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Nomads and their sedentarization in the Sudan

Mustafa Mohamed Khogali
Department of Geography, University of Khartoum

The growth of nomadism in the Sudan goes back to a period before the birth of Christ. Nomadism was practiced long ago by the Beja tribes of the Red Sea and the people of the Butana region during Merotic times (ca. 540 B.C.-A.D. 350) (All, 1972), but it is believed that nomadism spread to many parts of the Sudan after the tenth century A.D., when the Arabs began to enter the Sudan in large numbers.

Now nomadism occupies an important place in the cultural and economic life of the Sudan for the following reasons:
(a) The number of nomads in the Sudan is large, although the exact figure is not known. According to the population census of 1973, the total number of nomads was about 1.6 million, or about 11 per cent of the total population. The total number of nomads in 1955/56 was about 1.4 million, which constituted about 14 per cent of the total population of the country. However, it is generally believed that the nomads of the Sudan were under-enumerated in both the 1955/56 and the 1973 censuses (Henne in, 1966).
(b) The nomads utilize about 850,000 kmē (one third of the total area of the country) in both the semi-desert and savanna zones.
(c) The nomads own the majority of the animal wealth of the country, estimated at 40 million animal units in 1974. (Although the official estimate of the nomads' animal wealth is only 21 million animal units, it is based on tax-list figures and is thought to be far below the actual number.) From these the nomads supply almost all the beef and mutton needs for internal consumption, in addition to producing a surplus for export.

The Distribution of Nomads in the Sudan

The central belt of the Sudan, mostly semi-arid and savanna, is the home of the Sudanese nomads. However, the nomads do not form a majority of the population except in some areas. Table 1 shows the distribution of the nomads by provinces.

The distribution of the nomads correlates with a number of human and physical factors. The cultural heritage of nomadism is a very important factor in the continuation of nomadism. As a rule the Negroid population is settled, whilst nomadism is practiced by Arab and Hamitic groups. Nomadism is still a fascinating way of life for them, and it is the kind of life they know best.

Nomadism also has some important physical bases, of which scarcity of water during the dry season is the main one. Rainfall in the Sudan is seasonal and decreases in amount from 800 mm in the southern parts of the central Sudan to 75 mm in the northern edge of the semi-arid zone. But rain-fed cultivation in the tropical areas needs at least 250 mm a year. Thus the semi-desert, with less than 250 mm a year, cannot be cultivated unless irrigation is used, and this is possible only in areas near the Nile.

The semi-arid zone, however, has good grazing potential, and the nomads use their mobility to raise a large number of livestock, mainly camels (thus the name Abbala) and sheep.

With the onset of the dry season the nomads retreat to their dammering centres where they have some wells and hafirs (man-made depressions) that supply water for most or all of the year. There they camp, and the households remain in the vicinity of the watering points. The livestock are taken away to graze under the supervision of the young and male members of the households. By the end of the dry season all the pastures, even distant ones, are eaten out, and the nomads wait for rain to relieve them.

When rain falls the nomads move away from the dammering centres towards the desert to utilize the pasture of the more marginal areas while rainwater collects in the natural pools.

TABLE 1. The Number of Nomads in the Sudan by Provinces, 1955/56 and 1973

  1955/56 (1,000s) 1973 (1,000s)
Sudan 1,405 1,631
Blue Nile 124 249
Bahr el-Ghazal - -
Darfur 266 412
Equatoria - -
Kassala 502 416
Khartoum 53 55
Kordofan 393 406
Northern 67 93
Upper Nile    

Sources: For 1955/56 figures see Sudan, Department of Statistics, First Population Census of the Sudan. 1955/56 Figures for 1973 were kindly supplied by the Department of Statistics, Khartoum.

The grazing of the dammering centres is thus spared for use during the dry season.

The annual rainfall of the savanna belt is between 260 and 800 mm and is usually sufficient to grow some annual crops. But the dry season, November-June, is long. So, unless sources of permanent water are available, permanent settlement is not possible. The nomads with their mobility are able to use these marginal areas to raise a large number of animals, mainly cattle (hence the name Baggara) and sheep.

During the dry season the Baggara are found in their dry season grazing areas near Bahr cl-Arab, Bahr el-Ghazal, the Sobat River, and the Machar Marshes. From the pools in these water-courses as well as from shallow wells the nomads get the water they need. But as the rainy season starts, the clay turns to mud and biting flies multiply and irritate the livestock. So the nomads move northwards to areas of less rainfall and to areas of sandy soils in the western Sudan. The sandy soils, however, lack some of the essential salts, and this represents a problem to the nomads. As the rainy season comes to an end, water becomes scarce and the livestock return to the permanent watering points.

Nomadism as an Economic Way of Life

The great advantage of nomadism is that it enables the nomads to use vast areas which have problems that make them either impossible or extremely difficult to be used by settled people. Thus, the nomads are able to raise large numbers of cattle, sheep, and camels (Table 2).

