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Human Ecology of the Murle

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Human Ecology of the Murle
The Murle people live in a vast area of over 30,000 square miles. Much of this area is used only for hunting and occasional grazing for their cattle and therefore contains some of the largest herds of wildlife remaining in all of Africa. The ecology of this area is intriguing- similar environments occur in only a few other locations in Africa. With the exception of the Boma Plateau, the land of the Murle is very flat with a few intersecting rivers. During the rainy season, from June through August, these rivers burst their banks and the area becomes a vast shallow lake. Grass grows rapidly in the black cotton soil and in places stands ten feet tall.
When the Murle people see the thunderheads building in the east they know the rains are coming and they start moving from their dry season camps to their semi-permanent homesteads. These have been left largely uninhabited during the long dry season. Upon arriving home the people re-open their homesteads. The women make the necessary repairs to the roofs of their dome-shaped homes and the men rebuild the thorn zaribas for their cattle. Large cattle byres are also cleaned and prepared for the coming deluge. Both men and women then prepare small fields adjacent to the homesteads- the men turn over the soil and the women and children clear away the old growth. With the coming of the first rains the soil becomes soft and the Murle plant sorghum, corn and pumpkin seeds. Within days of the first rains the grass begins to grow, giving nutrition to the weak thin cattle. At this time of year the countryside looks beautiful and green, but it is actually a period of serious hunger for the Murle. The cattle have just come through the severe dry season and are producing no milk, and the crops are just beginning to grow in the field. People subsist largely on wild greens that they find in the surrounding riverine forests. When the pumpkin plants first put out leaves, these are picked and made into a thin soup. It is a time of lethargy and waiting. The days are often dark, cold and wet, and people sit in their huts huddled around the fire, glumly waiting for the warmth of the sun. Mosquitoes appear in hordes, making life miserable for both human and beast. At night the cattle are moved into the byres and smudge fires are lit – using dry cattle dung to produce an acrid smoke. This drives away most of the mosquitoes, but by morning the cattle are often drugged by the smoke and have to be dragged outside to recover in the fresh air.
It is during May and June that the young warriors plan raids on other ethnic groups. With water available in every puddle it is relatively easy for the youth to cross the high plains and make attacks, stealing cattle and occasionally taking women and children. The abundant water and pasture also means the stolen cattle can undertake the return journey to the Murle homesteads.
As the rains continue the rivers gradually fill up and by July they usually burst their banks, with the water spreading out over hundreds of square miles. Travel is difficult during this time and people are quite isolated from each other, having few canoes that can traverse the deep rivers. When the cows give birth to their calves, there is a sudden surplus of milk and people start to regain their strength. By September the crops mature in the fields and the people add grain and pumpkins to their diet.
Over the ensuing weeks the river gradually subsides and the Murle people can once more move freely about the area. For the next two months, October and November, the Murle enter fully into social life. The cattle have adequate pasture near to the homesteads so there is little work in caring for them. Grain is available in the granaries and everyone has abundant food. Since the homesteads are bunched along the rivers it is easy for people to get together for activities. Members of the younger age-sets plan dances and invite the unmarried girls. Hundreds of people show up at these dances to watch the warriors dance in their regalia. Young men court the girls and many marriages take place during this time of abundance. Old men gather in the shade and tell stories and talk about their cattle – much of the talk having to do with past and present bridewealth payments. As the sun gets hotter the ground changes from mud to hard cracked clay. The grass keeps growing and becomes so tall that it is difficult to walk long distances cross the savannahs. Some of the warriors also use this period to go on cattle raids. They use the long grass as cover for their attacks, and there is still enough water in the rivers to keep the stolen cattle alive on the long trek home.
December is the most exciting time of year for the Murle, since it is the time of the great annual hunt. During the rainy season large herds of antelope such as the white-eared kob, leocitus kobus, retreat south to escape the flooded plains. When the rains stop and the rivers drop, the herds of animals move north to eat the fresh grass along the receding rivers. The white-eared kob migrate into the Pibor area during December and bunch up in large herds at the banks of the rivers. The Murle men sharpen their spears and gather each morning on the banks of the Kengen River at a junction they refer to as keet ci iding, the tree of meat. Each morning at sunrise they cross the river and attack the kob en masse. Hundreds of kob are speared during these hunts. These animals are then butchered and much of the meat is cut into strips and dried. The dried meat is then put in a mortar and pounded into powder. This keeps for months and is a crucial food during the dry season. The herd of kob numbers over 1.4 million animals and the annual hunting does not endanger the total population, but rather keeps it in check.
