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Ethnic Identity on the Sudan-Ethiopian Border


The watershed of the White and the Blue Niles is not only marked by a sharp contrast in topography and vegetation between the Ethiopian highland and the Nile basin. The international boundary between Ethiopia and Sudan and the administrative boundary between northern and southern Sudan separate cultures as different as those of the Oromo, the Nuer and the Arabs. For the Oromo and the Nuer, this area constitutes an ecological barrier that limits their highly specialized agricultural and pastoral economies in the highlands and the lowlands respectively.

As a result of their expansionist movements in the nineteenth century, the Arabs, Oromo and Nuer came into mutual contact in the Sudan-Ethiopian border region. For the most part these three large nations respected each other's territories, but the Koma and some dozen other small ethnic groups suffered badly from the pressure which followed the political changes in the region. During the last 150 years, the Sudan-Ethiopian borderland has become an area of retreat for these groups who once inhabited a much wider region.

The Koma's Slave Years

The Koma are an ethnic group of about 5000 people who suffered heavily under the yoke of slavery in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They now live scattered in Ethiopia and northern and southern Sudan. The days when the Koma were driven to the verge of extinction by the slave raiders are remembered as "the time when God turned bad."

Caught between the anvil and the hammer, the Koma were driven to forced labor and raided for slaves from all sides. They could not find refuge anywhere. When they fled from the Arab slave traders into the Ethiopian highland, they were raided by the Oromo. Running back to the south, they were harassed by the Nuer. Communities were shattered and the people ceased to resist. Many were captured and sold as slaves in Omdurman or Shoa where they lost their ethnic identity completely. It may seem a wonder that these small ethnic groups have survived at all. As the Koma say, "If the English had not come we would have been finished off by the slave raiders."

In 1928, the British colonial government staged its Anti-Slavery Campaign and pacified the Sudan-Ethiopian borderland. Under the colonial power's patronizing protection, the Koma returned from their hiding places in the mountains and started to rebuild their torn communities. This intermediate period of relative peace ended in 1956 when Sudan gained its independence. Although the situation never became as bad as it was during the days of the slave raiders, the Koma and their neighbors were once again at the mercy of dominant powers surrounding them.

During the civil war between northern and southern Sudan (1955-1972), Koma settlements once again became easy prey for the warlike Nuer herdsmen. They found it easier to empty the Komas granaries than to cultivate their own fields. In the late 1970s in Ethiopia, the Koma became the victims of forced resettlement programs.

Since 1983 the security situation has again deteriorated dramatically. When new civil war broke out in southern Sudan, government forces abandoned their positions and left the Koma's villages unprotected. In Ethiopia, the Derg detained and maltreated the Koma village elders for their alleged cooperation with the Oromo Liberation Front.

The Koma Avoid Surrounding States

Apart from these most imminent dangers which threaten the life of the Koma, the pressures of assimilation have become even greater today. The implementation of Islamic law in Sudan threatens the Komo's mode of living and the foundations of their culture. Beer-work parties and sister-exchange marriage have been declared illegal overnight.

Within their own society, the Koma avoid social stratification, accumulation of wealth, concurrence and technological innovation as these would threaten the equilibrium of their social and natural environment. As in many societies which have no recognized leader, order is maintained through the interpretation and sanctioning of any mishap that results from a violation of these rules. Koma villagers' loyalties are expressed in beer-work and mutual help among neighbors. The idea of an equilibrium within the community emerges in the exchange of goods, labor and sisters.

The Koma feel surrounded by three powerful nations: "Sudan," to the north; "Janub" (southern Sudan) to the south - which the Komo consider an independent state (I was once asked "Who is the president of the Janub?") - and "Shoa" (Ethiopia) to the east. The Koma who live in all three "states" do not feel part of any of them. They fear all three powers and try to avoid contact with them whenever possible. They keep clear of the motortracks and tend to settle their disputes among themselves to avoid the involvement of the "hakuma" (government), because "the talk of the hakuma is bad."

Hakuma Perpetuates Koma Slavery

For the Koma, "hakuma" is not only government. "Hakuma" is anything that comes from central authorities. The army and police as well as the school, health posts, and any one who is dressed in western clothes and can read and write comes under the heading of "hakuma." At the beginning of my stay among the Koma I was considered "hakuma" and treated with great suspicion.

In many respects "hakuma" is seen to be the direct descendant of the slave raiders. In former times the Koma had to work on the fields of the slave traders. Nowadays they have to carry out unpaid labor for the "hakuma," constructing school and garrison buildings.

In the early 1970s, compulsory education was introduced in Sudan. Koma children had to learn the Koran and were often beaten and insulted by the teachers as "slaves who only eat the grain of the hakuma." Many of the children ran home.

Little has changed for the Koma since the times of slavery. The Arabs and other Muslims are seen to continue the role of the slave traders under the guises of wage labor, school, labor migration, bride wealth or trade.

The Koma Look For Familiar Ideas

In contrast to their caution toward innovations imported from foreign cultures (trade, cash economy, Islam, Christianity), the Koma have happily accepted many ideas from groups more like themselves.

Great changes have taken place during the last few generations in Koma social order and religious rites. These changes are not a direct result of their contact with Western or Islamic civilizations. Many experiences with the outer world have created questions about the foundation of Koma society. Incompatible with their social order, these new ideas are rejected. Such difficulties of adaptation and interpretation do not arise in the acceptance of ideas or concepts from groups which are culturally more similar.

The Koma look for familiar ideas among their neighbors to solve their own problems without putting their ethnic singularity at risk. This identity would be threatened if they were more open to western and northern Sudanese culture, as the example of the Bertha shows. The Bertha, who live close to the Koma and who share a similar history, have adopted Islam and the northern Sudanese style of living to a great degree. At the expense of their own cultural singularity, the Bertha identify themselves with the dominant Arab culture. The changes that have taken place have enforced Koma resolve to retain structures of their society. They have also strengthened the feeling of belonging to one group among the small ethnic groups in the Sudan-Ethiopian borderland. This seems to be the basis for a newly emerging identity that did not exist in this form even before the time of slavery. This identity is founded on the underlying knowledge that the outer world does not offer many advantages for them.

The Koma prefer the weak, who cannot protect and defend themselves, to the strong. Toward strangers they say, "We are weak and poor." Instead of identifying themselves with the dominant culture as the Bertha did, the Koma and their neighbors have formed a community of the weak. Against the pressure of the outer world they have united to resist integration into the modern centralized states. Their isolation is facilitated by their geopolitical position between three nations.

After surviving the holocaust of the slave raids, the Koma and other small ethnic groups in the Sudan-Ethiopian borderland have reconstructed their torn communities along new rules of residence and descent. Their historical experience has left a lasting mark on their dealings with the dominant political groups in the area - Arabs, Nuer and Oromo.

The small groups in this peripheral frontier region have learned - painfully though - to use their ambivalent situation between three dominant "nations" to their advantage. They use their own minority status and ingenuity to solve their problems rather than put themselves into a position of dependence.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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