These animals supply the basic needs of the nomads: milk, meat, wool, hides, and skins. Some animals are sold when the need arises. Moreover, the animals have important social and, to some extent, political roles. The more animals a nomad owns the greater his social prestige and the more chance he has to rise in local politics (Cunnison, 1967).

TABLE 2. The Number of Livestock in the Sudan for Selected Years

Type 1924 1964 1974
Cattle 1,500,000 10,000,000 12,897,720
Camels 418,000 2,000,000 3,090,000
Sheep 1,966,800 10,000,000 11,484,000
Goats 1,840,000 7,000,000 8,794,000

Sources For 1924 figures see Report by His Majesty's Agent and Consul General on the Finance and Administration of the Sudan. Figures for 1964 and 1974 are estimates by the Ministries of Agriculture and Planning respectively.

Because of their interest in animals and their constant mobility, the nomads do not care much for cultivation. However, the fact is that the nomads do cultivate whenever it is possible. In the semi-arid zone rain-fed cultivation is a gamble worth taking by most of the poor and nomads of average wealth if only to reduce the risk of being forced to sell part of the animals to buy grain. In the savanna, the cultivation of both subsistence and commercial crops is not so risky and is widely practiced by the nomads.

Despite its advantages, nomadism has become a less suitable way of life in this age of advanced technology and national awareness. It is increasingly recognized that nomadism has several important disadvantages, such as extensive and destructive use of natural resources, inefficient use of human resources, and a marked inability to use social services.

The nomads use and depend on the unimproved natural resources of water and grazing, and they have, therefore, to use extensive areas so as to raise a large number of animals. The nomads cannot change to a reasonably intensive use of the available water and grazing resources because these are communally owned. If the nomads settle, there is an opportunity to conserve water, through their own efforts or those of the government, and to improve upon the natural productivity of the pastures.

The carrying capacity of the nomadic areas was originally low, contributing to the extensive use of resources, but it has been further reduced by the depletion and disappearance of some of the valuable pasture species such as siha (Blepharis spp.) as a result of overstocking. While the number of livestock has multiplied (Table 2) as a result of improvement in veterinary services and provision of water supplies, neither the area of grazing resources nor the off-take of stock has increased in comparable proportions, leading to over-grazing and destruction of the resources.

Table 3 demonstrates the degree of over-stocking in one nomadic area.

Nomadism also entails inefficiency in the use of human resources, although at first sight one gains the impression that nomadism makes full use of the labour force, since all the population, male and female, save the very young and the very old, perform some kind of economic activity. During the rainy season the nomads are engaged mainly in the supervision of the animals that depend on natural grazing and natural water pools. Such work is not demanding on the labour force, and the rainy season is, therefore, a time of leisure.

TABLE 3. Sustained-Yield Carrying Capacity and the Number of Livestock at Areas of Animal Concentration in Dar Rezeigat, 1975

Season Livestock units at
sustained pro-
duction level
Observed live
stock units
July and  
October/November 180,000 1,440,000
August-October 180,000 640,000
December 180,000 600,000
January 209,000 600,000
February-June 209,000 280,000

Source: Huntings Technical Services Ltd., Savanna Development Project, Annex 3, Table 1.5. Conversion to animal units was done by the author.

In the past, it was the dry season that was demanding on the labour force, for the nomads used to dig wells, build earth basins, draw water from the wells, and take the animals to distant areas for grazing. Some of this work is still performed by the nomads, but the introduction of mechanical pumps has greatly reduced the amount of work needed in the dry season, and a sort of disguised unemployment has thus developed.

The inability of the nomads to make use of the social services that may be offered is because of their mobility. Children do not go to school because they are on the move all the time, and also because they are needed to look after the animals. The nomads have no inhibitions about visiting hospitals but are far away from health centres most of the year. Moreover, clean water cannot be provided while the nomads are on the move, and because the nomads choose to be in the vicinity of water pools, they easily contact diseases such as malaria and bilharzia.

Mobile social services (Asad et al., 1960) may not work in the Sudan for a number of reasons, such as the great distances involved and bad roads. In addition, some services, such as the provision of clean water, cannot be offered on a mobile basis.

The Settlement of Nomads in the Sudan

It has been observed that some semi-nomads and nomads have settled spontaneously for different reasons. Some lost their animals and were forced to settle. However, this was not always permanent, and some reverted to nomadism once they rebuilt their herds.

A more permanent type of settlement was achieved as economic development schemes or social services came into being. The establishment of the Gezira Scheme in 1925 and the pump irrigation schemes on the White Nile led to the settlement of many nomads. On the other hand, the development of the Gash Scheme in 1928 had little effect on the settlement of the nomadic Beja because irrigated cotton cultivation in the Gash proved to be less profitable than the raising of animals under nomadic conditions.