By January the herds of kob move on and the world of the Murle gets hot and dry. Temperatures soar above 120 degrees Fahrenheit and the Murle refer to this season as tagith, the time when the world is hot and ugly. The rivers continue to recede and some stop flowing altogether, only leaving shallow pools in ox-bow bends. Pasture around the homesteads is depleted and the young men split their herds, taking the bulk of the cattle out into the plains, heading for the swamps. As they cross the plains they set fire to the long dry grass and for days the sky is full of smoke and ash. The burning triggers the grass roots under the ground and within days they send up green tendrils, providing nutritious forage for the cattle.
Over the ensuing weeks the herders take the cattle to far away swamps where there is permanent water and green pasture. The Murle living in the east take their cattle to the Jwom swamps. The Murle in the west take their cattle to the Nana’am swamps, which they historically shared with the Nuer. On the edges of these swamps the herders build temporary cattle camps, simple zaribas of thorn branches to protect the cattle from predators at night. They also build small grass shelters for themselves. The cattle thrive on the rich grass and continue to give milk and blood. The herders also search the neighboring trees for hives from which they take the honey. Although the temperatures are hot, the herders say that camping in the swamp is a good life.
Meanwhile the families and the older people remain in their homesteads near the main rivers. A few lactating cows are left to provide milk for these families. They can also eat the last of the grain from their granaries. But the people are waiting primarily for the fishing season. As the rivers recede, men make small dams across the slow current. Then they drive the fish into woven fish traps set into holes in the dam. But eventually the currents stop altogether and only the ox-bows retain any water. Each of these pools is guarded by an eet ci liilu, man of the pool. When he deems the time is right, he announces a fishing day. Hundreds of people show up. After a goat is sacrificed to ensure safety from crocodiles, the men wade into one end of the pool, forming a solid line of bodies across the pool. They then move slowly forward, thrusting their fishing spears into the water and mud. It is too dirty to actually see any fish, but the fish are so prolific that the men get a fish with almost every thrust.
The women follow behind the men, carrying fishing baskets called toi. These baskets are open on the bottom end and women line up shoulder to shoulder and place the open ends of their baskets into the mud. Then they put their hands in through a small opening at the top and grab any fish that are trapped in the baskets. They withdraw the fish, bite them behind the heads to kill them, and then string them around their waists. By the end of the day the pool is completely fished out. The next day another pool is opened and the fishing continues. Many of the fish are roasted and eaten on the spot while the surplus fish are split and dried for future use.
By the time the last pool is fished out in February, finding food has become a serious problem. With the lack of pasture the last milk cows have gone dry and the granaries are now empty of grain. It is time for the big move. The women pack up their belongings in kob skins, load them on their heads, tie their babies on their backs, and head off across the scorching plains toward the cattle camps. Thorn bushes are pulled across the doors of their houses to indicate that the owners have gone off for the balance of the dry season. After several days of hard walking the women and children arrive at the cattle camps where the women build a few rough shelters. Rain is not expected; the shelters exist only to provide some shade from the burning sun. For the following weeks the families relax. The women claim that it is their favorite time of year since there is abundant food and little work. The cattle are still giving milk and there are animals to be hunted in the swamps. People sit round and eat and socialize.
Eventually even the swamps start to go dry and the pastures turn brittle. The kob leave their mating grounds and head south. The cattle stop producing milk. The herders remain, but other Murle family members move south to groves of balanites trees where they pick the bitter fruit. Initially they peel off the shells and suck the moist seeds. The seeds quickly become bitter and are spat out. The used seeds are collected and boiled in water. The water becomes bitter and is replenished several times. After hours of boiling the seeds are dried and then pounded into white flour. The flour is baked into a hard cake that can be eaten. It is still bitter, but provides basic nutritional value.
