Also known as Nubian.
Population & Ecosystem
1 million Nuba, divided into more the fifty different tribes live in the Nuba Mountains (North and South Kordofan). The Nuba Mountains are rocky, with cultivable hill slopes and valleys. Though they dominate the landscape, the area covered by the hills themselves is less than a third of the total area of the Nuba Mountains; the remainder of the land is extensive clay plains, some forested, some farmed. It is some of the most fertile land in Sudan-a fact that is both a blessing and a curse to the Nuba. While drought-induced famine is almost unknown in the Nuba Mountains, the fertile soils have also attracted the attention of outsiders.
Economy & Society
The Nuba are mountain agriculturists, with hill terraces and larger cultivations on the plains. Their main crops are millet, sesame, corn (maize), groundnuts (peanuts), beans, onions, cotton, and tobacco. They also keep cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys, fowl, and (except in Islamized areas) pigs.
Nuba communities are now under government-appointed chiefs. Marriage payments are made in livestock, weapons, and other objects and by agricultural service. Kinship descent among the Nuba is, broadly speaking, matrilineal in the south and patrilineal elsewhere. Varying degrees of Islamization may be observed among the Nuba, and Arabic is used as the lingua franca.
Culture & Religion
Facial and body scarification is still practiced by some Nuba tribes in remote hill areas. Body paint is something rare nowadays but when the region is more peaceful it will probably see a comeback of the body decoration through bright colours. In some areas the lower incisors are removed in both sexes. Male circumcision is now more widely practiced and big ceremonies with music and dancing are organised for the occasion.
There is a wider similarity among almost all the tribes in the Nuba Mountains as far as customs and traditions are concerned, to the extent that makes one believe that there is is fact a "unity of culture" among all the Nuba tribes. What is known locally as "Sibir" is one of the most important traditions which is practiced extensively and almost covers the whole area of the Nuba Mountains. Sibir is a range of ceremonies take place in a festive nature, which does occur annually to indicate the beginning of different seasons of human activities in the Nuba Mountains. For example: Sibir of Fire, of Cultivation, Wrestling, Hunting, Sowayba (a store in which the Nuba keep their crops) and Kambala dance.
In our attempts to shed some light on the life-style of the Nuba people, I will give in detail examples of some customs and traditions practiced in the Nuba Mountains.
There are more than twenty difference Sibirs and ceremonies in the Nuba Mountain, and they differ according to tribes.
Sibir is a festival that takes place twice or more every year and it differs from an area to another in the Nuba Mountains. The festival is attended by the youngsters as well as the elders and animals are slaughtered. Kujur (the rainmaker) would ask all the people especially the rich to bring a large number of cattle and goats and he would perform some magical ceremonies on these animals and mark them with some white ashes as an indication that these animals have become for the "strangers". The animals would then be stabbed with spears and the cows’ hamstring cut from behind to bring the animal into submission, then the animal would be slaughtered. Then, people would rush to take the blood of the slaughtered animals after the Kujur takes his sufficient amount and pour it in a gourd and spray it out over the guests and relatives for blessing. After that all the food and slaughtered animals that brought from every village for Sibir, would be taken to the Kujur’s house where all the people would eat and drink. Then dancing would start and continue daily for the whole week. During this time the Kujur would baptize a suitable candidate to practice formally as a new Kujur.
The Fire Sibir is considered to be one of the greatest Sibir to the Nuba. It takes place after the cultivation season, precisely in November of every year. In that day cattle-herders would hold their cattle from going to graze, and would not allow the animals to graze only after the Sibir had performed and that the Kujur had sprayed some water of blessing on the animals. The Kujur, in that day, would call upon all the people, men and women, together for a festival, which he has prepared for them. The house of the Kujur normally located at the top of a hill above all the houses of the ordinary people of the village. When the people arrive at the house of the Kujur they would find that he had prepared all the food and a kind of beer known locally as Mariesa. The Kujur also would provide a large number of animals to be slaughtered for his guests who are visiting him in his house. The Kujur’s house would contain some smooth stones decorated sticks and spears and a range of necklaces, heads of wild animals and birds and some snakes. The Kujur’s house is never empty of the locally made items from clay and gourds. Then the Kujur would perform some ceremonies and mutter some meaningless phrases, and then light a huge fire on the grass, as a leader to this process after that the participants on the top of the hill would cut green grasses and lay it on the fire and then would beat who they want to beat from relatives and people they know believing that this act will drive away the evil from these people. If a young man at that time was able to beat a girl of his dream with such grass, that means he would be the suitable candidate to marry her, the same thing applies to the young ladies as well.
