Northern Arabized Communities

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 of foodstuffs.

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); if large, its major sections became naziriyat. The sections below the naziriyah became umudiyat (sing., umudiyah). 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.

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