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.
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.
According to government officials, part of the reason rests in the minds of people such as Pio Papa, who was lounging under a tree with other elderly herders one morning in the village of Kimotong, a sandy swath of straw huts and leafy shade trees down a lumpy dirt road.
Asked to recall the last time he had sold a cow for profit, Papa looked up, sideways and down, searching his memory.
"Never," he finally answered. "If I sell a cow, what will I eat? What would I do? These cows are just like the money you people have."
In pastoralist societies such as Papa's, cattle not only provide precious milk and meat. They also amount to a four-legged monetary, banking, insurance and social security system.
Cows are used for dowries, the traditional negotiated payment that a young man's family makes to that of his bride and that weaves extended families together over generations.
A cow might be used to settle a dispute or as a kind of savings account. In one traditional practice, a family might give a bull to another family, with the expectation that in coming years it would be repaid in cows, with interest.
Accordingly, a family that sells cows in large numbers is generally viewed as poor or foolish.
"If you are a man without cows, people will overlook you. You are nothing," said Marko Lomana, a relative of Papa's. "And you will never get a wife."
There are acceptable reasons for selling a cow or two: to buy sacks of grain to avert hunger, for medicine to treat sick cows, and, increasingly, to pay children's school fees. "There must be a legitimate purpose," Lomana said.
Even in dire situations, though, the decision to sell involves long discussions with family members, all of whom must agree.
"The last time we sold one was to take a sick child to the hospital," said Lokwar, a herder who was ushering a flock of several hundred cattle across a field.
"It was quite a long deliberation. It was too slow -- it took five days to decide. Finally, we sold Olochoma," he said, referring to a black-and-white spotted heifer.
But government officials working on the new initiative have their own name for the treasured herds of cows across southern Sudan.
"Dead capital," said Felix, the livestock ministry official.
Felix's employees are drawing up flow charts and concept papers that describe a plan for "dialoguing" with village elders to convince them that breeding and selling cows could generate something potentially useful: money.
"It will be a long process," said John Kanisio, who is in charge of marketing for the ministry.
For people to see the benefit of more money, he said, "the wants will have to increase from more basic to more complicated wants."
In other words, a younger generation will have to begin to desire more things -- generators for electricity, more clothing, cars, perhaps a CD player or a university education.
As urbanization intensifies in the larger towns of southern Sudan, those sorts of desires are starting to spring up in rural areas.
In Kimotong, young herders such as Lokwar exhibit the fashion sense of any urban teenager aiming to look cool. Lokwar wore the half-traditional, half-modern regalia of a Manchester United jersey and shorts, several beaded necklaces and bracelets, rubber boots decorated with fringe and stars, and around his shoulder, an AK-47 rifle to guard against raiders.
But besides changing the minds of pastoralists, Kanisio said, the rebel movement-turned-southern Sudanese government must also make the cattle business a viable and attractive option.
Roads across southern Sudan, where they exist at all, are a muddy mess of gullies and rocks, rendering the idea of transporting 18-wheelers full of cattle a stretch of the imagination, especially considering the cost of gasoline.
In Juba, where demand is high and supply scarce, a gallon costs $64.
There are no formal butcheries, much less meat processing plants or organized markets. In the regional capital of Juba, for instance, herders walk their cows to the White Nile River on the edge of town. Hustling middlemen buy the animals, then walk them about 200 yards to a barbed-wire corral, where they resell them at double the price to butchers.
In rural areas, the nearest potential market can be a week's walk away.
And so, to Romeo Lomunyamoi sitting on the rock, a world where cattle are bred, sold and exported for profit seems like a fantastic abstraction compared with the life he knows, where a man with cows is a rich man indeed. He walked out to the field to inspect his herd.
He could point out which cows came from his grandfather and which from his father. He knew that Nyetuko came from his younger daughter's dowry, and that if he had to, he would sell Lokarikari, a red bull with white splotches that he had raised from birth.
"I will check the house and see how much food is left," Lomunyamoi said. "Then, if there is not enough, I will inform the family, and they'll set a time to discuss the issue. Then, if they decide to, I will take the bull and sell it."