Descent, reciprocity and inequality among the Northern Beja.
The Beja are a group of Cushitic-speaking, Muslim agro-pastoralists. indigenous
inhabitants of Northeastern Sudan. The thesis describes two of the Beja tribes in
Halaib District. Red Sea Province. The structure of Beja society is provided by a
segmentary patrilineal descent system which is also a system of individual titles
to land. Land is valued more as a symbol of identity than for its economic benefits
to the owner. This is analysed in terms of a non-reductionist theory of descent.
which does. however. link it to the political dominance of men.
As pastoralists. Beja frequently use one another's land. This is governed by
a1l11, a concept that might seem to describe a code of substantive customary law. It
is analysed instead as practice, deriving from a cultural complex of 'generalized
reciprocity'. Within this framework much of the detail of Beja agro-pastoral1sm is
described, including patterns of land-use, the household and division of labour, the
yearly agricultural and pastoral cycles and the remarkable greetings ritual, which
guarantees the spread of information on grazing conditions.
In contrast to this reciprocity, there are economic inequalities between
households, and contractual labour relations. For the poor, there is labour migration
to Port Sudan. Although the traditional political process is seen to revolve around
consensus and reconciliation, sheikhs are likely to be wealthy and their interests
can dominate traditional councils.
The Northern Beja depend on trade with the outside world, and this is shawn to
have a long history. Livestock is sold in Egypt, and grain and other commodities
are sold in small rural shops, often giving extensive interest-free credit. Although
this favours politically influential shopkeepers over others, it ultimately benefits
a few merchants in Port Sudan. District politics has also been influenced by the
outside world, in the form of the colonial and post-colonial states. This history,
and particularly the rise of a non-traditional elite between 1969 and 1985, is
reviewed, in the light of other writings on Sudanese local politics.