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In Southern Sudan, A Drive to Update The Image of Cows

Romeo Lomunyamoi's family has raised cattle for generations.
Romeo Lomunyamoi's family has raised cattle for generations. "I am always very sorry to sell a cow," he said, voicing a sentiment hindering efforts to turn semiautonomous southern Sudan into an Argentine-style beef exporter. (By Stephanie Mccrummen -- The Washington Post)

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By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 8, 2007

CHUKUDUM, Sudan -- Romeo Lomunyamoi sat on a rock in the late morning sun, his sizable herd of cattle lumbering around the yellow-green field before him.

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In the next few days, he said, he had a momentous decision to make, one he had been turning over in his mind for weeks like a stressed corporate executive: whether to sell a cow.

"I am always very sorry to sell a cow," he said, explaining that in his entire life he has sold exactly two.

"Loboloka and Wanamute," he said, easily recalling the black heifer with a white-striped head and the red bull with white spots. "Everyone was so sad."

That is the common sentiment about selling cattle in this cool, hilly region of southern Sudan, where pastoralists whisper and sing to cows they name and know like family members. Around here, cows are the social currency that binds communities together, and selling even one is considered a grave matter forced on people mostly by unwanted circumstance -- in Lomunyamoi's case, his family's looming hunger.

In the next few months, the nascent government of semiautonomous southern Sudan plans to conduct an ambitious, if controversial, experiment that has been tried with varying degrees of success in other sub-Saharan African countries, including neighboring Kenya. Government workers will fan out into cattle land in a studied attempt to undo traditional communal thinking about cows and replace it, slowly, with a more profit-driven, market-oriented mentality.

The effort is intended to help transform southern Sudan, a region still recovering from 21 years of civil war, into the Argentina of Africa -- a cattle-processing, beef-exporting machine.

"Right now, this traditional thinking means that in South Sudan, people are keeping cows, not selling them," said Ann Felix, an official with the region's Ministry of Animal Resources and Fisheries. "People don't have this economic vision of selling cattle in large quantities and benefiting from that. That's why we are doing this intensive work, to enlighten people. If we make proper use of them, cattle could be more important than oil."

Some experts say the problem is not so much the herders' attitude toward their cows, but inadequate roads, inaccessible markets and other deficiencies.

"Where pastoralists have access to markets, they start to sell animals and think more about producing for that," said Jeff Mariner, a researcher with the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi. "It's often a condescending approach of government officials to say farmers aren't for marketing. You have to look at the cultural factors, yes. But you have to realize that cows are the social fabric of the country, and if you do anything too quickly, you can end up with real societal problems."

In general, African countries are minor beef exporters. The largest African exporter, South Africa, generates about $12 million annually from exports; Argentina, for instance, generates about $1.1 billion. And globalization has meant that one of the continent's largest markets, the Middle East, is now able to import beef more cheaply from places as far away as Mongolia.

Meanwhile, the southern Sudanese government faces a daunting fact: Here in one of the cattle capitals of Africa, cows are so rarely sold that they are imported from Uganda to meet local demand. Extra milk, instead of being bottled and sold, is often given away or poured into the sand.


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