The Saharan Berbers of North Africa
A cluster profile covering 21 Saharan Berber groups in 5 countries.
There are about ten million Berbers scattered across the vast regions of Northern Africa. Their tribes stretch from the Siwa Oasis in Egypt to the Atlantic Ocean. It is thought that they once inhabited the entire North African territory, forcing the Negro population to move further southward through the desert. However, the exact origins of the Berbers and how they arrived in North Africa still remains a mystery.
The name "Berber" is derived from the Latin word barbari, meaning "barbarians." This term was used by the Romans in the third century A.D. to describe the "people of the Maghrib." (The Maghrib refers to the regions of North Africa that were conquered by Muslims between 670 and 700 A.D. It included Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and the western portion of Libya.)
Although the Maghrib has been, for the most part, "Arabized" by language and Islamic culture over the centuries, there are still groups of Berbers, like the nine Saharan Berber tribes, who have retained much of their original Berber traditions and characteristics.
What are their lives like?
The native Berber economy rests on a fine balance between farming and breeding cattle. Every tribe, without exception, depends heavily on domestic animals for carrying heavy loads, milk and dairy products, meat, and hides or wool. Similarly, there is not a single tribe that does not also rely on agriculture for survival. Hunting rarely adds to the food supply.
The Berbers call themselves the Imazighen, which means "man of noble origin." Their various languages belong to the Hamito-Semitic language family which includes five major groupings as well as a large number of dialects. Although the Berber languages differ greatly from one another sound, they only vary slightly in grammar and vocabulary.
The Berbers are often noted for their skills in various crafts. Domestic tasks, such as weaving and pottery, are the main work of the women; whereas the men specialize in woodworking, metalworking, and, more surprisingly, fine needlework. In regard to labor, the men do most of the farming, while the women's responsibilities include milking and gathering.
Berber societies can be broken down into three basic units: the community, the district, and the tribe. The community is a political collection of clans; the district is a cluster of communities; and the tribe is a group of districts that are characterized by a common territory, name, and culture. Government at the community level is notably democratic. All authority is vested in an assembly called the jemaa. The jemaa, which is composed of all adult males, usually meets weekly.
In nearly every Berber society, each district, and sometimes each community as well, is divided into two opposing factions called sofs. Membership into the sof is hereditary. Among tribes that no longer live in their original environments, the political units are allied with one another in identical divisions of higher levels known as lefs. Bonds of alliance are re-confirmed by traditional forms of hospitality as well as by huge annual feasts to which members invite one another. If warfare occurs, it is almost exclusively between districts of the opposite lef. However, since lefs are primarily defensive rather than offensive alliances, their primary purpose is to preserve peace in a region.
What are their beliefs?
The concept of baraka, or holiness, is highly developed in North Africa. The Berbers believe that many people are endowed with baraka, of which the holiest are the shurifa, or the direct descendants of Mohammed.
Another class of holy people is known as the marabouts. Among some Berbers, the Tuaregs in particular, the marabouts are considered to be different from ordinary men. They are believed to possess the powers of protection and healing, even after death.
In view of the general acceptance of Islam, it is particularly interesting that almost all Berbers prefer monogamous marriages (marriage to only one partner). Even the oasis dwellers and the Tuareg hold this preference. In the few tribes where polygamy (marriage to more than one partner) does exist, it is practiced only by the few wealthy men.
What are their needs?
The quality of life for the Berbers is quite poor. The need for community development projects may provide open doors through which missionaries may enter.
Algeria remains closed to traditional missionary efforts, and fundamental Muslim groups are very outspoken against Christianity. Much prayer is needed to break down the barriers that separate the Saharan Berbers from the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
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© Copyright 1997
Bethany World Prayer Center
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