war, it was cattle that kept the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army fighters going. For the first time, the cattle keepers voluntarily or forcibly gave away their Adored animals to be killed for meat to feed the volunteer fighters. The number of those cattle ran to millions of heads. 21 years of war and occasional famines would have not been overcome without cattle.

A week ago, this author penned an article about a need for the livestock museum. This is a continuation of the grounds towards that. The number of cattle which exceeds that of the population, the love of these cattle and the prestige that goes with it make it more possible if people change from sloth to hard work. There simply exists a just need to add value to the untapped resource. A museum of archive can definitely add value to that effect.

Cattle ownership is not entirely glorious as seen on the surface. A moving wealth like South Sudanese cattle stokes and generates its own conflict all year round throughout the country.

The Sudanese second civil war left a huge number of AK 47 on the hands of civil population. No attempts were made to retrieve these internecine weapons on the hands of ignorant civilians. The existence of these guns has emboldened some hostile communities to make cattle raiding a career for young people. This has caused a great suffering leading to lost of lives and even mass death of cattle themselves. Some communities have even taken it to the extreme by raiding not only cattle but also abducting women and child to be assimilated to their way of life. Cattle, the moving wealth became a curse instead of blessing to the owners.

According to Wikipedia, as many as 5,000 people died as a result of cattle raiding as reported by relief organisations on the ground. Child abduction which is common in South Sudan is directly linked to cattle. Credible reports from local authorities point to the fact that the abducted children are exchanged for cattle.

Largely, cattle are a moving asset in this country unlike neighbouring Uganda where there is specific law that deals with astray animals. This free unhindered movement is a major disadvantage in terms of destruction to crops and environment. In addition, the free passage of animals can accelerate the spread of disease from one place to another. Animal diseases are too common in South Sudan and tens of thousands of cattle die each year.

During the 1983-2005 war, many cattle keepers moved with their animals from conflict intensive areas to relatively safer areas. It happened that some of cattle herders who survived the 1991 counter rebellion conflict moved to Western Equatoria specifically, Mundri area.

The said cattle herders coexisted with crop farmers for several years up to the time of the signing of the 2005 peace agreement. By this time the relationship with the crop farming locals got poisoned partly because of the loose roaming cattle and the distrust between the two. The locals cited callous destruction of their crops by the cattle.

This situation was exacerbated by the marked increase in the herd population which brought about heightened destruction to the environment. A deadly conflict ensued between the two groups leading to calls for cattle keepers to go back to their original home in Jonglei and Lakes states. Between 2006 and 2007, many of the cattle keepers began to move back home only to return to Equatoria because of the same internal and inter-tribal cattle raiding and children abduction.

At that time, some cattle keepers crossed the Nile from Jonglei to Lakes only to meet the same disagreements with the local people despite being of same ethnic origin. A number of young people got killed forcing the nomads back to Jonglei. To accelerate complete safe return to Equatoria, some herders began to use motorboats to ferry their herds numbering hundreds upstream the Nile to Juba onward to Kit.

A full government intervention saw an increment in issuing republican decrees and ordering the military to escort back the desperate cattle-keepers. This did not work because of the obvious reasons – insecurity back in their homeland.

A great number of people in Sudan and South Sudan had depended on cattle for thousands of years. Cattle is the mainstay for the nomadic and sedentary farmers alike. In good or bad times, cattle herders never contemplate parting ways with their beloved asset.

Cattle had helped the people navigate calamities and conflict with hope for the future. The Africa’s longest conflict that pitted the Muslim north against animist south for 21 years was partly sustained by cattle which guaranteed food for the volunteers.

One way to improve the value of cattle is to plan for future for possible export. Cattle can earn foreign exchange in addition to that of petroleum.

In summary, a man’s worth in this part of the world is entirely measured in the number of animals own. The same animals make it easier for young people to get married. Cattle is the measure of value. It is the store of value. It’s the medium of exchange. Young people are taught to hang on to their beloved animals for longer.

If this country were to count its blessings, cattle would definitely be one of them.



The opinion expressed here is solely the view of the writer. The veracity of any claim made is the responsibility of the author, not PaanLuel Wël Media (PW) website. If you want to submit an opinion article, commentary or news analysis, please email it to PaanLuel Wël Media (PW) website do reserve the right to edit or reject material before publication. Please include your full name, a short biography, email address, city and the country you are writing from.

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