The Dats’in are an indigenous minority group living on the Sudanese-Ethiopian borderland. They passed unnoticed to researchers, administrators and the wider world until 2013.
They speak an undocumented Nilo-Saharan language, related to Gumuz, and share important cultural and social traits with other indigenous communities in the area, while at the same time remaining clearly distinct.
Dats’in history, which is related to that of the so-called Hamej peoples – the blanket name by which they are known to other groups – can be traced back several centuries through oral traditions, texts and archaeology. The Hamej, in fact, played a crucial role during the Funj Sultanate (1504–1821) and probably before.
The Dats’in today have a patrilineal kinship system and are organized in clans. These clans are usually identified by the prefix da- at the beginning. Of the 11 clans that were given to us, seven have the prefix (Darecho, Dakadhe, Damdreg, Da’indil, Da’mikä’e-anz, Däk’urf, Dädähar), two others start by ja- (Jago’echä, Jädabe), which is probably just a variety of da-, one is a place name (Jebel Gär) and the last one may have a prefix fa- (Foconti). Da- is the clan indicator for the Gumuz, whereas fa- is the clan prefix used by the Bertha. The name Dats’in was perhaps originally a clan denomination, which ended up referring to the entire group.
The Dats’in reside in small clusters of compounds—rather than nucleated villages—that are established on silt bars along the Gelegu river and surrounded by cultivated fields. This is a settlement pattern that has been documented archaeologically since the late seventeenth century in the area. These clusters have between six and 15 houses, including both proper houses (that is, a hut occupied by a couple and their younger children or by an adult who has been married at some point) and those built by male teenagers (called duchäqo) in front of the main hut. Each house (chäqo) has its own granary, a drying platform and a raised goat house. The houses are circular and have a diameter of six to eight meters, without internal divisions or external fences that delimit the compound. This is similar to the domestic architecture of their Gumuz neighbors and the lowland Bertha living further south.
Dats’in society—like all other indigenous communities in the Sudanese-Ethiopian borderland—is predicated on male egalitarianism. Such egalitarianism is played out in different ways, such as working parties, restrictions in wealth accumulation and a particular form of dance—known in other neighboring groups—in which participants form a circle embracing each other tightly at the shoulder. This is a powerful bodily metaphor that celebrates group belonging and their mutual defense against the external world. Despite prevailing male egalitarianism, ritual figures of authority are respected. There are also chiefs (tïs) who are elected by a male assembly to mediate in internal conflict. It is somebody well respected within the community and that had to take an oath, in which he promises to obey God and the community. Although the position is for life, he can be replaced by the assembly if he fails to fulfill his role properly.
There are, at any rate, some indications of growing economic inequalities among households, which are manifested in the different number of women that a man can marry, the amount of cattle and the variety and richness of female adornments, which are brought from Sudan by their husbands. Indeed, some Dats’in men travel seasonally to the neighboring country to engage in wage labor, a fact that can in the mid-term increase wealth differences. Nevertheless, seasonal salaried work by the Gumuz in Sudan for over a century has not yet led to greater social inequality. Other groups, instead, directly ban labor for money, as the Uduk did at least until the 1980s. Also, laboring for wages abroad does not mean that this is an accepted behavior in their own territory. Gumuz, Bertha or Dats’in do not accept salaried work in their homeland. The maintenance of relations of equality among households—which means only among men—has been a key strategy of resistance against external domination.
The Dats’in practice a conservative slash-and-burn agriculture that overall resists technological innovation and the introduction of the plow. The main tools are the hoe (teb) and digging stick (antil), which they use to cultivate sorghum (kon?), corn (buturk/rifa), such oil seeds as noog (buluz) and sesame (käf). They also grow pumpkin (mänxe) and inqäse—a tuber that resembles a carrot—and exploit wild plants like the ya?a (Amharic- sensa), two other potato-like bulbs—sät (Am.?ole), endole (Am. embaqo)—and the onion-like-moyer. As a complement to the basically vegetable diet, they raise some animals, predominately goats (me’e), followed by sheep (jaj), a few hens (me’te) and some cattle (ruus).
