Bagirmi people


Bagirmi / Barma / Sara Bagirmi

The Bagirmi or Barma of Chad, are numbering 132,000 (, 2023). They are part of the Sara-Bagirmi people cluster within the Sub-Saharan African affinity bloc. This people group is only found in Chad. Their primary language is Bagirmi. The primary religion practiced by the Barma is Folk Islam, a syncretistic belief system that blends traditional elements of Islam with superstitious practices such as warding off spirits with incantations and magic amulets, and reciting verses of the Qur'an to bring about miraculous healings.

They are not to be confused with a smaller group of Bagirmi who speak dialects of Fula, the language of the Fulani people, which belongs to the Atlantic branch of the Niger-Congo family. (Bagirmi Fula found in Chad and Central African Republic)

Bagirmi people

In the old kingdom of Bagirmi, the Bagirmi exercised political dominance over many other peoples, and waves of invading peoples kept the Bagirmi almost constantly beleaguered.

When King Idris Alawma of Bornu conquered the Bagirmi about 1600, Islam was introduced; it made scant headway, however, and most people retained their traditional beliefs.

The Bagirmi practice hoe cultivation, growing chiefly millet and sorghum. They also keep cattle, goats, sheep, dogs, and chickens. They make use of milk, butter, and cheese, as do most pastoralists, and the practices of irrigation and fertilization with manure are common in certain areas.

The complex social stratification of the Bagirmi includes a privileged nobility headed by a royal family.



The term "Bagirmi" refers to a multiethnic society organized as an archaic state. Major populations in the Bagirmi region were the Barma, who formed and dominated the state; Arabs, who were its most numerous inhabitants; and the Fulani, who were significant in its religious life. "Bagirmi" derives from Arabic ( bagar, cattle; mia, one hundred) and, according to one tradition, indicates the amount of tribute that the Arabs and the Fulani were obliged to pay to their first ruler.

Location. The core of Bagirmi was located in the Republic of Chad along the Chari and Bahr Erguig rivers, roughly from N'Djamena in the north to Bousso in the south. This core was surrounded by tributaries. Bagirmi was situated between two competing kingdoms: Bornu to the northwest and Wadai to the northeast.

Demography. In 1954 there were about 25,000 Barma, 78,000 Arabs, and 25,000 Fulani in the area that roughly corresponds to the core and tributary zones of nineteenth-century Bagirmi. There is evidence of emigration from Bagirmi beginning in late precolonial times and continuing through the present. Relatively low fertility is reported for Bagirmi.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Barma speak Tar Barma, which belongs to the Central Sudanic Branch of Nilo-Saharan languages and is closely related to languages spoken by the Sara, Kenga, and Bulala peoples in Chad.


History and Cultural Relations

Bagirmi's precolonial history centered around the affairs of its ruler (the mbang ) and his court. There were four periods: formative, offensive, counteroffensive, and final.

The formative period (c. 1522-1608) roughly corresponds to the rule of the first four sovereigns. Tradition suggests that Dala Birni, the first of these, led followers from Kenga territory around 1522. This band was believed to have stopped under a tamarind tree (Tar Barma: mas ), where there was a young Fulani milkmaid named Enya. Later, a settlement was built around this tree, which, to commemorate both the tree and the milkmaid, became known as "Massenya," and it became Bagirmi's capital. Dala Birni is supposed to have protected the people in this area, and in return they paid tribute, the amount of which became the name of the kingdom (see "Identification"). Nothing is known about the second and third sovereigns. The fourth sovereign is remembered for imposing Islam upon Bagirmi, greatly expanding the state, and creating much of its governmental structure. With his death, traditionally set at about 1608, Bagirmi entered a more offensive phase.

During the period from about 1608 to 1806, Bagirmi may well have enjoyed a rough hegemony in east-central Sudan. According to its traditions, this pugnacious polity created tributaries to the north among the Medogo, the Bulala, the Kuka, and the Babelyia; to the west among the Kotoko; to the south among the Sarua, the Somrai, the Niellim, the N'Dam, and the Bua; and to the east among the Kenga and the Sokoro. The town of Bidiri was a center of Islamic learning, and its merchants were active throughout the region. This period ended at the close of the eighteenth century, when Wadai attacked. Wadaian aggression resulted from the conviction that Gaurang, Bagirmi's ruler, had committed incest by marrying a sister. Gaurang's defeat, in about 1806, initiated a period lasting until the arrival of the French, during which Bagirmi, seeking to regain its lost preeminence, mounted counterofifensives against both Wadai and Bornu. These actions were generally unsuccessful; however, there was expansion to the south.

At the end of the nineteenth century, France had decided to incorporate the central Sudan into its empire. The interval (1897-1912) prior to formal French colonization constituted the final period. Bagirmi signed a treaty with France in 1897, hoping thereby to gain support in conflicts with Wadai. Officials of Bagirmi also went behind the backs of the French and conspired with Wadai. After a final struggle with the French that ended in 1912, Bagirmi became a circonscription under the direct administration of a French chef de circonscription. Thus, during the subsequent colonial period (1912-1960) and, after 1960, as part of Chad, Bagirmi was no longer independent.



