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."
Her older female relatives tell her to stay and keep milking. If she abandons her responsibilities to seek adventure, they worry, other girls will follow, and the older generations will be burdened with more work. If war explodes again, they could lose everything.
On their way to milk the cows, Alanitch and her friends pass family corrals full of cattle, each with a hut on stilts in the center. Most huts have an AK-47 assault rifle strung up next to gourds used to make butter or yogurt. Older women shake the gourds with a rhythmic sound. Calves nurse and their mothers kick up dust. Teenage boys, fighting each other with sticks, stop to glance as the girls pass.
For a long time, Alanitch found it hard to imagine any other world.
"Cattle are our lives," she says, pulling a calf off its mother's teats and roping it to a wooden peg. Then she kneels and milks, tugging with both hands. Her friend Nyaneyai Maker, a strong girl with a shaved head, crouches nearby.
In the Dinka language, highly valued children are often given cow-related names. Alanitch means "the place where cow dung is dried." The Dinka have more than 100 names and phrases to describe bovines by shape, color and strength.
Their chores done, the girls link arms and walk back through the camp. The orange sun is sinking. A full moon is rising. Some of the boys are parading bulls, their horns pierced and decorated with tassels. A drumbeat pulses, and a few boys begin singing songs of praise to their bulls.
Alanitch confides that she has become bored with the boys at cattle camp and plans to walk to Rumbek to sell some milk. There's a boy she likes there. He was once a cattle herder, but he left to work at a settlement set up for foreigners and Sudanese officials hoping to start postwar building projects.
Two days later, she returns in a restless mood. She has seen a school open in the town, but she is too old to attend it. Instead, she has sold her milk to buy a new dress, asking the boy to chip in. "And he did," she says, laughing in triumph.
Alanitch has few possessions -- two other dresses, a torn straw sleeping mat, a teapot, a milk pail, three plastic bracelets and a pair of flip-flops.
"I think the life of town is better," she declares suddenly. "They are always clean, and they have radios in the market."
Alanitch looks around the camp with new eyes. The boys dress with indifference to style or gender, sometimes wearing women's torn housecoats or dresses. In Rumbek, the boy she likes was wearing a smart, tan uniform -- and carrying enough money to treat her to beers in a new bar.
"I think I want to marry him and live there with him," she announces. "Easier life. He's making money."
Kneeling in the wet soil next to his family's hut, Machuei Muriel helps his father castrate a bull. He is 11. He looks serious as he and a couple of other boys hold down the animal's wildly twitching legs. His father stretches the white skin taut and slices with a razor blade, spurting blood on the ground. The bull bellows in pain.
The Dinka castrate a bull when it is not a desirable shape or color for breeding. Instead, it is used for decorative ceremonies, its horns gradually twisted into elaborate curves. The bulls with the nicest horns are offered as part of a wedding dowry.
The operation completed, Muriel Makuei Gong pats his son's back in praise. Then they collect dung ash to place on the wound. It will ease the bull's suffering, the father explains.
Gong has just taught his son an essential skill.
"I teach him how to care for his cattle for the benefit of his own life, to be able to make marriage and offer up the right types of cows when the time is right," he says.
Nearby, small children are tending young cows in a sort of cattle kindergarten. An old, wrinkled man pads through the camp with a calf slung around his neck. Older boys wander back from the marshy wetlands, where they have taken cattle to graze.
"Everyone has their role to play in cattle camp," Gong says. He acknowledges that it is a tough life. "But here you also see things that make you happy, like cattle giving birth," he says. "I can teach him that."
Still, Gong knows this time with his son may be fleeting. He's heard that the new government will fine parents who don't send their children to school. Some parents at camp have said they will just pay the fee and keep the children at their sides.
But Gong says he believes in change, even if it comes with sadness.
Their world is a remote, neglected place without cars or farm machines, with few clinics or schools.
His family owns more than 100 cattle, making them prosperous. He feels it is time to take a risk.
"Machuei is intelligent with cattle. But he can learn more things in school. Soon it won't be my choice," he says to the boy, who nods and smiles. His elder son, who is about 17, is already at school, reading and doing figures. He likes it.
"I suspect that if peace stays, camp will one day die out," Gong says.
"Become wise, like a doctor," he tells his younger son. "The hands of educated people don't get dirty," he adds, looking at his own hands, cracked and caked with white powder from the burned dung.
The father has another choice ahead: whether to let Machuei undergo his tribe's traditional manhood rites, in which six bottom teeth are removed and four incisions are made in the forehead. This signals that a Dinka boy is ready for marriage.
The cattle camp manager has advised parents against it, saying the ritual, a mark of ethnic distinction, makes it more difficult for Sudan's many tribes to blend in at school.
Gong looks at his son, dressed in dirty brown shorts, gulping fresh milk from a pail. The father says he will not make the boy remove his teeth or scar his face.
"I've made my decision," he says. "School is more important."
A Man's Job
Bakic Magol has just been paid, so he and his friend Mangui Yuot can buy breakfast. Usually they just drink milk, but on paydays they can afford a bowl of beans. In the shade of a grass hut, they hungrily eat from bowls of oily mush without speaking.
As they walk back to the cattle pen, an old woman with a torn dress begs Bakic for money to buy tobacco. Farther down the dirt path, another woman clutches Bakic's arm, asking whether her daughter can come and milk the cows for some free milk.
Bakic's carefree mood is gone. He lowers his head and sprints back to work.
The next day his father, Alfred Magol, crippled and blinded from a land mine, rests under a tree and talks about how even peace has not brought relief to his family. No one from the new government has come to pay disabled veterans, he complains.
And if peace doesn't last, how can he afford to let his son leave work and go to school? The country is still not stable, and the family is worried.
Bakic's mother, Mary Achol, would also prefer him to be in a classroom. When he visits home these days, she says, he doesn't like her to touch him or make him food.
"I feel worry because he's working without my care," she says. "When a person is educated, life is easier."
Bakic's grandmother dismisses such worries, saying he is a "strong and courageous boy." The two women start to hum a family song that compares Bakic to his great-grandfather, a skilled cattle herder. In fact, every ancestor Bakic can remember was a cattle herder.
But Bakic is still a boy trying to do a man's job. A few days later, exhausted from the heavy, constant work, he seems to have reached his limit. Herding a group of cows into an auction pen, he gets hit in the eyes by a horn. Minutes later, some older men accuse him of losing a cow, and a fight breaks out.
"For God's sake . . . I don't have your cow," he shouts, his eyes filling with tears.
Recently, Bakic says, he had a dream. "It starts with the cows escaping. I am running through the forest, looking for my lost cows. I can't find them," he says. "Then I go to sleep. I don't care anymore."
Bakic knows there is a new school in Rumbek, and he wonders if he should go. The auction house manager has told the young herders they need an education to become rich, and he imagines working as a trader, or perhaps at a radio station. But his family has no money and needs him to do what he calls "my small works" to support them.
"When I am tired, I do think of schooling. . . . Sometimes I concentrate when the schoolchildren write letters in the sand," he says. At the moment, though, what he really longs for is new clothes. "I would love some pants," he says.
Bakic's friend Mangui Yuot talks about going to the new school in Rumbek. He says he told his father there would be free lunch, provided by the United Nations, so the father has agreed.
Bakic, ignoring his friend, continues working.
"Are you going to join us?" Yuot asks.
"I can't," the boy answers, lighting a pyramid of dung. "Not yet."