The power of Murle song and of pastoralism

The significance of cattle and resilience of pastoralism

When I was born I found cows around. The keeping and dying of cows is as important as human beings, there is no difference. The cow was sent by God from heaven to us, it was thrown down to us from heaven. The colour of the first cow sent down was white, but now cows have changed to many colours.‘ (Nyathu Lopole, Nyakedemo age-set, Gumuruk town, 13 April 2015)

Pastoralism provides people with the ability to adapt to the context of uncertainty experienced in South Sudan brought by militarized power, government elites and ‘modernity’. Pastoralism and cattle are essential for the people across the GPAA to survive, reclaim mastery of their own lives and return home.  People use cattle to take back control over their own lives despite a context of war, aid dependency, displacement and ecological insecurity. Cattle also allow people to invest in relationships and prospects of certainty that survive this fluid landscape. Yet, pastoralism is often misconceived by international observers as inherently associated with inefficiency, stunted development of livelihoods, violence and masculinity. 

Livestock is at the heart of the Murle indigenous political economy and mechanisms that build social cohesion and resilience. Cattle prove indispensable during times of stress and crisis, whether these may be in a time of a family crisis or of more extreme violent conflict. People rely immensely on their cattle and the pastoralist lifestyle in times of hunger or disease. For Murle agro-pastoralists cattle offers predictability in operating in harsh climatic conditions, with intense dry and rainy seasons. In fact, pastoralism and mobility go hand-in-hand and movement is a coping mechanism for the harsh environment.

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Kadila Kelega’s song to her black cow

Songs are a powerful way to communicate in Murle society and it is very common for people to compose and sing songs to their favourite cow or bull. The song below was composed and sung by Kadila Kelega praising her black cow, who ensures her children survive through the harsh and long dry season (recorded in May 2015 Kongor Kutur, Likuangole GPAA).

As revealed also through Kadila’s song, cattle are essential for survival. Both in literal terms, but also in social and economic terms as well spiritual survival and renewal. In her song, Kadila praises her cow that she believes is braver than all others and a source of protection against her enemies. As black as buffalo, her cow is bravest among all cattle and feared by men. She is sorry for those whose cows give no milk during the dry season. Kadila praises her black cow for giving her and her children enough milk to survive the harshness of the dry season.

Transcription of Kadila Kelega’s song to her black cow (by Joel Bolloch)

‘Wild towards our enemies, give us milk.
The bravest cow among all cattle; black and wild like a buffalo.
I took courage from you, cow as wild and black as a buffalo,
in the presence of many cows.
As the dry season continues, those whose cows give no milk will suffer
but “feared by men” my cow will give me enough milk.
Cow from Manyiguli Clan, give us milk.
Give milk, as wild and black as a buffalo.
At home, I should just take milk from Maze’s cow’

At the end of her song, Kadila starts laughing at says ‘Jai goo’ – ‘Bring fire,’ a standard way of saying ‘I am finished’. By that she meant with humour, ‘Bring me a hot coal for my water pipe’, which she meant to say in other words, ‘I sang a song for you – now give my something’, as she laughed along.

Recorded by Diana Felix da Costa, analysed, transcribed and translated by Joel Bolloch. Insights from Jon Arensen.

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