Kristina Bekenova

The photos by Tariq Zaidi show how important cows are for Mundari people of South Sudan and their cows (

This deep bond that unites these people and their cattle has long been documented by anthropologists.

The best example, in this respect, is represented by The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People published in 1940 by Sir Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard, English anthropologist, based on his several trips undertaken at the request of the Government of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan in 1930s.

In this book, Evans-Pritchard provides a very interesting insight into the relationship between Nuer people and the cattle, their dearest possession. In order to understand the culture, political and social structure of the Nuer tribe Evans-Pritchard’s advice is “cherchez la vacha”.

First, it should be noted that according to the indigenous animal classification, cattle is “homestead animals”, i.e. “made up of collection of intimately connected humans and animals”. It means that cows and ox are “particularly regarded as having a dignity and integrity of psyche” (Buxton, 1968: 39). They are endowed with personality, distinctive character, thus, having an identity.

Cattle for the Nuer people are not only important from the perspective of social (relations with neighboring people), economic[i] and religious[ii] perspectives, but it rather plays an essential role on a deeper emotional and aesthetic levels.

Because of the special position the cattle occupies in the Nuer life, to kill them wantonly is very dangerous. According to Nilotic people beliefs, the animal killed in anger or in the greed for meat can release a vengeful power ‘nyok’ that can harm the culprit’s children (Buxton, 1968: 39-40). The diet of Nuer people is highly dependent on milk, millet and includes fish, wild roots, fruits and seeds. The meat is the meal of the festivals, rituals and ceremonies, and on these occasions only “desire for meat is shown without shame” (p. 25) and as local proverb says, “the eyes and the heart are sad, but the teeth and the stomach are glad” (p.25).  Even the happiness and well-being of the family is not counted in the amount of meet the cow can give, but rather of milk:

in Nuer eyes the happiest state is that in which a family possesses several lactating cows, for then the children are well-nourished and there is a surplus that can be devoted to cheese-making and to assisting kinsmen and entertaining guests (p. 21).

The high dependence of the Nuer on cattle, including the economic and dietary value, importance of skin, urine, dung as raw materials, allows to observers describe it as ‘parasitic’. However, at the same time, the cattle itself might be called as ‘parasite of the people’:

They [Nuer people] build byres, kindle fires, and clean kraals for its comfort; move from villages to camps, from camp to camp, and from camps back to villages, for its health; defy wild beasts for its protection; and fashion ornaments for its adornment. It [cattle] lives its gentle, indolent, sluggish life thanks to the Nuer’s devotion (p. 36).

If to put aside that man knows physical and behavioral peculiarities, ancestry and progeny of each of his herds (“some know the points of its forebears up to five generations of ascent”), the most striking evidence of importance of cattle in the life and determining element of these people’s worldview could be seen in personal names and the vocabulary the Nuer use to refer to cattle, herding, dairy work, etc. Evans-Pritchard identified that the dominant interest has shape the language the people use.

Naming cow/ox is a very responsible task that requires a very profound knowledge of the physical and behavioral peculiarities of the beast. The name includes colours and the way they distributed on the body (“there are at least a dozen terms describing different combinations of only white and mouse-grey and there are a similar number of terms for a combination of white with each of the other colours”, p. 44). The second point that taken into account is that some colours in their shape could remind animals, birds, reptiles, and fish, and this association is also reflected in the name. Another prefixes to the name might include the shape of horns, age and sex of the animal. A man usually takes the name of his favourite ox, the women – of the cow she milks, and these names are used in greeting each other, between age-mates, in songs.

The cattle is not only something that can inspire for poetry and songs, can cheer the Nuer up as soon as he starts describing his favourite ox, but also is the main reason of Nuer’s hostility and aggressiveness expressed in desire for neighboring cattle. The Nuer explain it by the following legend:

Man killed the mother of Cow and Buffalo. Buffalo said she would avenge her mother by attacking men in the bush, but Cow said that she would remain in the habitations of men and avenge her mother by causing endless disputes about debts, bride-wealth, and adultery, which would lead to fighting and deaths among the people.

But, in spite of cattle being often ‘an apple of discord’, Nuer will never stop caring about their dearest beasts, will forever talk about the shape, colour and horns of their beloved ox, will as ever before contemplating while their herd is eating grass or milking, and will keep defining his daily diurnal activities based on the cattle needs.


Jean Buxton (1968) “Animal Identity and Human Peril: Some Mandari Images”, Man: New Series, vol. 3, no. 1 (March), pp. 35-49.

Edward E. Evans-Pritchard (1940) The nuer. Clarendon: Oxford University Press.

[i] “All Nuer agree that in the last generation their herds were more considerable and that the payments of bride-wealth and blood-wealth were forty, and sometimes fifty to sixty, head of cattle, whereas to-day the kinsmen of a bride do not expect to receive more than twenty to thirty. … Although cattle are a form of wealth that can be accumulated, a man never possesses many more beasts than his byre will hold, because as soon as his herd is large enough he, or one of his family, marries.” (Evans-Pritchard, 1940: 19)

[ii] “By rubbing ashes along the back of a cow or ox one may get into touch with the spirit or ghost associated with it and ask it for assistance. Another way of communicating with the dead and with Spirits is by sacrifice, and no Nuer ceremony is complete without the sacrifice of a ram, he-goat, or ox.” (Evans-Pritchard, 1940: 18)