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Zaghawa people

Zaghawa / Beri people
Total population
Regions with significant populations
West Darfur and Ouaddaï Region
Sunni Islam
Related ethnic groups
Kanembu, Kanuri, Fur, Tubu, Masalit, Nilo-Saharans[5]

The Zaghawa people, also called Beri or Zakhawa, are an ethnic group primarily residing in southwestern Libya, northeastern Chad, and western Sudan, including Darfur.[6]

Zaghawas speak the Zaghawa language, which is an eastern Saharan language.[7][8] They are pastoralists, and a breed of sheep that they herd is called Zaghawa by the Arabs. They are nomadic and obtain much of their livelihood through herding cattle, camels and sheep and harvesting wild grains. It has been estimated that there are 384,150 people who belong to the Zaghawa ethnicity.[9]


The royal history of the Kanem–Bornu Empire, the Girgam, refers to the Zaghawa people as the Duguwa. Today, Zaghawa refer to themselves as the Beri, while Arabic speakers and literature refer to them as "Zaghawa". In literature related to African ethnic groups, the term Beri (sometimes Kegi) includes Zaghawas, Bideyat, and Bertis peoples, each clustered in different parts of Chad, Sudan and Libya.[5]


The Zaghawa are mentioned in classical Arabic language texts. The 9th century Arab geographer Ya'qubi wrote of them as the “Zaghawa who live in a place called Kanem”, and proceeded to list a string of other kingdoms under Zaghawa rule.[6] Historically, the Zaghawa people held a sort of hegemony over most of the smaller societies that stretched along the Sahel between Lake Chad to the Nile valley kingdoms of Nubia, Makuria and Alwa.

Zaghawa people's distribution in Chad and Sudan.

The Zaghawa people were trading with the Nile region and the Maghreb regions by the 1st millennium. The earliest references to them in 8th-century texts are made jointly with the Toubou people of northern Chad and southern Libya,[10] and scholars believe the two are related ethnic groups. The 11th century texts mention that the kings of the Zaghawa kingdom had accepted Islam, and were at least nominally Muslims.[6]

The early Arabic accounts describe the Zaghawa to be "black nomads".[10] The 12th-century geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi and the 13th-century Yaqut al-Hamawi describe the Zaghawa influence around an oasis-centered system and mention the towns of Kanem, Manan and Anjimi.[10]

However, ibn Sa'id al-Maghribi, writing in 1270. states that Manan was the capital of Kanem kingdom until the Sayfawa dynasty rulers converted to Islam, conquered the region, and thereafter the capital shifted to Njimi. The Zaghawa continued to live in Manan, wrote ibn Said.[10] The records of Kanem do not mention Zaghawa, and they were likely displaced and they then moved into the region they are currently found.[11] This region is called Dar Zaghawa, or the "land of the Zaghawa".[12]

Although Zaghawa power was broken by the rise of Kanem in the Lake Chad region, Zaghawa retained control over a considerable portion of the lands lying east of Kanem, and it is only in the late 14th century that Darfur is mentioned as an independent state by the Mamluk Sultanate historian and geographer al-Maqrizi. Following the rise of Darfur and the Kanem-Bornu Empire, the Zaghawa appear to have controlled only desert areas and ceased to be a major regional power.[citation needed]

Society and culture

The flag used by some Zaghawa nationalists.

The traditional Zaghawa society has led a predominantly pastoral life, made up of nomadic clans with horse, donkeys, goat and sheep herd keeping focus.[6][8] At their peak strength before the Sayfawa dynasty displaced and disbanded them, they were noted merchants and traders with camels and horses, controlling some of the Trans-Saharan trade routes.[6][13]

They accepted the Maliki school of Sunni Islam but retained some of their pre-Islamic rites such as karama, a ritual sacrifice of animals to ward off evil spirits.[5] The century in which they converted has been a subject of debate and little consensus, with estimates ranging from the 13th to the early 17th century.[8] In contemporary times, they lead a sedentary lifestyle, growing staples such as millet and sorghum, and other foods such as sesame, melons, pumpkins, peanuts and okra.[6][5]

Roger Blench notes that the appearance of Nilo-Saharan speakers is associated with the green Sahara.[14]

Social stratification

Zaghawa society has been socially stratified and has included castes. The upper strata has been of nobles and warriors, below them have been the traders and merchants, below whom have been the artisan castes called the Hadaheed (or Hadahid).[12][15][16] These castes have been endogamous and their inherited occupations have included ironwork, hunters, pottery, leatherwork, and musicians such as drummers. The artisan work has traditionally been viewed within the Zaghawa society as dirty and of inferior status, being people from different pagan and Jewish roots who slowly assimilated into the Islamic society.[12][17] Some of the early Arab texts refer to the Zaghawa royalty as "blacksmith kings with inconceivable arrogance".[18]

