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CHAPTER 10

 

 

THE BEJA OF THE SUDAN

 

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

The Beja are nomadic tribes that live mainly in the Red Sea Hills of the Sudan. This mountainous, semi-desert region lies parallel to the Red Sea coast from southeastern Egypt through northeastern Sudan into Eritrea. The Beja roam these mountains between the Red Sea and the Nile and Atbara rivers and also the plains that slope down westwards to the Nile river valley. They are a non-Arab, Hamitic people, numbering 1.8 million, who call themselves Bedawiyet and speak a Cushitic language called To-Bedawiye. Most Beja speak some Arabic as a second language, and in the south some of them speak Tigre.

The Beja have lived in this area for some 6000 years. They have a remarkable resemblance to some people seen in ancient Egyptian monuments. The Romans and Byzantines called them Blemmyes, and the Axumites called them Bega or Bougaeiton. They were converted to Christianity in the 6th century through the influence of the Nubians of the Nile Valley. In the 13th century, under growing pressure from Mameluk Egypt, they became Muslim at the same time adopting genealogies linking them to Arab ancestors.

The Beja tend to lead their traditional lifestyle isolated from their neighbours and to have little contact with the outside world. Their dislike of strangers developed as a defensive reaction to the foreigners who always endangered their survival. As a result they got a name for being a sullen and hostile people. Until this century they successfully resisted all temptations to change their nomadic ways. They have thus managed to preserve their original language and culture and are still ethnically distinct from the other population groups of northeastern Sudan.

The Beja were well known as fierce and cruel warriors throughout their long history. Kipling made them famous in the west by describing them as the "Fuzzie-Wuzzies" in his poem on the Mahdi wars in the Sudan. Beja men arrange their curly hair in a distinctly bushy Afro style, wear long white cotton cloaks and carry a crusader-type sword and a round shield.

It is thought that the Beja of Christ's time were the first African people to breed camels, which helped them control the desert trade routes from the Red Sea ports to the upper Nile Valley.

The Beja migrate with their flocks in small clans (diwabs) over large wilderness areas between their summer and winter grazing lands. They live mainly on the milk products and meat of their herds of camels, sheep and goats and on sorghum. The more southern tribes also breed cattle. Most are still nomads, although some have become farmers in the Gash and Baraka river deltas, whilst others have settled in towns such as Port Sudan and Kassala in search of employment.

They build earth dams across the dry riverbeds (khors) to store the flood waters which they use to irrigate the sorghum (Arabic: durra, Beja: harob) they sow lower down.

The drought of 1984-86 was a major catastrophe and it is reported that 95% of their herds died as a result.

 

 

BEJA TRIBES

 

There are five main Beja tribal groups - the Hadendowa, the Bisharin, the Amar'ar, the Bani-Amir and the 'Ababda. Each group is subdivided into tribes and clans within the tribe.

The Hadendowa developed into a tribal group around 1600 and are the largest and most important Beja group today. They live between the Atbara River and the Red Sea, reaching as far south as the Eritrean border. Traditionally they were camel breeders and caravan guides. Some of them are now settled farmers growing cotton and other crops in the Gash and Baraka River deltas near Kassala.

The Bisharin emerged as a distinct tribal group sometime between 1000 and 1400 AD claiming an Arab ancestor called Bishar ibn-Marwan ibn-Ishaq ibn-Rabi'a. They have the largest territory of all Beja groups, stretching north of the Atbara-Port-Sudan railway line into Egypt. Most are still camel breeders, but some have settled as farmers near the Atbara River.

The Ammar'ar developed into a tribal group around 1750. They live on the eastern slopes of the Red Sea Hills and in the coastal plain north of Port-Sudan (Gunob), and are still mainly nomads though many work as dock hands in the Port-Sudan harbour.

The Beni-'Amir (also called Khasa) are mainly Tigre speaking Beja with some To-Bedawiye speaking sections living amongst them. They live on both sides of the Sudan-Eritrea border and have been Muslim for only about two centuries. Traditionally camel owners, some herd cattle and others are farmers. They are the only Beja to have a caste system, being divided into nobles called Nabtabs who claim Arab descent, and serfs or clients called Tigre.

The 'Ababda, the most northerly group, live in Upper Egypt and north-east Sudan, between the Nile and the Red Sea and are Arabic speakers.

