Despite six years of civil war, the Dinka people live with dignity and purpose
SUDDENLY there it is: a Dinka cattle camp. From behind curtains of white smoke from dozens of small fires, cattle emerge, ambling in from the bush, heading unescorted toward their tethering pegs, where they wait patiently for women to slip a rope over their long, curved horns, and tie them down for the night.
It is an ancient scene, among the survivors of an ancient, semi-nomadic people. After all the devastation of six years of civil war in southern Sudan - the deaths, the fleeing, the unchecked cattle diseases that in some areas have nearly wiped out entire herds - the Dinka way of life persists: a life of dignity, purpose, and, before the war, a life of peace.
Dinka who still have cattle are doing what they've always done: caring for their beloved animals, sleeping next to them at night, grazing them by day.
Cattle shape the daily routine of the Dinka, their culture, and even their language. Many Dinka names are words for different colors of cattle. Their animals provide milk, wealth, payment for brides, and a sense of pride to the owners, who decorate the horns of favorite oxen with tassels.
One of the largest and most isolated ethnic groups in Africa, the Dinka comprise some 20 tribes, sharing a common language, and living in 150,000 square miles of flat savannah in southern Sudan along the White Nile and some of its tributaries.
Here in one of their camps, alongside the road north to Bor - a road lined with occasional twisted, burned ruins of trucks and even a tank that once belonged to the Arab-controlled central government - there is still a sense of calm.
Dinka and visitors warmly greet each other. I reach out, questioningly, and touch a face covered with white ash, a ghostly cosmetic on the man's black skin. A teenage boy leads me to one of the dozens of small campfires, and shows me how to pick up the cooled ash on the edge of the fire and rub it on my face. Dinka apply the ash as a protection against the flies that swarm around the cows. Smoke from the fires keeps mosquitoes at bay.
Women in the camp are clad in one-piece, loose-fitting cloths that usually tie over one shoulder. Most of the men and boys are naked. Before the war, they started wearing shorts. But now, with the economy destroyed, few Dinka have money for clothes.