Large parts of South Sudan are invitingly fertile. Farmers could grow grain, sugar cane, coffee, tea and tropical fruits for canning. Few do. Most concentrate on raising cows, and not even for slaughter. Some 11m head of cattle wander the south, possibly more numerous than people, but beef sold in markets is usually imported.
Cattle are a cultural touchstone for most South Sudanese. Horned herds are a status symbol, a way of storing wealth in a land without a banking system, and the main currency in which dowries are paid. No matter how poor they are, people try to hold on to their beasts.
One million southerners are so poor that they need food aid—yet they rarely get enough to eat. All electricity comes from private generators, but the supply of fuel is irregular. Water is hard to get. In the capital men line up beside the Nile at sunrise to fill yellow jerry cans. Only 30% of the population has access to health care, most of it supplied by western agencies. Hospitals are extremely rare. Even large towns must make do with meagre dispensaries and most lack doctors. One baby in six dies before his or her first birthday.
Massive chunks of fertile land are given to cattle cultivation, which is a horribly inefficient way of feeding a population, even if you actually do eat the cows. People are starving in a land of plenty.
There are several possible ways to interpret this. One is to assume that this is all a costly mistake, to assume that the people are bound up in a blind status-driven rat race that causes them to sacrifice their lives and their children for no good reason.
The economic interpretation is as follows: These people have lived for decades, perhaps centuries, in a state of near anarchy. They are constantly threatened by raiders, and often driven out of their homes. If they invested the time an effort to improve their lands and plant crops, they could easily lose everything with the next raid. They would be stuck and vulnerable.
However, by focusing on raising a herd of cows, their wealth is mobile. If war gets too close, they can flee to the hills with their animals. Their children may be ill-fed, but at least they have something. Farmers would have nothing at all. It is entirely rational to pursue a strategy of herding.
We see this throughout history. In chaotic places, people chose a nomadic herding lifestyle. When they live in a society that protects property and provides rule of law, they switch to farming. Farming is much more productive in most places, but it requires large and vulnerable investments.
The most nuanced view is this: Cultural practices evolve as a rational response to the conditions that people face. However, culture changes slowly, and old ways are often not appropriate for a new environment. If South Sudan becomes a peaceful place, the cultural insistence on herding rather than farming will become a liability, a horrible waste of opportunities. People who rethink old assumptions and embrace new ways will be rewarded.
But if the place falls into chaos again, the herders will be better off, and the old norms will prove their worth.