Northern Arabized Communities
Distinctions may be drawn among long-settled arabized communities,
those settled in the past half century, and those-- the minority--that
remained nomadic. Recently settled groups might still participate
in nomadic life or have close connections with nomadic kin.
Formerly, where long-settled and nomadic or beduin communities
came in contact with each other, relations were hostile or cool,
reflecting earlier competition for resources. More recently, a
degree of mutual dependency had developed, usually involving exchanges
Along the White Nile and between the White Nile and Blue Nile,
sections of nomadic tribes had become sedentary. This transition
occurred either because of the opportunities for profitable cultivation
or because nomads had lost their animals and turned to cultivation
until they could recoup their fortunes and return to nomadic life.
Having settled, some communities found sedentary life more materially
rewarding. Sometimes nomads lacking livestock worked for sedentary
Arabs, and where employer and employee were of the same or similar
tribes, the relationship could be close. It was understood that
when such a laborer acquired enough livestock, he would return
to nomadic life. In other cases, a fully settled former nomad
with profitable holdings allowed his poorer kin to maintain his
livestock, both parties gaining from the transaction.
Arab nomads in Sudan in the early 1990s were generally camel
or cattle herders. They might own sheep and goats also for economic
reasons, but these animals were not otherwise valued. Typically,
camel herders migrated to the more arid north, whereas cattle
herders traveled farther south where camel herding was not feasible.
The ancestors of the Baqqara tribes began as nomadic camel herders.
When they moved south to raid for slaves, they found camel travel
inappropriate, and took cattle as well as people from the southerners.
They have been cattle herders since the eighteenth century. Their
environment permitted cultivation also, and most Baqqara grew
some of their food. Camel herders, in contrast, rarely sowed a
crop, although they might gather wild grain and obtain grains
from local cultivators.
In the 1990s, the communities of arabized nomads were similar.
In principle, all units from the smallest to the largest were
based on patrilineal descent. The largest entity was the tribe.
A tribe was divided into sections, and each of these, into smaller
units. If a tribe were small, it became a naziriyah (administrative
unit--see Glossary); if large, its major sections became naziriyat.
The sections below the naziriyah became umudiyat
(sing., umudiyah--see Glossary). Below that were lineages,
often headed by a shaykh, which had no formal position in the
administrative hierarchy. The smallest unit, which the Baqqara
called usrah, was likely to consist of a man, his sons,
their sons, and any daughters who had not yet married. (Patrilineal
cousins were preferred marriage partners.) The usrah
and the women who married into it constituted an extended family.
All divisions had rights to all tribal territory for grazing
purposes as long as they stayed clear of cultivated land; however,
through frequent use, tribal sections acquired rights to specific
areas for gardens. Members of an usrah, for example,
returned year after year to the same land, which they regarded
as their home.
The constant subdividing of lineages gave fluidity to nomadic
society. Tribal sections seceded, moved away, and joined with
others for various reasons. The composition and size of even the
smallest social units varied according to the season of the year
and the natural environment. Individuals, families, and larger
units usually moved in search of a more favorable social environment,
but also because of quarrels, crowding, or personal attachments.
The size and composition of various groups, and ultimately of
the tribe itself, depended on the amount of grazing land available
and on the policies and personalities of the leaders.
Traditionally, a man rich in cattle always had been sure to attract
followers. The industry, thrift, and hardiness needed to build
a large herd have been considered highly desirable qualities.
At the same time, a rich man would be expected to be generous.
If he lived up to that expectation, his fame would spread, and
he would attract more followers. But wealth alone did not gain
a nomad power beyond the level of a camp or several related camps.
Ambition, ability to manipulate, hardheaded shrewdness, and attention
to such matters as the marriage of his daughters to possible allies
were also required.
In the precondominium era, leaders of various sections of a tribe
had prestige but relatively little authority, in part because
those who did not like them could leave. The colonial authorities
stabilized the floating power positions in the traditional system.
For purposes of taxation, justice, and public order, the new government
needed representative authorities over identifiable groups. Locality
could not serve as a basis in a nomadic society, so the government
settled on the leaders of patrilineal descent groups and gave
them a formal power they had previously lacked.