The term "blacksmith" has been derogatory in Zaghawa culture, states Anne Haour, a professor of African Studies and Medieval Archaeology, and "if born a blacksmith one will always be a blacksmith".[19] Non-blacksmith castes of Zaghawa neither eat nor associate with the blacksmith castes.[20] The lowest strata has been the slaves. The social stratification and castes such as for the leatherworker strata within the Zaghawa people is similar to those found in nearby Fur people.[20][21]

Contemporary influence

While they are not very powerful in Sudan, they politically dominate Chad. The former president, Idriss Déby and several former prime ministers of Chad are Zaghawa, as well as many other members of the government.[22] Thus the Chadian Zaghawa have been influential people in the regional politics.[23] In contemporary wars in Chad, Libya and Sudan, the Zaghawa ethnic group has been deeply involved, particularly through strategic alliances with other ethnic groups such as the Fur people.[6][5][22]

However, in Sudan, the Zaghawa are caught up in the Darfur crisis, and have suffered much loss from the troubles there. The Zaghawa of Sudan are among the peoples living in the refugee camps in Darfur and eastern Chad where the recruitment of child soldiers into rebel movements is an ongoing problem.[24]

The Zaghawa have been among the tribes in Darfur who have been referred to as "African" even as other tribes that have fought with them have been called "Arab".[25]

As a result of Tijani Muslim missionaries from West Africa traveling through their area to make the Hajj, the Zaghawa leadership converted to Islam. In the 1940s, the Zaghawa began to turn to Islam from their traditional religion en masse. In Darfur, the Zaghawa are well-known[25] for their piety. Due to the fighting in the War in Darfur, where they are targeted by the Janjaweed Arab militias due to their ethnic heritage, 100,000 have become refugees across the border in Chad.[26][27] A Zaghawa tribesman named Daoud Hari wrote a memoir about Darfur called The Translator and a Zaghawa woman named Halima Bashir co-authored a memoir with Damien Lewis called Tears of the Desert, which both spread knowledge about the atrocities in Darfur.

Among Sudan's ethnic minorities, Zaghawas Islamists were also one of the most active within the al-Bashir regime at its beginning, participating in security, police and the Popular Defense Forces. After the 1989 coup, Khalil Ibrahim, a Zaghawa from Tina, was placed at the head of the tanzim in Darfur. Other Zaghawas, such as Adam Tahir Hamdoun, Yusuf Libis, Sulieman Jammous or Khalil's brother, Gibril Ibrahim, will also play key roles in the new regime. However, after al-Turabi's break with al-Bashir and the crisis of '98, most of the Islamist Zaghawas will defect from the NCP and become anti-regime activists, with many of them aligning themselves with the al-Turabi's Popular Congress Party, participating in the publication of The Black Book or leading the al-Fashir protests in September 2000.[28]

