Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher have produced a book of artistic excellence that has vividly captured various aspects of Dinka identity, culture and way of life. In a sense, they have also documented the culture of a people whose world is transforming rapidly. The book presents the Dinka as they were at a time of relative stability and continuity, with an eye for dramatic beauty. They have appropriately focused on the core of Dinka culture and life – their devotion to cattle.
In my various writings on the Dinka, I have always noted that I am describing the culture of a people who for centuries and probably much longer have held to their traditional values and way of life with intense pride, but who are now confronted by forces of change that are rapidly transforming their society. I note this with a sense of moral dilemma. I realize that there is much which the Dinka stand to gain from the modern world. But I also feel strongly that much of what the Dinka cherish and is admired by many outside observers is threatened by the forces of change.
My deep regard for Dinka culture emanates not only from life experience, but also from my studies of the Dinka. These have covered their traditional laws, their moral and spiritual values, their social and cultural life, their poetry and music, their folklore and fairy tales, their oral history and biographies of their leaders, and their vision of the future in a world of increasing complexity and diversity.
As Carol and Angela so sincerely expressed in a letter to me: “The Dinka are among the most outstanding groups of people whose culture we would like to bring to the awareness of the world.” And, indeed, they have done so with an artistic elegance that the world and the Dinka themselves will undoubtedly enjoy... ~ Francis M. Deng, New York, June 2008
First visit - 1970s:
We first visited the Dinka in the 1970s in a very remote area of Southern Sudan, in the swamplands of the River Nile. We were fascinated by their courtship rituals, their extraordinary body decoration and their unique relationship with their cattle. The Dinka are one of our favorite people in Africa; we will never forget their powerful sense of style and harmonious way of living.
Their beaded adornment was some of the most creative on the continent. Men and women wore beaded corsets and bodices to reveal their progression through life and their availability for marriage. The colors of a Dinka man’s corset indicated the age group to which he belonged. A corset was only taken off to be replaced by one of another color indicating a change of age grade.
30 Years Later:
During the long civil war we were unable to travel to Southern Sudan. When the borders reopened in 2005, we were amongst the first to return. Despite the devastation of the war, Dinka cattle camps were still vital to their lives and the Dinka spirit had managed to survive.
In four weeks of traveling over several thousand miles, we saw only four girls wearing traditional bodices. Dinka beadwork had been lost, discarded or sold during the war.
Dry Season Cattle Camp
For four months of the year during the dry season, the Dinka take their cattle to graze in the swamplands of the River Nile. There, they live with their animals, grazing their cattle during the day and sleeping beside them at night. We were transported into a world of harmony and connectedness, an inseparable bonding between nature, animal, and man that we had never experienced before.
Young boys tether the cattle around the fires which fill the camp with smoke that helps keep mosquitoes at bay. Children sleep around the fire cuddled close to the calves and dogs; the animals are part of their family. The dung that fuels the fires at night is reduced to ash by morning which the children rub over their bodies to further protect the skin. We are touched by the closeness of animals and man.
Being a Child
For Dinka children the dry season cattle camp is the most enjoyable time of the year. Their days are filled with creative games as well as responsibilities for the wellbeing of the herds. The close bond with their cattle begins at an early age. Each day begins with the milking of the cows and ends with the tender grooming of animals as the sun goes down.
Four children eager to be photographed leaped onto one of the herders. His immense height of 7 feet made it possible to bear their weight and carry them, and his sweet nature tolerated the load. Dinka parents have a special bond with their children. They teach them responsibility at an early age and believe in encouraging rather than reprimanding them.
The Curve of the Cattle Horn
To identify his cattle, a herder trains their horns into unique shapes by cutting them so that they grow in the desired directions. He follows his cattle throughout the day, emulating the shape of their horns with his arms revealing his close bond with his animal. The Dinka have many words and gestures to describe the poetic curves of the horns.
The Namesake Ox
A Dinka herdsman proudly stands beside his favorite bull. Given to him to mark his coming of age, the beast is known as a namesake ox, because its owner is named after it. The herdsman identifies with the bull, emulating it to the point where he believes that he and the animal are one.
Every morning hundreds of animals are taken out to graze. White bulls are the Dinka's favorite color. There are many variations in color with a myriad of tiny distinctions. The Dinka spend hours discussing their bull markings with the detail in which we would describe a fine work of art.
The Cattle Camp at Sunset
Every evening we were struck by the beauty of the cattle camp, the layers of smoke at sunset and the striking silhouettes of herders and cattle with their lyre shaped horns.
A Dinka man is known not only for the deeds he has done in life but also for the beauty of the bull that walks beside him. The animal accompanies him everywhere and while courting a girl he sings songs not only extolling her beauty but the virtues of his magnificent beast.