Agriculture and husbandry are mostly male tasks (it is young boys who look after the goats), although women assist men in practices such as weeding, and are fully in charge of transporting harvested sorghum from the cultivation fields to a threshing area near the compounds—as it happens among other groups of the Ethiopian-Sudanese borderland, like the Maban and the Gumuz. They also thresh, store grain and grind it. Besides, widowed or abandoned women can cultivate on their own sorghum, peanut, corn and legumes, as well as some cotton to make strings for their necklaces. They can also organize communal works (imphänts’h) to speed up the process of harvesting.
Widows and divorced women can raise animals: when there are no boys to look after the goats, it is young girls who carry out this task. Other female activities include fetching wood, making pottery, weaving mats (njerke) for the beds (Sudanese-style anqareb) made by their husbands, carrying water, gathering wild plants, cooking porridge (ga), preparing beer (käya) and looking after their husbands when they arrive tired from agricultural work. This means that, as in the majority of African societies, they work more than men and unlike men’s work, which is characterized by bouts of intense activity and long periods of inactivity, women’s work is continuous and, for that reason, more demanding.
In fact, women’s hard labor is considered an important criterion to define femaleness and marriageablity, along with their cooking skills and the care they take in looking beautiful and well-groomed. This they achieve by decorating their necks, wrists, ankles and heads with beads and cowries, an activity to which they devote considerable time (see below). Like other women in the region they transport heavy loads using a carrying stick (figwaai) that is balanced on a shoulder. From each extreme of the stick hang nets where they place the load: jerry cans with water, baskets full of sorghum, charcoal or wood. The same system is attested among other neighboring groups often grouped as Hamej, but also another indigenous group that lives far away, on the Eritrean borderland, the Kunama.
Although of limited economic relevance at the moment, hunting still has a relevant symbolic role among the Dats’in. There is an interesting split here between reality and the imaginary. While small mammals are still hunted for consumption, no lion or elephant hunt has been organized for years, because it is forbidden—the Dats’in live near Alatish National Park, which is heavily policed by rangers. However, like other neighboring groups, the Dats’in keep a strong collective memory of hunting which conveys well the outstanding relevance that this activity, which was practiced communally, had for men. Like other groups in the region, the Dats’in perceive themselves as continuously threatened by human and non-human forces, be they diseases or evil spirits. Thus, Wendy James noted among the Uduk that ‘even when involved in weeding a field, they see themselves as combating the invasive forces of the wild, and employ a range of devices, practices and rituals to keep away the wild birds, insects and so forth, which threaten the crops’. Likewise, the Dats’in see illness as evidence of the destructive energies unceasingly harassing them. Yet it is women now who are in charge of fighting these menacing agents, as we will see below.
Although the Dats’in combine Islamic elements with their traditional religion, the former are still in the minority. Although some are fluent in Arabic, they do not use it among them; there are no Dats’in mosques as such (although they might use others’), and they do not celebrate Islamic weddings. Islamic influence is better seen in funerary rituals. Yet it is spirits, rather than God, that governs the supernatural world: Qumsinjil—the guardian spirit, which resides in the house (chäqo) and granary (dhib)—and two evil beings: Muse’h—who lives in the rivers (elä’e) and the caves (hu’a)—and Hoo, who struggles with Qumsinjil for domination of the domestic space. Hoo takes the shape of a cobra: if one enters a house, it has to be demolished and the family has to move elsewhere. Interestingly, the main protective spirits (of the house, sorghum, rain, trees and so forth) among the Gumuz are called Mus’a, whose name is probably derived from the Islamic term for Moses. However, the Dats’in reverse the protective character of the spirit and transform it in a threatening agent. This shows that, as with the Uduk, ‘their apparently easy acceptance of (the) new ‘Gods’ and enthusiasm for new religious practices is always deceptive’.
