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The Other “Fuzzy Wuzzies”: Eritrea’s Hidareb

Hidareb dance

The Beja are a group of nomadic shepherds who live scattered across the desert regions of Eritrea, Sudan, and Egypt. With a total population of nearly one million, they represent the largest non-Arabic ethnic group between the Nile River and the Red Sea. They are sometimes aloof, withdrawn, aggressive and warlike. 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.

 The Beja are 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 mixed with other Arab tribes, adopting their Islamic religion. The Beja in Eritrea are divided into two tribes: the Ababda and the Beni Amer. They inhabit approximately 20,000 square miles (50,000 square km) in the northernmost region of the country.

The semi-tropical climate of Eritrea is influenced by the hot, dry air from the Sahara and Arabian Deserts. The southern part of the country only gets about four inches (100 mm) of rainfall a year. The Beja migrate with their herds of cattle and camels in search of better grazing land. They have expertise in caring for animals, which is portrayed in their tribal songs and folklore.

This Beni Amer boy pic is the most iconic Eritrean photo
The Beni Amer, unlike other Beja tribes, belong to a confederation of nomadic groups that have united as a single political unit. Their social system is unusual because it resembles a “caste” system.

The Beja word for their language is To Bedawie (or To Bedawiat), and the people and language are also called Bedawiye, Bedawiuet (the Ethnologue name), Bedauye and Beni-Amer (with other variations). Sub groupings of the Beja people do not coincide directly with the dialects of the language. The major subgroups are: Ababda, Amarar, Bisharin, Hadendoa, BeniAmer Beja, Beni-Amer Tigre and Babail Ukhra (“other tribes”). The Ethnologue mentions other ethnic divisions as Halenga and Arteiga.

 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 onethird in Sudan.

As mentioned above, the language spoken by the Beni-Amer is called simply Beja (To Bedawie). The term Hidareb 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.

The Beni-Amer are a large group in Eritrea who include Beja-speaking and Tigre-speaking subgroups. 

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 Hidareb are a Beni-Amer group but the name is used broadly for Beja speakers in general.

The Beni-Amer (Hidareb) are found in the northwest and northeast of the country, and are prominent in towns of Keren, Agordat and Tessenei.

 The Hidareb nomads live in portable tents that are built by women. The tents are rectangular in shape and are made of woven, black or gray goat hair. Their daily diet consists of dairy products (especially camel’s milk), beef, and some grain. They traditionally wore animal skin clothes; however, today it is more common to wear manufactured clothing. They are dependent on cash to purchase clothes and other desired goods. The Hidareb’s view of the “good life” is to have large herds and to live in green, well-watered pastures.

The Hidareb 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 their permission. Clans vary from one to twelve families. Disputes between clans are often settled by traditional Hidareb law; but most day-to-day affairs are managed by the heads of the families. The Hidareb are a hospitable people, always showing kindness to other clans; however, they are not necessarily friendly to foreigners.

Rites of passage are at birth, circumcision (of males), engagement, marriage, death and remembrance or a second funeral. The Hidareb are only partially dependent upon cash, with which they buy clothing, coffee, grain and oil. Fewer than 3 percent are town dwellers.

 The more sedentary Hidareb build mud-walled houses with more furnishings. All members of a family, husband and wife and all children below age seven, sleep in on a 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. Only the wealthiest Beja have more than one wife. After a marriage contract has been made, a large gift of livestock, clothing, and other goods is given to the bride’s family “bridewealth” (sadag). The mother’s brother is an important figure. The goal of young couples is to have many male children and to acquire a great number of female camels. 

 All of the Hidareb are Muslims; however, they practice what is known as “folk Islam.” This can be attributed to the fact that their conversion to Islam was largely motivated by their desire to retaliate against Turkish rulers. Today, their beliefs are interwoven with a rich variety of traditional superstitions. For example, the Hidareb 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. The Hidareb believe that evil spirits can cause sickness, madness, and accidents. Black magic is practiced and animal sacrifices are used in sacred pagan ceremonies. They have adopted many Islamic practices such as repeating prayers, but these prayers are often not understood.

Currently there are about 206,650 Hidareb in Eritrea, they are prominently known for their locked hairs and beautiful set of teeth, this ethnic group in Eritrea is one of the many that makes Eritrea different and special, hence it is our duty to preserve them within the territories of their origin. 
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