And I thought the identity politics at YDS were complicated!

The other night at dinner I was sitting with one Dinka student and two Zande students. These are two of the many tribes in south Sudan, a region that has historically experienced a significant amount of inter-tribal violence. Dinkas are pastoralists and Zandes agriculturalists. Put another way, Dinkas have cows, Zandes are farmers. It’s the Cain and Abel divide.

The conversation went something like this.

Dinka: I don’t understand what you Zandes eat. How do you get meat?
Zande #1: Oh, we get plenty of meat.
Dinka: But how? You don’t have any cows.
Zande #2: We don’t want cows. They trample our fields.
Dinka: So what meat do you eat?
Zande #1: [He uses a Zande word]
Dinka: What does that mean?
Zande #1: [asks another friend to translate the word into English]
Friend: It’s monkey.
Dinka: Monkey! Gross!
Zande #2: Yes, they are very tasty, especially the small black ones.

The conversation continued in this vein for some time. Then they asked me what kind of meat Americans ate and where it came from. I was at a loss as to how to explain our food system to people who are used to having far fewer steps between producer and consumer.

The next day, I told the Dinka student I had found it very interesting. Dinkas and Zandes are far enough apart that, as I understand it, they have not fought a lot. But Dinkas and Nuers have a long history of cattle raiding and mutual suspicion and there are lots of both tribes among the entering class of students, all of whom are sharing a big ‘ol dormitory together. I asked the Dinka student what he made of that. “That is the past,” he said. “Our tribe now is Christ.”

That sounded very nice to me but a little too pat of an answer so I pushed him on it a little bit. He was insistent, however, and told me about a diocese in a Nuer region where the bishop is Dinka. That diocese is growing rapidly and the bishop has now sent several students here to Juba to study. He quoted Galatians 3:28.

We would have kept talking about tribal relations but I wanted to know more about cows and bride prices. (They did too. They were stunned to learn there is no dowry required in American marriages.) In the area of South Africa where I lived, four cows was a minimum dowry. Among the Dinka, I learned, it is 11. (It stands to reason. South Sudan does have one of the highest costs of living in Africa.) There was a big wedding at the cathedral next door on Friday. The dowry was 150 cows!

Inter-tribal violence, according to the pastoral letters of the archbishop, remains one of the major causes of instability and violence in south Sudan. In some small way, perhaps, by living, eating, and studying together these students are reducing the possibility of future violence.

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