People of Eritrea
People of Eritrea
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 south-eastern Egypt through north-eastern 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 word for their language is To Bedawie (or To Bedawiat), and the people and language are also called Bedawiye, Bedauye and Beni-Amer (with other variations). Subgroupings of the Beja people do not coincide directly with the dialects of the language. The major subgroups are: Ababda, Amarar, Bisharin, Hadendoa, Beni-Amer Beja, Beni-Amer Tigre and Babail Ukhra ("other tribes").
Though the Ababda have come to speak Arabic, they retain their Beja customs and lifestyle. The Beni-Amer Tigre speakers (Sudan and Eritrea) are reported to be physically distinguished from the Semitic Tigre. The Beni-Amer are generally bilingual in both Beja (To Bedawie) and Tigre. Reports differ as to the number whose mother tongue is one or the other of these two languages. Many Beni-Amer also speak Arabic.
The name used in technical linguistics for To Bedawie is Beja. Dialects of the Beja language are called Hadendoa (Hadendowa, Hadendiwa), Hadareb (Hadaareb, Hidareb, Hidarib) and Bisharin (Bisarin, Bisariab). All these language forms are classified by the same Ethnologue Code BEI, with dialect numbers.
The Beni-Amer are a large group in Eritrea who include Beja-speaking and Tigre-speaking subgroups. All serfs in Beja society were called Tigre (the Beja word for "slave") and the Tigre language is associated with serfdom, though the serfs were themselves Beja of a very ancient stock.
Some authorities indicate the Beni-Amer, despite this diversity, have retained more of the ancient Beja identity than other Beja tribes, who have intermarried more with other people. This is analogous to the Somali people's clans, many of whom speak non-Somali languages.
There are perhaps 100,000 Beni-Amer Beja who speak only Tigre. The Halenga are former Tigre speakers who now speak Beja. The Hadareb (Hidareb) are a Beni-Amer group but the name is used broadly for Beja speakers in general.
The Beni-Amer (Hadareb) are found in the northwest and northeast of the country, and are prominent in towns of Keren, Agordat and Tessenei. Beni-Amer have also been reported to extend into northern Ethiopia under other names.
The Hadendoa dialect is spoken by Beja in Eritrea and Sudan. The Bisharin dialect is spoken by Beja in Sudan and Egypt. The Hadendoa people and language are found from the Atbara River to the Red Sea, where they meet and mix with the Beni-Amer. About two-thirds of the Beni-Amer live in Eritrea, and one-third in Sudan.
The language spoken by the Beni-Amer is called simply Beja (To Bedawie). The term Hadareb is used variously to refer to a language form and a people group. Ethnologue information is based on language forms only. For instance, the Beni-Amer alone have over 40 sections.
Rites of passage are at birth, circumcision (of males), engagement, marriage, death and remembrance or a second funeral. The Beja are only partially dependent upon cash, with which they buy clothing, coffee, grain and oil. Fewer than 3 percent are town dwellers.
They still follow a nomadic lifestyle centred around herding. They raise a wide range of animals; cattle, goats, sheep, donkeys and camels. They are best known as camel traders, moving up and down the Red Sea area from Egypt to Eritrea. They also maintain food crops, usually farmed for them by West Africans engaged for this purpose. They also trade their crafts of straw mats and wollen rugs or charcoal and firewood for food in the markets.
Some Beja groups are more nomadic than others. The more nomadic do not have permanent homes and carry few possessions, but they live in hemispherical or rectangular tents made of straw mats laid over a wooden frame.
The more sedentary Beja build mud-walled houses with more furnishings. All members of a family, husband and wife and all children below age seven, sleep in on large bed also made of straw mats and wollen rugs, on a wooden frame. In a polygamous family the husband will sleep in the tent of each wife in turn. Unmarried men sleep in the open at the edge of camp.
The preferred marriage pattern is children of brothers (first cousins). Multiple wives are rare. The groom's family pays the bride's family a "bridewealth" (sadag) of livestock, clothing and othergoods. The mother's brother is an important figure.
Shariah law is followed, but interpreted by uneducated Kadis. Beja have no central tribal authority. Divisions and major sub-divisions consist of a group of patrilineally organized clans. Clans are divided into large lineages (bedana) and sublineages (hissa). Each bedana or a group of bedanas is led by a sheikh with authority based on consent of the group.
Girls help their mothers in and around the tent, cooking and collecting firewood and water. Men milk the cattle and camels, while boys and adult sons help their fathers herd the cattle and increase the herds.
The Beja people began to be converted to Islam around 1450 and following, largely because of movement of Arab Muslims into their area. The two major influences were from Yemen and from Egypt and Sudan. The latter, the Jaaliyyin (Gaaliin) Arabs from northern Arabia via Egypt, were the strongest influence.
The Beni-Amer gained their name and their Muslim identity from the Jaaliyyin. The Hadendowa have intermarried even more over a longer period with Jaaliyyin and southern Arabs like the Rebeyah, as have the Bisharin. They were not fully Muslim, however, until the nineteenth century, when they were influenced by the Sufi revival in Arabia and northeastern Africa.
Most Beja are not devout Muslims, but rather possess a "folk Islam," blending Islamic faith with their traditional beliefs. The prayers of most Beja are routine and are, to a great extent, not understood by them.
In the fifth century AD the Beja people were involved in the center of Christian development as the gospel was brought to the kingdom of Axum by Syrian missionaries. The Beja were part of the Axumite kingdom led by Semitic Sabeans who had settled among them.
After the incursion of Arab peoples bringing Islam, the Beja gradually abandoned Christianity. In 1991, response to the gospel began anew among the Beja. A baptism in a shallow river yielded the first Beja convert in centuries.
The Beja language has no Bible translation. In recent years, two mission groups working with the Beja were expelled. In the late 1990s Bible translation was planned for both Tigre and Beja, but progress has not been reported. Reports indicate there are 10 or fewer Beja Christians. Agenices do not release details of workers among the Beja. The Beja are classified as one people group in all three countries with Unreached status.
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