Important settlement of nomads did take place in the savanna belt, especially west of the White Nile, mainly as a result of the opening of watering points, which were originally meant to shorten the distance travailed by the nomads and open new grazing areas that were not formerly used because of the shortage of water Jefferson, 1956).

However, one important result of the provision of water was that the nomads began to settle and cultivate subsistence as well as commercial crops, mainly groundnuts. Yet the type of settlement that developed is very much linked with nomadism, since the nomadic families began to split into two sections, one to look after the animals and the other to cultivate.

The result of this partial settlement was striking. Dar Rezeigat, for example, had no villages till the Second World War; but with the opening of watering points, it came to have more than ten large villages. One of them, el-Daein, even acquired the status of a town.

In the 1960s, a few years after the Sudan gained its political independence and when national awareness and aspirations for a better social and economic life were growing fast, many of the educated Sudanese thought that the nomads, being a substantial proportion of the Sudan's population, should settle. They also thought that it was the duty of the government to take the necessary steps to enable the nomads to settle (Asad et al., 1960).

Due to this feeling, the government in 1964 asked the Special Fund of the United Nations to help in the settlement of the nomads. Following this a UN Special Fund expert came to the Sudan and wrote a report suggesting the establishment of 10 settlement pilot projects in the different provinces of the Sudan with the help of the Special Fund.

These suggestions were not acted on, probably because of strong adverse criticism (Asad et al., 1960).

Nevertheless, in 1968 the Government of the Sudan came forward with the idea of establishing a number of pilot settlement ranches in the areas of Babanusa and Gerih elSarha in western Sudan. The government also developed the Khashm el-Girba Scheme in the Butana region and on Atbara River, to settle some of the Shukriya nomads.

So the Sudan entered the era of planning for the settlement, and the results are assessed below.

Assessment of settlement in the pilot ranches of western Sudan

It was originally planned to establish more than 40 ranches in the Babanusa region for the Humr, a Baggara tribe. This was thought impracticable, and eventually four pilot ranches were established. The area of each of these ranches was 100 kmē, and each was to accommodate 200 families who were supposed to settle, raise animals, and cultivate.

The Gerih ei-Sarha pilot ranch, with a total area of 200 kmē was established for the Kababish, the largest camel-owning tribe. Fifty families were to settle, raise animals, and to cultivate whenever possible.

It is ten years since the government started these pilot ranches, but the Babanusa ranches never go off the ground, and, although the Gerih el-Sarha ranch was established and is supposed to be working, it has faced many problems, resulting in no proper settlement. The main causes of the failure of both settlements are the same, differing only in details, and are summarized below.

First, planning for the settlement of the nomads was initiated from above, and for this reason the nomads were rather suspicious of the government's intentions. In turn, the officials felt that their plans might be opposed and, therefore, resorted to tactics of divide and rule, inviting some individuals and minor sections of the tribes concerned to join the ranches to the exclusion of the others. A further cause of suspicion was that the ranches were located in areas of good communal grazing, and this meant that the nonmembers of the ranches were denied the use of such grazing lands. This created resentment and opposition to the idea of settlement.

Second, it was realized that the carrying capacity of each ranch was far below the number of animal units owned by the families to be settled [Table 4). This meant that either the nomads must reduce their animals and thus reduce their wealth, or that the excess number of animals had to graze outside the ranch boundary during part of or the whole year, and this meant a continuation of nomadism.

Assessment of settlement in Khashm el-Girba

The Khashm el-Girba Scheme (recently re-named New Halfa) was established in an area of about 200,000 ha with the main aim of resettling the Sudanese Nubians whose land had been submerged by the waters of the High Dam. It was thought that, since there was more land than needed by the Nubians, the surplus could be allotted to the nomads of the area who had traditional grazing rights in the Khashm el-Girba region. These were also requested to settle.

The nomads gladly accepted the offer. Since 1967 a total

TABLE 4. Total Carrying Capacity and Total Animal Units Owned by the Families Supposed to Settle in Gerih el-Sarha and Babanusa Pilot Ranches

Ranch Total carrying
Total animal
units owned
Girih el-Sarha 1,000 13,000
Any of Babanousa ranches 2,000 20,000

Sources: Figures for Gerih ei-Sarha were obtained by a survey done by a fact-finding committee in 1973. The figures for Babanusa have been estimated ny the author on the basis that each of the Humr family owns no less than 100 animal units.

Of about 16,000 tenancies of 6 ha each have been distributed to about 14,000 families (about 60,000 persons).

The Khashm el-Girba Scheme attracted the nomads because of two main reasons. First, in April of each year there will be very little natural grazing left in the interior of the Butana, but the season of irrigated cultivation will be over and the tenants will allow their animals to enter the fields and graze the residues of the cotton and groundnut plants. Second, after 1970 the price of groundnuts increased, and this has been sustained till the present. This rise made groundnut cultivation very tempting. However, of the three crops grown (the other two being wheat and cotton) only groundnuts interested the settled nomads.

