Cattle of Kings. The Remarkable Mundari of South Sudan
Tariq Zaidi has spent the last 10 years photographing tribal and indigenous people in over 30 countries in Africa. He has just returned from South Sudan, the newest and arguably most unstable nation in the world, where he photographed the little-documented Mundari tribe. Since conflict erupted in South Sudan in December 2013, at least 50,000 people are estimated to have been killed, 2.2 million have been displaced and parts of the country have been pushed to the brink of famine. Amid this humanitarian crisis, the nomadic Mundari people continue to herd their cattle across the banks of the Nile, dealing with the threat of unexploded landmines and violent cattle raids from neighbouring tribes. Each year in South Sudan, about 350,000 cows and bulls are stolen and more than 2500 people are killed by cattle rustlers. It is hard to overstate the importance of cattle to the Mundari people. Their animals are everything - wealth, status, sustenance and dowry - and they guard them with their lives. They farm a breed of cattle called Ankole-Watusi – a distinctive white animal with curved horns, also known as ‘the cattle of kings’. With a single cow or bull worth up to $500, it’s not surprising that Mundari men stand watch over their herd with rifles, despite a recent attempt by the government to disarm warring tribes. “Their cows are the most important thing in their lives,” says Zaidi. “And they will protect them at all costs.”
On the banks of the Nile, just north of the South Sudanese capital of Juba, dawn breaks on a Mundari cattle camp and a young man begins his morning ablutions. After cleaning his teeth with a stick, he lowers his head under a urinating cow, tethered to a post nearby. His impromptu shower will ward off infection and has the added benefit of dyeing his hair orange.
Next he rubs the peach-coloured ash from last night’s dung fire into his own skin, and the hide and curved horns of his cattle. With the consistency of talcum powder, the ash is a natural antiseptic and mosquito repellant and offers man and animal protection from the intense heat. He sucks fresh milk straight from one of his cow’s udders, and then bangs a drum to alert the rest of the tribe. It is time to take the animals to graze on new pasture.
Tariq Zaidi has been documenting the Mundari people of South Sudan, one of very few photographers to spend time in Africa’s newest nation, officially named the most fragile state in the world.
Five years after South Sudan gained independence, the oil-rich region is in the grip of a humanitarian crisis. Conflict broke out in December 2013, when President Salva Kiir accused his former vice-president Riek Machar of plotting a coup. The subsequent fighting is tearing the country apart along sectarian lines, with supporters of Kiir, who is ethnically Dinka, pitted against those backing Machar, the Nuer people. A peace deal, signed in August 2015 was supposed to end the fighting, but implementation has been inconsistent, and although Kiir recently restored Machar to his post as vice-president, he is yet to return to the capital to take up the role. Meanwhile, 2.3 million people, one in five of the population, have been forced from their homes and 2.8 million people are facing famine.
“The ongoing war in South Sudan has cut off the Mundari tribe from the rest of the world,” says Zaidi. “They don’t venture into the town, they stay in the bush, and it why their unique way of life endures.”
The tribes of South Sudan are among the tallest people in the world, and many Mundari men and women tower over their cows and bulls. Known for their distinctive ritual scarring of Vs on their foreheads, the Mundari have a strong tradition of wrestling and music, and they live communally – sharing everything from blankets to instruments. They depend on their cattle for survival, and will only slaughter or sell them in times of dire need.
For the Mundari their cattle are a form of currency and status symbol, and form a key part of a family’s pension or dowry. Since the end of the civil war, thousands of men have returned to South Sudan looking for wives, which has pushed up the ‘bride price’ – making these animals even more precious and increasing the lethal cattle raids. Each year, about 350,000 cows and bulls are stolen and more than 2500 people are killed by cattle rustlers.
“These animals are treated like members of the family,” says Zaidi. “When the cattle return back from the pasture they know exactly where their masters are and where their home is – they are like dogs in that way. Families will sleep with their animals, wash them in ash and make sure the ground is soft and clean for them.”
The Mundari treasure their herds of Ankole-Watusi, a sought-after breed known as ‘the cattle of kings’. Their horns can reach 8ft and they decorate their biggest bulls with tassels. “Every Mundari man I met had his favourite cow,” says Zaidi. “It is his most prized possession and a reflection of himself.”