Baggara Arabs:
Power and the Lineage in a Sudanese Nomad Tribe

Ian Cunnison

Oxford University Press 1966
A book review by Danny Yee © 1992
Baggara Arabs is an anthropological study of a Sudanese Arab tribe, the Humr, based on fieldwork carried out by the author in the 1950s. The emphasis of the book is on politics and power relations within the tribe, and in particular the relationship between these and the lineage system (hence the subtitle), but it also gives a description of the physical environment and way of life of the people.

The Humr are a semi-nomadic tribe of Baggara Arabs who live in South-Central Sudan, in the province of Kordofan, and have occupied that area since around 1800. They spend the wet season in settled camps to the north and the dry season along the Bahr el Arab, one of the major tributaries of the Nile. Their livelihood comes from cultivating millet and herding cattle, and more recently from growing cotton for sale.

Humr social organisation is segmentary in nature. They are divided into two sections, the Felaita and the 'Ajaira, which are in turn divided into omodiyas, which are divided into major sections, minor sections and so on. The dogmatic (generally accepted) model for this structure is an agnatic lineage system, so the members of these groups are in theory all descended from the one paternal ancestor. Individual camps (surras) are themselves lineages, and tents within the surra are organised on the basis of individual families.

The reality is somewhat different to the theory. In practise sections have moved around and joined other sections, and these 'stranger' sections are considered full members of the higher section they join (though the difference between 'native' and 'stranger' sections may be a line of separation in the event of later disputes within the group). Also while a group ideally acts as a unit in relations with other groups of the same level, due to internal dissent a subsection of the larger group may ally itself with others. (So the minor lineage Jumal el Din Zerga may ally with Awlad Salamy major section even against the rest of its own Ariya major section).

Relationships between sections are formalised by agreements for the sharing of payments for injury. So if someone from one omodiya kills a man from another, the standard payment of 60 cattle blood money comes from all the sections of the killer's omodiya, and from sections allied to that omda, and is paid to the sections of the omodiya of the victim, along with their allies. These relationships are in a continual state of flux.

With the establishment of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, the imposition of new institutions of control has brought changes to the internal politics of the Humr. The lowest level of recognised official are the tribute sheikhs, who are responsible for organising the payment of taxes. They have highly variable numbers of followers (all individual Humr pay taxes through on sheikh), and anyone with the necessary economic resources (ie cattle) can become one. As a result they fit in easily with the flexible segmentary system already existing.

At a higher level the Government recognises nazirs and omdas: there is a nazir for the Humr as a whole and one for each of the Felaita and 'Ajaira, and each omodiya (there are eleven altogether) has its own omda. This has had a major influence on political structures because of the Government's tendency to treat these positions as hereditary. The result is a conflict between a rigid hierarchical structure on the one hand, and a much freer system at the bottom.

To illustrate the political system, the book concludes with a chapter on tribal level politics, a chapter on the structure of the omodiya, and a chapter describing the course of a blood-feud within the Mezaghma omda.

As well as being of interest to anthropologists interested in the area, this will also be of interest to political scientists interested in alternative forms of political organisation and ways of maintaining social order. The Humr occupy a position intermediate between a fully segmentary system (such as that of the Nuer) and that of less structured societies.

September 1992

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