Despite the impressive figures of 14,000 families that have been allotted tenancies, settlement in the Butana has been only partial and the Shukriya have not shown strong interest in cultivation. As the raising of animals under nomadic or transhumant conditions continues to be their main occupation, with the onset of the rainy season in July many "nomads" who own tenancies leave their cultivation to relatives or hired labourers and follow their animals to the interior of the Butana where rich green pasture awaits them.

Future Planning for me Settlement of me Nomads

Settlement of the nomads is desirable both from the national point of view and from that of many nomads. This is substantiated by the fact that in the past many of the nomads opted to settle once they realized that settlement was more beneficial to them than nomadism. Yet settlement plans in western Sudan failed, while those in Khashm el-Girba did not yield the desired results.

This contradiction can be explained by the fact that the nomads did not see eye to eye with the planners. The nomads thought that they were being turned into cultivators without animals. To them, traditional cultivation without animals gives them low income. This is also the case with irrigated cultivation in Khashm el-Girba since prices for groundnuts cannot remain high forever. Indeed, prior to 1970, when the price of groundnuts was low, the nomads showed no interest in cultivation or settlement. Furthermore, animals give better and more reliable return than cultivation where fluctuations in crop yields and prices are common.

Settlement of the nomads is also technically possible both in the savanna and in the semi-arid regions. The rainfall in the savanna is normally high enough to allow crops to grow. Furthermore in many cases it is possible to excavate hafirs (in clayey and rocky areas) or to drill boreholes that yield plentiful water to satisfy the domestic needs of a settled population.

Therefore, both cultivation and raising of animals could be combined in savanna regions.

In the semi-arid areas the annual rainfall is not sufficient to assure cultivation. Therefore rain-fed cultivation can only be one of several subsidiary activities, the main one being animal raising, but this could take place under settled conditions.

The way to achieve settlement in both the savanna and the semi-arid zones is the one that has always yielded good results, namely the provision of services and the building of an infrastructure.

Watering points, if opened in favourable areas, would shorten the distances travelled by animals and attract some of the households to settle. When schools, dispensaries, improved transport, and marketing facilities come into being, still more households will settle. However, part of the animals and some members of each household will continue to move and make use of pastures in distant waterless areas. But it should be remembered that the opening of watering points should be done on a scientific basis; otherwise overgrazing will continue at an even faster rate. It should be part of a regional plan in which all the potentialities of a region are taken into consideration.

The regional plan should also be co-ordinated into a national plan. Take population for example. The semi-arid zone away from the Nile supports only a sparse population. It is, therefore, important that the national plan should be designed to accept and even encourage emigrants from the semi-arid zone and absorb them in areas of higher potentialities. This process of spontaneous settlement through provision of services could be hastened by education and the extension of public works.

Suggested Fields of Research in the Area of the Settlement of Nomads

Research that would help in the settlement of nomads should be interdisciplinary and cover a wide variety of fields.

Water conservation and use. Productive research in this field is being done in the USA and Australia. If the water problem can be solved, more use of resources can be expected.

Crop production. Crop production can play an important role in the savanna and the semi-arid zone. But the production of such crops as dukhn and groundnuts, as practiced at present, leads to soil erosion and desertification. Research is needed to test the feasibility of growing perennial crops instead of annuals. Research is also needed to increase land productivity.

Pasture and fodder crops. No serious research has been done

I so far to restore the plant cover or re-introduce some of the valuable plant species that have disappeared from the nomadic areas. No research has been done on new plants of high nutritive value that can be grown successfully in the Sudan. One of the most important things is to investigate how to increase the carrying capacity of the nomadic lands.

Social research. Social research is needed to test the best way of spreading new knowledge and encouraging its acceptance by the nomads.

Education. Education in nomad areas should be geared towards making children understand their environment and making the best use of it without destroying it.


Ali, A.M. 1972. "Merotic Settlement of the Butana," In Ucko and Tringham, eds., Man, Settlement and Urbanism. London.

Asad, T., I. Cunnison, and A. Hill, 1960. "Settlement of the Nomads of the Sudan,' In Agricultural Development in the Sudan, pp. 102-20. Soc. Sudan.

Cunnison, I. 1967. Baggara Arabs.

Hennein, R. 1966. "A Re-estimation of the Nomadic Population of the Six Northern Provinces." Sudan Notes and Records, 46, p. 145.

Jefferson, J.H.R. 1956. Haffirs or Development by Surface Water Supplies in the Sudan, Khartoum.

Philosophical Society of the Sudan. 1962. The Effect of Nomadism on the Economic and Social Development of the People of the Sudan.


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