The Baggara, meaning “cow-herders”, are composed of several Arab groups living in that part of the Sahel region between Lake Chad and southern Kordofan. The majority live in Chad, but being nomads they move between borders, entering Sudan’s Dafur region following the rains. As elsewhere in the Sahel, this brings them into bitter conflict with settled farming communities, conflicts aggravated as the Sahel spreads south. During the long civil war against the Peoples Liberation army of South Sudan, the Baggara were armed by the Sudanese government, becoming notorious as the paramilitary Janjaweed, seizing cattle, people and land as a perennial local struggle became national in scale. The following songs, recorded in the 1920s by Sigmar Hillelson of the Sudan Civil Service, show them in a different light, as warriors, lovers and poets. The groups mentioned are the Messiria, the Humur, and the Rizeigat, but there are others.

1

The fair ones, Mahmud’s three daughters, (1)
Umm Misel daughter of Kir,
Hangur the young of the Ril gazelle which fawns on the hunter, (2)
Dugla Zeinah, she of the tinkling bell
the sound her bell is like the cooking pot at Talodi.
Though prosperity may last, it did not last for Ali Dinar, the Furawi.
Though they give you the cattle of Mahmud wad Godat
and the cattle of Ismail Gambi,
if you follow the curdled milk, you will render your life unstable; (3)
when you remember our dar, the dwelling of your people, (4)
where in the afternoon the dance-drum plays,
then for sure my words said long ago will arise in your mind,
Hauwa al Kora, splendid as the Mamur of Shendi. (5)

2

Hauwa al Kora, when the travelling party separated,
I was grieved and unwilling. (6)
You have left Keilak, the lake of wadis, (7)
you have left the country of the water lily and the papyrus,
Hauwa, gazelle of Syria,
better for you the ground of the dar of El Gulla Abu Selman (8)
the colour of sugar that came from Omdurman. (9)
Hauwa, gazelle of Syria, (10)
they have taken you down to the dar of the Messiria,
where the dance-drum is neglected,
where a young man lies down in sorrow.
They have taken you down by Toto of the deep wells, (11)
they have taken you to camp at Kutna where nomads dwell, (12)
they have taken you past El Sinut the black, (13)
where people gather acacia pods and trade in earthenware pots,
they have taken you past Abu Zalad where the black men dwell, (14)
you whose hair is like thick papyrus which defeats him who would pull it up.

3

My people, Aulad Umm Salim, come here that I may advise you, (15)
perhaps I may not come to you again.
In such manner, give strength to your champion.
When you are hungry, he feeds you from his large dish,
when you are poor he enriches you by means of the tablet. (16)
I fear for you lest the six clans strive with you for mastery.
The nazirship is like a giraffe:
once she has bolted she never comes near you again.

4

We are the sons of Rizeg, our nickname is handful of dust. (17)
They destined us for destruction; behold we are alive.
They destined us for exile; behold we remain,
firmly holding the land as settled dwellers.
We carry sharp steel and live by the strength of our arms.

5

Hail, son of Madibbo, who invaded the lands and returned. (18)
He rode forth from Omdurman and alighted at the bend of the river.
He fought the Messiria and brought destruction upon them.
He exterminated the men of Hamar and filled the vultures till they walked heavily.
Musa, son of Madibbo, the tawny lion of the desert.
A knot of iron; he lies who says it can be untied.
Your turban on your head is as the circle of the moon.
Your shawl on your shoulders is red as the rain-mite. (19)
He saddles his mare Umm Merbet, not a transport bullock.
Isa and Musa, who can say which is the better man?
Musa cuts off heads, Isa brings back cattle.
The bull elephant that trumpets as he chases the hunter.

6

Water lily of the lake,
amulet on a leather thong, (20)
grain sown in a burnt clearing
where your rainy season has been abundant.
Your eyelashes curl up and touch the lids.
I desire to gaze on you, throw off the garment.
My heart burns for you,
Marda, sister of Ahmad,
the man whom you scorn reaches the limit, (21)
he is a miserable he-goat.

S Hilleson, from Songs of the Baggara,
Sudan Notes & Records 12, i (1929).


Footnotes

  1. This song is addressed to Hauwa al Kora, a Humur girl, known also as Umm Misel, Hagur and Dugla Zeinah. She is being courted by a Messiria man, from a neighbouring group. Her local lover tries to disuade her.
  2. Gazella Dama, a small, relative tame gazelle with red-brown patches on its neck.
  3. Prepared from the milk of cows or camels, resembling cottage cheese, and basic to the diet of nomadic peoples. Here a symbol of prosperity.
  4. dar: Homeland.
  5. Shendi is a prominent town on the Nile, 150 km north of Khartoum. Mamur was its ruler’s title.
  6. Hauwa al Kora has gone ahead with the marriage. Her lover formed part of the group escorting her to her new home. The song refers to different towns to the north of Humur, but not in any particular order.
  7. Keilak: Lake Keilak in Southern Kordofan state. Wadis are watercourses that are dry except during the rains.
  8. dar: Homeland. El Gulla Abu Selman was a former ruler of the Humur.
  9. Omdurman: The largest city in Sudan, across the Nile from Khartoum. The soil of the lover’s homestead is the colour of brown sugar from Omfurman.
  10. Hauwa: Gazella Dama, a small, relative tame gazelle with red-brown patches on its neck.
  11. Toto: A town in Dafur, famous for its wells.
  12. Kutna: A town just south of Toto.
  13. El Sinut: Another town in Dafur.
  14. Abu Zalad: A town 140 km north of Lake Keita.
  15. The poet is a supporter of Muhammed al Fagir, the unpopular Nazir of the Messiria. He is addressing the Aulas Umm Salim, one of the seven divisions of the Messiria to which the Nazir belongs, reminding them of their duty. In fact, the Nazir was desposed in 1915.
  16. The Nazir was a worker of charms, which were written as incantations on a clay tablet.
  17. The Rizeigat (sons of Rizeg) of southern Dafur were a rebellious group who refused to pay tribute to the sultan. This brief song boasts of their continued defiance.
  18. son of Madibbo: Musa, son of Madibbo, the leader of the Rizeigat, successuly led his people to Dafur after the fall of Omdurman to the British in 1898.
  19. This mite, which hatches during the rains, is bright scarlet in colour.
  20. A common adornment.
  21. Meaning, he is wretched.