After the blessing was performed, the locals would disperse after this visit to the Kujur’s house in which even the leaders of the village would not escape the beating from the local as far as the decision is coming from the Kujur in that particular day. The locals would run after their leaders and beat them while the fire is lit and the hills echoed to the sound of the loud screaming and the laughter of the locals. Then the Kujur would ask the locals to bring string beans and peanuts to be grilled under a big Ardieb tree which usually located at the side of a road, and this would be considered as a banquet to be eaten by the passers-by and not to be taken home by anybody. Then the Kujur, leading the precession, would declare that the fire would be lit on the dry grass around the village. Then he would set a day for the Sibir’s big festive day, where the people would prepare food and drinks in their houses in that particular day. That festive day is considered to be Eid, in which reconciliation would take place between the antagonists in the village. The whole month would be considered for forgiveness and blessing for good health. After that the local would play and dance on the musical tones of the local instruments like Bukhsa and Rababa and so on for three days.
The Nuba people for many years have been known in the West for their distinctive culture, and they are culturally vivid and physically diverse ethnic group inhabiting central Sudan. Among the many cultural activities which the Nuba have, is 'Kambala Dance'.
The Kambala is a spiritual dance originating in Sabori village near Kadugli, which perhaps was founded in the early 18th century during the reign of Mek Andu of Kadugli. This traditional and ceremonial dance has been passed on from one generation to another up to today. Now Kambala is a popular dance and it is one of the main national dances which are performed on special occasions and it had been performed outside the Sudan as well.
The word Kambala has no definite meaning but it is associated with boys' maturity and adolescence, an important age for the Nuba boy. At this age the boy is considered to be mature enough to be second in command in the house after the father. Therefore Kambala is principally a ceremony to mark the induction of age-set boys into manhood. It's performance is usually initiated by the Kujur, a powerful man in the Nuba society: he is like a chief and sometimes known as a rain-maker. The Kambala dance itself has much to do with bringing up Nuba men to be brave, courageous and audacious like a bull. This is demonstrated by dancing and making beating rhythmic sounds like a bull.
A Kambala dancer traditionally wears Buffalo horns which are tied to his head with a long white turban and on the top of each horn is attached a colourful piece of cloth, and sometimes he wears a nickel or beads on his neck put by either his sister or his mother. The dancer also wears around his waist a thin rope or leather belt encircled by long thin strips up to his knees, which are usually made from branches of palm trees. Around his arms and legs, he ties bundles of small balls made also from the branches of palm trees and containing small beads (stones) to make rhythmic sounds. In his hand he holds a horsetail attached to small piece of wood which he swings across his face while dancing.
The performance of the dance follows a special ceremony which is carried by the Kujur who announce the start of Kambala dance and generally takes places during the mid-raining season and usually in August and it continues for 28 days until the end of harvest.
At the early days a ceremonial whip was kept in Sabori with the Kujur, who decides when the time has come for it to be taken to the house of the Mek, or king, together with a sacrificial goat or lamb. However, this tradition was changed a little bit at the time of Mek Rahhal who he decided to keep the whip with him. The distribution of the whips and permission for the performance of the dance were then carried out by the mek of Kadugli and usually the whips are sent to three main places around Kadugli: the first one to Murta and Miri Juwa (inside Miri), the second from Sabori to Kadugli to Miri Barra (outer Miri) and the third one to all areas south of Kadugli whose people speak Kadugli language.
When the day for Kambala to start is announced all the young men who have reached 12-14 years of age are publicly summoned to attend. The women file into the arena and start to sing in a circle, while the referees or whip-holders take up their positions and they usually stand far from the dancing circle. Each boy is led dancing into the arena and then suddenly he comes out from the dancing circle, dancing towards the whip-holder and presents his naked back to the whip-holder and submits to lashing without flinching. He will never turn away from the whip-holder until a woman comes and stands between him and whip-holder and then he will continue dancing back to the arena where the women will sign for him and for his bravery. The women singers will mock the cowardly ones who show sign of pain, and they sing and praise those who stand silent and show no movement at all while they are lashed. These young men demonstrate their skills at dancing and their ability to withstand pain which is the main exercise of this ceremonial dance.
All the young men will continue to dance and queue up to receive their lashes which continue until sunset while the dance and the ceremony continues until around midnight that day. The boys are led to special rooms where they are kept for 28 days of singing and dancing. After that moment the whip is passed on around the villages after the mek has given his blessing. Traditionally, at the end of the 28 days there will be no Kambala dance. However, it is performed sometimes for special occasion.
One of the famous Nuba traditions, well-known from the pictures of George Rodger and Leni Riefenstahl, is stick-fighting. This is rarely practised today. One of the Nuba tribes most well-known for stick fighting is the Moro.
