Eritrea: The Nara People
The Nara ( formerly known as the Baria) are a Nilo-Saharan speaking people who live in Gash Barka region of Eritrea around north and east of Barentu (2002, Chefena Hailemariam, p.75). In 1976, Marvin Lionel Bender estimated they numbered around 25,000, and were divided into four clans; with two main dominant clans called "Higir" and "Mogareb" that numbered about 10,000 each, and smaller clans called "Koyta" and "Santora" (1976, Marvin Lionel Bender, p. 484). Recent estimation of their population is thought to be around 63,000. The Nara name means "Sky Heaven", and speak a language called "Nara-Bana"; meaning "Nara-Talk" (1976, Marvin Lionel Bender, p.599)
Among the Biher-Tigrinya people's oral tradition, known as the Mashaf Nay 'Alitat, or History of peoples, it claims that the Nara people had inhabited the country since "the beginning of creation" (1997, Pankhurst, p.27). According to the Nara's oral traditions, they suggest that they once lived near Keren (1991, Okbazghi Yohannes, p.8). Evidence of the Nara people's existence are provided as far back as by Greek and Roman classical writers (1997, Pankhurst, p.27). Stabo shortly before the turn of the first millennium stated that a tributary of the Nile near Meroe of the Sudan was called the Astaboras, which professor Pankhurst assumes is the river later known as the Atbara, a name which seems signify the Astfa, or river, or the Bora, I.e. Baria (1997, Pankhurst, p.27). Pankhurst describes this as "the group which Diodorus of Sicily at about the same time referred to as the Megabari or Adiabari, all three words based on the term bari" (1997, Pankhurst, p.27). The ancient Greek historian Diodorus states that they carried round shields covered with raw-hide and clubs with iron knobs, and Pliny that they lived "over against Meroe", and included nomads who ate the flesh of the elephants (1997, Pankhurst, p. 27).
During the Aksumite kingdom period, the Nara people are mentioned in many inscriptions. One such inscription is made by the Aksumite King of Ezana's in the fourth century A.D (1991,Yohannes, p.8). The Inscription reads:
"[p]eoples of the Noba rebelled and were proud....They attacked the people of Mangurto and Hasa and Baria and everyone else. And twice and thrice they broke their vows and killed their neighbors without comunction (1991,Yohannes. p.26).
Another indication of the Nara people in a fourth century AD is also found in an Aksumite land charter of Kings Ella the great Church of Seyon at Aksum had been given "the Baria of Demah", the latter being a territory north of the Mereb River (1997, Pankhurst, p.28). Evidence of fighting against the Nara is also provided a few centuries later in an inscription by another Aksumite ruler named Hasani Danel. He claimed to have come to Kassala, near the Eritrean-Sudanese border, after which he stated he "plundered the Baria"(1997, Pankhurst, p.28).
According to Murdock ( 1959, 170- 171) , an Arab traveler visited Aiwa ( near
Khartoum, Sudan) in AD 872 and left a mention of the ' Barya' (Nara) and 'Cunama' (Kunama) tribes who were living on the borders of the Alwa Kingdom (1967, Anthropological linguistics, v. 10, p.1). One final early glimpse of the Naras is provided by the late tenth century Arab geographer Ibn Hawqal. He states that they, and the neighbouring peoples, among them the Bazin, i.e. the Bazen or Baza now better known as the Kunama, lived in the Barka valley, and fought with bows, poisoned arrows and spears, but did not use shields (1997, Pankhurst, p.27). Another custom the Naras had according to Ibn Hawqal is, "pulling out their fore teeth and of slitting their ears" (1997, Pankhurst, p.27). He goes on to add that they lived in mountains and valleys, where they cultivated the land and raised "large and small cattle" (1997, Pankhurst, p.27).
1997, Pankhurst, p.356). In 1876, a European travel by the name of Dermot Robert W. Bourke described the Nara as people who "have no fire-arms, and only hunt and destroy with spears and knives."(1876, Dermot Robert W. Bourke, p.147)
(photo of the left is the sketch Dermot Robert Bourke made of a Nara man with a knife about to kill a Tigrayan man hunting an elephant in Gash-Barka)
In the late 19th century, a European traveler described the Nara as:
In many respects they resemble the warlike tribes of the Red Indians, though they are certainly superior to them in size and strength. They will follow a travelling party for days, giving not an indication of their presence, and speaking to one another wholly by signs, of which they have an extensive vocabulary. But they will never show themselves until the time comes for striking the long-meditated blow, when they will make their attack, and then vanish as mysteriously as they had come. On one occasion nearly two hundred Barea came overnight to the outskirts of a village, and there lay in wait In the early morning, two of the principal men of the village, one a man who was celebrated for his majestic and somewhat pompous demeanor, took a walk toward their cottonfields, and found themselves in the midst of the Barea, who captured them, and carried them off to be sold as slaves to the Arabs, who would probably sell them again to the Turks. (The Natural History of Man: Africa By John George Wood, p.746)
The Nara-bana language virtually has no history of literary tradition until only 1976 when some concerned members of the ethnic group tried to write the Nara language using the Arabic script. (2002, Chefena Hailemariam, p.106). Both the Nara and Kunama, who are geographical neighbors; show similar results on correspondences with the ancient Meroitic: Nara a bit higher, while Kunama lower. Linguistically, the languages are not close: Kunama is family H under Nilo-Saharan; Nara is sub-family E3 of East Sudanic (1981, Bender, p.31). Bender (1971:177) gives only 7% common basic lexicon between the two languages (1981, Bender, p.31). The East Sudanic family to which the Nara-Bana language belongs to is the largest and most complex family in the Nilo-Saharan, as established by Greenberg.
All the different Nara clans can understand and communicate in direct Nara-Bana conversation, but have considerable difficulty in overhearing people of other sections talking among themselves in their dialect (1976, Bender, p.599). The differences involve both vocabulary and grammar. The main second language among the Nara is the Tigre and a substantial minority are bi-lingual (1976, Bender, p.599). The Nara use the Tigre language for intercommunications with neighboring Kunama people and other ethnic groups of Eritrea (1998, James Minahan, p.78).
Religion and culture
Due to various reasons, the Nara converted to Islam in the 19th century A.D. (2002,Hitchcock, Osborn, p.84). Today, the Majority of the Nara are Muslim, but with an animist minority (1998, James Minahan, p.78). Prior to their conversion to Islam, it is believed that the Nara society, like the Kunama, was characterized by matrilineal descent (2002, Hāgarāwi māḥebar, p.56). In Nara society, when boys and girls reach the age of 14, a ceremony is held to celebrate their manhood and womanhood respectively. After this ceremony, they are generally regarded as adults (2007, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, p.269) .
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