This same ambivalence can be observed in other aspects of supernatural belief. Thus, they can visit a Muslim ritual specialist (faqi/fuqara), who prepares Quranic amulets and uses the Quran for healing, but this does not prevent them from resorting to the services of traditional healers, as is the case with many other African Muslim societies. In fact, the faqi we met was married to a traditional healer (fiyi). Depending on the nature of the problem, the Dats’in seek the assistance of a faqui, a fiyi or a gohe. The fiyi assists in specific physical problems, whereas the gohe deals with good and evil spirits. In theory, both men and women can have these positions. However, all active traditional specialists at the time of our fieldwork were women. Thus, out of six gohe documented in the villages of Dängärsha, Omedla and Mähadid, four were active women and two inactive men. Dreaming, as we will see, is the essential healing method in the gohe’s toolkit. The last two male gohes who are still remembered died 10 and 15 years ago respectively, which is perhaps telling of gender-related transformations, perhaps linked to the matrifocal background of the Dats’in.
The fiyi works with plants and deals with physical ailments, such as abscesses, throat pain, hemorrhoids, vaginal infections, etc., although it can also help with illnesses associated to the anxiety provoked among women by separation from their families after marriage or by men’s travels. That is, what Western society would define as psychological stress. The two main motives for visiting the fiyi are stomach problems and headaches, followed by eye infections. The specialist is paid with a hen or other commensurate goods. Unlike the Bertha, for whom the stomach plays a role similar to the heart or brain in Western culture, or the Uduk, for whom it represents ‘the reflexive and deliberate will’ and the liver the force and spirit of a person, for the Dats’in the heart is where thoughts (quy’iz), emotions (mägärqua) and happiness (mängäro) dwell, while anger (zähay) can be located either in the heart (according to women) or the liver (indihi) (according to men).The fiyi has a Gumuz counterpart and it is possible that this position has been adopted from them: it is the ette biye, which means ‘master of the root’. The ette biye heals similar illnesses and pains as the fiyi also using plants.
The gohe, instead, is related to spirits. She can foresee the future and carry out propitiatory rituals (ke-laad), asking Qumsinjil to give a good harvest to the community, or confronting Muse’h and Hoo, when they enter human bodies or houses making them ill. In this case they fulfill the same roles as the Gumuz gafea or gwahea, which whom they are related. As a matter of fact, the Dats’in do not hesitate to ask for the services of a Gumuz gafea, if their own gohes do not achieve the expected results. Like the gafea, the gohe practice divination on the basis of dreams: it is in dreams where they see the spirits causing a disease and discover the method to fight them. And as among Gumuz gafea, there is a hierarchy of gohe, depending on the fame of their results.
Healing rites are perceived and performed, in most cases, as an act of hunting or war against the spirits that have invaded bodies and houses. Confronting evil spirits—hunting or fighting them—implies lethal risks, thus the gohe resorts to war or hunting tools: the whip (algälänchil) and spears (inkase-gohe), which are objects still discursively associated with men. They use one or two spears depending of the gravity of the situation, and also a scepter or staff (engo-gohe). The staff is made of bamboo by the gohe’s assistant (mete-gohe). It is a symbol of the gohe’s power, a ritual aid and a protective device: she always takes it with her when she is travelling and sleeps with it near her head to help her dream. During healing rituals, she sticks it in the ground alongside the spears. Finally, she defends herself with the whip (algälänchil), which she holds under her armpit during the healing rite and which accompanies her in her travels to other villages. The whip is used also to halt and chase the whirlwind that is produced whenever Muse’h abandons the body of a patient. The gohe may use the blood from a goat to establish contact with Qumsinjil, the guardian spirit, and she accompanies the act of smearing the blood with a prayer addressed to the spirit. It is believed that Qumsinjil has antelope or goat horns. Interestingly, we were able to witness the healing of a baby in Beloha in which the gohe did not use spears but a stick topped with a horned animal head. Here again we see the inversion of a ritual present in a neighboring society: the Bertha ritual specialist, the neri, cuts the ear of a goat, but in this case to attract and capture an evil spirit that is damaging a house. After cutting it and throwing it on the floor, they wiped it out and the evil with it. As among other indigenous communities of the borderland, propitiatory offerings of chicken and beer (käya) are made to the spirits.