The Moro area, which is located half-way between Kadugli and Talodi, is occupied by the Moro tribe one of the largest tribes in the Nuba Mountains. The Moro people maintain and practice very ancient traditions as long as they live. There is no way that these traditions, as part of their ancestral heritage, be abandoned.
The stick-fighting is a contest conducted by, as the name indicates, a stick and a shield between two contestants, This sport is always carried out at the end of autumn and the beginning of harvest, and it is completely forbidden during the cultivation season, in case it puts the youths off their work. Stick fighting is part of the ceremonies that follow the harvest, in which thanks is given to God for providing a good harvest. It is embedded in the spiritual traditions of the people.
The fight always begins by an invitation from one tribe to another. The invited tribe may detain the dispatched envoy just for provocation and excitement. The hosts have to make their way to fetch their messengers; and, thereafter, they engage in fighting. Another way of starting the competition is by symbolic provocation. For example, a man, aged 17 - 20 years old, may hold the hands of his rival’s fiancée for a couple of minutes, or cut her bracelets made from beads. When a would-be her husband hears about this, he instantly declares the fight by tying a handkerchief or piece of cloth on his competitor’s house at night, so that the contending should begin in the next morning.
The fight can be between two individual fighters from different villages, or between two villages themselves, fighting collectively.
There are special arenas set aside for this fighting where every athlete arrives with his equipment. Though the sport may be potentially lethal, every fighter ties ribbons of thick cloths or torn blankets around his body to lessen the effects of the stick blows. Some contenders put hats made of seeds or even mud on their heads for protection, and the heads are decorated with butter as indication of great wealth.
While the stick-fighting is performed, girls sing continually, praising one fighter as a bull, a leopard, an elephant or a lion; and, on the other hand, scolding the competitor as a coward, a hooligan and a womaniser.
Since the sport can be fatal, the participants say their prayers before heading to the assigned squares just in case they may come back as dead bodies. These stick-fighters can be Christians, Muslims or followers of African noble spiritual beliefs. Before the beginning of the match, human circles are formed and, as a sign for starting the competition, the old or retired fighters initiate the game by skirmishes.
If one of the fighters is badly hurt, he will be compensated with a symbolic reparation, such as cow.
The stick fighting has merits and demerits. Its merits include:
1. It is a means of maintaining social and clan ties, since every one who travels outside the region is keen to return home for the occasion, so that he may not be accused of cowardice.
2. The fighter never commits adultery, nor does he philander with women, to maintain his stamina.
3. The fighter usually lives with cows in their fence, drinking their milk and looking after them.
4. The most important role of stick fighting is to inculcate the virtues of physical bravery and the ability to withstand pain. A good stick fighter will be a good warrior.
The demerits are:
1. The possibility of mutilation of the fighter’s face.
2. The breaking of his legs or arms that may cause a permanent disability, and even death in some instances.
Because of the dangers of stick fighting, in recent years the South Kordofan Advisory Council has restricted it. The fear is that young men will be injured or killed in this sport. At times of celebration such as SPLA day there are demonstrations of stick fighting but the old-style of combat is now very rarely found.
Regarding religious practices we see that despite widespread Islam among the plain Nuba tribes, in the hills the religious practices are still linked with the old African agricultural rituals; animal sacrifices are made to ancestral spirits; and priestly experts and rainmakers have an important position.
Also known as Felata, Fula, Fulani or Mbororo.
Population & Ecosystem
300.000 Falata live in the forested savannah plains between El Obeid (Kordofan) and Ad Damazin (Blue Nile). The Falata are a sub-group of the much larger Fulani, a tribe that is spread across much of West Africa. The reclusive Falata people are a Semitic tribe that migrated from western Africa to greater Sudan starting in the 19th century, reportedly settling in the region on their return from a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Economy & Society
The Falata in Sudan are semi-nomadic, mixing farming with shepherding. Although some Fulani tribes travel seasonally with their flocks, the Falata have a permanent home they live in for half of the year. They only travel during the dry season, when grazing lands and water are scarce. Many of the men have multiple wives. Since cattle are a symbol of wealth among the Falata, brides are sometimes chosen because of the amount of cattle they own.
Falata society is divided into casts. The fairly rigid caste system of the Falata people has medieval roots, was well established by the 15th-century, and it has survived into modern age. The four major castes in their order of status are ‘nobility, traders, tradesmen (such as blacksmith) and descendants of slaves’.
On top of the pyramid there are the Dimo, meaning ‘noble’. The Dimo are followed by the artisan caste, including blacksmiths, potters, griots, genealogists, woodworkers, and dressmakers. They belong to castes but are free people. On the lower part of the pyramid there are those castes of captive, slave or serf ancestry. The Fulani castes are endogamous in nature, meaning individuals marry only within their caste.
