Children of Sudan's Cattle Camps

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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 31, 2005

RUMBEK, Sudan -- Bakic Magol, a boy of 10, wakes each day on a straw mat in a field of muscular, speckled cattle. Powerful horns tower above him; mounds of steaming dung surround his bare feet.

By dawn, Bakic is deep in his routine. His small hands speedily collect and flatten the dung. After it dries in the sun, he burns the piles until they turn into a dusty ash, filling the air with choking smoke. In the burning heat, the cattle pen seems volcanic. To keep away flies, Bakic smears gray ash over his face. To stop bugs from biting the cows, he coats their horns with a paste of ash, dirt and cow urine. When he makes a clicking sound with his tongue -- theth, theth -- animals four times his size obey his commands.

By the standards of southern Sudan's nomadic society, Bakic is highly skilled. To his family, he is indispensable. His father is a crippled war veteran, his mother a sorghum farmer who scratches the earth for their meals. Even though Bakic cannot read or write, he is the only wage earner in his family.

"Sometimes I feel sad because he works too much," said his grandmother, Mary Ajok. "But cattle is our only economy. Bakic is a child, but he is like a man. I am proud of him."

Now, the future of children like Bakic Magol could change drastically, with peace returning to southern Sudan after nearly half a century of civil war and conflict -- though violence continues in western Darfur -- and with recent oil discoveries promising to catapult the vast, long-neglected region into modern life.

As in other African countries emerging from years of conflict and isolation, Sudanese parents and leaders are confronting hard questions. Should they continue passing down traditional skills and rituals, or help prepare the next generation for urban life and technical job opportunities? Should they keep sending their children to cattle camp -- where they learn to brand, milk and deliver cows -- or shift their sights toward classrooms and literacy?

"Because there were so few schools during wartime, cattle camp is our school of life," said Simon Kun, an official of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, a former rebel group that is now the region's government. "But with peace, education has to be compulsory. We can't stay with our cattle forever.

"Other places have made that transition," he said. "South Sudan will have to become a different world."

Temptations of Town

Alanitch Mading Mabor is a teenage milkmaid at Akoung, a woodsy cattle camp about a half day's walk from Rumbek. In the evening, before milking, she struts through the camp with her girlfriends. They exude a certain mystique and sass, with blue plastic milk pails swinging from their arms.

For the children of the region's largest tribe, the Dinka, cattle camp is a hot, teeming, exciting experience. They can dye their hair with cow urine and drink all the milk they want. They cheer on bull fights and learn to fish. And boys and girls are free to flirt, often making marriage matches amid the dust.

But Alanitch, who believes she is about 17, faces a new choice. Rumbek, the regional capital, is booming. Should she stay at Akoung, where she has skills and respect, or take a risk and leave camp to marry a town boy?

Four years ago, she tried to enroll in a school that was opened during a lull in the fighting between government and rebel forces, but her brother asked to go, too. "So my parents wanted me back at cattle camp," she said. "Now I am just looking for a husband. It's time. Where should I find him? Maybe Rumbek town."

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