The Fur of Sudan and Chad
By : Orville Boyd Jenkins
Population: Sudan 1159274, Chad 2491 (PeopleGroups.org, 2001)
Religion: Islam (syncretized); Traditional Religion (reported by some sources)
Status of Christianity: World A, <1% Christian
Registry of Peoples code: Fur: 103084
Registry of Languages code (Ethnologue): Fur: fvr
The Fur people live mostly in the Sudan, in Darfur province, named for them. A small number live on the Chad side of the border. Jebel Marra in that area is considered their traditional home. Darfur, the name of their area today, means The Homeland of the Fur. The Fur are settled in local communities over about 43,500 square miles.
Their area includes plains and the volcanic mountain ranges of Jebel Marra and Jebel Si. The plains lie at 3000 feet above sea level, and Jebel Marra rises to almost 10,000 feet. There are wadis (dry rivers) which fill with water from Jebel Marra in the rainy season. Water usually lies close under the surface in the dry season. The wadi beds themselves are cultivated.
The homeland of the Fur is what was known in the 16th century as Southern Nubia. Fur oral tradition attributes ancient ruins to a mysterious people called the Torra. After the Torra, the Daju ruled the area, based in Jebel Marra, then the Tunjur, based in Dar Furnung.
The Fur were renowned as cavalrymen in the Kanuri state of Borno in what is now Nigeria. They were at times opposed to the Kanuri. In 1504 a leader of the Funj people, Amara Dungas, founded the Black Sultanate, succeeding to the remnant of the old Christian kingdom of Alwa. Dungas established his capital in Sannar on the Nile. There was a busy trade route between the Funj empire and Darfur, slaves being a major commodity.
In the early 1600s, Sulayman Solong of the Keira clan of the Fur overthrew the ruling clan allied with Borno, and became Darfur's first Sultan. He brought Islam to the area. As the Funj pressed farther west, they clashed with the Fur for control of Kurdufan (Kordofan) in the 1700s. Although the Fur Sultanate was consolidating power, they could not prevail against the Funj who defeated the Fur and took control of most of Kurdufan in the mid-1700's. The local sultanate remained intact under Funj suzerainty and after the Ottoman annexation of Darfur in 1874.
The slave trade had been an institution for centuries in Darfur, a great trading center. The Sultanate controlled the slave trade as a monopoly, levying taxes on traders and taking a share of slaves brought in. Slaves, however, could rise to prominent positions in the court and society. Their power became so great that public disturbances occurred in the 1700s in protest. This continued until the British forced the Egyptian ruler to stop the trade in the late 1800s.
The Fur are the largest ethnic group in the Darfur region of western Sudan. They are also sometimes referred to by the names Fora, Fordunga, Furawi, Konjara or Kungara. They are an active agricultural people and may also herd cattle. Some Fur families who have accumulated a substantial cattle herd developed a more nomadic lifestyle like that of their herding neighbors, the Baqqara (Baggara) Arabs. Culturally, those cattle-herding Fur are now considered to be Baqqara.
The Fur are nominally Sunni Muslims following the Maliki school of Islamic law. They are kin to the Kanuri people of Nigeria, with whom they maintained contacts over the centuries. The Fur area, called Darfur, was ruled by the Borno kingdom of the Kanuri in Nigeria as late as the 17th century.
The Fur speak a fairly uniform Nilo-Saharan language also called Fur. Though they may speak Arabic in order to relate to their Arabic neighbors and the Sudanese central government, they very much retain their traditional identity.
Until 1916, the Fur were ruled by an independent sultanate and were oriented politically to peoples in Chad. Though the ruling dynasty before that time, as well as the common people, had long been Muslims, they have not been arabized. They are now incorporated into the Sudan political system.
The Fur had been basically independent from the 1600s, and under self-administration even when conquered by the Funj, then the Ottoman Turks in 1874. The Fur were involved in the Mahdist revolts from 1882 to 1916. After British reconquest in 1899, the British approved the re-establishment of the Fur Sultanate, assumed by Ali Dinar when the Mahdist movement crumbled.
Mahdist revolts continued to break out in Sudan until 1916. The fall of Darfur was actually decided, however, when Ali Dinar declared loyalty to the Ottoman Empire in World War I. The British abolished the Fur Sultanate in 1916, after Dinar died in battle.
In World War I, Dar Fur made a bid for independence by allying with Turkey against the British. However, the British conquered Dar Fur in 1916, since when it has been part of Sudan. Since the 1970s, the Dar Fur area has suffered some of the effects of the northern Arab war prosecuted in the south against Southern tribes who wanted to secede from the Sudan.
War has been the primary factor in the last few decades of the Darfur area. A civil war lasted about 20 years, until the end of the 20th Century. A new conflict arose in 2003, involving local Arab militia called janjaweed attacking the African peoples village by village in a campaign of terror, reportedly supported by the Sudanese military.
