While driving around South Sudan, I was able to meet 4 different tribes. He had only one translator, since it is impossible to know all the dialects.
Many seasoned travelers realize that visiting tribes in some places in Africa is a problematic topic (I explained it before in a blog post).
In places like Kenya or Tanzania, tourists rush to see the Maasai and other tribal villages, but it’s all organized for entertainment… When you enter, you pay an entrance fee, after which you are showered with souvenirs to buy. Many villages also make an exchange every year so that all families have the opportunity to live in a “tourist village” to earn money from the tourists.
This is not the case in South Sudan, especially with two tribes we visited that are not close to Juba (as most visitors, who are still very small in number) choose to visit only the nearby places, such as the Dinka and Mundari. I traveled as a tourist.
The Toposa tribe in South Sudan
The first tribe we visited was the Toposa – fierce warriors and cattle rustlers. Boys are placed into age groups and taught to herd. The girls take care of their thatched houses built mostly on stilts so the animals can shade under them, and take care of the elderly and younger siblings. The tribe practiced scratching which they treat like totems on occasions such as dances, marriages, funerals, and raids.
When we visited the village it was a bit awkward at first. Only women and children, like men, were all with the cattle. We didn’t share the same language and someone could only translate a few words, but we definitely cared just as much for each other.
Little girls were bragging about the dresses they made and they were mesmerized by the long painted nails. My hair was a hit too…They asked if it was real and why I kept it that color for so long. At the end of the visit one of the boys found an old phone and started taking pictures of us…which I think was very fair.
Buya / Larim Tribe of South Sudan
Most people do not associate South Sudan with its beautiful landscape. But, surely there are some – one of these areas is inhabited by the Boya / Larim tribe.
The Buya grow food, they also raise livestock for meat, blood, and milk and use it as a dowry to pay the bride price. Many brides actually – we’re told “if you have one wife as a man people will laugh at you”.
Scratching plays a large role in tribal life and is used as a way to distinguish between tribes and to show progress from childhood to adulthood.
The women take care of very young babies up to 3 months, but then their older brothers or cousins (which I was told around 4 and 5) take care of them and bring them in for food – they carry them so they can walk on their own.
We spent the night and morning with Larim and they hosted us with some traditional dancing.
The Dinka and Mundari tribe of South Sudan
The Dinka and Mundari tribes of South Sudan are very similar, but many of the Dinkas are urban-prone while the Mundari remain “wild”. The Dinka (an Indigo people meaning their tribal origins trace back to the White Nile) are the largest ethnic group in South Sudan, making up approximately 35.8% of the population. It is also one of the tallest tribes in the world.
The Mundari tribe is probably one of the most famous because of its interesting practices. They all have AK47s to guard their cows.
Cows are their most valuable asset. However, they do not eat it and treat it as sacred. Their diet consists of milk and yogurt only from their cows. Cattle are fundamental to social relationships and structures. It is a profound measure of wealth, status, and personal influence. Cattle are used to pay off debts, fines, and bride prices and are also central to religious and artistic culture.
They do not hunt or farm. But they are tall and muscular and they wrestle for fun between different societies. They do not venture into the city unlike the Dinka, but rather stay in the bush.
They bathe in cow urine and use it to die out their blonde/orange hair (which takes two weeks due to the ammonia). They all have favorite cows, and while someone from our group asked to participate in the ritual of “golden showers” and blow cows, we were told no “because the cow doesn’t know us”. It seems…
You may ask what a cow blows? It blows into a cow’s vagina after she’s had babies to increase milk production…someone mentioned something about this that also lends pleasure by increasing oxytocin but guess this is related to milk production as well.
They sleep among their livestock. Every morning the boys collect the dung and collect it to burn. They use ashes to cover their bodies with it to protect it from mosquitoes and to use it as an antiseptic sunscreen.
We missed their evening dances because we were stuck at a checkpoint until 2am so it was very dark when we got to the camp site, which was a great morning sunrise experience when we realized the cows were chilling right behind the tent.