Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

The Cow and the Thing Called "What": Dinka Cultural Perspectives on Wealth and Poverty

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

The Cow and the Thing Called "What": Dinka Cultural Perspectives on Wealth and Poverty

Article excerpt

God asked man, "Which one shall I give you, Black Man; there is the Cow and the thing called `What,' which of the two would you like?" The man said, "I do not want `What.'" God said, "But `What' is better than the Cow!" The man said, "No." Then God said, "If you like the Cow, you had better taste its milk before you choose it finally." The man squeezed some milk into his hand, tasted it, and said, "Let us have the milk and never see `What.'"(*)

While certain basic indicators of affluence or poverty are globally accepted, whether individuals or groups perceive themselves as rich or poor may not always be a matter of objective determination. Subjective factors attributable to culture may play a vital role in the way people view themselves in terms of wealth and poverty. Building largely on oral literature from the Dinka in southern Sudan, this paper aims to explore the gap between objective poverty and the subjective perception of wealth.

From a policy standpoint, there are both positive and negative implications in the way people are classified or perceive themselves. To be labeled poor is to establish a case for corrective measures toward poverty alleviation, which is positive, but it could also breed apathy, self-pity and dependency. A positive self-perception might breed complacency; which would be negative, but it could also enhance the sense of worth as a resource for self-reliance.


Although it is widely acknowledged that measuring poverty is complex, a commonly used measure is income or consumption among individuals or households. It is also considered relevant to take into account such social indicators as life expectancy, infant mortality and school enrollment.(1) There is a comparative dimension to the determination of poverty by both horizontal and vertical parameters. Horizontal parameters relate to comparisons at the same level of development, while vertical parameters relate to stratified levels of development. Countries or regions may be assessed in relation to others at the same level of development and on a scale of development progression. For example, while the poverty line of U.S.$1 a day is used to make international comparisons of consumption-based poverty, poverty lines are frequently closer to about U.S.$2 dollars a day for middle-income countries.

Global perspectives on poverty imply both integration into the comparative framework and marginalization or exclusion within that framework, which then closely corresponds to a state of poverty as relative deprivation. People are said to be relatively deprived

   if they cannot obtain, at all or sufficiently, the conditions of life--that
   is, the diets, standards and services--which allow them to play the roles,
   participate in the relationships and follow the customary behavior which is
   expected of them by virtue of their membership of society. If they lack or
   are denied resources to obtain access to these conditions of life and so
   fulfill membership of society they may be said to be in poverty.(2)

In the global comparative framework, and by virtually all indicators, the people in sub-Saharan Africa are among the poorest in the world, and the southern Sudanese among the poorest of the poor. Unlike most of Africa, however, the South is less integrated into the global community, being among the least touched by the forces and benefits of modernity. Their marginalization in the modern world is both the result of their cultural outlook and the legacy of British colonial administration. Government policy in southern Sudan was "to build up a series of self-contained racial or tribal units with structure and organization based upon the indigenous customs, traditional usage and beliefs."(3) Part of the motivation for the policy was fear of southern nationalism as the people were introduced to rapid education and modernity.(4) The Nilotics, especially the Dinka and the Nuer, fiercely resisted British rule for two decades. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.