Among the nomadic Kababish camel herders (a loose confederation
of tribes fluctuating in size, composition, and location), the
definition of the tribe as a single unit by the colonial authorities
and the appointment of an ambitious and capable individual as
nazir led to a major change in social structure. Tribal
sections and subsections were gradually eroded, leaving the individual
household as the basic unit, ruled by the nazir and his
primitive bureaucracy. The ruling lineage developed a concept
of aristocracy, became very wealthy, and in effect spoke for its
people in all contexts.
The administrative structure of the naziriyah and umudiyah
ended shortly after the establishment of President Jaafar an Nimeiri's
government in 1969, but the families of those who had held formal
authority retained a good deal of local power. This authority
or administrative structure was officially revived in 1986 by
the coalition government of Sadiq al Mahdi.
Of continuing importance in economic and domestic matters and
often in organizing political factions were minimal lineages,
each comprehending three (at best four) generations. The social
status of these lineages depended on whether they stemmed from
old settler families or from newer ones. In villages composed
of families or lineages of several tribes, marriage would likely
take place within the tribe.
A class structure existed within villages. Large holdings were
apt to be in the hands of merchants or leaders of religious brotherhoods,
whose connections were wider and who did not necessarily live
in the villages near their land. Although no longer nomadic, the
ordinary villager preferred not to cultivate the land himself,
however. Before the abolition of slavery, slaves did much of the
work. Even after emancipation some ex- slaves or descendants of
slaves remained as servants of their former masters or their descendants.
Some villagers hired West Africans to do their work. Ex-slaves
and seminomads or gypsies (halabi, usually smiths) living
near the village were looked down on, and marriage with them by
members of other classes was out of the question. A descendant
of slaves could acquire education and respect, but villagers did
not consider him a suitable partner for their daughters. Slave
women had formerly been taken as concubines by villagers, but
it was not clear that they were acceptable as wives.
Landholders in government-sponsored projects did not own the
property but were tenants of the government. The tenants might
be displaced Nubians, settled non-Arab nomads--as in Khashm al
Qirbah--settled or nomadic Arabs, or West Africans. Many of these
people used hired labor, either West Africans or nomads temporarily
without livestock. In many instances, the original tenant remained
a working farmer even if he used wage labor. In others, however,
the original tenant might leave management in the hands of a kinsman
and either live as a nomad or work and live in a city, a lifestyle
typical of Nubians.
Although all settled communities were linked to the government,
the projects involved a much closer relation between officials
and villagers, because officials managed the people as well as
the enterprise. In effect, however, officials were outsiders,
dominating the community but not part of it. They identified with
the civil service rather than the community.
West Africans working in Arab settled communities formed cohesive
communities of their own, and their relations with Arab tenants
appeared to be restricted to their work agreements, even though
both groups were Muslims. Cotton cultivation, practiced on most
of the farms, was labor intensive, and because available labor
was often scarce, particularly during the picking season, the
West African laborers could command good wages. Their wages were
set by agreements between the tenants who held the land and the
headmen of the West African communities, and these agreements
tended to set the wage scale for Arab laborers as well.
In the White Nile area, more recently settled by nomadic groups,
aspects of nomadic social organization persisted through the condominium
era. As among the nomads, leadership went to those who used their
wealth generously and judiciously to gain the support of their
lineages. In this case, however, wealth often took the form of
grain rather than livestock. Most major lineages had such leaders,
and those that did not were considered at a disadvantage. In addition
to the wealthy, religious leaders (shaykhs) also had influence
in these communities, particularly as mediators, in contrast to
secular leaders who were often authoritarian.
The establishment of the naziriyah and umudiyah
system tended to fix leadership in particular families, but there
were often conflicts over which members should hold office. In
the case of the Kawahla tribes of the White Nile, the ruling family
tended to settle these differences in order to maintain its monopoly
of important positions, and it took on the characteristics of
a ruling lineage. Other lineages, however, tended to decline in
importance as the system of which they had been a part changed.
The ruling lineage made a point of educating its sons, so that
they could find positions in business or in government. Although
the Nimeiri government abolished the older system of local government,
it appears that the former ruling lineage continued to play a
leading role in the area.
Data as of June 1991