(I have to admit I am writing this partly for the title, and the post will be riddled with cow idioms. I’m not apologising. I’m also inviting Zoe Cormack, who’s far more of an expert than me on cattle in South Sudan, to comment?)
The news that there are more cows per person in South Sudan than anywhere else in the world has created a bit of a fuss today, not just because a lot of people are looking desperately for where the other 88% of lost government revenue could come from post-oil shutdown. These figures – despite being based on the heavily disputed 2010 census, which many think massively underestimated the South Sudan population – have re-ignited a very long-standing financial interest in cows.
The idea of making money out of South Sudan’s cows is hardly new; colonial officials talked about the same thing in the 1930s through to the 1950s until the cows came home (I warned you, you know). Everyone knows that cows in South Sudan are really expensive – prices depend on local markets, but many hundreds of dollars. Surely that’s why they get stolen?
The problem is, though, that this isn’t the ‘backwards traditionalist cow-worshipping cultures’ versus ‘progressive drugs-based meat- and milk-market capitalism’. These cows aren’t milch cows, they’re not designed for intense production and neither is their general environment. The constant demonisation of ‘traditional cultures’ as being unenlightened about the financial possibilities of their herds – as if they just don’t realise what they’ve got – is a sacred cow in international media and comment, as well as a common line from the Southern government which should know better. These are often highly mobile and informed societies which use cows as a complex method of social security among much else. Just as British officials tried in vain to cross-breed Southern cattle with fancy beef cows, the idea of flogging off the skinny socially-important cattle for immediate financial profit makes no sense.
As Sharon Hutchinson said, cows are part of the solution; however, they’re not an immediate financial solution.