Whip and scepter are crucial objects from a symbolic point of view. They manifest the category and hierarchy of the gohe and are an example of elements adopted from the traditional appurtenances of the neighboring states. However, they have been recontextualized: the objects still convey authority, but one that is ritual, not political. It is used to rule over spirits, not over other human beings. The gohes who enjoy a greater reputation sit on an elevated chair in the presence of other gohes (another element taken from state traditions) and they lead the group when they travel to attend a big ceremony. Their greater category is expressed in the material in which the whip is made. Unlike ordinary gohe, which use whips made in common leather, the paramount gohe employs tools made of hippopotamus skin, which is brought by their assistants (mete-gohe) from the town of Al-Qadarif in Sudan. Meaningfully, Evans-Pritchard saw that different communities of the southern Dar Funj, not far from the Dats’in lands, used hippo whips in marriage feasts, in which young men used to flog each other (but not the bridegroom). The anthropologist considered that the whip was adopted from the Arabs. In fact, the whip is an element strongly associated to pastoralists and alien in a culture that virtually lacks cattle or camels. The recontextualization of these artefacts to which we have referred is particularly thorough in that it does not only affect relations between humans and non-humans (spirits or animals), but also gender relations. The whip as a symbol of masculinity is subverted among the Datsín, since it is only women who use it in ritual contexts.
The gohe has the gift of being able to contact spirits, but this is a dangerous activity. She can be attacked by Muse’h and Hoo, who are lodged in the ill person’s body. The risks entailed by her job explain that the ritual specialist is supported by an assistant, who always belongs to the gohe’s clan. His name, mete-gohe, literally ‘gohe’s-chicken’, refers to his inferior status as a servant. His prestige always depends on that of the gohe whom he serves. This is again a reversal of the dominant discourse, in relation to gender and age. The mete-gohe is not only a man, but also, in the four active cases in the area, he is older than the gohe, who is a female. Only the gohe from Omedla, Ignitera, has two mete-gohe, one male and another female. The female serves the gohe only in the absence of the male, although she plays a relevant role during the gohe rituals when the male assistant is traveling far away.
As we said before, some Islamic features are present in Dats’in culture. Islam is a religion associated with external authority that allows the Dats’in to feel empowered. However, this is a religion that follows a patriarchal logic: only men (sheikh and faki/fuqara) can achieve positions of ritual prominence and women are subjected through new ritual practices, such as clitoridectomy—although it cannot be said whether this is an Islamic imposition or was practiced before. In turn, in the field of traditional religious activities, which is far from dwindling, the logic of power related to gender and age is inverted and it is young women who have authority over male elders. This is a fact that is not incorporated into explicit discourse but is obviously played out in practice.
This inversion of gender roles may be associated with the matrifocal elements that were present among the Hamej and Funj, which provide the symbolic reservoir for gender resistance. There are several reminiscences of such matrifocality. At present, the Dats’in practice marriage through bride wealth—the groom has to give the male members of the girl’s family an ox and four goats —and postmarital residence is virilocal. However, temporary uxorilocal residence was the norm until recently: the newly-married couple spends between a week and a month in the village of the girl’s parents. Older women assert that they spent an entire year after marriage in their family’s compound, with the husbands working for their wives’ parents, before moving to their husbands’ village. This obligation is (or was until very recently) fully enforced by the Bertha, some of whom said that uxorilocal residence did not end until the new couple gives birth to a child and the Ingessana. Interestingly, they have both been categorized as ‘Hamej’ at some point in their history. This can be related to a matrifocal, even perhaps matrilineal tradition, that has also been pointed out among the Funj royalty. Royal rights were inherited via the maternal line at least until 1600 and the throne usually passed from one brother to the other. In the case of the Dats’in, matrilineal elements also include the relevance of the mother’s brother, who assumes all responsibility for his sister and her sons when the husband dies or divorces. There are traces of mother-in-law avoidance among men as well, a custom that has been noted among other Hamej or Hamej-related groups, such as Ingessana, Sillok and Bertha.
