In remote south Sudan, the diamonds moo
POOLCOOCH, Sudan: Where in the world is Panthar Machar? That was the question swirling around cattle camp the other day as the sun plunged toward the horizon, the mosquitoes swarmed up from the pond scum and Panthar, a preteen herder in charge of his extended family's treasure (150 head of cattle), was nowhere to be found.
He had disappeared into the bush hours ago, his little head barely clearing the top of the grass, clucking and cooing and thwacking the backs of his cows with a big, long stick as he drove them to pasture.
But now he was late.
"He will come," insisted his father, Machar, who waited in a deserted corral.
In this epoch of iPhones and plasma TVs, Panthar's muddy feet are squarely planted in the south Sudan of yesteryear, an isolated area home to the Dinka people, impossibly tall and rugged pastoralists who, after suffering 50 years of war, are finally witnessing peace, development and change.
But whether Panthar and thousands of other boys just like him will benefit from this change is up in the air. Cattle are fundamental to Dinka culture. The Dinka are not about to jettison them for the few extra bucks that city life might bring.
Panthar's oldest brother, Moichok, 18, is Dinka all the way, with long, hard scars on his forehead that feel like rawhide rope and six bottom teeth missing, chiseled out a few years ago by a spear-wielding man known as the engineer. Both the scars and the gap teeth are traditional Dinka marks of adulthood - and tests of pain. If a boy even winces while being cut, the saying goes, he will be teased until the day he dies.
Panthar's next brother, Bol, 16, is in school in a nearby town and his forehead is smooth, the sign of a city boy. It seems that Bol is the one the family has chosen to follow the new way.
As for Panthar, his father said he would like to send him to school, but since he is the youngest son, that might be a stretch because then there would be no one to care for the cows.
It is never-ending work. Panthar begins his days mashed under the belly of an irritable, twitchy 320-kilogram, or 700-pound, beast, his face covered in a glaze of sweat and milk as he jerks on the udders and fills a bucket squeezed between his knees. He scoops up cow dung with his bare hands to use as fuel for campfires and collects cow urine in hollow, maracas-like gourds so his big brother and his friends can dye their hair with it. He nurses the cows when they are sick and sings to them when they are restless.
Cows are Dinkaland's diamonds. They are exchanged upon marriage and handed out as prized gifts. They stand for beauty, status and wealth. The Dinka are so devoted to them that they would rather live off milk (with a little sorghum here and there) than steak.
"If I ever make money," Panthar announced that morning before leading three other little boys - his helpers - into the bush, "I will buy more clothes and more cows." Panthar has one outfit - a soiled shirt-and-shorts set that says "Sport" on it - and no shoes. He marches stoically through thorns as sharp as surgical needles. No one is sure about his age. He is up to his father's hip now, so the family's best estimate is 12. His name means empty home because he was born while the family was on the run from government bombers.
Southern Sudan was torn up by war and rebels since even before Sudan's independence in 1956. The rough outlines are that the south, which is mostly Christian and animist, was fighting the north, which is mostly Muslim and Arabic-speaking. A peace deal signed in 2005 is starting to deliver dividends, though much too slowly for most south Sudanese.
Many of the biggest towns still have no electricity, no cellphone service, few roads and few jobs. Out here, the economy rests on four fuzzy legs.
Panthar's herd is smaller than the herds of times past. Because more and more Dinka boys are migrating to other areas and marrying outside the tribe, the typical price for a pretty bride has dropped from 200 to 100 cows. Still, some Dinka have found a way to straddle the two worlds, growing up with cows in what is called cattle camp and then going on to become hotel clerks, drivers, journalists and office managers.
Years ago, William Malual left behind the heaps of manure to drive a truck for the United Nations. He said the hardships of cattle camp steeled him for life.
"I will never forget the rain," he said. "And the heat." That skin-crisping heat started to ease up around 4 p.m. With the cows still gone, the camp was quiet. Women sewed baskets. Men slept under trees. The metallic buzz of cicadas sawed on.
By 6 p.m., Panthar's father started to pace.
"The boy still has a lot to learn," he said, recalling a time last October when Panthar got lost with the cows. When he made it home, after surviving off leaves for several days, his father whacked him with a stick.
Finally, at nearly 7 p.m., a little head popped out of the low, scratchy trees. Then the sound of clucking. It was Panthar, and the cows.
His father flashed a "well done, son" expression.
"I'm free," he said - for the evening, anyway.
Then the sun set, the cows settled down for the night around a campfire and the insect world held its nightly changing of the guard: flies out, mosquitoes in. Panthar laid out a plastic tarp to sleep on. A white calf dozed nearby.