The Gumuz (also spelled Gumaz and Gumz) are an ethnic group speaking a Nilo-Saharan language inhabiting the Benishangul-Gumuz Region and the Qwara woreda in western Ethiopia, as well as the Fazogli region in Sudan. They speak the Gumuz language, which belongs to the Nilo-Saharan family. The Gumuz number around 200,000 individuals.
As of 2007, there were around 159,418 Gumuz in Ethiopia. Around 67,000 Gumuz also lived in Sudan.
90.000 Gumuz live in the fertile forested plains and hills north of Dinder National Park and across the border in western Ethiopia where they number 200.000 people. The Gumuz are primarily located in eastern Sudan. This area is called a "bush-savanna" region because it is mostly flat with some stone hills that are covered with bamboo and other small trees.
The Gumuz people hunt with bows and arrows. Most breed cattle or farm for a living. They farm their lands together as a clan. When a boy reaches the age of 16, he may work his own farm along with his father's. During the harvest season, they build huts on the fringe of the farmland and live there. They grow millet, sorghum, onion, cotton, tobacco, mango, and various spices. The staple food of the Gumuz is porridge flavoured with a sauce made from leaves, onions, and spices. They supplement their diet with pumpkin seeds, peanuts, fruit, and some insects, and - like many of us - they like to drink coffee. Because they are farmers, trading is important to them, but the lack of roads makes this difficult. They trade most often with the nearby Arab settlers or with the Oromo people from Ethiopia. In exchange for their goods, they receive coffee, cloth, soap, salt bars, and other items.
The clannish nature of the Gumuz keeps their community cohesive, and when there is an infraction, the entire clan involves itself in the punishment. Discipline is meted out for such things as stealing, lying, and wife abuse, keeping drunkenness and idleness to a minimum. When a daughter is ready for marriage, the clans perform a "sister exchange." That is, the newly married man gives his wife's clan a young woman from his own clan to "replace" the woman he married.
The Gumuz have traditionally been grouped with other Nilotic peoples living along the Sudanese-Ethiopian border under the collective name Shanqella (Pankhurst 1977). As "Shanquella", they are already mentioned by Scottish explorer James Bruce in his Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, published in 1790. He notes that they hunted with bows and arrows, a custom that survives today.
Most Gumuz members live in a bush-savanna lowland environment. According to their traditions, in earlier times they inhabited the western parts of the province of Gojjam, but were progressively banished to the inhospitable area of the Blue Nile and its tributaries by their more powerful Afroasiatic-speaking neighbors, the Amhara and Agaw, who also enslaved them (Wolde-Selassie Abbute 2004). Slavery did not disappear in Ethiopia until the 1940s. Descendants of Gumuz people taken as slaves to the area just south of Welkite were found to still be speaking the language in 1984 (Unseth 1985).
Culture & Religion
The Gumuz of Sudan still have a different look to the surrounding tribes. Gumuz women wear nicely designed large aluminium earrings and many beaded necklaces. The older generation has metal nose piercings and body scarification. The Gumuz of Sudan have been forced to convert into Islam in the last 30 years, said this Islam is still superficial and traditional religion is still active in the small mountain villages. Spirits are called mus'a and are thought to dwell in houses, granaries, fields, trees and mountains. They have ritual specialists called gafea. Rebba is their "supreme god who knows all." The Gumuz firmly believe that if a woman drinks milk, she will go bald, and if a man eats cabbage, he will be lazy. If a woman eats porridge while she is making it, they believe she or her husband will become ill.
The Gumuz practice shifting cultivation and their staple food is sorghum (Wallmark 1981). Cereal crops are kept in granaries decorated with clay lumps imitating female breasts. Sorghum is used for cooking porridge (nga) and brewing beer (kea). All the cooking and brewing is carried out in earthen pots, which are made by women. The Gumuz also hunt wild animals, such as duikers and warthogs, and gather honey, wild fruits, roots and seeds. Those living near the Sudanese borderland converted to Islam and a few are Christians, but most Gumuz still maintain traditional religious practices. Spirits are called mus'a and are thought to dwell in houses, granaries, fields, trees and mountains. They have ritual specialists called gafea. Originally, all Gumuz adorned their bodies with scarifications, but this custom is disappearing through government pressure and education. All Gumuz are organized in clans. Feuds between clans are common and they are usually solved by means of an institution of conflict resolution, called mangema or michu depending on the region. As it used to be among the Sudanese Uduk, marriage is through sister exchange.
Many changes have occurred for the Gumuz people since the 1980s. There has been resettlement of highlanders to their area, particularly linked to the availability of land and water. For instance, settlers were attracted to a large irrigation project along the Kusa or Beles River. Often the Gumuz’ lands have been allocated to transnational or domestic investors. In several parts of the Gumuz area, the settlers’ economy now dominates. Many Gumuz have become sedentary but have maintained their agricultural system. Though a transit road has been built and commercial farms established in the lower basin one should consider the Gumuz people as “peripheral” in regard to the Ethiopian highlands that hold the power in the country.