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The Berta Peoples

History

The Berta or Bertha are an ethnic group living along the border of Sudan and Ethiopia. They speak a Nilo-Saharan language that is not related to those of their Nilo-Saharan neighbors (Gumuz, Uduk). Their total Ethiopian population is about 193,000 people.

Their origins are to be found in eastern Sudan, in the area of the former Funj sultanate of Sinnar (1521-1804). During the 16th or 17th century, they migrated to western Ethiopia, in the area of the modern Benishangul-Gumuz Region. “Benishangul” is an arabicized form of the original name Bela Shangul, meaning “Rock of Shangul”. This refers to a sacred stone located in a mountain in the Menge woreda, one of the places where the Berta originally settled when they arrived to Ethiopia.

Their arrival in Ethiopia was marked by strong territorial conflict among the diverse Berta communities. For this reason, and for protecting themselves from slave raids coming from Sudan, the Berta decided to establish their villages in naturally-defended hills and mountains, amidst rocky outcrops. Due to this harsh topography, houses and granaries were raised over stone pillars. The Berta of Benishangul were incorporated to Ethiopia in 1896.
After conflicts and raids receded during the 20th century, the Berta people moved to the valleys, where their villages are located today. During the 19th century, the area of Benishangul was divided in several sheikhdoms (Fadasi, Komosha, Gizen, Asosa), the most powerful of which was ruled by Sheikh Hojele at the end of the century.

Customs

After several centuries of Arab Sudanese influence, the Berta are now mostly Muslim and many speak fluent Arabic. Due to their intermarriage with Arab traders, some Berta were called Watawit -the local name for “bat”, meaning that they were a mix of two very different groups. However, they still have traditional customs that are similar to those of their Nilo-Saharan neighbors. For example, there still exist ritual specialists called neri, who have healing and divination powers. They are the ones who know how to deal with evil spirits (shuman). Rain-making rituals are also found among the Berta, as among other Nilo-Saharan and Nilotic communities.

In their wedding ceremonies music is played by males with large calabash trumpets (was’a). The groom arrives to the wedding on a donkey and carrying a banga (throwing stick) in his hand. After the wedding, the husband has to build a hut and live in his wife’s village for a year or more, tilling their father-in-law’s land. Divorce is accepted. The Berta decorate their faces with scarifications, usually three vertical lines on each cheek, which they consider to be symbols of God (each line is interpreted as the initial letter of Allah, the Arabic alif).

The Berta are slash-and-burn agriculturalists. Their staple food is sorghum, with which they make porridge in ceramic vessels. They also make beer with sorghum. Beer is prepared in large ceramic containers called awar and is’u. Working parties play an important role in Berta society. When somebody wants to build a house or cultivate a field, he calls his neighbors for help and provides beer and food.