THE SARA COMMNITY
The Sara people are a Central sudanic ethnic group native to southern Chad. the northwestern areas of the Central African Republic, and the southern border of North Sudan. They speak the Sara languages which are a part of the Central Sudanic language family. They are also the largest ethnic group in Chad. Sara oral histories add further details about the people. In summary, the Sara are mostly animists (veneration of nature), with a social order made up of several patrilineal clans formerly united into a single polity with a national language, national identity, and national religion. Many Sara people have retained their ethnic religion, but some have converted to Christianity and Islam.
Identification. “Sara” is the term employed by outsiders to refer to a group of non-Muslim tribes in southern Chad, all of whom speak mutually intelligible dialects. Each tribe is a distinct geographic, political, and endogamous entity. Major tribes are:
Linguistic Affiliation. The Sara language Group belongs to the Central Sudanic Branch of the Nilo-Saharan Language Family and is related to languages spoken by the Barma, the Kenga, and the Bulala in Chad, as well as to those spoken by the Bongo and the Krech in Sudan. There are Eastern Sara (Sar, Nar, and Gulay) and Western Sara (Ngambay and Mbay) dialects.
Demography. There appear to have been approximately 1,045,000 Sara in 1977. This was the largest single ethnic group in Chad, roughly 23 percent of the total population. The Ngambay at this time were the largest subgroup (425,000), followed by the Gulay (112,000), and the Sar (92,000). Sara fertility is higher than that of more northerly Muslim peoples, and the area in which they reside is considerably smaller. This means that, in places, previously low population densities have begun to increase.
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History and Cultural Relations
Most Central Sudanic speakers reside in Chad. The Bulala—who live near Lake Fitri—are the northernmost of the Central Sudanic speakers, and the Sara are the southernmost; the Barma—who are found near the Bahr Erguig—are intermediate. From approximately A . D . 1000 to 1900, Central Sudanic history was characterized by a regional political economy consisting of different types of societies performing different roles in the trans-Saharan trade, which was largely in slaves. In the north were desert specialists, societies like that of the Tubu that assured the travel of caravans across the desert. In the center were states—Muslim emirates like that of the Bagirmi (in which the Barma were preeminent)—that warred to acquire and sell slaves. In the south were cereal producers, societies like that of the Sara that were the major reservoirs of slaves. People in the precolonial states called those they raided “Kirdi,” which generally meant any non-Muslim, and hence enslavable, person. The Bagirmi specialized in raiding Kirdi Sara during the nineteenth century. In the early twentieth century the Sara were incorporated into French Equatorial Africa. The southern portion of Chad was considered by the French “1e Tchad utile,” and it was here that administrators concentrated their efforts. The impact of colonization thus fell squarely upon the Sara. Their society was transformed by the introduction of taxes, paid in cash; of forced labor, especially on the Congo-Ocean Railroad; of obligatory cotton production; and of service in the French military, especially during World War IL By independence in 1960, the Sara were better educated and had greater experience with French political institutions than did the northern populations that had formerly raided them.
Most Sara who are Nar (hereafter reference will be to the Nar unless otherwise mentioned) reside in small villages located near streams or along roads. In precolonial times, in principle, a hamlet ( gir be ) was a distinct area in which members of a patrician ( gir ka ) lived with their wives, children, other kin, and followers. Villages ( gir begi [the gi suffix is a plural marker]) were divided into a number of such tracts of different clans. Households in these villages tended to be dispersed, with their circular thatched huts standing in the midst of family members’ fields, but colonial and postcolonial officials have obliged the relocation and concentration of households along more easily administered roads. In the 1970s most villages had 200 to 300 inhabitants.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Sara, who live in a moderately well-watered Sudano-Guinean ecological zone, specialize in the slash-and-burn cultivation of cereals, especially sorghums and millets. They fish and raise chickens, dwarf goats, and a few horses. Plow oxen, introduced during the 1960s and still rare, are the only cattle kept, owing to a high incidence of sleeping sickness. The French, in search of a stable supply of cotton fiber for their textile industry, introduced cotton as a cash crop in 1928. Postindependence governments have continued to emphasize the crop because its sale has brought 80 percent of the country’s foreign exchange. Because of cotton’s importance, its production has been mandatory throughout the colonial and immediate postcolonial periods. Most cotton is produced by the Sara, who have added this work to their normal subsistence activities. Raising cotton is more labor intensive than growing food crops. Its farm-gate price has usually been kept low. It has a tendency to exhaust soils. Increasingly, manioc is substituted for cereals in areas where cotton production is high. Manioc requires less labor than do cereals but has less nutritional value. One reason for its popularity may be that it allows labor that would have been allocated to the growth of cereals to be directed instead to the maintenance or expansion of cotton cultivation. Studies suggest that areas of considerable manioc production are those with lower nutritional levels.