Central to the Falata people's lifestyle is a code of behaviour known as pulaaku, literally meaning the ‘Falata pathways’ which are passed on by each generation as high moral values of the Wodaabe, which enable them to maintain their identity across boundaries and changes of lifestyle. Essentially viewed as what makes a person Falata, pulaaku includes:
Munyal: Patience, self-control, discipline, prudence
Gacce / Semteende: Modesty, respect for others (including foes)
Hakkille: Wisdom, forethought, personal responsibility, hospitality
Sagata / Tiinaade: Courage, hard work
Culture & Religion
The traditional dress of the Falata consists of long colourful flowing robes, modestly embroidered or otherwise decorated. Both men and women wear a characteristic white or black cotton fabric gown, adorned with intricate blue, red and green thread embroidery work, with styles differing according to region and sex.
It is not uncommon to see the women decorate their hair with bead hair accessories as well as cowrie shells. Falata women often use henna for hand, arm and feet decorations. Their long hair is put into five long braids that either hang or are sometimes looped on the sides. It is common for women and girls to have silver coins and amber attached to their braids. Some of these coins are very old and have been passed down in the family. The women often wear many bracelets on their wrists. The women can also be seen wearing a colourful cloth around, the waist, head or over one shoulder.
Like the men, the women have markings (combination of scarification and tattooing) on their faces around their eyes and mouths that they were given as children.
Falata men are often seen wearing solid-coloured shirt and pants which go down to their lower calves, made from locally grown cotton, a long cloth wrapped around their faces, and a conical hat made from straw and leather on their turbans, and carrying their walking sticks across their shoulders with their arms resting on top of it. Often the men have markings on either side of their faces and/or on their foreheads. They received these markings as children. Falata ethics are strictly governed by the notion of pulaaku. Women wear long robes with flowery shawls. They decorate themselves with necklaces, earrings, nose rings and anklets.
One of the most important events in Falata culture is the Gerewol, a yearly ceremony that gathers all the Falata clans so that young members of the tribe can flirt and meet their future wives and husbands. Gerewol happens at the end of the rainy season (late September, early October) but rehearsals and smaller Gerewol ceremonies can be seen all year around. During the Gerewol, dancing and singing become central.
The Falata have a rich musical culture and play a variety of traditional instruments including drums, hoddu (a plucked skin-covered lute similar to a banjo), and riti or riiti (a one-string bowed instrument similar to a violin), in addition to vocal music. Zaghareet or ululation is a popular form of vocal music formed by rapidly moving the tongue sideways and making a sharp, high sound.
The Falata were one of the first people groups in Chad to be converted to Islam. The Falata still hold on to many old Fulani traditions. They believe that family, cattle, strong morals, beauty, poetry, singing, and dancing are the most important things in life.
Also known as Bedawi or Beni Amer.
Population & Ecosystem
300.000 Beja live in the extensive semi-desert plains between Kassala and the Red Sea around the borders of Eritrea and Sudan.
Economy & Society
They lead a tribal pastoral life, with those in the northern territories raising camels, and the southerners raising cattle. In contemporary era, many have adopted a farming lifestyle and become migrant wage labour providers.
The Beja are said to be the descendants of Noah's grandson, Cush (son of Ham). They are a native African people who have occupied their current homelands for more than 4,000 years. During that time, they adopted their Islamic religion. The Beja in Sudan are divided into four tribes: the Hadendowa, the Amarar, the Ababda, and the Beni Amer. They inhabit over 110,000 square miles (284,800 square km) in eastern Sudan. Their native language is called Bedawiya, although many are also fluent in Arabic or Tigre.
The Beja are divided into clans. They are named after their ancestors, and the line of descent is traced through the males. Each clan has its own pastures and water sites that may be used by others with permission. Clans vary from one to twelve families. Disputes between clans are often settled by traditional Beja law; but most day-to-day affairs are managed by the heads of the families. The Beja are a hospitable people, always showing kindness to other clans; however, they are not necessarily friendly to foreigners.
The Beja prefer cross-cousin marriages. After a marriage contract has been made, a large gift of livestock, clothing, and other goods is given to the bride's family. The goal of young couples is to have many male children and to acquire a great number of female camels. Only the wealthiest Beja have more than one wife.
Culture & Religion
The Beja have a uniquely huge crown of fuzzy hair, first recorded in Egyptian rock paintings (circa B.C. 2000). Rudyard Kipling gave them the famous name "the Fuzzy Wuzzies." Kipling was specifically referring to the Hadendowa, who fought the British, supporting the "Mahdi," a Sudanese leader of a rebellion against the Turkish rule administered by the British.