Beautifying with Ash:
Ash from the dung fire is used to beautify and protect the body. Men powder their hair with ash to clean and lighten it after it has been bleached with cow urine applied over time. Covered with ash, the Dinka, who are up to 7' 6“ tall were referred to as ”gentle giants” or “ghostly giants" by the early explorers.
Scarification of the body often takes the shape of cattle horns. The skin is cut with a blade, and ash rubbed into the wound so that it heals with a design of finely raised lines.
Courtship in the Cattle Camp
The dry season cattle camp provides a time and place for young people to meet in freedom. Sexual matters are discussed openly, but behavior is quite innocent.
Traditionally Dinka men marry at 30 years old and girls between 17 and 20 years old. Pregnancy out of wedlock is absolutely taboo and damages a girl's prospects of finding a good husband. In the cattle camp Dinka boys and girls often find a partner for life.
Spirit Healers and Holy Shrines
The Dinka consult spiritual healers in order to drive out disease, bring rain and bless the seeds of harvest. At the homestead of a spirit healer, holy shrines where sacrifices are made are marked with branches holding sacred objects planted in the ground, or by symbolic cattle horns carved from the trunks of trees. Cattle provide everything for the Dinka and are believed to be their link to God.
During the dry season the Dinka regularly move camp in search of pasture and water. They have few material possessions and must carry with them everything they need for survival.
It was extremely difficult for us to follow them as there were no roads and little access into the Sudd with its boggy terrain and twelve-foot high elephant grass– the Sudd being the largest and most isolated swampland in the world.
Although dedicated pastoralists, Dinka men fish at the height of the dry season to supplement their diet of milk and seasonal grains. Groups of fisherman wade waist deep in the river repeatedly thrusting their long barbed spears through the weeds concealing the fish. It is too murky to see their prey and sometimes they are shocked to find a python or monitor lizard at the end of their spears.
The Dinka call themselves “ Monyang” meaning the men of men, and pride themselves on their immense height and magnificent physiques. Wrestling is a favorite sport and a great wrestler is renowned amongst all men and admired greatly by women.
The wrestlers warm up with vigorous dance and song. Up to 30 men participate, two wrestling at a time. The bouts are short and intense, and end with the victor seated astride his opponent enjoying the wild cheering cries of the crowd.
During the rainy season from April to October, when the rivers flood and the grasslands become marsh, the Dinka move back to their permanent settlements on the high wooded ground. Here, crops are cultivated in well-drained sandy soil while the cattle are kept in nearby camps.
The Dinka build their homes in a number of different styles and are renowned for the thatching of their two storey conical houses with living quarters on the ground floor and granaries above to store their crops of sorghum, millet and groundnuts.
At the end of the harvest, celebrations of dance and drumming take place. Evocative courtship dances emphasize the long limbs and agile bodies of the healthy young men and women.
Aftermath of War
For the last 30 years the Dinka have been victims of a fierce civil war. Two million Dinka were killed and four million displaced. Some were relocated in America where they became known as the“ Lost Boys of Sudan.”
In 2005, the Islamic north and Christian-animist south signed a peace treaty. The borders opened and we immediately returned. Everywhere the tragedy of war had left its mark. Many of the roads were mined, villages bombed, and the Dinka had virtually lost their unique creative identity, their body beadwork having been exchanged for Kalashnikov rifles and, often, western clothes.
Prayer for the Future: Our deepest wish for the future is that peace be maintained between the north and the south of Sudan, making it possible for the Dinka to follow their traditional way of life and maintain their deep-rooted human values. Although there has been such decimation of the lands and the people, we draw hope from the wisdom of an early 20th century Dinka prophet (translated by John Ryle): “Piny nhom abi riak mac – the land may be spoiled yet it will remain intact. This saying reveals dignity in the face of catastrophe – the possibility that both war and peace, good and bad fortune, all offer the chance of renewal”.
Our experience in the presence of the Dinka people will remain forever in our hearts. In the magic of the cattle camps we moved in rhythmic harmony with everything, glimpsing moments of great beauty and tenderness through the camera lens. Being with the Dinka we relaxed deeply into a sense of connectedness with the world and experienced the warm rapport they felt with each other and with their lifeblood, the cattle. Our senses were opened and awareness heightened in the presence of these gentle, loving and generous people.
We feel deeply touched to know that our photographs have managed to convey something of the timeless intimacy of this rapport: that another cattle herder in another continent, America, understood the depth of this relationship between man and beast, and felt a deep desire to support the publishing of this book so that others too might have a taste of this extraordinary way of life. We invite you to share the lives of the Dinka people through these pages, and we hope that our images may open in you the sense of peace, delight, joy and respect that we felt while taking them.
Carol Beckwith & Angela Fisher
Images and text from—" Dinka: Legendary Cattle Keepers of Sudan" by Carol Beckwith & Angela Fisher, Published: Rizzoli 2010