See also


  1. ^ "Chad". 29 August 2023.
  2. ^ "Chad". 29 August 2023.
  3. ^ "Sudan – Researched and compiled by the Refugee Documentation Centre of Ireland" (PDF). 2013-01-07. Retrieved 2023-08-21.
  4. ^ "Zaghawa". Ethnologue. Retrieved 3 October 2023.
  5. ^ a b c d e James Stuart Olson (1996). The Peoples of Africa: An Ethnohistorical Dictionary. Greenwood. pp. 91–92, 608. ISBN 978-0-313-27918-8.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g John A. Shoup III (2011). Ethnic Groups of Africa and the Middle East: An Encyclopedia: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 333–334. ISBN 978-1-59884-363-7.
  7. ^ Zaghawa, Ethnologue
  8. ^ a b c Paul R. Bartrop; Steven Leonard Jacobs (2014). Modern Genocide: The Definitive Resource and Document Collection. ABC-CLIO. pp. 737–738. ISBN 978-1-61069-364-6.
  9. ^ "Chad". 29 August 2023.
  10. ^ a b c d J. D. Fage; Roland Oliver (1975). The Cambridge History of Africa. Cambridge University Press. pp. 287–289. ISBN 978-0-521-20981-6.
  11. ^ J. D. Fage; Roland Oliver (1975). The Cambridge History of Africa. Cambridge University Press. pp. 288–290. ISBN 978-0-521-20981-6.
  12. ^ a b c Philip M. Peek; Kwesi Yankah (2004). African Folklore: An Encyclopedia. Routledge. pp. 59–61. ISBN 978-1-135-94873-3.
  13. ^ J. D. Fage; Roland Oliver (1975). The Cambridge History of Africa. Cambridge University Press. pp. 306–308. ISBN 978-0-521-20981-6.
  14. ^ Blench, Roger (2014). "The Linguistic Prehistory of the Sahara". The Trans-Sahara project: State Formation, Migration and Trade in the Central Sahara (1000 BC - AD 1500) Burials, migration, identity. University of Leicester. The date of the Berber presence in the Sahara is debated, but in terms of the overall peopling of the region, it is relatively recent. [...] The present-day linguistic situation of the Sahara is a highly misleading guide to its past. The pre-Holocene language situation is probably unrecoverable, but once the humid period began, the so-called 'green Sahara', the desert must have been rich with languages, Niger-Congo and Nilo-Saharan in the south-centre, but unidentified forager languages in the centre-north. Residual forager populations which still survive give some indication of the possible interlocking subsistence specialties at this period. Prior to the expansion of Berber and then Arabic, unknown but distinct languages would have been spoken in both the Sahara and along the North African coast. It is generally assumed the Herodotos' 2500 BP listing of the Maghrebin tribes and their varied customs reflects something of the ethnic diversity at this period.
  15. ^ F. D. Klingender (1942), Gericault as Seen in 1848, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 81, No. 475 (Oct., 1942), pages 254-256
  16. ^ Samer Abdelnour (2011), Forging Through Adversity: The Blacksmiths of North Darfur and Practical Action, United Nations Development Programme, pages 1-2, Quote: "Although the blacksmiths refer to themselves as ‘Zaghawa’ – a dominant group in Darfur – the blacksmiths are from a traditionally neglected and marginalized group associated with Darfur’s lower castes. They form a sub-group of the Zaghawa known as ‘Hadaheed’ (plural of ‘Hadadi’, which means ‘blacksmith’, and derived from ‘Hadeed’ which means ‘iron’).3 Within the Hadaheed, men practice traditional forms of iron work and women pottery. They have done so as long as their history recalls, inheriting their knowledge and skills from generation to generation. Centuries ago, this group is thought to have been thralled by the Zaghawa, who had entered and settled into their territory. As slaves they were dispersed among Zaghawa families to perform primarily their iron and pottery work."
  17. ^ James H Vaughan (1970), Caste systems in the Western Sudan, in Social stratification in Africa, Editors: A Tunde and L Plotnicov , New Africa Press, pages 59-92
  18. ^ Elizabeth Isichei (1997). A History of African Societies to 1870. Cambridge University Press. pp. 230–232. ISBN 978-0-521-45599-2.
  19. ^ Anne Haour (2013). Outsiders and Strangers: An Archaeology of Liminality in West Africa. Oxford University Press. pp. 100–101. ISBN 978-0-19-166779-4.
  20. ^ a b H.A. MacMichael (1988). A History of the Arabs in the Sudan. Cambridge University Press. pp. 89–90 with footnotes., Quote: "HADAHID. (...) As is usual in north-central Africa from east to west they are held in general contempt and the rest of the population do not intermarry with them. This feeling of aversion towards the workers in iron is strongest among the Zaghawa, who so far from intermarrying with them would not eat or associate with them. They are a hereditary caste and are called Miro by the Fur."
  21. ^ Paul R. Bartrop; Steven Leonard Jacobs (2014). Modern Genocide: The Definitive Resource and Document Collection. ABC-CLIO. p. 681. ISBN 978-1-61069-364-6.
  22. ^ a b Marchal, Roland (2006). "Chad/Darfur: How two crises merge". Review of African Political Economy. 33 (109). Routledge: 467–482. doi:10.1080/03056240601000879. hdl:10.1080/03056240601000879. S2CID 153336668.
  23. ^ Paul R. Bartrop; Steven Leonard Jacobs (2014). Modern Genocide: The Definitive Resource and Document Collection. ABC-CLIO. pp. 641–645. ISBN 978-1-61069-364-6.
  24. ^ "Chad refugee camps foster Darfur rebels". Aljazeera English. 16 April 2009. Archived from the original on 2021-12-12.
  25. ^ a b de Waal, Alex (July 25, 2004). "Darfur's deep grievances defy all hopes for an easy solution". The Observer. Retrieved September 4, 2007.
  26. ^ Polgreen, Lydia (February 28, 2006). "Refugee Crisis Grows as Darfur War Crosses a Border". The New York Times.
  27. ^ Survivances préislamiques parmi les zaghawa by Marie-José Tubiana
  28. ^ Roessler, Philip G. (2016). Ethnic Politics and State Power in Africa: The Logic of the Coup-Civil War Trap. Cambridge University Press. pp. 169–170. ISBN 9781316809877.
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Zaghawa people
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