 

 

THE BEJA LAND

 

The Beja live in a harsh and arid semi-desert, their survival dependent on the unpredictable annual rainfall. The rains fall in November-December on the coast, and inland in June-July. Floods occur sporadically every 3-8 years, seasons with good rainfall are relatively scarce and drought cycles frequent. The only fertile areas are in the Baraka and the Gash River deltas, which for centuries served as a drought refuge zone for the Beja. In this century they have been developed for intensive irrigated farming and many Beja have settled there as farmers.

The mountains consist mainly of bare rock, whilst the inland areas and the coastal strip are covered with sand. Sparse tree and grass cover can be found in the wadi beds (khors) and on the mountain tops.

In the dry northern areas the Beja can herd camels and goats, whilst higher rainfall further south enables additional sheep and cattle herding.

The nomad Beja clans live widely scattered in the valleys. Their camps are kept at a fair distance from each other and consist of a few low tents made of palm-leaf mats. Settled Beja in the villages and towns live in houses built of sun-dried mud or concrete blocks. Beja shanty towns are found on the outskirts of Port-Sudan, Atbara and Kassala, where the inhabitants combine their urban employment with some traditional animal breeding.

 

 

HISTORY

 

The Beja have managed to survive in the same areas for six thousand years whilst great Kingdoms have come and gone all around them. Their area was never completely controlled by any central government and often served as a buffer between rival kingdoms. Its main importance was due to the trade routes going through it, which served as a link between Egypt with its Mediterranean ports and Arabia, S.E. Africa, India and the Far East.

The introduction of the camel around the time of Christ changed Beja lifestyle enabling them to be year round nomads thanks to the camel's extended period of milk-giving. Camels can walk for up to ten days without drinking, so they could traverse the waterless trade routes through Beja territory, creating employment for the Beja as guides, drivers, protectors and suppliers to the caravans. Beja have served in these roles for centuries and are still famous as breeders of high quality camels.

As a result, camels became the Beja's main wealth, providing their staple food and serving as their most important mode of transportation. They also helped the Beja mount fast raids into Roman and Nubian regions and then disappear quickly into the trackless wilderness.

The Red Sea route was one of three main trade routes between Europe and the East. (The other two were the Silk Route through Central Asia, and the Spice Route via Mesopotamia to the Persian Gulf and from there on to India and S.E. Asia). Changing political and military situations created fluctuations in the dependence of international trade on the Red Sea Route. For instance, when the Parthians blocked the Spice Route in the first centuries AD, Roman trade with the orient via the Red Sea increased and the harbours of the Beja land became busy stations for transporting goods from South-Arabia, India and Africa to Egypt and the Mediterranean.

The Beja converted to Christianity in the 6th century under the influence of the three Nubian Christian Kingdoms that flourished along the Nile for 600 years: Nobatia, Makuria, and Alodia.

Beja were continually raiding the Nubian Kingdoms as well as Egypt, reaching as far away as Sinai. With the fall of Egypt to the Muslim Arabs in 638, treaties were signed between the new rulers of Egypt and the Beja in an effort to limit their raids into Egypt. The Beja had to pay tribute in camels, and in return were given trading concessions in Egypt.

Under the Fatimids in the 10th and 11th centuries there was increased trade between Egypt and the prosperous Christian Nubian kingdoms. As a result of the blocking of Sinai during the crusades, all Muslim pilgrims from North Africa had to pass through Beja territory on their way to Mecca. The Beja profited by selling them dairy products, honey and water and collecting tolls on the desert caravans and on the difficult sea crossing to Jeddah.

In the 13th century the Beja accepted Islam as the Beduin tribes spread into Sudan and swamped the Nubian kingdoms. At the same time the port of Suakin developed under the Mamelukes, the aggressive new Egyptian rulers. The wars between Ottomans and Safavids blocked the silk route in the 15-16th centuries, further increasing Suakin's importance.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the Beja came under nominal allegiance to the Funj Sultanate with its capital at Sennar, but in practice they were autonomous and undisturbed, expanding gradually westward and southward in search of better pastures.

Mehmet Ali the Pasha of Egypt extended Egyptian rule to the Sudan in 1820 forcing the Beja to submit and pay tribute after defeating them several times. In 1831-2 the Hadendowa wiped out an Egyptian contingent but eventually submitted against overwhelming odds. In 1844 they rose up again but were brutally crushed. The Egyptians built Kassala as a fort to pacify the Beja and it soon developed into a large market town.