Three rebel groups in Dar Fur are now fighting the Sudanese government. These groups arose partly as a defense against the increased actions for Arabization by the Khartoum government. "The rebels took up arms in 2003, accusing the government of discriminating against the black African residents of Darfur" [BBC News 9 May 2006]
The breadth and ferocity of this victimization has elicited numerous international charges of genocide, and comparisons with the massacres not many years ago in Rwanda. The tribes most directly attacked appear to be the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa. All the peoples in the whole Darfur and some of the Kordofan have been affected.
Rich volcanic soil nourishes crops in terraced fields stretching above the village. Common crops are dill, chilis, potatoes and sesame. Bulrush millet is also a common food. Husbands and wives traditionally raised their crops separately, maintaining some economic independence.
The growth of cash crops is so labor intensive, however, that greater cooperation is now required. Cash crops include peanuts, chilis, onions, wheat, mangos, sugar cane, oranges, opra, sesame and tobacco. On market day women exchange news as they compare prices. Shopping is done in open markets. Cattle play only a small part in the subsistence economy of most Fur.
Building a house is a community event. Men and boys gather to raise a new house for a family in their village. Each one brings wood for beams or grass for the thatched roof. In return, the owner of the new house provides beer which one of his wives has brewed.
Polygamy is common, and beer drinking is thriving, even after centuries of Islam, which prohibits the drinking of alcohol. A wife is responsible for preparing porridge and beer for her husband. Traditionally, she would use grain from his separate granary for his food, while using her grain to feed her children. Additionally, a husband is expected to supply some market goods for the wives and their children, like cloth, shoes, sugar, tea.
Marriages are arranged through the payment of bridewealth to the bride's family, different commodities for various immediate family members. A man's father assists in the payment for the first wife, but a man will usually pay for subsequent wives himself. Polygyny is not common, though allowed, but divorce is high, so an older woman may have two or three husbands over a life.
There are no clan or lineage identities limiting marriage. Different patterns of marriage are followed by highland and lowland groups of the Fur. In the highlands, a more traditional pattern is followed. The preferred pattern is for a man to marry his mother's sister's daughter. Other cousins, however, are quite acceptable.
Among the lowland Fur, this practice is prohibited, following Islamic law. The reason given is that sisters tend to help each other in nursing their children, and children who have taken milk from the same breast may not marry (they are considered siblings).
After marriage the groom normally moves to the village of his wife and cultivates for her parents for one year. They may permanently settle there, but ideally they will move back to the husband's community. A person may marry a spouse's sibling if the spouse dies, but each spouse must avoid contact with the other's parents-in-law.
Education has depended on Arabs or Muslim immigrants from West Africa to build mosques and teach boys. At age eight to ten, every boy not in the government's formal school system will begin a four-year Quranic school, leaving their families to live with a faqi (Islamic teacher) in another village and help till his fields.
Increased education has become important to enable Fur to compete economically and politically with the dominant Arabs. While attempting to identify with the Arab elite and compete with them on their terms, Fur have tried to develop a political base in their Fur ethnic identity.
The Fur are listed as over 99% Muslim, but their religious practices are actually largely animistic. Large-scale conversion to Islam from their traditional religion did not begin until the reign of Sultan Ahmad Bakr (1682-1722), who imported teachers, built mosques and compelled his people to become Muslims.
The Fur were influenced by the Mahdist movement, a religious revolution of Arabic-speaking Sudanese against the Ottomans. The Mahdi captured Darfur in 1882, capturing the Austrian representative of the Egyptian Khedive in Cairo, who had been the first Egyptian-appointed governor of Darfur Province.
Primary cultural values, expressed in mystical symbols, are solidarity, trust and support within the Fur community. This is symbolized by the color white, representing mother's milk. The phrase bora fatta (white milk) is a positive, unifying theme, also applied to porridge. The opposite value--betrayal, associated with competition or conflict--is associated with the color black, and expressed in witchcraft beliefs and accusations.
There is a complex of mystical symbols and social expectations associated with bora fatta. Competition--a negative value--in its extreme is killing, and the victim's relatives are proscribed from eating with the killer. Any relative breaking this taboo is described as kowa, "leprosy."
They also believe in the power of a rival's evil eye, common throughout the Arab world (called "hot eyes" by the Fur). This leprosy sanction also serves as a constraint against including strangers in the community.
More than 700,000 Fur people live in Western Sudan, yet they have no Bible, radio broadcasts, Gospel recordings, relief work or missionaries. In ancient times the Fur were a Christian people.
But they became Muslims after the invasion of North Africa by Arabs, who spread the Muslim faith widely as they conquered and settled among indigenous peoples. There are a few Christians among the Fur today. The kowa sanction would make it difficult for a Christian of another ethnic group to live among the Fur.
Copyright © 1997, 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins