Why a Darfur exhibition?

Over the last 50 years several interconnected crises (ecological, economic, and political) have been building up in Darfur, culminating with atrocities of killing, rape, and population displacement that have occurred over the last 10 years.  This has had dramatic socio-cultural impact on the population of the province implying important losses of cultural inventory in terms of traditional skills and knowledge in the field of technology as well as symbolism.

Gunnar and Randi Haaland have since the mid-sixties done extensive fieldwork in several parts of Darfur from the border with South Sudan to the northern Sahel areas. Their work has focused on the culture and social organization of the Fur and their relations to neighbouring ethnic groups.

Gunnar has since 1965 been partly involved in applied work for various development agencies (e.g. FAO, World Bank, IFAD, Hunting Technical Services) and partly engaged in more basic research focused on ethnic processes and on the symbolism of interpersonal solidarity and its betrayal. Randi has focused on technical, symbolic, and organizational (including gender identity) aspects of pottery making and iron smelting. The photographs they made during their investigations give a time depth to the changing Darfur.

The intention of the exhibition is to use the photographs to illustrate important aspects of the Fur culture (including language) that is now disappearing, as well as to give some background for understanding the present political crisis.

A brief sketch of Darfur history and main features of social organization and culture among the Fur

Darfur is a region of about 500.000 sq. km with about 5 million people out of which roughly 60 % are non-Arabs.

Variations in rainfall, soil conditions, and topography affect the distribution of human adaptations that to some extent is associated with different ethnic groups. The dominant topographical feature is the Jebel Marra mountain massive raising about 3000 meters above sea level. This and the nearby mountain ranges of Jebel Si and Dar Furnung is the heartland of the Fur people. With a yearly rainfall of ca. 1000 mm, relatively fertile volcanic ash soils, and rather inaccessible mountain valleys, these mountain ranges served as a refugee areas in politically unstable periods in the surrounding savanna lowlands (6-800 meters above sea level) and was a major factor in the continuity of the Fur ethnic identity and its associated socio-cultural features.

Another factor affecting the distribution of Fur people was the growth of centralized political systems. Growth of state power was significantly based on control over the flow of goods like slaves, ivory, and copper from Sub-Saharan Africa to the civilizations of the Nile Valley and the Mediterranean littoral. This flow was meditated by trade, tribute, and raiding. Political centralization was implemented through an administrative/military framework that provided some kind of security of life and property in a multi-ethnic region with competing petty states. A certain amount of tax burden was imposed on the subjects (Fur cultivators and pastoralists of different groups); labour was organized and divided among craft specialists (e.g. blacksmithing and pottery making) along caste-like principles involving strict constraints on occupational mobility, marriage, and commensality. It is important to note that the political centralization promoted religious formulas that legitimated political rule. This became particularly important after Arab Muslim groups spread over North Africa (the so-called Hilali invasion during the eleventh century CE).

It was most likely Arab camel nomads who had expanded into the dry areas of Northern Darfur that brought Islam to the region and started the process that led to Islamization of the non-Arab groups – most significantly among the ruling elites. This became particularly important with the first historical ruler Sulayman Solong (Solong means Arab in Fur language) who in the seventeenth century CE established the Keira dynasty of the Darfur Sultanate. Under the peace maintained by the administration of the sultanate, Fur cultivators expanded into the fertile wadi of the lowlands almost to the present border of Chad. Arab nomads expanded into the sandy areas south of Jebel Marra where favourable environmental conditions made them change from reliance on camels (Arabic: Jamel) to cattle (Arabic: Baggar). The northern Arab camel nomads are accordingly called Jumala Arabs, while the southern Arab cattle nomads are called Baggara Arabs.

The relations between the Arab herders and the non-Arab cultivators have aspects of symbiosis (exchange of complementary products) as well as of competition (conflicts over access to grazing and water in cultivated areas). It is important to note that competition was more acute between the different non-Arab groups (e.g. Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa) in the same or overlapping agricultural niche; and among different Arab ‘tribes’ (e.g. Rizeigat, Beni Helba, Taisha, Fellata, and Habbania) in the same pastoral niche, than it was between Arabs and non-Arabs. In addition to Baggara Arabs, cattle herders (the so-called Fulani) of West African origin have for centuries infiltrated Darfur and added an ethnic dimension to competition in the pastoral niche.

A major challenge the sultanate faced was regulation of relations between cultivators and pastoralists. The exchange of pastoral and agricultural products was facilitated by a system of weekly markets. In addition to the farmers and pastoralists, urban centres have for several centuries contained a numerically small, but economically important group of so-called Jellaba traders. Although these traders mainly originate from Nile valley Arab tribes, they consider themselves ethnically distinct from the Darfur Arab nomads. Although the court culture of the Keira sultanate was influenced by Arab principles of administration, the language of the ruling elite was Fur.

From the eighteenth century, Koran schools were established where boys for a period of at least four years got instructions from local Muslim teachers about how to write verses from the Koran on wooden writing boards. However, among the Fur cultivators important cultural ideas and ritual practices continued to inculcate beliefs about human relations and cosmological forces that had no basis in Islamic doctrines.

A very important feature of Fur social organization is that husband and wife operate as independent economic units (each spouse is responsible for cultivating their separate fields, storing their products in separate granaries and independently deciding on the use of the products). Economic cooperation is limited to the wife’s duty to prepare meals that the spouses consume separately, and the husband’s obligation to provide wife and children with a limited amount of market goods, like sugar, tea, and cloth.

The staple crops are different varieties millets cultivated as a rain-fed crops. Other important rain-fed crops are sesame (Fur: “kurta”), tomatoes (Fur: “banadura”), groundnuts (Fur: “fula”), ochra (Fur: “faga”), chilli pepper (Fur: “filfilo”), and cotton (Fur: “nyiringa”). Where water is available from perennial springs or shallow wells, cash crops like onions (Fur: “basala”), tomatoes, potatoes, and wheat are cultivated, as well as mango and citrus fruits.

The Darfur sultanate remained independent until 1916 when the last sultan, Ali Dinar, was overthrown by a British led force and included as a province in the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium of Sudan.

Selected Bibliography

Al-Tunisi, Mohammed b. Umar (1845): Voyage au Darfur. Paris.

Barth, F. (1967): Economic Spheres in Darfur. [In:] Firth, R. (ed.) Themes in Economic Anthropology. London.

Beaton, A.C. (1968): A Grammer of the Fur Language. Khartoum.

Browne, W.G. (1806): Travels in Egypt, Syria and Africa. London.

Cunnison, I. (1966): Baggara Arabs. London.

De Waal, A. (2005): Famine that Kills, Darfur, Sudan. Oxford.

De Waal, A.  (2007): War in Darfur and the Search for Peace. Harvard

Holy, V. (1974): Neighbours and Kinsmen. A Study of the Berti of Northern Darfur. London

Nachtigal, G. (1971-1987): Sahara and Sudan. London

O’Fahey, R.S. (1980): State and Society in Darfur. London

O’Fahey, R.S. (2008): The Darfur Sultanate. London

Prunier, G. (2005): Darfur. The Ambigous Genocide. London