Virtually all of the Beja are Muslims; however, they practice what is known as "folk Islam." Their beliefs are interwoven with a rich variety of traditional beliefs. For example, they believe that men have the power to curse others by giving them the "evil eye." They also believe in wicked jinnis (spirits capable of taking on animal forms) and other invisible spirits. They believe that evil spirits can cause sickness, madness, and accidents. They have adopted many Islamic practices such as repeating prayers, but these prayers are not largely understood.
Also known as Rachaida or Maraziq.
Population & Ecosystem
100.000 Rashaida nomads live in the desert region from the north-eastern borders with Egypt, to the eastern borders with Eritrea.
Economy & Society
Rashaida are traditionally nomadic camel shepherds and move from one place in the desert to another, allow their animals to graze, before packing up their tents and moving on to the next oasis. Rashaida men are excellent traders, using their camels and Toyota pickup trucks to distribute goods imported from Middle Eastern countries—a lucrative endeavour. A portion of their wealth resulted from renting their camels to freedom fighters during Eritrea's 30-year war of independence.
The colourful Rashaida came to Eritrea from Saudi Arabia about 170 years ago. Living in the desert along the coastline of the Red Sea, their homeland extends from Massawa, Eritrea, to Port Sudan, Sudan. The Rashaida are an Arab Bedouin tribe who trace their roots to the Hijaz. Two centuries ago they left the coastal territory in search for food and water, finding refuge in Sudan. They have done well, and are known to be Sudan's largest exporter of livestock. They are famous for their massive wealth of camels, which are hugely popular in Egyptian markets - despite their high prices. There are 65 branches of the Rashaida tribe and nearly 70 percent of the tribe still live as Bedouins.
Money is worthless to the Rashaida, and instead camels indicate social status and wealth. A man who is wealthy in property and money is considered poor by the Rashaida if he has no camels. It was only recently that the tribe began to open up to outsiders, although they remain fiercely observant of their ancient Arab traditions. The Rashaida still follow a social system based on gender segregation. Women are completely forbidden from revealing their faces, except to their husbands at home. Girls are not allowed to choose their husbands and their families decide who they shall marry. They marry only within the Rashaida clan, although you will find the occasional young man or woman breaking from tradition.
Culture & Religion
The tribe, especially its elders, still keep their Hijaz dialect and traditional Bedouin attire. It is rare to find a Rashaida woman wearing Sudan's national dress, the thobe. Instead, they wear burqas studded with seashells, usually made from velvet in bright colours, mostly red. Rashaida women always wear beautiful veils over their faces. This practice begins when they are children so that no man besides their husband will ever see their face. Once when visiting a Rashaida family, I noticed a mother kiss her young daughter - the veil separating her lips from the child's cheek.
Islam is at the core of Rashaida culture. Due to their mobile lifestyle, a family prayer house is central to their worship.
Also known as Baria, Baza or Bazen.
Population & Ecosystem
200.000 Kunama live in the dry hilly borderlands of Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia.
Economy & Society
In the past, the Kunama people practiced nomadism as their way of life but are currently sedentary farmers and pastoralists. Farming is the most important economic activity of the Kunama people. They cultivate millet, sorghum, and legumes. Harvesting is also conducted by the entire community and celebrations made through songs and dances.
The Kunama are a matrilineal and matrilocal people. They enjoy a liberal and democratic way of life with women having high social status and equal property shares. Social attributes among the Kunama is known to have clan divisions into six main groups. These main clans are then divided into sub-clans (formed based on localities). The clans are based on the maternal lineage of the family. The Kunama people are the only ethnic group in the Horn of Africa that base its clans on maternal pedigree. These clans include Lakka, Nataka, Alaka, Serma, Sogona, Akartakara, Shila, Kara, Jula among others. The different clans play different roles such as summoning rain, warding off insects like locusts which destroy harvests.
The Kunama have withstood repeated invasions and raids from more powerful, more patriarchal neighbors. Outsiders often call them by the depreciating name Barià, meaning slaves. For three centuries the Kunama were forced to pay tribute to the Funj Empire of Sudan, who also took many of them captive and enslaved them.
Kunama land is “a territory historically exposed to risk,” and that the Andinnas (trance-priestesses) give expression to collective trauma in their ritual theatre, “transforming the memory of violence undergone.” They enact Otherness and themes of border-crossing, in a way similar to the zar religion. They smoke and use male behaviour, gestures, and voices. They reproduce the gestures, moods, positions or bodies of foreign spirits, of the dominators. They act out raids and counter-raids, with acts modelled on European and Ethiopian armies, such as drills and presenting arms. Some of their songs are battle songs. This is “to control and also emotionally express the violence undergone, and the fear.” That is indubitable, but there may be another dimension we should consider: the activation of protective spirits around Kunama lands. Even the processional route the Andinnas traverse seems to have a protective magical dimension.
