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South Sudan hit by bidding war for brides

Surging “bride prices’’ have fueled livestock thefts in South Sudan. About 2,000 people are killed in the raids each year. Surging “bride prices’’ have fueled livestock thefts in South Sudan. About 2,000 people are killed in the raids each year. (Flavia Krause-Jackson/ Bloomberg)
By Matt Richmond
Bloomberg News / August 7, 2011

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TEREKEKA, South Sudan - Emmanuel Gambiri said an educated wife in his cattle-herding Mundari tribe in South Sudan costs 50 cows, 60 goats, and $12,000 in cash.

At that price, some men who can’t afford a bride turn to stealing livestock in order to buy a wife and gain status, said Gambiri, citing a friend who rustles cattle. A surge in “bride price’’ has fueled cattle raids in which more than 2,000 people are killed each year.

In his village of Terekeka, Gambiri recalls a time when wives cost as little as 12 cows and tribal chiefs wielded enough power to call the parents and set an affordable bride price.

Today, he says, it’s a different story.

Even as South Sudan celebrated its independence July 9, a two-decade civil war has left scars. The war eroded traditional authority and farming practices, leaving a generation of young men who have grown up in the army, militias, or refugee camps.

“These boys now don’t know how to cultivate. All they know how to manage well is an AK-47,’’ said Gambiri, 37, a program manager for a nonprofit organization.

In rural communities where livestock is the measure of wealth, the ripple effects of the surge in bride prices pose one of the biggest social and economic challenges for the world’s newest nation. About half of South Sudan’s 8 million people live on less than $1 a day and 85 percent of the adult population is illiterate, according to the United Nations.

South Sudan has only 40 miles of paved road, compared with almost 100,000 miles in the north. Amid such poor infrastructure, cattle are the most valuable commodity, supplying dairy and beef.

“In such an economy your stock market is just that: livestock,’’ said Calestous Juma, a professor of international development at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “There is little to exchange except that one currency on the hoof.’’

With about 20 breeds, South Sudan has a cattle population of 11.7 million, as well as 12.4 million goats and 12.1million sheep, according to the UN’s Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization. South Sudan has the sixth-largest livestock herd in Africa, with an asset value estimated at $2.6 billion.

In the countryside, a cow can fetch $150 to $190. In the capital, Juba, cows cost $375 to 560 a head, and bride price is 150 to 400 cows.

Since the end of a civil war in which almost 2 million people died, thousands of men have returned home looking for wives. Greater competition has triggered a bidding war.

Bride prices have surged 44 percent since 2005, when a US-brokered peace accord came into force, and currently half of the rural male population cannot afford a bride, a UN report said.

Some aspiring grooms go into debt; others join armed gangs of up to 50 men who plot raids. Two-thirds of respondents said men had to raid livestock to pay the bride price, according to the UN-Norwegian People’s Aid study that interviewed 1,284 men and 1,392 women between January and March last year in five of 10 state capitals.

The study found that today’s cattle raiders are poor, uneducated youths born in the shadow of the armed conflict between the Muslim north and the south, where traditional religions and Christianity predominate.

About 350,000 cattle are stolen a year, and about 2,500 people were killed in cattle raids in 2009, according to a 2010 study carried out by SNV, a nonprofit organization, for the Ministry of Animal Resources and Fisheries. At least 100,000 marriages take place each year at an average of 30 head of cattle, generating demand for 3 million head of cattle.

David Gressly, acting principal deputy special representative of the UN secretary general for South Sudan, said he is aware of “no evidence’’ that criminality is caused by young men’s desire get married.

The driving factors for bride prices, on the rise since the late 1990s, have to do with the groom’s political ties, family finances, the bride’s educational level, or the size of her family, Gressly said.

The link between high bride price and cattle theft applies only to parts of the country, according to Peter Biar Ajak, of the World Bank in Washington. “Cattle theft is driven by underemployment of youth who have a lot of time on their hands and a human desire to use their youth energy in accumulating wealth,’’ he said.

A practice that goes back 4,000 years to ancient Mesopotamia, bride price prevails in 90 percent of sub-Saharan Africa, where marriage payments are typically four times the annual household income, said Siwan Anderson, a development economist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Bride price is linked to societies where women play a key role in agriculture, especially where rudimentary farm tools are used, according to Anderson. When a husband’s family pays for a bride, they gain ownership of her labor as well as ability to bear children.

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