Violence, photography and the iconography of South Sudan’s cattle camps – By Carol Berger
Some years ago a curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford asked me to look at a photograph taken in South Sudan in the early 1950s. Several South Sudanese men were shown standing on an open plain. They were wearing little in the way of clothing. But on the edge of the frame, resting on the ground, were several small piles of white cloth. The curator wanted to know what I thought the cloth piles were.
Had the photographer decided that his subjects would look better without their cotton shifts or jellabeyas? He would certainly not be the first, or last, outsider to decide that “˜authentic’ Nilotic South Sudanese should not wear a garment associated with Muslim northern Sudan.
One can see a similar ethos at work in a 1910 image from the Pitt’s C.G. Seligman collection. The black and white photograph is titled “Gok Dinka Men”. The description reads, in part: “Gok Dinka men living around Talodi. Three of the men are wearing Arab-style headgear, and possibly holding removed tunics in their hands, showing the cultural influence of surrounding Muslim groups near Talodi.”
At work in the text is the idea of how “˜Gok Dinka’ should appear. Rather than acknowledging the transfer of material goods and clothing between Arabs and Gok Dinka, the description reinforces the idea that the “headgear” and “removed tunics” are evidence of cultural contamination. Did the photographer ask the men to remove the offending articles?
More than a century later, many outsiders continue to represent peoples of South Sudan in a particular way, one that celebrates characteristics that are seen (by foreigners) as favourable. As ever, the elements left out of a photograph can be revealing.
In the case of the region’s Nilotic-speaking people, the many and varied sections, clans and sub-clans of the Nuer and Dinka, the world has come to expect them to have a certain appearance: to be tall, partially clothed, standing amid livestock (preferably long-horned cattle), and either inanimate, looking into the middle distance with a blank expression, or captured mid-flight in a leaping dance.
They should be young and physically beautiful. You will not see photographs of misshapen or handicapped Dinka, the “˜Macheks’ and “˜Nyanacheks’ (the names given to male and female infants, respectively, who are born with physical defects). The name means either “gift of God” or “freak of nature.” There is a tendency to soften the meaning of a term when translating for a foreigner.
Nor will you see the wizened old women whose job it is to gather up cattle manure for drying. Their reproductive years over and their strength waning, these women have a tenuous existence in the cattle camp hierarchy.
In recent years, this disconnect between the curated photographic image and reality could be seen in the base camp of the United Nations in South Sudan’s capital, Juba. Hanging from the exteriors of portable housing units were blown-up photographs of telegenic South Sudanese in pastoral scenes, as if the international staffers needed to be reminded who the recipients of their mission were.
Every peacekeeper and foreign NGO worker is a photographer, and the cattle camp is the most important “˜get.’ South Sudanese gatekeepers “” local politicians, the military “” play on this western fixation. Some years ago the Canadian head of the UN base in Rumbek was convinced that he was the first UN staffer to ever be “˜allowed’ into a local cattle camp.
But there is a cost to this persistent exoticisation of South Sudanese men and women. The west’s romanticized representation of the lives of South Sudan’s rural peoples, including those in cattle camps, has contributed to a failure to comprehend the social processes at work in the bush, including the norms surrounding violence.
Cattle camps have been portrayed, erroneously, as places of harmony, where humans and animals live in an ideal state, removed from the ills of modernity. The fact that cattle keepers have a low status within wider South Sudanese society is also somehow overlooked.
Rumbek is the capital of Lakes State. The area is home to several sections of Dinka, particularly the Agar Dinka. Just a short flight from Juba, Rumbek has long been a preferred destination for photographers hoping to take images inside cattle camps. Upon arrival, foreign photographers are introduced to a local Dinka man who goes by the nickname “˜Juliet Mike.’
For a sum, Juliet Mike will arrange a car, organize a soldier or two (for “˜security’) and take the photographer to a nearby cattle camp. They will leave town just before dawn, the photographer hoping to capture images of the cattle keepers waking and preparing to move their herds to pasture.
But Juliet Mike isn’t just any man. He is an officer in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), and the former head of signals intelligence in Lakes State. He earns several hundred dollars as a “˜fixer’ and at the same time prevents the foreigner from wandering beyond his gaze.
The cattle keepers have little choice in the matter. Whether or not Juliet Mike ever shares his earnings with the herdsmen is not known. The photographer returns to his tented accommodation with a glazed expression, deeply affected by his brief hours among the cattle herders.
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In mid-July, The Guardian newspaper’s online site carried a discussion under the headline “Nude photographs of the Dinka: Art or exploitation?” The sub-head read: “Would you get away with photographing naked westerners and selling the images online, asks Ida Homer?” And then a discussion-prompting question: “Are nude photos of the Dinka art, or exploitation? “” your thoughts.”
The starting point for the subject of discussion was an online site where single prints of Dinka people, many of whom are nude or only partly clothed, are sold for sums starting at $575.00.
Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher are celebrated photographers of peoples living on the African continent. Over the past three decades they have produced 14 books and four films on “˜traditional Africa.’ The title text on their webpage reads: “In celebration of African cultures.”
Such were the supposed sensitivities that The Guardian did not post any of the Beckwith-Fisher photographs, opting instead to run images by other photographers showing clothed South Sudanese.
The “˜discussion’ that followed was a predictable mix of outrage, sympathy and concern, along with the question of how you would feel if photographs of your naked children, shot on a European beach, were offered for sale online.
Beckwith later posted a comment in which she referred to a charitable foundation set up to assist the subjects of their work. She wrote, in part:
“We care deeply about the 150 ethnic groups with whom we have lived and worked “” we have dedicated our lives to sharing their powerful beliefs, rituals, lifestyles and cultural traditions with the world at large.
“We want future generations of Africans to know where they came from and what their grandparents believed. Over 40% of what we have recorded no longer exists, a tragic loss, diminishing the richness and diversity of the human panorama. We hope to leave our archive of the cultural heritage of Africa, 40 years in the making, and still on-going, to future generations who care about who we are as human beings, where we have come from, and where we are heading.”
Among the 150 responses posted, before the comments section was closed, was one by a poster going by the name of “˜AbuDeng.’ He wrote:
“As a member of the Dinka community of South Sudan, I respect the photographers’ intent and presentation – beautiful indeed – yet must remind them and others of the age-old Western practice of taking the beauty of Africa, exploiting it for riches, fame or a Phd dissertation–>tenure, without returning “˜just’ value to the African person, community or nation.
“If one takes much, one should give much. Traditional cultures around the world have been long exploited for their knowledge of animals, herbs and skill set, plus art, natural resources, even their person – recall the story of Ota Benga.
“Times should change, as I recall, the Arctic First Nation People (Northern Canada) make researchers sign agreements to ensure their community gets respect and the short-term researchers follow a code of ethics. So in the end, visitors and the informed community should both be satisfied.”
He goes on to correct another commenter’s assumption that Dinka people would not understand the idea of consent:
“[Y]ou seem to be saying that cattle camp Dinka cannot understand the concept of consent: not true! This is not some isolated tribe in the Amazonian forest – Readers do not be fooled, many people at these camps travel in and out of South Sudan, some even attend elite universities in Europe and America, though some relatives stay local. They have cell-phones, to call more learned relatives in London, if need be. But explaining that you are going to make a lot of money on the photographs or art carvings you take is not lost in translation. Dinka understand money, Michael Jordan, Nike, etc. if profit is a visitor’s main objective when visiting such an area in South Sudan.”
And this, to my mind, is what’s troubling about the Beckwith and Fisher photographs. The Guardian blog was asking the wrong question: Rather than asking if photographs of Dinka nudity are exploitative (the answer to which would be “˜yes’), the question should be: where are the objects of contemporary life? Where are the cell phones and plastic containers? Where are the recycled water bottles filled with marissa, the local brew? Where is the motorcycle used to travel into town? Where is the kiosk selling air-time for cell phones? Where are the sunglasses and diaphanous ladies’ lingerie sometimes worn by the fashion-making cattle keepers?
Beckwith and Fisher’s photographs of “˜the Dinka’ (which in itself is an oversimplification) are part of a century-old representation of Nilotic peoples as being of all time and no time. A look at the photographers’ website reinforces this idea.
The introductory note reads, in part: “As an intrepid team of explorers, they [Beckwith and Fisher] are committed to preserving sacred tribal ceremonies and African cultural traditions all too vulnerable to the trends of modernity.”
Later, in the same introductory text: “Aware that traditional cultures in Africa are fast disappearing, Carol and Angela are working with an urgency to complete the third volume of their on-going study of African Ceremonies with the goal of covering the remaining traditional ceremonies in the 13 African cultures in which they have not yet worked.”
Under the heading “Travelling Collections,” the theme of preservation and “endangered cultures” is again stressed. What the cultures are endangered by is not stated, though the inference is that “modernity” may be to blame. Nor does it say where people are “disappearing” to.
Under the heading “Collections” a potential print buyer can peruse a series of prints. Under “˜Dinka’, the caption for the first image, titled “Dinka Cattle Camp, South Sudan,” reads, in part: “In the wut (cattle camp) countless herds of animals with lyre-shaped horns stretch as far as the eye can see.young [sic] young Dinka men and women spend their time surrounded by their beasts, living in perfect harmony with them.” The price listed is “from $575.00.”
The image is a cattle camp at sundown, a bright red sky hanging above a sea of white cows. A handful of naked boys can be seen, one standing in a tree, others scattered within the herd.
Another is titled “Dinka Boy Perched on a Branch, South Sudan.” The caption reads: “Dinka children enjoy leisure time in the middle of the day after the animals have been taken away to graze.”