Industrial Arts. Precolonial crafts included metalworking, pottery, cloth and basket weaving, calabash carving, and different forms of woodworking. All of these are in decline as their products are increasingly being replaced by manufactured imports.
Trade. There do not appear to have been indigenous markets among the precolonial Sara. Merchants from Bagirmi, and to a lesser extent from other Muslim states, circulated in the area, usually exchanging sumptuary goods for slaves. Lack of commercial experience has meant that many small stores and other enterprises in Sara towns are owned by members of northern ethnic groups.
Division of Labor. Little is known of the precolonial division of labor. The contemporary ideal, however, is that a wife should work for her husband in farming and domestic activities. In exchange, he should provide her and her children with food and other necessities. In principle, the husband owns the fields and their harvest, which he doles out. As women grow older, however, they clear and plant their own fields, and therefore they own these fields’ crops and can dispose of them as they see fit. Both men and women derive labor for their fields from kin, especially children. Gender alone does not seem to confer advantage in securing labor. Rather, what counts is the ability to be generous with grain, alcohol, and cooked food. Women, it appears, can be just as generous as men. Thus, men and women effectively possess the same access to land and labor. This division of labor was reported for a Sara group with abundant land. It is possible that such abundance allows for a more egalitarian access to agricultural resources.
Land Tenure. Perhaps the most important aspect of past and present Sara land tenure, at least in regions of low population density, is the absence of cultural notions producing differential access to land. In the past each clan had its area that it farmed to the exclusion of all other clans. The main rule regulating access was that clan members could acquire land by farming it. Those who were not members of clans could acquire fields simply by asking any clan member for permission to farm. Land inheritance was of little importance. Most fields were on virgin bush or long fallows over which no one exercised rights. The French were convinced that all Sara had chefs de terre who, by virtue of supernatural association with land, might at least partially regulate access to it. Although there may have been some Sara with chefs de terre in this sense, they were rare. The founders of villages, and their descendants, called kwa begi, were sometimes said to “own” the land. Such persons had only a hazy, moral prestige, however, almost indistinct from that resulting from age, which was irrelevant to land apportionment. Today there is a person, known as the chef de carré, who, following consultation with members of his carré (lit., “plot”) selects where its cotton fields will be located.
Kin Groups and Descent. The Sara combine a cognatic, ancestor-focused, system of kinship with patricians. The term “gir ka” can, depending on the context, mean either “ancestor” or “patrician.” A gir ka is any ancestor from which a person is descended in any way. Descendants of a person’s ancestors are that person’s cognates. Cultural notions specify that such kin should join in each other’s work groups, share food, welcome each other as members of their residential group, and in general provide mutual support. Persons who stipulate that they share agnatic descent from an ancestor belong to a “gir ka,” with the term here used in the sense of a patrician that has its place of residence, its gir be. Clans were in principle exogamous. Clan members should participate in its funeral ceremonies and other clan affairs, such as the taking of vengeance and sacrifices to the spirit ( besi ; pl. besigi ) associated with the clan. There was absolutely no belief that the different clans in a village were part of a common organization based upon agnatic descent. Similarly, neither the village itself, nor other villages, were conceived of as descent groups bound in a single, pyramidal structure, as was found among the Nuer.
Marriage and Family
Marriage. The Sara verb tar means “to love,” but the notion of “tar” carries with it an additional connotation of “giving things.” The idea that “giving” is intrinsically linked to “deep affection” is a basis of Sara marriage, which tends to be ideally viewed as a reciprocal relationship in which a husband gives grain and a wife provides services in exchange. It was believed that kin, especially mother’s brother’s offspring, were more likely than others to love each other. Payment of bride-wealth was a condition for creating marriages; it gave men rights to their wives’ sexuality and children. Polygyny and widow inheritance were practiced. Divorce was possible, although wives, rather than going through the bother of divorce, simply opened their own fields, thereby gaining considerable independence.
Domestic Unit. A married man ideally builds his wife or wives houses adjacent to those of his father’s household and thus resides patrilocally with his extended family. In fact, such households appear to occur in less than half the cases studied.
Inheritance. Traditionally, there was rarely much to be inherited. Although there were rules guiding inheritance of fields, these were rarely applied because land was abundant. In general, movable property went to younger agnates of the deceased. Some supernatural property—such as knowledge of how to turn into an animal, how to perform sorcery, and how to control besi spirits—was inherited from father to son or mother to daughter. A change has occurred with respect to the inheritance of certain new forms of movable property that require prior investment, such as plows or carts. These tend to be inherited by children rather than siblings.
Socialization. Child-rearing practices tended to be exacting. Children were expected to learn to behave. They were punished if they did not. The male initiation ceremony was important for inculcating gender roles (see “Ceremonies”). Today formal education is very much appreciated.
