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Southern Sudan's Push to Modernize Threatens Traditions

The cattle camps in southern Sudan offer a glimpse into the way the country's largest tribe, the Dinka, preserved their traditions through 21 years of civil war with mostly Arab northern Sudan. Now, with the war ended, Dinka traditions like cattle camps - the engine of Dinka culture and identity - are under a new threat: peace. VOA's Raymond Thibodeaux has more from the Akuong cattle camp near Rumbek, Sudan.

Machuei Marial Makuei listens to his older cousin sing praise songs to his family's bulls. At 12 years old, Machuei is too young to sing to his favorite bulls. He hasn't yet earned the right.

So, during each dark early morning, on this stretch of grassland in southern Sudan, he hums the songs to himself as he grooms his father's cattle, a herd more than 100 strong.

It is usually boys like Machuei who lead their family herds in the dry season from the relative safety of towns and villages to the grassy marshes between the two major forks of the White Nile.

For 21 years, the tradition of cattle camp was threatened by the civil war between Sudan's government in the mostly Islamic north and rebel militias in the largely Christian and animist south. During the war, many Dinka and their close cousins, the Nuer, lost their herds in countless raids by government-backed Arab militias. Now peace is the threat amid a push to develop and modernize southern Sudan, a region largely ignored by the Khartoum government.

The promise of high-paying jobs is luring thousands of people from cattle camps and village farms to larger towns such as Rumbek, where businesses are starting to flourish, kindled by the certainty that southern Sudan, under the peace deal, stands to pocket about half the country's oil wealth, about $1.5 billion a year.

Expectations are high. People want what the Khartoum government and the British colonials before them have kept from them: paved roads, phone lines, electricity, running water, schools, libraries and access to health care. They want cars, brick houses, refrigerators and televisions. Many here are wary that southern Sudan's great leap forward could lead to social upheaval as centuries-old customs are challenged by modernization.

One of the most important aspects of the modernization effort is mandatory schooling for children. The United Nations estimates that less than a third of the population is literate.

Machuei has mixed feelings about whether to stay in cattle camp or attend school. In an earlier conversation, Machuei wanted to stay at cattle camp. He loves the cattle, plus all his friends are at the camp. But in this interview, with his father watching, Machuei seems a bit more sheepish.

"He would like to join school," he said. "He would like to be an educator."

His days are full of hard work, but it's the only life he's ever known. Cattle camp is where boys and girls are initiated into life with cattle, southern Sudan's highest form of wealth. It is where boys and girls first fall in love, forming bonds often measured out in cattle, with bridal dowries bringing at least a dozen bulls and scores of cows.

Even still, school is more important than cattle, says Machuei's father, Marial Makuei. Mr. Marial says he wants to send Machuei to school because he'll have an advantage over the children who stay in the cattle camp, where there is no formal schooling.

"We suspect that if the boys learn more or enough about cattle and he goes to school, he'll become [more] intelligent than other children who are not learning in cattle camp," he said.

But then again, Mr. Marial says he plans to keep his oldest son, Malual, who is 17, at the camp. For him, it's too late for schooling, he says.

Many parents at the cattle camp say they will send only their youngest children to school, leaving older siblings to tend cattle.

That's going to be a problem, says Ambrose Riny Thiik, southern Sudan's chief justice, who says the cattle camp tradition would probably not survive the next two generations.

He says education is vital to turning southern Sudan from a militarized society into a civilian one. Sudanese authorities plan to provide free primary education, and they are prepared to pressure parents to send their children to school by levying steep fines if they don't.

But some parents say they'll pay the fines because they depend on their children's labor.

Cattle camp will survive the pressures by Western aid groups to modernize southern Sudan, says Manguak Nyinypiu, who at 38 years old, is the manager for the cattle camp.

"Nothing can destroy cattle camp," he said. "About the schooling of children, it is better because now people have peace in southern Sudan. And if one likes to take his child to school to learn to know a good future, it's not going to lose the situation of the Dinka with the cattle life."

Before the last stars of the morning dim, the wiry Machuei has finished applying a coat of a gray paste - cattle urine and dung ash - to his cattle's horns as a protection against scratches.

Machuei's older brother, Malual, gathers the cattle for the day's long walk to fresh grass.

The two boy's diverging paths are literally etched on their faces: Malual has parallel lines cut into his forehead that identify him as Dinka. Macheui's forehead is unscarred.

And, according to his father, it will stay that way.