Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Is All Press Good Press?

The elections, referendum and imminent independence of South Sudan have brought a lot of media coverage to the region. Many journalists and photographers, to their credit, have been committed to getting out of Juba and reporting the experiences of Southern Sudan’s predominantly rural population at this historic time.  A lot of this has involved going to cattle-camps and taking pictures. I am planning to write a section of my PhD on representations of “The Dinka” in the media, art, anthropology and the ways that Dinka people represent themselves, self-mytholgize and how all these link up and speak to each other. So this slew of interest has been of obvious interest to me too.

There have been countless interesting article, like these interviews by Martin Plaut in Aweil. And numerous sets of photos like these. Ok, I’d like a bit more context to a lot of these photographs but that is why I am doing a PhD (!)

But is all press good press? A recent weekend feature in Time Magazine called ‘The Violent Cattle Keepers of Southern Sudan’s Pastoralist Tribes” captures what a lot of other people have been saying. I found it pretty uncomfortable reading. The photos, all taken at night depict men brandishing AK-47s. The prose describes cattle keeping as ‘a way of life that seems quite unchanged since its inception on these plains thousands of years ago”, people live literally in ‘a void’ beyond the reach of government where it is kill or be killed and the gun is the only authority. Is this really how we are going to think about rural people?

Of course, you could not deny that after 50 years of on and off war people are armed and want to protect their cattle. Of course cattle raiding does happen and it can have tragic consequences. But articles like this belie complexity and pathologize what cattle keeping, as a way of life, is about. This is unhelpful at best. Marriage and the need to collect bridewealth is often put at the centre of these problems. The argument is that young men need cattle to marry so they raid them – but it’s not quite that simple. For one, bridewealth doesn’t have to be handed over all at one go…or sometimes, even at all.

There is a real need to balance the image of rural people as ‘violent cattle keepers’.  Other angles are more revealing and make great articles too. Take this piece by Emily Wax.  She interviewed young men and women who live in cattle camps near Rumbek about their lives and their hopes for the future. They discuss the complex choices they are making about education, the benefits and drawbacks of life in town and the future of cattle-camps. What I like about Emily’s piece is that it shows cattle camps are not isolated and that people living in them also have very ‘normal’ lives and mundane concerns. Its not all about violence.


  1. Big western magazines always try to oversimplify the life choices of those outside the west... good post (even though I say it myself!)

  2. @maryb...and then academic bloggers always complain about it ;)