The caption for “Dinka Cattle Camp at Sunset, South Sudan”, dated 2007, reads: “The Dinka cattle camp at sunset in South Sudan, one of the few still existing camps of up to 2,400 head of cattle, transports one into a lifestyle of harmony and connectedness, an inseparable bonding between nature, animals and man. We were struck by its beauty, the layers of smoke at sunset, the striking silhouettes of cattle with their lyre shaped horns, and the tall herders moving among them.”
Throughout, both the images and captions emphasize the Eden-like existence of “˜the Dinka’ in the cattle camp.
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This fixation on the supposedly timeless aesthetic of the cattle camp contributes to a lack of awareness about the harshness of life in the camps. It also reinforces an incorrect idea that the camps are “a lifestyle of harmony and connectedness.” As with all peoples, the values and “traditions” of those living in the cattle camps are constantly changing. To refer to “African cultural traditions” as being “vulnerable to the trends of modernity” is patronising. Change is part of the human condition. Writing these changes out of the photographic representation of Nilotic peoples will not make the images more authentic.
The current new war in South Sudan has its origins in the militarisation of cattle camps. Even at the time that some of the photos were taken, a vicious and costly cycle of cattle raiding and revenge attacks was well under way.
For several years now, cell phones have been used to coordinate attacks on vehicles and between warring clans. In 2007–2008, cattle keepers from a Dinka clan west of Rumbek tipped off co-attackers when members of an opposing clan were boarding minibuses travelling between towns. Some kilometres away, the attackers shot out the bus’s tires, boarded the bus and shot and killed several men at point-blank range.
In other attacks, pre-dawn raiders targeted women and children. They lifted the thatched roofs of huts, inserted the barrels of their guns and sprayed automatic gunfire at those sleeping inside. Rumbek State Hospital has dealt with mass casualties caused by clan fighting for years. To prevent killings within the hospital itself, the injured are divided by clan and placed in separate areas. Weapons are collected at the hospital gate. A casual visitor could often see a pile of weapons taken from visitors: spears, broken car antennae, wooden clubs, automatic weapons, razor blades.
One of the upshots of the accelerating and organized warfare has been a shift of responsibility for care of the massive herds of cattle. In better times, the work was done by teenaged youth and young men. Now the exhausting work is most often left to mere boys. Underfed, on the move from dawn to dusk, at risk from attack by wild animals and abuse by marauding soldiers, theirs is not an idyllic life. If a cattle keeper loses an animal he will be punished with a beating.
Amid the idealization of the camps by westerners, the status of cattle keepers within the larger, South Sudanese community is dire. A common insult is to call someone “a cattle keeper.” During the civil war, the SPLA used cattle keepers as forced labour. In the post-war period, elders have had difficulty keeping young men in the camps to tend the cows: the youth are sick of being beaten by their elders and want to go to school. But even in the towns they face abuse. Early last year the governor of Lakes State forbade cattle keepers from entering Rumbek. Unable to resist the lure of the market, some young men attempted to go in disguise, exchanging their knee-length cotton shifts for skinny-legged jeans.
During my lengthy residence in Lakes State, I often took long road journeys. On one trip, during a time when large herds of cattle were being moved, it was days before someone would give me a translation of what our Dinka driver kept shouting at the cattle keepers we met on the road.
No one would tell me because of the profanity. It was left to a Kenyan, long resident in South Sudan, to tell me what the shouted words were: “Get off the road, you fucking cunts.”
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Last week a young man of Agar Dinka descent came to my flat in downtown Cairo. Kerubino is a talented rapper and prose writer. He wants to learn how to read music. He was to have his first piano lesson. I asked him what he thought about the photographs. He had no opinion, other than some concern about the showing of nudity. The images were foreign to him.
His father was an Agar Dinka from Rumbek. But Kerubino has never seen Rumbek, or even South Sudan. He is a child of Khartoum, and later, Cairo. Wars have brought his family here.
For the past seven months a new war has devastated large parts of South Sudan. Tens of thousands of people are believed to have died. There are no signs that the fighting will end soon.
Youth from the South’s two main cultural groups, Nuer and Dinka, are being drawn on to wage the war between the SPLA and rebel forces led by the former vice-president Riek Machar Teny. Large numbers of them were militarised in cattle camps.
The beautiful photographs of Beckwith and Fisher do “˜preserve’ (a word used on their website) a certain representation of the Nilotic cattle camps. But they also reinforce a perspective that denies the cattle keepers agency, of being part of an unfolding history, no matter how bitter the coming chapter will be.
Soon, very soon, the world will see another kind of photo of South Sudan’s Nilotic people: photos of starving women and children.
Carol Berger lived in Rumbek, Lakes State, from 2006 to 2008 and 2010 to 2012. She holds a DPhil in Anthropology from the University of Oxford and was raised on a cattle and wheat farm in western Canada.