Today, these matrifocal elements are fading, as seen in the short time accorded to post-marital residence in the village of the bride’s parents. During the first week, the couple is expected to spend seven days in total seclusion, during which the wife could only go out with the head covered with a veil and on the shoulders of the husband’s relatives if she needs to go to the bathroom (the youngest wives speak only of being accompanied by her husband’s female relatives). This seclusion (particularly of the new wife) may be spent in an independent house (made ad hoc) or in some villages as Mahadid, in a specific part of the hut of the husband’s parents, which is separated from the rest of the house with the bride’s Islamic veil (t’ära). Nobody can interact with her, except small children, who are her only entertainment those days. After the period of seclusion, the married couple will occupy their final residence, which is a round house without internal partitions or a central pillar.
However, if there is something that immediately identifies the Dats’in as a group, it is female decoration. Indeed, the woman’s body is inseparable from the colorful beads that decorate it, as happens among other African groups. There is a long-term trend in the region of lavishly decorated female bodies going back to the Early Holocene: necklaces, pendants and piercings are very numerous in Mesolithic and Neolithic burials and bead aprons have been excavated in graves dating to the first millennium AD. In our surveys, the earliest beads were found in a 13th-century site located near the Dats’in village of Gïrara, but they become overabundant during the Funj period (17th-18th c.). Today, the ‘image of the body’ of Dats’in women is still indissolubly linked to beads, which doubtless are a ‘core object’, that is, ‘an artefact which, by its usages and ritual connectedness, appears to be vital for the definition of a culture’.
At the time of birth, all babies, male and female, are covered with beads so as to protect them against evil eye. However, it is only women who, during the rest of their lives, will keep an ‘image of the body’ associated with beads. In fact, not even in death will they be able to do without them. Although the greater part is inherited by their daughters, every woman must keep at least two strings of beads on the neck because otherwise ‘God will not allow them to enter Paradise’. Beads are used to decorate the neck (mändiphi), wrists (mandite’e), ankles (mändichowg), upper arms (mandi’ee), waist, and particularly, the head (mändiqo). The degree of decoration varies from one place to the other. At present, the women of Omedla are those who decorate themselves more, followed by those of Dängärsha and Lay-Gïrara. The technique is similar, but the designs are personalized. They devote an enormous amount of time, effort and care to decorate their heads. Although older women make headdresses at times, young women prefer to make them among themselves. They may spend an entire day finishing an elaborate hairdo and in general it takes several hours . They do veritable crochet works (they actually employ a crochet hook), weaving together hair and cotton thread. The latter they cultivate and spin themselves—a practice that we have attested archaeologically at least from the late first millennium AD: spindle whorls are plentiful in the Gelegu valley. Cotton threads are strung with diverse objects: beads, buttons, cowries and cotton adornments that their husbands or brothers purchase for them in their travels to work in Sudan. Women are considered more attractive the more their heads are decorated. Consequently, the maximum intensity of decoration occurs during the teenage years, between 14 and 20 years of age , although girls begin wearing single strings of beads (known as mändiphi) at the age of 8 or 9. For that same reason, women stop decorating their heads when they are around. The headdress is then replaced by a single broad and colorful strip, whose extremes usually hang on the back or shoulders. Beads have strong implications as part of the technologies of the feminine self and therefore in the construction of gender identity, issues with which we will deal elsewhere.
Although we will not talk about it here, it is important to note that the Dats’in, as has been pointed out, is a patriarchal society, even if social and economic equality among men may give the impression of an ‘egalitarian society’ sustained by an ‘egalitarian ethics’, as Gumuz society has been defined, for instance. Women occupy a subordinate position, as evinced by such practices as clitoridectomy. The ablation of the clitoris is carried out on every girl at that is 7 or 8 years old, as a condition to be accepted in society. Genital mutilation is followed by a period of seclusion, which is spent in a separate hut (chiqumish), where only elderly men and women who have no sexual relations can enter. According to other reports, seclusion takes places inside the main house, where the girl will pass up to 40 days lying or sitting with open legs so that wound can heal. Gumuz boys are circumcised at the age of 6 or 7. Circumcision is practiced by an expert (itimish) and also requires two weeks of seclusion. The Dats’in equate both rites, which are celebrated in a small feast attended by the immediate neighbors in the residential hut, where they slaughter either a goat or a chicken and drink beer. Such symbolic levelling, however, obscures, the real asymmetry inherent to both practices—one essentially violent and crippling—and helps reinforce gender hierarchies.