AKOT, Sudan — What could a few good ol’ boys from the Deep South have in common with a bunch of hardened, gun-toting, spear-throwing Dinka men in the Sudan?
Taking laminated photos from their backpacks, four volunteers from Oakland Baptist Church in Corinth, Miss. — Danny Turner, Kenneth Brawner, Jay Mitchell and Billy Taylor — show some prized cows to the Dinka herders.
The young herders surround the Mississippians to view the pictures.
The volunteers, covered in smoke and ash from burning dung to keep mosquitoes and other bugs away, have flown halfway around the world to share Christ with these cattle keepers and teach them about HIV/AIDS prevention.
Their interest in cows is a natural point of connection, with the Mississippians using the few Dinka words they know to begin the conversation.
“These people love their cows and they respect others who feel the same,” says Turner, who once owned more than 100 head of cattle but now works in insurance.
Cows are at the center of life for the Dinka, an animistic, spirit-worshipping people group of nearly 3 million. In addition to providing milk, cows are a sign of affluence — the number of cattle owned determines wealth and standing in Dinka society. The herders carry spears and guns to protect their livestock from thieves and predators.
The four Mississippi volunteers are working in one of hundreds of cattle camps in southern Sudan. Dinka herders travel from camp to camp as they move their livestock from water source to water source, which changes depending on the rains.
“Cattle camps are the heart of the Dinka people,” says Jermaine Edwards, an International Mission Board journeymen involved in the project to connect Dinka herders and U.S. volunteers.
The herders’ traditional lifestyle is to move with their livestock, with the camps having a party-like atmosphere that includes celebratory dances, spontaneous jumping competitions and uninhibited sexual activity.
Though many Dinka have settled in towns throughout southern Sudan, “those who no longer live at the camps wish they could again,” says Edwards, from Cleveland, Ohio.
Because of their promiscuity, the herders are at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS, then spreading the disease.
Jennifer Miller, another IMB journeyman, explained, “We wanted to find a way to bring AIDS awareness to them that would hit home, that would connect with their lives and culture and would address their animistic view of the world.”
Most of the herders do not read, so oral stories are used to teach morals and communicate truth.
Miller, 25, and fellow journeyman Whitney Prewitt, 24, both graduates of Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo., developed a series of stories the volunteers use to teach in the cattle camps.
Some of the stories come from the Bible while others are based on Dinka folklore and lifestyle.
“The stories range from helping show them how to make wise decisions based on a Dinka folktale to … God’s control over all the earth,” Prewitt says.
“We also share basic AIDS stories,” she continues. “One is about a man who had five sons; four got AIDS. This story shows the ways to contract AIDS and also how to avoid the disease.”
The journeymen are spending two years on the mission field to focus on the outreach to Dinka herders, funded by Southern Baptists’ gifts to the Cooperative Program and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.
Prewitt and Miller, as single females, know they have no authority in Dinka society, in which only men are respected, so the male volunteers take the initiative in connecting with the cattle herders.
As the Americans walk through the dusty cattle camp, stopping to take pictures of proud Dinka with their prized cows, they invite the herders to their campsite to listen to the stories.
After all the cows are tethered to stakes so they won’t wander away during the night, some of herders gather at the volunteers’ campsite. And as the volunteers talk, the cattle herders listen intently.
“No kawajas (foreigners) have ever come and stayed in our cattle camp,” a young Dinka says. “We are uneducated people, and we have never heard anything of this disease before.
“Thank you for bringing this message to us.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Aaron is a writer with the International Mission Board. To learn of ways for using your talents and interests to share Christ on the mission field, visit going.imb.org.)