The families spread out and continue to camp under the trees, simply waiting for the weather to break. In May when they finally see the clouds forming in the east, they pack up their few belongings and head for home. The herders also watch for the change in weather. By now the cattle are thin and looking desperate. With the coming of the rains the young men round up their cattle and start on the way home. Soon the small paths are full of cattle and people heading back to their homesteads on the rivers, beginning the whole yearly cycle over again.
The Murle see themselves primarily as a cattle people. They love their cows and have myriads of terms for the color combinations and horn configurations. The region in which they live has a harsh environment, but they consider it to be the most beautiful place on earth. It is actually ideal for cattle as long as the Murle have the space to move their cattle from water hole to water hole and from pasture to pasture.
But in actuality the Murle practice a mixed economy. Without question they focus on their cattle that provide them with milk, blood and meat. However, they also plant gardens along the rivers and the sorghum, corn and pumpkins provide essential food for several months of each year. So they are also farmers.
In December they become hunters, killing large numbers of white-eared kob. The powdered meat from this hunt provides food for the long dry season. In February they become fisherfolk and these fish are caught at a time of year when other food sources have been used up. Then at the end of the dry season they become gatherers, collecting wild honey from the forests and seeds from the Balanites trees.
The Murle make use of all aspects of their environment to survive in this hostile land. But to do so they need lots of space. They are not a nomadic society that just wanders around looking for food. They are a transhumant society with a definite pattern to their movements. Individuals do not own land but territory is held in common by the entire tribe and all Murle have the right to go anywhere within this territory. Each family has a semi-permanent homestead, built usually within walking distance of a major river. This homestead is the hub of a family’s existence. As the year goes through the seasons, the people leave their homesteads and go out to the various food sources. It is useful to envision this in terms of a wheel – a hub with spokes leading out in all directions.
The Murle people have an in-depth understanding of their territory. They know when and where to move at the appropriate time of year. During the SPLA takeover of the Murle towns, most of the Murle simply vanished into the bush, away from the sources of conflict. After several years some NGO workers went out into the remote regions to evaluate food security. They expected to find people starving and in need of food aid. Instead they were surprised to find that nobody was starving, but that they were in good health. It was obvious that the Murle knew how to live off the land.
During the 1990s many Nuer and Dinka boys walked out of the Sudan because their families and homes had been destroyed. Some of these “lost boys” made it to foreign countries and are now educated, some of whom act as a vocal diaspora for their ethnic groups back in Sudan. The Murle youth were never part of these “lost boys,” because rather than walking out of the country they simply went into hiding in remote parts of their own territory and continued living their traditional lifestyle.
Why do I spend time focusing this paper on ecology and the Murle economy? Economy, the procurement of food, is at the base of every society. It is important to understand how the Murle procure their food because it has serious implications when it comes to understanding the present fighting between the Murle and the Nuer. Ann Laudati has argued that “any investigations into conflict must explore how identity has been mobilized for social and political purposes, as well as strategies to access material (natural resource) gains” (2011:17). The Murle have their own tribal territory and within this territory they have access to adequate food sources. They have a successful economy even though they live in a harsh environment. They are not inherently poor, since they procure enough food to continue from year to year. However, to be successful and to meet their subsistence needs they must continue to have adequate space. They need to have habitable space along the rivers for their semi-permanent homesteads and they need to have a large open space where they can spread out according to the seasons, using this space for herding their cattle and for hunting and gathering.
If the Murle are guaranteed rights to their entire territory, they can continue to survive as a people. With proper peace negotiations they can live and abide peacefully within this territory. There is no economic need for them to go out and raid other ethnic groups. However, if part or all of their territory is lost or becomes unsafe, then they will be in desperate straits and trouble will continue into the future.
Submitted by Jon Arensen, D.Phil., Oxford University

Professor of Anthropology, Houghton College


Arensen, Jonathan. 1992. Mice Are Men: Language and Society among the Murle of the Sudan. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, International Museum of Cultures.

Laudati, Ann. 2011. Victims of Discourse: Mobilizing narratives of fear and insecurity in Post-Conflict South Sudan – the case of Jonglei State. African Geographical Review 30(1): 15-32.


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