SUDDENLY there it is: a Dinka cattle camp. From behind curtains of white smoke from dozens of small fires, cattle emerge, ambling in from the bush, heading unescorted toward their tethering pegs, where they wait patiently for women to slip a rope over their long, curved horns, and tie them down for the night.
It is an ancient scene, among the survivors of an ancient, semi-nomadic people. After all the devastation of six years of civil war in southern Sudan - the deaths, the fleeing, the unchecked cattle diseases that in some areas have nearly wiped out entire herds - the Dinka way of life persists: a life of dignity, purpose, and, before the war, a life of peace.
Dinka who still have cattle are doing what they've always done: caring for their beloved animals, sleeping next to them at night, grazing them by day.
Cattle shape the daily routine of the Dinka, their culture, and even their language. Many Dinka names are words for different colors of cattle. Their animals provide milk, wealth, payment for brides, and a sense of pride to the owners, who decorate the horns of favorite oxen with tassels.
One of the largest and most isolated ethnic groups in Africa, the Dinka comprise some 20 tribes, sharing a common language, and living in 150,000 square miles of flat savannah in southern Sudan along the White Nile and some of its tributaries.
Here in one of their camps, alongside the road north to Bor - a road lined with occasional twisted, burned ruins of trucks and even a tank that once belonged to the Arab-controlled central government - there is still a sense of calm.
Dinka and visitors warmly greet each other. I reach out, questioningly, and touch a face covered with white ash, a ghostly cosmetic on the man's black skin. A teenage boy leads me to one of the dozens of small campfires, and shows me how to pick up the cooled ash on the edge of the fire and rub it on my face. Dinka apply the ash as a protection against the flies that swarm around the cows. Smoke from the fires keeps mosquitoes at bay.
Women in the camp are clad in one-piece, loose-fitting cloths that usually tie over one shoulder. Most of the men and boys are naked. Before the war, they started wearing shorts. But now, with the economy destroyed, few Dinka have money for clothes.
The people still wear their brass anklets, ivory necklaces, bracelets, and earrings (both men and women). One Dinka stands proudly adorned in a handsome, beaded, corset-like waistband of red, white, and blues.
Dinka men are the main source of recruits for the Dinka-led rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), which is fighting for a greater political voice for southerners in a united Sudan. But, as in most wars today, civilians, not fighters, are by far the main victims.
In 1988, more than 250,000 people died in southern Sudan, primarily because of starvation resulting from the war's disruption of farming, according to the United Nations. Many were Dinka. More than a million southerners have fled to other parts of Sudan or Ethiopia, seeking safety and food.
Majok Gani, a Dinka herdsman, is sitting on the ground, carving a wooden cattle prod. At first he is suspicious of the visitors, then he decides to make a plea for help. ``Because of this war, our boys are not studying. There is a school here [in a nearby village], but no teacher, no chalk, no exercise books.''
Wani Lado, another Dinka, says: ``We have no clothes, no shoes, no salt, no sugar. You can help. Collect these talkings [words] to inform your people.''
But, slowly, life is improving a little for the Dinka and others in rebel-secured areas of the south.
Cattle and child vaccination teams are reaching some areas. Schools, though with few supplies, are opening in many villages, often under trees or in grass huts. And because of UN and other relief food, and improved local crops, malnutrition in rebel areas is now minimal, according to UN officials, though government-held towns in the south, including Juba, remain critically dependent on deliveries of food aid.
Even as the two Dinka herdsmen make their appeals for additional help, children in the camp laugh excitedly at the visitors. Several boys strike dance poses, curving their arms to portray the horns of the cattle that continue to be the center of Dinka life in Sudan.
An article about schools in southern Sudan appeared on these pages Jan. 26. Many readers have called or written to ask how they can support the Sudanese educational effort. One organization that sends aid directly to this area is: Street Kids International, Peter Dalglish, Executive Director, 221 Front St. East, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M5A1E8, Telephone: (416) 861-1816