The Dinka’s relationship with Cattle

The only wealth that can be inherited in the Dinka community is a cattle herd. However, the cattle’s high status within this society is not just a result of its economic value through the products it can provide such as food, clothing and fetiliser. The cattle’s significance to the Dinka goes beyond their economic value to a deeper social importance. The homestead appears to be divided in the women’s hearth where so farms crops and feeds the family and the man’s place which is in the ‘cattle-hearth’ or ‘the gol’ where he gathers with other men. The article continues by explaining that the community is often separated throughout the seasons of the year so that the men can find pasture for their cattle that is not flooded. This means that Dinka men spend more time with their cattle and other people within their ‘cattle camp’, known as wut, rather than the homestead. Through all this extended time spent with the cattle the Dinka men identify themselves with them. ‘When boys reach manhood they take the colour names of oxen’ as well as their own and they are then ‘identified with an ox of some particular colour, which he proudly displays before the girls’. The name becomes a huge part of their identity as it shouted during weddings, dances and in battle.

Lienhardt seems to be suggesting that the Dinka do not take part in anthropomorphism which is often presented within westerner culture but they actively do the opposite. Instead of imposing human attributes on an animal such as calling a fox sly, the Dinka actively take up the characteristics of cattle. This is particularly evident when Lienhardt describes the men in dances where they make sounds and do specific movements (such as arching their arms over their head to represent horns) to initimate what they feel to be the ‘graceful’ elements of the cow. Despite this Lienhardt explains that the Dinka ‘do not sentimentalize their relations with their beasts, imaginatively endowing them with human intelligence and affections as do some European owners of domesticate pets’. Yet previously in the article he had mentioned that the Dinka would often refer to their cattle by name, treat them as though they understood what they were saying and suggest that some of the individuals had more intelligence or responsive actions than other members of the herd.  These descriptions would suggest that, to some extent, the Dinka do treat their cattle as a westerner would treat a domestic pet.

However, it is the symbolism of cattle which stands out as being the most importance within the article. Men would rather castrate and display a particularly beautiful oxen rather than let it be a stud and maximise its economic potential. This is because Dinka men take deep pride in their cattle as ultimately they are representations of their owners. During courtship men walk around girls with their oxen that they have decorate while singing their songs which draws the girl’s attention and the standard of the oxen has a significant impact on the man’s attractiveness and eligibility to females. Cattle are above any other livestock or commodity within Dinka society and are ultimately seen as the only thing close enough to a human substitute. Taboos are created around the cattle as a man must not eat an oxen that has the same colours as his name. In fact, to eat cattle just for meat in any case is seen as disrespect to the animal from the Dinka’s point of view. Cattle are so much more than just ‘meat’ to the Dinka they are also a tool in which to regulate relations with both humans and divine. Cattle also provide the men with status within society as their herd represents their wealth. This means they have more control and therefore security within society as they can contribute politically and can make decisions for themselves. However, those who have no cattle cannot marry and therefore cannot start a family. ‘Cattle are thus intimately connected with human personality; a man cannot be fully a Dinka without them.’ This means young men may either be rejected or choose to leave the Dinka community as a result of owning no cattle.

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