Another layer of politics is from recent colonial rule and European religion. The earliest accounts of Andinnas (of Kunama culture generally) come from Swedish and Italian missionaries, and are deeply stained with their prejudices against indigenous religion and culture as pagan superstition. A Swedish letter from Kulluku village refers to the mother of a young convert as a “witch doctor.” The woman may well have been an Andinna.
Kunama women do not stay in the house; they move freely across the land in daily life. Especially young women cover a lot of terrain in bringing home water. For this reason, as well as the strong mother-right customs of their culture, they have the reputation of being “free” among neighbouring peoples. These outsiders, both the Muslim Sudanese and Christian and Muslim Ethiopians, believe that Kunama women hold headship over their men. 1This belief is fortified by the lack of sanctions against Kunama women taking lovers, something that the patriarchal neighbours disapprove and severely punish in women.
Traditionally, Kunama women are free to take lovers as they choose, as a different source explains: “As soon as she reaches puberty, a Kunama girl is given a hut of her own where she can entertain her male friends. She is totally free to choose her own boy-friend, a lover or her future husband. It is very seldom that the Kunama parents would practise pre-arranged marriages for their children.” When an unmarried woman takes a lover and becomes pregnant, her parents ask her who the father is. They ask him if he is willing to marry her. If he refuses, she goes through the ‘Mashkabara’ ceremony. The young man provides a cow to be sacrificed, and the young woman’s extended family comes to mark her passage from girlhood:
The traditional values of the Kunama are communal and strongly egalitarian in many ways. It is a culture of sharing, free of class stratification or of one group lording it over another. Society is organized around the mother-kin, and we have already seen the importance of the Andinna priestesses. However, Kunama women are subjected to female genital excision and even infibulation. These may have been adopted from their patriarchal neighbours, who have invaded and raided and oppressed them for centuries. However it came to be, excision is now deeply embedded in the culture. A third of Kunama women suffer the most severe form, known as infibulation. In this extremely painful ordeal, the clitoris and entire vulva are amputated and the external labia are sewn together into a wall of flesh. Heterosexual intercourse can take place only by cutting the woman open. The Kunama have a name, koda, for the special relation between two women who passed through infibulation together, their legs tied apart to each other.
Andinnas dance for the dead at burial in communal graves, to the same song that is sung for the grain harvest.
This priestess lineage connects with the Kunama ancestors, whose souls come from the spirit-country Arka. In their society, lands are communal, and so if a husband leaves there are no severe consequences. Nevertheless, women are tempted to marry patriarchal men from the wealthier highlands.
The ritual has remained unchanged for 2000 years. The ancestors call women by making them faint at graves. They dance with sword and spear to greet ancestors, to the east and to the west. (The weapons are considered symbols of power, defensive only, and are related to the Meroitic queens of Sudan.) During initiation, the woman falls to the ground, and her hair must touch the spear to connect with the ancestral spirits. The Andina should not be open to all spirits. They call names of the ancestors; a woman touching her hair is a sign that she’s connecting with them. The women not always comfortable as they anticipate what ancestor will come.
The Andina take a different name, Lugus, when in ecstasy. They put on a beautiful, hornlike crown of fat, over an unnamed sacred substance, and wear it during the weeks of the annual rite. The women display entranced speech and gestures, often asking for chewing tobacco, and perform other acts of the spirits. They are forbidden to use water the morning after their initiation; the young Andina clean with sesame and chew it. During several weeks of ritual, they walking over the land, many miles in special iron shoes used only for this occasion. Walking through villages they’re given coffee, tea, sesame. When greeting an older Andina, they kiss her and grab her vulva.
At end of the ritual period, the women dance for hours. They sacrifice a chicken, whose blood they drink, then they roast it and eat with sesame and honey, no other spices. After this finale, the Andina spirits return to their world. A reversed ritual of entranced women takes place over the sword and spear. They symbolically die and are carried back to the village by men, and are said to be able to jump over the huts in their potentized state. One spirit of a very old Andina initially refused to leave a young woman’s body. The initiates stay together on a mat for one night in this return passage.
They awaken in a deep trance, with no memory of the past weeks. Their skin is cut with little stones and herbs and ashes rubbed in, to make a sign so that Andinas can recognize each other. The ritual is repeated every year when the sun and moon appear together on the horizon.