Turko-Egyptian rule brought a brief period of peace and increased trade, and the Beja profited from their tolls on the caravans and ports. With the British penetration into the Sudan came the Mahdist revolt (1881), which after initial success was finally crushed by General Kitchener. The Beja were slow to join the Mahdi forces, but Osman Digna succeeded in finally uniting most of their fragmented Beja tribes, and they became an important part of the Mahdi forces - the "Fuzzy- Wuzzies" of Kipling's poem. The Mahdi wars and the serious droughts of the 1880s and 1890s seriously decimated the Beja population. It is estimated that 420,000 out of some 500,000 Bejas died of war, famine and disease. By the turn of the century only 80,000 had survived. This terrible decline characterised most population groups in the Sudan of that time.

The Anglo-Egyptian rule 1899-1955 gradually improved the situation. Trade over the Beja routes was revived and the Gash and Baraka irrigation schemes were further developed. The British colonial administration appointed local "Nazirs" - high chiefs, "Omdas" - tribal chiefs, and "Sheikhs" - religious leaders, to rule the tribes, gather and deliver tribute and keep the peace on the trade routes.

In 1922 a new port was built at Port Sudan to supersede the old port of Suakin which could not berth the large modern ships. A rail line was constructed through Beja territory connecting Port Sudan to Atbara and Kassala. These projects provided the Beja with employment that further benefited their economy, many Beja becoming dock workers in the new port

The end of the 1940s brought another drought cycle that caused the loss of large parts of the Beja herds. Many were forced to take up jobs in Port Sudan in order to survive.

Port Sudan became a Beja stronghold surrounded by large shanty towns inhabited by Beja labourers. Urban concentration encouraged the development of pan-Beja feelings as various communities competed for the scarce resources of the Sudan. Riots were triggered in 1986 when someone cut off the hands and head of an Osman Digna statue who was seen as a symbol of Beja nationalism. Loud speaker cars drove through the Beja quarters playing traditional war songs and drum rhythms. Thousands of traditionally dressed Beja marched armed with knives, swords and knobkerries to defend their honour and symbols against what they felt were strangers amongst them who were not behaving as guests ought to.

 

 

SOCIETY AND CULTURE

 

Beja society is conservative and family oriented. Loyalty is directed towards the extended family and clan (diwab) rather than the larger tribal units. Outside contacts are avoided as far as possible. Other diwabs are mistrusted, as are all people from other Sudanese groups or foreigners. Bejas feel comfortable only with their close relatives, "our trusted people", and well known friends and guests. All others are suspiciously regarded as potential enemies.

Beja society is male dominated. Leaders are chosen by consensus - any honourable male may be considered for leadership if he displays the necessary virtues of a good reputation, wisdom, hospitality, a sense of humour and skill in oratory.

Face keeping, honour and modesty are key elements in their code of conduct. A real Beja man likes to be seen as a "responsible man" who keeps his own and his diwab's honour by being self-controlled and brave, able to protect the women and children as well as guests from physical harm and provide for their needs.

Every man is also responsible for the communal honour of his diwab. Hospitality is an important virtue and part of a man's honour. He must provide the guest with all he needs, and keeps checking that he is comfortable and has enough to eat.

Women are under the protection of the males of their clan, especially their brothers, with whom they have a closer relationship than with their own husbands. The women do the housework and take care of the children and camp. They grind the grain and prepare the soured butter, o'la and cook the popular Durra porridge. The men herd the camels and other stock, provide the food - doing the shopping when necessary - and protect their dependents.

Marriages are usually arranged by the father, cousins being the preferred partners, so that everyone remains in the extended family and the women especially are not sent to an unknown group. Livestock is given as a dowry to the bride's family. Divorce is quite common and women do not have a share in the inheritance. Boys are circumcised and girls are subjected to clitoridectomy.

The Beja man sees his close family as a safe haven in which he can relax from the dangers of the outside world. The men always go out armed with their daggers, swords or staff, ready for any possible trouble.

Women, children and old men stay in the semi-permanent camp, whilst the young strong men move great distances grazing the camels. Men are expected to stay away from the camp during the day so the women can spend time with each other.

Beja women love taking smoke baths. The smoke is produced by mixing charcoal with incense. It has a pleasant smell and makes the skin lighter.

The Beja tent or hut is built of curved ribs stretched between two main poles and covered with palm leaf mats. It's ceiling is covered with cloth and its walls with goat hair blankets. Its erection and maintenance is the sole responsibility of the woman.

Weddings are important festive occasions and are usually held in the harvest season.

