Waking up to the smell of cow dung being burnt might not be on your bucket list. But the Mundari tribe of South Sudan are here to change that.
Besides having one of the most well-preserved, unique, and incredible ways of life, the Mundari tribe offers a completely unrivaled off-the-beaten-path experience – without being terribly inaccessible or hard to interact with.
We spent three days in South Sudan, two nights of which we spent camping with the Mundari at one of their cattle camps. They were the most memorable days of our entire trip across the Horn of Africa.
A love story that’ll have you saying “holy cow”
To say that the Mundari people love their cattle is an understatement.
Their entire world revolves around them.
Every day starts the same. At sunrise, the women and children begin picking up the cow dung from the night by hand, and pile it all up.
Others begin preparing food and coffee. Thankfully, the ones taking care of the cow dung don’t take care of breakfast.
The coffee you’ve always dreamt of
When Liza, a young Mundari woman, offered me coffee, I’m not going to lie: I hesitated. But when I took a sip, my taste buds were transformed. It was the best coffee I had in Africa – even better than what I drank in Ethiopia.
The combination of ginger, not too much sugar, and their method of totally maximizing the coffee taste makes for a supremely delicious cup of coffee.
A hard day’s work
In the meanwhile, the men prepare themselves and their cows for grazing which will last much of the day. In their free time, they practice wrestling in preparation for large, fun ceremonies held each dry season.
After picking up the dung, kids and teenagers spend time flattening the mud, organizing the dung piles strategically, and cleaning up. By the time they’re done, the field is spotless.
In the afternoon, there’s smoke as far as the eye I can see. The Mundari cleverly use the cow dung as a source of smoke – which protects the cattle (and themselves) from insects.
The smoke that makes the world go round
The Mundari cleverly use the ash from the smoke and fire as sunscreen, insect repellant, and hair dye.
It’s also very photogenic. Approach any Mundari and the first thing they’ll want, after a handshake, is a picture with their most precious cow. They love seeing themselves with their cows on your photo roll.
In the evening after dinner, the Mundari children collect the milk. And every evening we were there, a few Mundari kids would come to our camp site to give us some of the best milk we’ve ever had.
Out of all the tribes we visited in the Horn of Africa, the Mundari were by far the most friendly and engaging. They really allowed us to immerse ourselves in their culture and way of life.
The Ridiculously Amazing Resourcefulness of the Mundari
One thing the Mundari do not lack is resourcefulness. When you don’t have much, you make the most of it.
Not only is the cow dung multi-purpose, so is everything else you can get out of a cow.
Used as an anti-septic for cuts and hair dye (mixed with dung ash).
Used for ceremonies (mixed with milk).
Well, that is the main staple of the Mundari diet. They even make (quite good) cheese and yogurt.
Though the Mundari don’t typically eat their cows, they will make an exception for huge ceremonies – such as a very important wedding.
Imagine the costs; a cow worth $500, but able to produce $100s in milk over the years. This in a country where 80% of people earn less than $1 a month.
It’s a BIG deal.
We’re poor to the Mundari people
Earlier in the morning, a young Mundari man came up to me and my girlfriend and playfully offered to marry her.
The dowry? 25 cows.
We told him we wanted 100. After politely rejecting our offer, he asked us how many cows we have now.
“Zero”, we told him. He chuckled.
We were now poor in their eyes. No matter the size of our bank accounts.
See, the Mundari measure wealth by the number of cows they own. What you have in your bank doesn’t matter – it’s the cows you have on the field.
The biggest cows with the largest horns are typically worth $500 or more. But the Mundari don’t normally sell or slaughter them. Instead, they treat them like the gold they are.
Though I’m sure gold is meaningless to the Mundari, too.
A hand in marriage
On our last evening in the Mundari cattle camp, we found some very tall Mundari men who were super curious and interesting in finding out more about us.
Are we married? How many cows did I give her? Where is our color? Are we old or young? Do we have sex?
Between the episodes of relentless laughter, we shared our ways of life, our traditions, and our norms with each other.
It very well may have been the most interesting evening of my life. It’s also when I realized that these people have it so much better than we do in so many ways.
There’s not really any need to tell time in Mundari society. The daylight is all you need, and most days are the same.
Many older Mundari people don’t even know their age.
When we spoke about dating and marriage, our differences were particularly intriguing.
A Mundari man can expect to marry 2-3 women and have 7-10 kids with each. This is because each daughter who becomes married ends up providing a dowry of 25-50 cows, and each son will take care of his parents in their old age.
Sex before marriage is not allowed – and you can be punished with a fine 5 cows and a beating.
Dating however, is allowed. And divorces aren’t a thing in the Mundari world.
Why it’s so important to pick the right tour guide to see the Mundari
Our tour guide, Fedrick Patia, couldn’t be more of a local.
In fact, he grew up Mundari.
Though some Mundari men did know some English, none were as proficient in translation as Fedrick.
We have to give thanks to him for making our trip so fascinating. He enabled the amazing, eye-opening conversations we had.
The conversations we had really dug deep into the fabric of our individual societies and allowed us to gain an entirely new point of view on life.
Plus he took care of all the legal stuff – permits, paperwork, bribes, all the like.
You can find him @exploresouthsudan on Instagram.