Culture & Religion
Kunama people look quite different to their neighbours. Apart from a darker skin, Kunama women decorate their hairs with metal rings and beads and do complex hairdos. Beaded necklaces and metal anklets and bracelets are still popular among Kunama women too. Kunama young men wear multi-coloured handmade cotton clothes and have uniquely huge crown of fuzzy hair or dreadlocks. In Sudan, most Kunama have been converted into Islam but in smaller communities near the Eritrean border the traditional religion revolving around the figure of the trance priestesses (Andinna) is still alive.
Also known as Komo, Koma, Ganzo, or Gwami.
Population & Ecosystem
2.600 Komo Ganza live in the forested plains of the Blue Nile Province of Sudan. They also live in South Sudan and in Ethiopia.
Economy & Society
The Komo Ganza are shepherds and farmers. They raise cattle, sheep, and goats. Their crops include sorghum, maize, sesame, okra, peppers, cotton, and tobacco. They engage in some hunting and fishing, and also do some trading with other nearby peoples. The men hunt, fish, and do most of the herding and milking, while the women help the men with farm labour. The women also collect honey from the hives in the bush.
Komo Ganza marriages take place by the exchange of sisters from one village to the next. Marriage between close relatives is forbidden. The groom is not required to perform a bride-service (working for the bride's family before a marriage can take place), and a bride-price is uncommon. Polygamy (having more than one spouse) exists, but only a few of the wealthiest Komo Ganza have more than one wife.
Each village (or small group of villages) has a headman who inherits his office and exercises limited authority. He is considered "the Father of the Land." Although families clear and cultivate the fields, individual families do not own the land. Instead, the land collectively belongs to the entire village, under the leadership of the headman. The headman also keeps in his possession the symbolic insignia of the Komo Ganza, such as strings of beads, spears, and village drums.
"Rain-makers" (men who conduct rituals in order to bring much needed rain) also inherit their positions and may sometimes serve as village headmen. In addition, each village has a religious expert who specializes in magic and is subject to inspiration from spirits.
Culture & Religion
Most Komo Ganza follow their traditional ethnic religion. This religion teaches the worship of a supreme god who is considered the creator of all things, and the worship of the spirits of dead ancestors. Divination (the use of supernatural powers), magic, and rain-making are also a part of the traditional religion.
Also known as Bega, Deguba, or Shanqilla.
Population & Ecosystem
90.000 Gumuz live in the fertile forested plains and hills north of Dinder National Park and across the border in western Ethiopia where they number 200.000 people. The Gumuz are primarily located in eastern Sudan. This area is called a "bush-savanna" region because it is mostly flat with some stone hills that are covered with bamboo and other small trees.
Economy & Society
The Gumuz people hunt with bows and arrows. Most breed cattle or farm for a living. They farm their lands together as a clan. When a boy reaches the age of 16, he may work his own farm along with his father's. During the harvest season, they build huts on the fringe of the farmland and live there. They grow millet, sorghum, onion, cotton, tobacco, mango, and various spices. The staple food of the Gumuz is porridge flavoured with a sauce made from leaves, onions, and spices. They supplement their diet with pumpkin seeds, peanuts, fruit, and some insects, and - like many of us - they like to drink coffee. Because they are farmers, trading is important to them, but the lack of roads makes this difficult. They trade most often with the nearby Arab settlers or with the Oromo people from Ethiopia. In exchange for their goods, they receive coffee, cloth, soap, salt bars, and other items.
The clannish nature of the Gumuz keeps their community cohesive, and when there is an infraction, the entire clan involves itself in the punishment. Discipline is meted out for such things as stealing, lying, and wife abuse, keeping drunkenness and idleness to a minimum. When a daughter is ready for marriage, the clans perform a "sister exchange." That is, the newly married man gives his wife's clan a young woman from his own clan to "replace" the woman he married.
Culture & Religion
The Gumuz of Sudan still have a different look to the surrounding tribes. Gumuz women wear nicely designed large aluminium earrings and many beaded necklaces. The older generation has metal nose piercings and body scarification. The Gumuz of Sudan have been forced to convert into Islam in the last 30 years, said this Islam is still superficial and traditional religion is still active in the small mountain villages. Spirits are called mus'a and are thought to dwell in houses, granaries, fields, trees and mountains. They have ritual specialists called gafea. Rebba is their "supreme god who knows all." The Gumuz firmly believe that if a woman drinks milk, she will go bald, and if a man eats cabbage, he will be lazy. If a woman eats porridge while she is making it, they believe she or her husband will become ill.
Population & Ecosystem
Nubia comprises the land along the Nile reaching from just south of Dongola to Aswan in Egypt.
