South Sudan is the world’s youngest country, and it has witnessed immense change since gaining independence in 2011. The promise of peace has given way to civil war, and tribal rifts continue to run deep, permeating political affairs. Over two million people have been displaced according to the UN, and tens of thousands killed. Amid the tumult is the Mundari, a people who would rather get on with doing what they do best: looking after their cattle.
Meat the family
It would be hard to find a more dedicated group of herdsmen than the tribe who live on the banks of the Nile, north of the capital Juba. Their entire lifestyle is geared around caring for their prized livestock, the Ankole-Watusi, a horned breed known as “the cattle of kings.” These cows grow up to eight feet tall, and are worth as much as $500 each. It’s no wonder the Mundari view these animals as their most valuable assets (or that they guard them with with machine guns). Photographer Tariq Zaidi spent a fortnight earlier this year documenting their lives and the devotion they show towards these animals. Zaidi has captured tribes and indigenous people from over 30 African nations, though he was nonetheless taken aback by the relationship between man and beast. “It’s hard to overstate the importance of cattle to the Mundari people,” says Zaidi, “these animals are everything to them.” The photographer describes how “almost every man I met wanted me to take a picture of them with their favorite cow.” Their wives and children, on the other hand, were given short shrift.
Perhaps this is in part due to the function and symbolism of the Ankole-Watusi. Each bovine is so highly prized that it is rarely killed for its meat. Instead, it is a walking larder, a pharmacy, a dowry, even a friend. It is clear that cow is a resource maintaining not just a people, but a way of life. The Mundari, tall and muscular, may “look like bodybuilders,” says Zaidi, “but their diet is pretty much milk and yogurt. That’s it.” Other bodily fluids have more unlikely uses. Mundari men will squat under streams of cow urine, both an antiseptic, Zaidi suggests, and as an aesthetic choice — the ammonia in the urine color the Mundari’s hair orange. Meanwhile dung is piled high into heaps for burning, the fine peach-colored ash used as another form of antiseptic and sunscreen by the herdsmen, shielding them from the 115-degree heat. The cows, adds Zaidi, are among the world’s most pampered. He says he witnessed Mundari massaging their animals twice a day. The ash from dung fires, as fine as talcum powder, is rubbed into the cattle’s skin and used as bedding, while ornamental tassels swat flies from the eyes of the herd’s most prestigious beasts.
The Mundari sleep among their cattle, “literally two feet away from their favorites” says Zaidi, and guard them at the point of a gun. It’s not unreasonable for the tribe to go to these lengths. “Rustlers are a huge issue for them,” the photographer explains. “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 lethal cattle raids.” Such raids have been deadly for the Mundari, but the effects of war are manifold. Landmines make finding fresh pasture a dangerous lottery. When he visited, Zaidi says the tribe were using a small island in the Nile as a safe haven. The conflict, he adds, has the paradoxical effect of preserving their way of life. “The ongoing war in South Sudan has cut off the Mundari tribe from the rest of the world,” he says. “They don’t venture into the town, they stay in the bush, and it’s why their unique way of life endures.” Zaidi says the Mundari have no taste for war and “their guns are not to kill anyone but to protect their herd.” All the Mundari want to do is take care of their livestock, he argues, “and they will protect them at all costs.”