The Beja have their own customary laws of dealing with crime that are different to those of Shari'a law. They prefer compromise and compensation to revenge. They are very strongly attached to their ancestral lands and will fight those they feel are endangering their rights to their territory.

Feuds can be triggered off by the cutting of branches for charcoal, digging a well in the hosts land, theft of camels, physical harm done to a member or sexual assault. When someone is murdered, leading Sheikhs will quickly intervene to mediate and work out an agreement on the payment of blood money, thus avoiding bloodshed. If agreement cannot be reached, revenge must be taken and a blood feud develops. One reason diwabs tend to keep to themselves is to minimise the risk of feuds. They keep their women and children isolated so as not to provoke possible quarrels that can lead to revenge killings.

Beja are not as fanatically religious as other Sudanese groups and relatively few are involved in the Sufi orders so popular in Sudan. Most settled Beja belong to the Mirghaniya Sufi order, a few belong to the Majdubiya. They keep the Sufi ceremony of Dhikr in scattered Khalwas (or Zawiyas) - small buildings used by the Sufi brotherhoods for their rituals - located mainly in the towns and larger villages.

 

 

SOME TABOOS

 

The mother-in-law must avoid her son-in-law, who is not permitted to sit in the presence of his father-in-law. The mother is not supposed to enter her married daughter's hut, so the wife spends the day in her mother's hut and the night in her husband's.

Milking is taboo for women, it is a job permitted only to men who then give each woman her fair share.

It is a shame for a man to cook or to build a house - these are female tasks.

Man's hair is an important symbol of masculinity. The bushier the famous Afro hairstyle is, the more masculine its bearer. Women wear their hair long, daub it with fat, and braid it in a large number of thin braids ending with a knot.

 

 

BEJA ECONOMY

 

Beja economy is based on a mixed balance of herding, farming, and wage labour in the cities. Resources are very scarce and the balance can easily be destroyed by events without their control, setting up a vicious circle of deprivation and suffering.

The nomads migrate with their herds between the river beds (khors) in the rainy season and the permanent wells in the dry season. In the dry season they split up into smaller groups in order to better utilise the very scarce pasture on the mountain tops.

For 2000 years camels have been the backbone of Beja economy and culture. Camel milk is their basic subsistence food as the camel provides milk for many months after calving. Camels also provide meat, skins and fat. Beja are excellent camel breeders, selling camels to Egypt and Arabia. They are very skilled in camel riding. Camels are also used to carry grain, tents and household equipment when on the move.

Beja camels compete with those of Oman as the best breeds of the Arab world. The three main breeds are: Shallagea, the sturdiest and best milk producers. Aririit, having great endurance and able to cover long distances at a steady pace without water, and Matiaat, the fastest camels used for raiding and racing.

The recent droughts have severely affected camel herds and increased the reliance of the Beja on the faster growing goat and sheep herds. Many Beja have also been forced to migrate to the towns in search of employment.

Sheep and goats are kept for their milk and meat. In times of drought they die off faster than the camels but recover faster too. Some flocks are kept near the camp for everyday use but most are taken far away for grazing, drinking only every second day. Surplus sheep and goats are sold in the town markets and sometimes exported (or smuggled) into Saudi Arabia.

Milk and its products are the staple Beja diet supplemented by cereals, especially durra (harob) or millet from which they cook a thick porridge called O'tam. Eating it with milk or clarified butter is a characteristic of Beja culture.

Sorghum is also used as a supplementary fodder for Beja animals. In good years it is stored in holes dug in the earth in special areas where it can keep for several years.

 

 

THE BEJA TODAY

 

The droughts and famines of recent decades have caused much deprivation amongst the Beja. A large percentage of their herds died and grain production suffered. As their rural resources continue to shrink, more of them are forced to migrate to the towns to work as labourers, although traditionally they have regarded the towns as centres of physical and moral pollution.

The Beja still form a group of tribes and clans who speak the same language and share a common culture. The deteriorating economic and political situation in the Sudan, where various communities are competing for ever diminishing resources, has encouraged the development of an ethnic identity. Their growing urban population begins to regard itself as a potential political unit.

They are now in a transition state that creates its own problems and tensions, at the same time facing a refugee influx into their lands, and suffering the effects of the civil war and other catastrophes hitting Sudan. It is difficult to predict their long term reaction, but we can surely see God's hand in this shaking process, opening them up to a renewed offer of the Good News that their forefathers had once responded to. Who will take it to them?