Barma villages consist of "family households". The settlements range in size from 50 to 1,000 or more people. Typically, each village represents a common lineage or extended family. The Barma are known for having small families due to low fertility rates. This can be attributed to several factors, including sterility (caused by venereal diseases), the high divorce rate, and the large age differences between the husbands and wives. Since much help is needed in food production and the labor force for each household is small, the Barma regularly participate in inter-village work parties. There, the people work as one group for the good of the whole village.

Towns and rural settlements in the form of villages and camps were the two major precolonial settlement patterns. Many Barma lived in permanent towns located on or near streams and swamps. Towns, which could have thousands of inhabitants, were often walled; they had various wards and large, open markets, around which might be found mosques and official residences. A major postcolonial change in settlement pattern, however, has been a reduction in the size of the Barma towns. The Arabs and the Fulani were semisedentary: they lived in villages and camps. Villages were small, often housing fewer than 100 persons, and tended to be located in northern and eastern Bagirmi. They were places of farming and herding during the rains (June to September); when precipitation diminished, many persons migrated with their animals in a southwesterly direction. Camps—small groups of 10 to 30 living in impermanent residences—were the settlement type adopted by those in transhumance.



Most Barma rely on both fishing and agriculture as the basis of their livelihood. However, some individuals rely solely on one or the other. The fishermen spend each day at the Chari and Bahr Ergig Rivers, while the farmers can be found in the fields outside their villages. Millet and sorghum are the main crops. Beans, sesame, peanuts, cotton, and vegetables are also grown.

Both men and women cultivate the land. The men maintain the large fields that produce the millet and sorghum. The women cultivate the vegetable plots, which are located either in or near the villages. Men fish, trade at the markets, and build the houses. The women prepare the meals, care for the children, and produce crafts such as pottery and baskets.

Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Subsistence production seems little changed from precolonial times. The Barma still cultivate cereals and vegetables using swidden and flood-recession (i.e., planting as the flood recedes) techniques. The staples are sorghums and millets; peanuts, cotton, and okra are also grown. Barma who reside by streams fish. Arabs and Fulani are primarily livestock breeders: they raise cattle, sheep, and goats on open range. They also grow some cereals, generally by slash-and-burn techniques. All foodstuffs are increasingly grown as cash crops as well as for subsistence. French attempts to make cotton an important cash crop failed during the colonial period. Cutting wood to sell in urban areas is common.

Industrial Arts. Bagirmi had a reputation for fine craftsmanship in precolonial times. Its textiles and leatherwork were especially appreciated, but these have both largely disappeared.

Trade. There was trans-Saharan, interregional, and local trade in precolonial Bagirmi. Trans-Saharan commerce involved the exchange of slaves, captured to the south of Bagirmi, for sumptuary goods and weapons produced in the circum-Mediterranean area. Interregional commerce involved the exchange of commodities produced in different West African ecological zones. Kola from the forest might be exchanged in Bagirmi for salt from the desert. Local trade involved the exchange of subsistence and craft goods produced in particular localities, and especially included the barter of dairy products for cereal products. Trans-Saharan slaving was conducted by Bagirmi officials and professional slave traders, who normally were not Bagirmi. The interregional trade tended to be in the hands of professional merchants, many of whom were not Bagirmi. Local trade was conducted by the producers themselves. These commercial patterns were greatly altered in the twentieth century. One major change was the suppression of the trans-Saharan trade and its replacement by one dominated by European trading houses.

Division of Labor. In the 1970s Barma men had large fields on which they produced cereals, whereas women had smaller plots on which vegetables were cultivated. Men fish, trade, and build houses; women do the vast bulk of the domestic chores, produce crafts, and are the primary marketers of foodstuffs.

Land Tenure. The precolonial system of land tenure facilitated, rather than restricted, access to land. Membership in social groups guaranteed access to land, which could neither be bought nor sold. Today there are coexisting tenure systems: the traditional ones—the specifics of which tend to vary with region and ethnic group—and modern land law, based upon European conceptions of tenure. Powerful individuals can use the latter system to acquire freehold land privately.



The Barma lacked descent groups; however, strong adherence to patrilocality in the 1970s resulted in neighborhoods in which the men of households tended to be agnatically related. The Arabs and the Fulani each had differing systems of patrilineal descent. Barma kinship terminology was Iroquoian.


Marriage and Family

In previous times, parents arranged marriages. They did this to form alliances between villages or clans. Presently, the high divorce rate has made it difficult to establish such bonds. Today, if many suitors are interested in the same girl, they must perform a traditional marriage ceremony-simultaneously. The ceremony includes paying a "bride price" (money paid to the girl's family). The suitor who gives the most money is chosen to be the groom. In times past, young men did not have the ability to acquire money to pay the bride price. Today, however, many enter the market to sell cash crops or products of their labor. Others depend on older relatives to donate money.

