In the introductory chapter of his book Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka, Godfrey Lienhardt examines the ways in which Dinka people understand human identity as related to cattle. He particularly focuses on the relationship between cattle and the Dinka’s social, political and environmental setting; linguistics; names; and relationship formation and maintenance.
Regarding environment, the seasonal variations in the Sudan where the Dinka reside mean that they are more fruitful as pastoralists than as agriculturalists. The Dinka people are materially dependent on cattle as their products constitute a large part of their diet and provide many essential household items. In terms of politics, political groups are spoken of in relation to the cattle-herding group or cattle-camp rather than the homestead, village or settlement. Therefore, cattle are important for the survival of the Dinka in their hostile environment and are integral in forming the political structure.
Cattle also provide a way for the Dinka to understand and relate to their world. Dinka link cattle with features of the natural and social environment through perceived similarities of colour and shading. In fact, children often understand certain phenomena solely in terms of the colour of cattle because they have never seen the phenomena before. For example, many children have never encountered a leopard, but they know about their spotty appearance because cattle with similar markings are given a name that relates to leopards. So, it is evident that Dinka people add to their experience of their world through cattle.
A way in which Dinka people identify with cattle is through cattle-names. Men are given metaphorical ox-names which do not refer to their personal appearance but are a means of praising them and providing them with self-esteem and standing in the community. In the UK and other cultures, referring to people in terms of animals, or animal characteristics, is often negative. For example, calling someone ‘a cow’ is seen as an insult. This shows the contrast between the importance of cattle in the UK, and in Dinkaland where cattle provide a means of forming and preserving certain relationships within communities.
The Dinka also view human beings and cattle as linked through quasi-legal transactions. In many contexts, cattle are regarded as interchangeable with humans so can be exchanged when a marriage is to take place, or to compensate for homicide or adultery. In terms of homicide, in the UK there is a fundamental principle that human life is sacrosanct and cannot be replaced. The only means of perceived justice is the confinement of the person responsible, which implies that humans are the only substitute for humans. This is contrary to Dinka belief where cattle, an important means of survival, are substitutable.
I understand the Dinka self-identification with cattle to result from the fact that cattle are integral in sustaining human life, as they provide food products and protection from the elements. Whilst the ability to grow food and live in certain places is made difficult by the environment, cattle herds remain a steady source of provisions. In the UK I do not feel that people have any comparable self-identification as there is no such single source for survival and comfort.