At home in the desert

At home in the desert
Feature: The Rashaida live in the heart of the Sudanese desert and trace their lineage back to the Bedouin tribes of the Hijaz.
4 min read
04 May, 2015
Rashaida tribes still follow a traditional Arab Bedouin lifestyle [Getty]
Deep inside the Sudanese desert is Buba, a scattering of modest homes made from straw and sackcloth, which at first glance appears completely empty.

The village is inhabited by the Maraziq, of the Arab Rashaida tribe, and the more affluent members live in more modern, brick, multi-storey buildings.

It is inhospitable land - the temperatures are high and little vegetation thrives. 

Following tradition

Despite being residents of Buba, the Rashaida tribe still prefer the nomadic life of their forefathers.

They move from one place in the desert to another, allow their animals to graze, before packing up their tents and moving on to the next oasis.

The Rashaida are an Arab Bedouin tribe who trace their roots to the Hijaz. Two centuries ago they left the coastal territory in search for food and water, finding refuge in Sudan.

They have done well, and are known to be Sudan's largest exporter of livestock. They are famous for their massive wealth of camels, which are hugely popular in Egyptian markets - despite their high prices.

There are 65 branches of the Rashaida tribe and their territory extends from the northeastern borders with Egypt, to the eastern borders with Eritrea. Nearly 70 percent of the tribe still live as Bedouins.

Money is worthless to the Rashaida, and instead camels indicate social status and wealth. A man who is wealthy in property and money is considered poor by the Rashaida if he has no camels.

It was only recently that the tribe began to open up to outsiders, although they remain fiercly observant of their ancient Arab traditions.

The tribe, especially its elders, still keep their Hijaz dialect and traditional Bedouin attire.

It is rare to find a Rashaida woman wearing Sudan's national dress, the thobe.

Instead, they wear burqas studded with seashells, usually made from velvet in bright colours, mostly red.

The Rashaida still follow a social system based on gender segregation.
     A man who is wealthy in property and money is considered poor by the Rashaida if he has no camels.

Women are completely forbidden from revealing their faces, except to their husbands at home. Girls are not allowed to choose their husbands and their families decide who they shall marry.

They marry only within the Rashaida clan, although you will find the occasional young man or woman breaking from tradition.

When you enter Buba, you can find the house of the Maraziq mayor - Salman Ali Binaya - who is one of the leading traders in the tribe, having grown wealthy from exporting livestock.

Traders of the desert

He said that every day he exports 5,000 to 6,000 heads of livestock overseas. 

Take one look at the mayor's home - so simple in its design - and you wouldn't think it.

This dedication to such modest living is one reason why many Sudanese find it hard to understand the Rashaida. 

They also are suspicious of the fact that the tribe works outside the country's legal system to resolve disputes.

Murder cases are handled through the courts and tribal pressure forces the defendent's family to relinquish their rights to visit them or hire the accused a lawyer.

It is true that they live in remote areas, desert hideaways for illegal arms' dealers, and this makes them suspects in many Sudanese eyes.

However, Binaya dismisses these allegations as rumours.

"We did not choose the location. The villagers do not have enough money to buy houses in the city, as they are extremely expensive," he said.

He said that the tribe distances itself completely from illegal activities, such as human trafficking and the arms trade, and restrict themselves to exporting livestock.

There are 25 livestock merchants in eastern Sudan, all from the Rashaida tribe, said Binaya.

"We are the largest exporter of livestock in Sudan, and we drive its economy, so why would we resort to such type of activity that may subject us to threats, humiliation and persecution?"

He said that the few in the tribes that may be involved in smuggling restrict themselves to bringing consumer products to Eritrea, never anything that could hurt others.  

"Usually those who visit their families on the borders are the ones who carry out such operations, and only to cover travel and food expenses," Bidaya added.

Later, we found some members of the tribe involved in gun running.

"We do not trade humans, as this is forbidden in our religion, but we trade arms," the anonymous trader said.

"We do not sell to criminals though, only to Palestinians so they can fight Israel."

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.