Cattle are high-value currency in South Sudan. Men are desperate for a herd to use as a dowry, but their brides get little say in the matter
In the ten years that Dau Deng has been searching for love, one factor has thwarted his dreams again and again. Cattle. Or rather, a lack of them.
Twice now, the university graduate has watched girlfriends be married off reluctantly to someone else because he couldn’t raise the extortionate number of cows and bulls needed to pay for a dowry in one of the world’s least developed countries.
Now, he is about to lose another, whose parents have asked for 50 cows, each worth several hundred pounds. “The time will come, and she won’t be able to wait,” said Deng, 32, sitting in the shade of a mango tree by the Nile in Juba, the South Sudanese capital. “And she’ll go with someone else who is ready.”
In South Sudan, which became an independent state only 11 years ago, cattle are not just livestock. Among the peoples of the Nile Valley, they function as a source of food but also as currency and as savings accounts. Cattle are the key to wealth, security, stability and marriage.
Gathering, caring for and grazing them is a lifetime’s work for pastoral communities like Deng’s. It has been that way for thousands of years. However, a more recent history of violent instability and natural disaster has destroyed many of the checks and balances that kept this society functioning. The country collapsed into civil war soon after the formation of the South Sudanese state in 2011. A shaky peace agreement was reached in 2018 but since then, several regions have been hit by extreme food insecurity, exacerbated by conflict, bad governance and flooding.
Some have profited from the chaos. War and mass displacement have allowed tiny military and political elites to amass huge herds of cattle. This gives them enormous wealth and power as well as effective impunity from international sanctions: it is almost impossible to sanction someone whose multimillion-pound assets are grazing their way across the country’s interior, far beyond the reach of the Swift banking system.
“These few dozen men use cattle herds as a bank account,” said Flora McCrone, a researcher specialising in pastoralist conflict in the Horn of Africa. “The closest western equivalent I can think of is buying a fleet of supercars, because they have a lot of value, and they are a status symbol.”
When these elites want to get married, whether for the first or the fortieth time, they’re willing to spend huge amounts on dowries, which are traditionally paid in cattle. The result has been rampant
inflation in the marriage market.
Bidding auctions on particularly eligible women can run into cattle worth hundreds of thousands of pounds – a process arranged by their families, where the wife-to-be has little or no say in the matter. The price is determined by the woman’s height, level of education and family background. “If a woman is very tall, big, and if she has a good family and good manners, there will be competition for her,” one local powerbroker told me. “But in my opinion these competitions are out of control.”
This year, a 17-year-old South Sudanese girl was sold into marriage with a businessman three times her age for 500 cattle, three luxury cars, $10,000 and a few mobile phones. She became his ninth wife. Rights groups condemned the case, and said that the girl had been auctioned off in a clear case of child abuse.
Her dowry was an incredible sum in a country where most people live each day without knowing where their next meal is coming from. In the last decade, average dowries in some areas have increased from around ten to around 60 cattle, each of which can cost from a few hundred pounds to many thousands. The value of a bull or cow is determined by age-old classifications, of which the most important is the colour of the coat. In a discreet cattle camp on the edge of Juba, David Makuac, a herder from the BorDinka community, reeled off a few of the most valuable ones: machar (black), marial (black and white), and mabior (white).
“The horns are important too,” he said, as he showed off his prize bull, which had a shining greyish red coat. “They have to be not too big and not too small, and I prefer when one is bent and one goes
straight up, because it means it is different.”
Some are willing to pay almost any price for the perfect specimen. Two weeks ago Deng Makuak, a businessman and former soldier, saw a picture on Facebook of a bull that took his breath away. Muscled and lean, it had a piebald coat and beautifully proportioned horns. He had to have it. After a short period of negotiation, he paid 24 cows and ten goats for the bull, equivalent to about £22,000.
Last week he showed me a picture of the bull. It was wearing an Inverness Caledonian Thistle football club scarf, because Makuak liked the colour scheme. “I feel proud of that bull, because I can say it’s the best,” he said.
For ordinary people, spending such sums is unimaginable. As prices of cattle and dowries rise, some have resorted to cattle raiding in desperation. Titas, a cattle herder, said he knew many who had taken up arms to get married. “The high price is the reason,” he said at a cattle market in Juba. As we spoke, a herd of cows passed by, stirring up clouds of red dust.
Though some cattle raiding has always taken place, the current scale is untenably high, said McCrone, the cattle analyst, and is being used by elites to push rivals out of grazing areas, and to weaken other communities.
The country’s leadership say they are trying to bring bride prices down, and re-introduce caps on dowries, which were once commonplace - and still are in some communities. This summer, the first vice-president, Riek Machar, announced that he had accepted a price of 45 cattle for his daughter’s hand in marriage, rather than the 500 that had been offered.
Yet the impact on wider society is still limited. As men bicker over cattle prices, a minority of women among the educated elites are refusing to be sold for cattle. At the Miss South Sudan competition, held in a luxury hotel in Juba last week, a willowy university graduate said she despised the practice. “It’s a trade, like: give me the cows, you get my daughter,” she said, later adding: “It’s just nonsense.”
See, The marriage market where cows are traded for women
Photo. Gathering, caring for and grazing them is a lifetime’s work for pastoral communities in South Sudan © The Sunday Times