When the Cows Come Home

3 Lessons Learned in a Dinka Cattle Camp

I heard the low drone before I saw the animals: a bass choir of about 10,000 cows, counterpointed by the clanging of bullet shells against cowbells forged from old USAID oilcans. And I saw the dust rise from the horizon.

“The cows are coming home,” Steven, my South-Sudanese director, announced, just in case we had missed the sounds and the dust. The we I’m referring to was a group of mostly medical staff from the NGO I was working with in Kenya at that time. Then there was I, the one whose job it was to take photos and write stories about the children at our school in the desert.

Earlier that evening, we walked from Steven’s village near Kolmarek, South Sudan, to the cattle camp to see where the people we had been treating at the clinic all day were living. They are the nomadic Dinka people. They are cow herders. I watched as children scurried to do their jobs: tying each and every cow to its own stake. Toddlers ran to pick up fresh cow dung to add to the drying piles that would be burned that evening. “The cow ash keeps the flies away,” Steven explained. Dabbing his forefinger in some ash, he added, “It’s also good to brush your teeth. Want to try?”

I politely declined and stepped aside to watch the village of 600 or so people settle into their evening routines. Grandmas were lighting small fires (using sticks and grass, not matches, not even flint) to boil a handful of beans and a cupful of milk—their only meal for the day. Except for one tarp stretched out to protect mothers with young babies, there were no homes, no latrines, no running water. But there was excitement for the joy of having some visitors.

Trying to take in the sights and sounds, I walked to the rim of the action and climbed onto a tree stump. A sea of cattle stretched as far as I could see—cattle and people signs of life in an area that had been virtually desolate minutes before.

Here are 3 things I learned from the Dinka

  • As a photographer, I know that sometimes, you have to take a step back, or widen the camera lens and take in the bigger picture. The photo I took—along with the stories that Steven told and the books by some of the Lost Boys of Sudan—help remind me of a people living under the skies of Southern Sudan, people who have few choices in life beyond survival. But with current tension again between the Nuer and the Dinka, causing senseless deaths throughout Southern Sudan, it is wise not to listen to just one story and make up your mind about who’s good and who’s bad. It’s what Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie calls “The Danger of the Single Story.
  • I was reminded to withhold judgment. I won’t easily forget joining the local faith community in a crowded tukul, their singing and dancing, worshiping their Creator. Old grandmas were dancing with crosses held high. Do they fully understand, I wondered. Do they really get the gospel? But then again, do we? Do we cling to lots of different stories, rules and regulations, not understanding how they do—or don’t—fit into the big picture? It’s so easy to decide that someone else doesn’t understand when we ourselves might not have a clear understanding.
  • I learned to appreciate the little things that aren’t little at all. During the days spent in Kolmarek, I watched women line up early in the morning to collect water from a community well. Standing in the scorching sun for hours, they would patiently await their turn to draw clean water. If they chose not to come stand in line for water, they would not have any clean water. It was that simple. During my visit, Steven and I spent a day hitchhiking to and from Bor, about 10 miles from Kolmarek, for a meeting. We visited the market in Bor and that day, the only vegetables sold in the market was onions. It has been ten years since my visit, yet I still often think of life in the cattle camp and thank God for clean water at the turn of a knob, for choices of what to do and not do, for choices in the markets, even for toothpaste!

How about you? What valuable lessons have you learned from people who are different from you? 

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