Marriage. The Barma traditionally preferred marriage with either cross cousin; in the 1970s, however, most of their marriages were to nonkin. Bride-price was paid in the vast majority of marriages. Levirate and sororate were not practiced. Polygny occurred most frequently among middle-aged men of political, economic, or religious distinction. Divorce was easy and frequent.

Domestic Unit. Although the Barma are ideally patrilocal and have large, extended families, only about one-third of the households in the 1970s were characterized by such features. Most households had some form of the nuclear family.

Inheritance. The Barma appear to be increasingly influenced by Islamic inheritance rules.

Socialization. Barma children are raised in a moderately permissive fashion. Flouting of cultural rules is not tolerated, and, when necessary, offenders are verbally reprimanded or spanked. Some adolescent males attend Quranic schools, but very few children receive any other type of formal education.


Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Precolonial Bagirmi society was a collection of tribal groups organized on the basis of class. Class position, however, depended upon control over political—not economic—resources. The upper class consisted of officials organized in an elaborate hierarchy around the sovereign at Massenya. The two lower classes—slave and free—were food producers. Most officials were Barma. Barma, Arabs, and Fulani were free food producers; slaves usually came from tribes in southern Chad, such as the Sara. A revenue system allowed officials to extract resources from food producers. Because there were very few relations between officials and food producers, other than those involving revenues, tribal systems continued within the class structure, organizing reproductive, enculturative, economic, and religious activities.

Political Organization. There were three levels in the official hierarchy of the precolonial state: those of the sovereign, the court, and the estate officials. The ruler had responsibilities extending throughout the polity, whereas court officials had duties within their estates, which were a collection of villages, ethnic groups, tributaries, and, occasionally, places such as markets. Estate officials, who might be heads of tributaries, villages, or the like, administered a portion of a court official's estate. The sovereign and his court resided at Massenya, and estate officials were distributed throughout the core and tributary areas. Court officials might be of royal, free, or slave origin; those with major military responsibilities tended to be slaves, whose office depended upon the will of the ruler.

Social Control. Gossip, ostracism, sorcery, and witchcraft were and continue to be important forms of social control. Traditional Islamic specialists and courts settle disputes according to Malekite law. Today the most serious crimes are likely to be adjudicated within the nation-state's legal system.

Conflict. Precolonial Bagirmi experienced police actions, raids, warfare, and rebellion. Violence was a state monopoly, with officials serving as mounted cavalry. Officials usually directed police actions against food producers in the core, often because of unpaid taxes. Raids were mounted by officials, usually against non-Muslim, acephalous populations, to acquire slaves. Officials both conducted wars against external states and contested among themselves for control of the Bagirmi state. Since Chad gained independence in 1960, Bagirmi, like many other areas of the country, has experienced civil war that has resulted from attempts to control the nation-state.


Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Precolonial religious notions were syncretic and, at least in part, varied with class. Officials tended to be Muslims, who at the same time affirmed the divinity of their king. Many food producers appear to have been unaware of the finer points of either Islam or the Bagirmi conception of divine kingship. Islam appeared to be expanding during the 1970s; especially popular was the Tidjaniya Brotherhood.

Precolonial Bagirmi appear often to have held conflicting religious ideas. For example, officials professed that there was one Supreme Being, Allah, while at the same time they insisted that their ruler was the earthly incarnation of the two forces mao and karkata, which animated all things in the universe. Food producers, for their part, appear to have believed that shetani (devils) were responsible for many of their afflictions. They also believed that Allah was responsible for all things, including afflictions.

The Barma, it will be recalled, are linguistically related to the Kenga and traditionally trace the origin of Bagirmi to a migration from Kenga territory. Kenga religion is dominated by beliefs in margai (genies of places). There is a report that some Bagirmi also believe in margai.

Religious Practitioners. Two types of officials conducted rituals, which officials were likely to attend. Islamic specialists, whom the Barma called mallams , performed Muslim ceremonials, and officials themselves performed the rituals associated with the sovereign's divinity. Food producers tended to be served by mallams, but they were also served by a variety of non-Islamic practitioners, about whom little is known.

Ceremonies. Two sorts of ceremonials tended to dominate the religious life of officials in the precolonial state. There were the normal Islamic rituals, such as Id al-Kabir or Id elFitr, as well as those that pertained to divine kingship. The latter included the ruler's installation, his observance of the sunset, and his funeral. Next to nothing is known about the precolonial, non-Islamic rituals of food producers.

Arts. Traditional music and dance celebrated the ruler in precolonial times. Visual arts were weakly developed; there was no painting, and sculpting was restricted to designs on wooden implements.

Medicine. There is scant knowledge of precolonial Bagirmi medical practices. During the 1970s, much illness, both physical and mental, appears to have been attributed to sorcery and to the actions of shetani.

Death and Afterlife. Very little is known about precolonial, non-Muslim ideas of death and afterlife. Devils and sorcerers were believed to cause some deaths in the 1970s. Conventional Islamic attitudes toward death and afterlife were gaining in currency in the 1970s.