Social Organization. There was no differential access to the major productive resource, land. Recruitment to the few ritual positions that conferred distinction was restricted to those satisfying the rules of their inheritance. There was no ranking, even within descent groups. Hence, precolonial Sara society appears to have been rather egalitarian, with some ranking. Cultural notions pertaining to age, gender, and kinship influenced most social activities. The Sara lacked the age grades and sets found in Nilotic populations. Nevertheless, they strongly believed that juniors should defer to elders. They also generally felt that women involved in social relations with men should defer to the men, although the capacity of this attitude to affect action may have been restrained by attitudes pertaining to appropriate kin behavior. All kin—especially close agnates—owed each other assistance. A husband might therefore refrain from exercising excessive authority over his wife for fear of losing support from her relatives.
Political Organization. Most precolonial Sara tribes were highly acephalous; however, incessant raiding by the more northerly states had transformed nineteenth-century Sara lands into a laboratory of incipient centralization. Chiefdoms had begun to emerge among certain Sar, Nar, and Gulay. The most highly elaborated of these, organized around a person called the mbang (the Barma postindependence term for “sovereign”), was that of the Sar near the town of Bedaya.
The Sara have been extremely important in postindependence Chad. The first president, François Tombalbaye, was a Sar, and he and other Sara completely dominated the government, a reality that non-Sara—especially northerners—bitterly resented. Civil war began in 1966. In 1973 an increasingly hard-pressed and authoritarian Tombalbaye, in a bid to strengthen his legitimacy by reinstating certain, “traditional” Sara institutions, created the Mouvement National pour la Révolution Culturelle et Sociale. For example, officials were supposed to participate in male initiation. Tombalbaye was assassinated in 1975 in a southern coup. By 1978, power had passed from the south to the north. The 1980s were a time of difficulty for the Sara: famine was exacerbated by oppression.
Social Control. No courts existed among precolonial Sara at any level. Family disputes were not settled by elders, or the village “owners” (kwa begi). In fact, there appear to have been no peaceable conflict-resolution mechanisms in either the clan village or tribe. Disputes tended to be settled by some form of self-help. Divination may be performed at the death of a person to discover the cause. Should the divination indicate that a particular individual was responsible for the death, then a vengeance party—largely composed of the deceased’s agnates—might be formed.
Conflict. Two major types of extrasocietal conflict dominate Sara history. Both have north-south dimensions. Precolonial wars were fought between Muslim emirates and the Sara as the former sought slaves among the latter. Since Chadian independence, the Sara and more northerly peoples have contested for control over the central government. An important form of contemporary intrasocietal conflict pits government officials against traditional religious specialists in local communities.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. Precolonial religion was based on notions that different religious specialists could, by performance of appropriate ritual, influence different supernaturals to restore or maintain natural and social well-being. Many Sara in contemporary times have converted to Christianity, often opting for some form of Protestantism. There appear to have been three major forms of the supernatural. Nuba was a sort of otiose god who had created the world. A besi was a sort of “spirit” that was immanent in, symbolized by, and named after natural objects—especially trees—or social activities, such as initiation. Besigi interfere in peoples’ lives by bringing misfortune. Some besigi were not powerful; others had the ability to influence entire clans or villages. Badigi (sing. badi ), the dead conceived of in their afterlife, were the third form of the supernatural. A badi, usually a deceased father or mother, can attack people and, like a besi, bring misfortune.
Religious Practitioners. There appear to have been four main varieties of religious specialists in precolonial times: those who owned a besi; those who presided over initiations, who were called mohgi ; those in charge of harvest festivals; and rainmakers. In general, practitioners were not organized into a hierarchical priesthood, except around the mbang at Bedaya.
Ceremonies. Much ceremonial activity was ritual to propitiate besigi or badigi, thereby creating or restoring beneficent natural and social worlds. The most important ceremonies were initiations, funerals, and those following the harvest. Initiations were important for a number of reasons, one of which was that they helped define gender relations. Men became initiated ( ndo ), whereas women and young boys remained uninitiated ( koy ). As a result, men were thought to have learned how to act, a knowledge denied to women.
Arts. Singing and dancing have been and remain an important part of Sara life. Visual arts such as sculpture were little developed.
Medicine. In precolonial times, and still largely today, illness was believed to be the result of supernatural actions—either those of a besi, a badi, or a practitioner of sorcery ( kuma ). Divination was performed to identify the attacking supernatural and to suggest a manner of diagnosis.
Death and Afterlife. Many Sara conceived of death not so much as a biological event as a modification in social status. Each person was believed to have something like a soul ( ndil ). At death, this separated from the body. Provided the proper rituals were performed, however, the deceased did not perish but became a badi. Participation in mortuary ceremonies was important as a way of validating a person’s membership in a clan.