Berta people

Berta / Berti

Berta / Bertin / Funj

The Berta, Berti or Funj 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).

Berta people

Globally, this group totals 548,000 in 2 countries. The Berta of Sudan are numbering 251,000. The Beni Shangul of Ethiopia (Berta) are numbering 297,000. (, 2023)

A remnant of the Garamantes people, they are closely related to the Zaghawas and Bideyats. Some ethnologists consider them to be part of the cluster of Shilluk peoples. Their population with the two largest groups concentrated in the Tagabo Hills of northern Darfur Province and in and around Um Keddada and Taweisha in eastern Darfur.

Smaller clusters of Berti can be found in El Fasher, Gedaref, Um Ruwaba, and Jazira.



The original Berti language was closely related to Zaghawa of the Beris, but it has died out, being replaqed during the twentieth century by Arabic.



The Berti live in small, sedentary villages of no more than 100 people and make their living raising millet, sorghum, peanuts, okra, sesame, watermelons, cucumbers, and pumpkins. The Berti living near Taweisha in eastern Darfur Province raise cattle, goats, sheep, and sometimes donkeys, camels, and horses.

Because of changing economic patterns in recent years, more and more Berti young men travel seasonally to Libya in search of wage labor jobs.



Most Berta practice Islam, which often incorporates traditional customs. A minority continue to practice their traditional religion.

The Berti are Sunni Muslims, but their devotions are lukewarm, at least when compared with many other Muslim groups. They also practice karama—the sacrifice of a bull, goat, or lamb to ward off evil or to bring rain and a good harvest.



Political power among the Berti was once exercised by omdas (or chiefs), but, in recent decades, the Sudanese government has imposed a series of village, división, and regional councils. The omdas, however, are still recognized as important judicial officials.



Their origins are to be found in Sennar in eastern Sudan, in the area of the former Funj sultanate (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 Shangul communities. For this reason, and for protecting themselves from slave raids coming from Sudan, the Shangul communities 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. German traveler Ernst Marno described Shangul architecture and villages in his Reisen im Gebiete des Blauen und Weissen Nil (Vienna, 1874). The Shangul of Benishangul were incorporated into Ethiopia only in 1896.

After conflicts and raids receded during the 20th century, the Shangul 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 Khoyele at the end of the 19th century.



After several centuries of influence by the Arabic-speaking regions of Sudan, the Berta are now mostly Muslim and many speak fluent Sudanese 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 (waz'a). The groom arrives to the wedding on a donkey and carrying a bang (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 his father-in-law's land. Divorce is accepted. The Berta practice scarification, 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).

Most Berta are mixed farmers also involved in raising livestock, trading, beekeeping, and coffee cultivation. 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.