Dinka: Legendary Cattle Keepers of Sudan

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Video clip by Oscar made while accompanying photographers in Sudan

The legendary Dinka of Southern Sudan are one of the most outstanding ethnic groups on the African continent. Oscar sent us this short video he made on a field trip a few years ago;  below please read his account of  the fascinating journey.

The Dinka – oh my! I just watched my film and it made me cry – first as I had completely forgotten about even the existence of it (I have some brain damage), then to see and to remember those guys. I really love them! They are just wonderful people. So strong and kind and gentle and rough and savage and basically very real. They are also a pretty big tribe and many have been very well-educated in the North and even in Europe and the USA. And what a life they lead in their homeland – so very rough if one has a comparison at all. And their cattle are so beautiful too, like Zebu or ankole with huge horns and, similar to the Dinka – gentle but tough too and you don’t mess with them – but they obviously enjoy being groomed and rubbed with ash at the end of the day. The Dinka do this to all of them to help keep off parasitic insects.

The cattle come home, and there are many of them – the camp I filmed had several thousand cows. Each one knows its place exactly. Not only that but also its particular tether too. If someone tries to tie one with the wrong rope (they even recognize which rope for which cow), the cow will resist. Then the folk wait until they see where there is a cow rumpus and then they know that the two ropes somehow got mixed up. They swap them, the cattle acquiesce to be tied, and all is peaceful again.

The camp is full of smoldering fires of the dried cow dung that has been collected in the morning and spread in the sun to dry whilst they are out grazing. The smoke from these fires also keeps away the insects and provides something else very useful – the ash, which they rub on their bodies, including their heads – again – to make them lighter colored and more sun-reflective, cooler, and to discourage the insects further.

The cattle are considered sacred and the different color-patterns and color mixtures have different names. If a man was the first born of the first wife – there is a very specific cow color that is his and he is given a cow of that color. People will then know him by the name of that cow color. He has his own name but it is kept a closely guarded secret.

The cleanest ‘water’ around, brought ‘automatically’ right into the camp, is the cow’s urine. As it’s also a blessing, it is avidly used for washing and conditioning the skin.

The Dinka are really into wrestling and regularly have these great wrestling jamborees where many people gather. Usually a big ‘sacred’ drum is brought out from where it is carefully kept and then the men, often several on one drum, will start to play – and the people will gather. Some perhaps bringing other drums that are also played. Then the wrestling starts and is very intense, with a judge and rules a victor and a looser.  After each victory there may be a little dancing and then, at the end of the matches dancing takes charge  and builds and builds. A very joyous community!

Traditionally the Dinka are very tall – averaging more than 7 foot – probably as a result of their very high-protein diets and active life-styles. They are also extremely black. Most Africans are actually shades of brown but these guys are so black I used to call them gun-metal blue! When the ash covering them happens to get washed off, they really gleam in their amazing blackness!

They are tremendous soldiers and, in the war against the North, the Arabs always tried to pick them off. After so very many years of warfare the Dinka realized this and started to actually try and breed their children to be shorter than they used to be, so they wouldn’t stick out so dangerously.

I lived for years in Sudan and a lot of that time amongst them. When I went back, taking the very famous photographers Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher with me a few years ago, I was really surprised to find many of them much shorter and more ‘normal’ than before. Carol and Angela flew to Rumbek but I drove up through Uganda and joined them there. Then we had several amazing weeks of travelling though their lands, they photographing and I filming this piece. Their stunning book is called Dinka: Legendary Cattle Keepers of Sudan, and is available at Amazon.

The drive was something else. A lot of it not on anything resembling roads, just driving through the dried swamplands of the Sudd and through enormous dry papyruses. Of course there were some roads too and these were also interesting: At one point we hit a trap that had been laid in the road, a log that tipped into a hole when we drove over it, and slammed into the underside of my big safari car, throwing it in the air! We landed on our wheels and I sped off as a bandit came out of the roadside-bushes waving his Kalashnikov at us …

The car was fine throughout except we smashed one steering bearing and had to have it flown into Rumbek from Nairobi. Yay for sat phones!

I think the Dinka are exceedingly fine people and wish them all the best in integrating, as far as can be, with the ‘modern’ Sudan, that is now descending on them with full force.

Oscar lives close to the Nairobi National Park in Kenya, where among many other activities he also conducts exciting wildlife, traditional people, and film safaris. His life took a dramatic turn in January 2008 when a small plane he piloted crashed in the Chyulu Hills; yet he miraculously survived. He has begun to recover from his serious injuries yet his life remains an adventure… Read also Kenya: Innovative Ideas for a Unique Property, and Oscar’s Bushlife

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