Economy & Society
Agriculture was and still is the basis of the Nubian economy. The scarcity of cultivable land was an outstanding feature of old Nubia. As a result, men migrated to cities to find work, and women were left to do the agricultural work. In Nubia, palm dates are an important subsistence crop. Transplanting palm shoots was governed until recent times by the Coptic calendar. The Sudanese Nubians also use their land to cultivate a cash crop, namely cotton. They have had to cope with the requirements of cultivating vast lands, a practice that they were not used to in old Nubia. Dates are no longer part of the subsistence economy among Sudanese Nubians. Women used to make utilitarian items—plates, mats, clothes, and so forth. Today very few Nubian women engage in craftwork because household needs are readily available to them in the market. After resettlement due to the construction of giant dams in Nubian land, many Nubian men have turned into grocery-store owners and cab drivers. After relocation, both the more accessible roads and integration into the cash economy contributed to an increase in trade activities in Sudanese Nubia.
Prior to resettlement, Nubia was relatively isolated from the Egyptian and Sudanese governments. In Egypt, Nubia was divided into thirty-nine districts, each headed by a government-appointed headman (omda), who acted as the liaison between the district and the government. The town of Eneba was the seat or centre of the Nubian government. In Sudan, there were six districts that served the same political function. The districts in Sudan did not exist before Muhamad Ali's conquest of Egypt and Sudan. The omda also appointed the town heads and the police officers, whose responsibilities included aiding citizens to register births and deaths, dealing with the rare instances of crime, and distributing government aid sent to the Nubian Valley. After resettlement, all of the Nubian groups acquired the new political organization of their respective states, which were in the process of postcolonial nation building.
Disputes and crime were originally handled by the elders of the hamlet, and rarely was a police officer or headman involved. Arab councils—tribunals based on tribal or clan affiliation—intervened to mediate any conflict that escalated (usually conflict over land).
Today traditional social-control mechanisms are used to resolve some conflicts, but, increasingly since 1965, conflict resolution has required more modern mechanisms, for example courts and state-trained police officers.
It is a history that Nubians are proud of, although they complain that the central government has neglected the long pre-Islamic history of their region in favour of a standard Islamist narrative of Sudanese culture. Nubia remains as neglected as any part of Sudan away from Khartoum.
Modern Nubians are divided into three main groups – the Danaqla around the Dongola Reach, the Mahas from the Third Cataract to south of Wadi Halfa, and the Sikurta around Aswan. Each group speaks a slightly different dialect of the Nubia tongue.
Nubian architecture is very distinct to the rest of vernacular architectures in Sudan. Houses sit in a large courtyard surrounded by a high wall. The most notable feature of the building is the gateway. The threshold to the property is often of an exaggerated size and highly decorated with stucco and bright colours. Geometric patterns are popular, but also pictures and symbols that may relate to the family inside – vehicles are popular, as are stars and palm trees. Scorpions and eyes ward off the evil eye, while a book (representing the Koran) and the Holy Ka’aba in Mecca may indicate that the owner has performed the Hajj pilgrimage. Where possible, the gate always faces the Nile. Inside the compound a flat-roofed area provides a sitting area facing the courtyard, with separate entrances for the family and guest to maintain privacy. Houses are typically roofed using split palm trunks, but richer owners may roof their properties with mud-brick domes to help keep the inside cool during the day.
Culture & Religion
In Sudan, the groups also practise facial scarring. Mahas tribal men and women often display three wide scars on each cheek. With the Danaqla tribe, the same scars are found around the temple. Scarification, however, is becoming less and less popular with younger generations.
Music is important in Nubian culture. Unlike Arabic music it is based on the pentatonic scale, and so is more immediately accessible to Western ears. Traditional music features a kisir (five-stringed lyre) and a tar (drum). Nubian ‘pop’ music is highly synthesised and often introduces horns to weave further melodies into a heady jazz mix. Whichever style is played, the themes remain the same – call-and-response chants, love songs and songs in praise of the land. The best place to hear Nubian music is at a wedding. If you’re lucky enough to get invited to one it will be one of the highlights of your trip. A big wedding can last several days. The groom’s family holds an open house, building up to a large wedding feast. After eating, the music and dancing begins. Men and women dance separately but opposite each other in a highly charged and sensual atmosphere. The bride is prepared with smoke baths, then elaborately dressed, bedecked with jewellery, and painted with henna. On the wedding night, the bride and groom go to the Nile to wash to ensure their prosperity. The groom will have paid a bride-price to the bride’s father, which is one reason why first-cousin marriages are popular, as this keeps wealth in the family. Weddings are an expensive business, and the wages of Nubian expats working in the Gulf have greatly inflated bride-prices, causing problems for poor young men at home.
Today, Nubians practice Islam. To a certain degree, Nubian religious practices involve a syncretism of Islam and traditional folk beliefs. In ancient times, Nubians practiced a mixture of traditional religion and Egyptian religion. Prior to the spread of Islam, many Nubians practiced Christianity.