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Understanding South Sudan's Cow Currency Is Key To Understanding The Country's War


Different countries measure wealth in different ways and not necessarily in cash. In this next story, understanding an alternate currency is key to understanding a war. The war is in South Sudan, and the currency is cows. Gregory Warner with NPR's Planet Money team explains.


GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: I'm in a U.N. camp in South Sudan talking to people displaced by the civil war. South Sudan has one of the largest refugee crises in the world right now - 4 million people either afraid or unable to return home. And one of them is 54-year-old John Guy Jel.

JOHN GUY JEL: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: He narrates the attack on his village by an ethnic militia, how they burned everything to the ground, killed whoever they could catch. But then he tells me something else. In fact, all the men here tell me...


WARNER: ...That the militias also stole everybody's cows. It was the largest collective cattle heist that anyone here remembers.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All of them have taken some cows.

WARNER: John Guy Jel lost 80 cows worth maybe $10,000. But cows go beyond the dollar value in a country where children are named after cows, teen boys compose songs to their favorite bull and people just like to talk about cows.

MACHIEN LUOI: There's no way somebody will go for 10 minutes without mentioning a cow or a color of a cow.

WARNER: Machien Luoi does conflict analysis in the capital, Juba. He explains that cows, not cash, are used for any large purchase. So if you want to buy a house or pay a dowry, a groom will have to pay his bride's father in cows.

LUOI: You marry with money, it's like you're not married at all.

WARNER: Do you have cows now?

LUOI: I've married, you know? I've given some of them for marriages. I do - maybe I have one or two (laughter).

WARNER: Machien looks away, gives a nervous laugh. And I realize, what did I just ask him?

LUOI: In our society, we don't talk about the number of cows you have. We don't mention it.

WARNER: I see. It's like asking your bank account.

LUOI: (Laughter) Yeah, it's like asking bank account.

WARNER: Cows as a bank account makes sense in a country where banks go bankrupt. And a volatile climate and frequent fighting means that you need a type of wealth that you can run away with. So when John Guy Jel lost his 80 cows, he also lost his community status and all his investments and his ability to marry off his sons. I asked him...

How do you imagine your future without cows?

JEL: (Through interpreter) I can imagine I will lead a terrible life. Life without cows is like there is no life.

WARNER: The Trump administration says its goal is to reduce its share of the billion dollar U.N. peacekeeping budget in South Sudan. Last month, Ambassador Nikki Haley visited South Sudan to pressure rival leaders to make peace. But at the official peace talks which resume next month, they're discussing things like power sharing and a timeline for elections. Machien Luoi tells me when he goes to the camps, people say something else has to come first.

LUOI: He has cows. We don't have cows. He burns our huts. He's building new huts. You know, he killed my parents. His parents are now living and sleeping in an air-conditioned place. So people are saying, you know, when you talk about dialogue and reconciliation, it doesn't make sense. You cannot reconcile an unequal people.

WARNER: They tell him there can be no peace without hope for the future. And in South Sudan, hope has hooves. Gregory Warner, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LORD FINESSE'S "MIDAS ERA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gregory Warner is the host of NPR's Rough Translation, a podcast about how things we're talking about in the United States are being talked about in some other part of the world. Whether interviewing a Ukrainian debunker of Russian fake news, a Japanese apology broker navigating different cultural meanings of the word "sorry," or a German dating coach helping a Syrian refugee find love, Warner's storytelling approach takes us out of our echo chambers and leads us to question the way we talk about the world. Rough Translation has received the Lowell Thomas Award from the Overseas Press Club and a Scripps Howard Award.