Rashaida people are nomadic Arabic-speaking people of Bedouin Arab ethnicity living predominantly in the scattered areas in western and northern Eritrea, with some smaller groups also dwelling in parts of Egypt, bordering the Sinai desert and Eastern Sudan.
Rashaida people of Massawa, Erirea dancing at their wedding festivities
According Kjetil Tronvoll (1996) the name "Rashaida" means "refugee". These people are believed to be Bedouin Arabs who migrated from Saudi Arabia in the mid to late 1800’s and are the last established ethnic group to have settled in Eritrea.
Currently, they are the only true nomadic people left in Eritrea and nd take pride in their ability to keep up with their livestock. Rashaida people make up five percent of the population of Eritrea of about 3.75 million people. In Sudan, they number around 68,000, and live mostly in the northeast part of the country on the outskirts of the city of Kassala, one of the most frequently visited spots in Sudan.
Veiled Rashaida women
Rashaida people who are mostly Sunni Muslims do not have a permanent residence and settled life are the most favored ethnic group according to the Eritrean political structure. Their youth are exempted from any forced conscription and members are free of any national duties. In recent times, they have moved higher up in the governmental and political structures, acting as de facto administrators of the western borders of Eritrea and Eastern Sudan.
The women are known for their elaborate (typically) black and red burqas/coverups. The men are known for their elaborate sword dances at ceremonies and gatherings.
Rashaida people speak Arabic language, although some of them can speak impeccable Tigre language.
Rashaida woman preparing food
The Rashaida are closely related to the Saudi Arabia Bedouin, who migrated to Sudan from the Arabian Peninsula in 1846. (2007, Amal Hassan Fadlalla, p.44). The cause of their migration was due to ethnic warfare and starvation that broke out in Saudi Arabia (1998, Niaz Murtaza, P. 177). After coming to settle in the desert along the coastline of the Red Sea, their homeland now extends from Massawa, Eritrea, to Port Sudan, Sudan.
During the Italian period in Eritrea, it was largely uneventful for the Rashaida as the areas normally inhabited by them were extremely harsh and at considerable distance from active reach of the state (1998, Niaz Murtaza, P. 177). The combination of animal-herding, occasional agriculture, and trade allowed the Rashaida to attain considerable prosperity, consisting mainly of large animal herds and gold stores (1998, Niaz Murtaza, P. 177). However, during the Ethiopian occupation of Eritrea (1950-1991), much of this wealth was destroyed. The Rashaida were a favorite target of the Ethiopian army because of their prosperity (1998, Niaz Murtaza, P. 177).
Their nomadic lifestyle also attracted the suspicion of the Ethiopian army, which punished them repeatedly for supporting the Eritrean liberation fronts (1998, Niaz Murtaza, P. 177). Consequently, the Rashaida entered the post independence period greatly improverished (1998, Niaz Murtaza, P. 177).
Since Eritrea won its independence in 1991, the Eritrean government has been asking the Rashaida to transform themselves into settled agriculturalist.
Rashaida people dancing
The Rashaida who are a nomadic people live in tents made of goatskins. They are herdsmen, breeding primarily goats and sheep. Since they are largely illiterate, they memorize in great detail the pedigree of their animals, keeping mental records of their herds over seven or eight preceding generations of the flock, although they usually only emphasize the female lines.
Besides herding, the Rashaida also gain income through jewelry making. It is the veiled Rashaida women who craft much of the silver jewelry sold in the Kassala "souq", or market, which is said to be one of the best in Sudan. Along with the jewelry, the Kassala souq supposedly markets some of the best and juiciest fruits Sudan has to offer.
- Rashaida Tribe Women Selling Clothes, Kassala, Sudan
Kassala in Sudan, with a population of 150,000, is a popular spot for tourists and Sudanese honeymooners, for it offers cooler temperatures than the rest of Sudan, along with beautiful mountains and tens of thousands of trees.