Kunama people


Kunama / Baria / Baza / Bazen

The Kunama are an ethnic group indigenous to Eritrea

Although they are one of the smallest populations in Eritrea, constituting only 2% of the population, 80% of Kunama live in the country.

Most of the estimated 260,000 Kunama live in the remote and isolated area between the Gash and Setit rivers near the border with Ethiopia.

The Kunama people have ancient ancestry in the land of Eritea. The Ethiopian-Eritrean War (1998–2000) forced some 4,000 Kunama to flee their homes to Ethiopia

Kunama People Map

As refugees they reside in the tense area just over the border with Eritrea and in proximity to the contested border village of Badme. In the 2007 Ethiopian census, however, the number of Kunama in Tigray has dropped to 2,976 as the remaining 2,000 or so members of this ethnic group have migrated into the other Regions of Ethiopia.


Population & Ecosystem

200.000 Kunama live in the dry hilly borderlands of Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia.



The Kunama speak the Kunama language. It belongs to the Nilo-Saharan family, and is closely related to the Nara language. Although some Kunama still practice traditional beliefs, most have adopted Christianity and Islam. The fertile plains of the Gash-Setit, also known as the Gash-Barka, region where the Kunama live are sometimes referred to as the "breadbasket of Eritrea". Formerly nomadic, today they are farmers and pastoralists. Historically, the Kunama have been dominated by other ethnic groups and they are often forced from their traditional lands. The official policy of the Government of Eritrea is that all land is state property and the Government encourages large commercial farms. The Kunamas are settled agriculturalists and pastoralists living mainly from cattle. They are matriarchal with a prominent role played by women. According to the their social system, a child is a member of Kunama society only if his or her mother is Kunama, and relatives are only recognized on the mother's side. The Kunamas are both lingustically and culturally closely related to the Nara people of Eritrea.


Economy & Society

In the past, the Kunama people practiced nomadism as their way of life but are currently sedentary farmers and pastoralists. Farming is the most important economic activity of the Kunama people. They cultivate millet, sorghum, and legumes. Harvesting is also conducted by the entire community and celebrations made through songs and dances.

The Kunama are a matrilineal and matrilocal people. They enjoy a liberal and democratic way of life with women having high social status and equal property shares. Social attributes among the Kunama is known to have clan divisions into six main groups. These main clans are then divided into sub-clans (formed based on localities). The clans are based on the maternal lineage of the family. The Kunama people are the only ethnic group in the Horn of Africa that base its clans on maternal pedigree. These clans include Lakka, Nataka, Alaka, Serma, Sogona, Akartakara, Shila, Kara, Jula among others. The different clans play different roles such as summoning rain, warding off insects like locusts which destroy harvests.

The Kunama have withstood repeated invasions and raids from more powerful, more patriarchal neighbors. Outsiders often call them by the depreciating name Barià, meaning slaves. For three centuries the Kunama were forced to pay tribute to the Funj Empire of Sudan, who also took many of them captive and enslaved them.
Kunama land is “a territory historically exposed to risk,” and that the Andinnas (trance-priestesses) give expression to collective trauma in their ritual theatre, “transforming the memory of violence undergone.” They enact Otherness and themes of border-crossing, in a way similar to the zar religion. They smoke and use male behaviour, gestures, and voices. They reproduce the gestures, moods, positions or bodies of foreign spirits, of the dominators. They act out raids and counter-raids, with acts modelled on European and Ethiopian armies, such as drills and presenting arms. Some of their songs are battle songs. This is “to control and also emotionally express the violence undergone, and the fear.” That is indubitable, but there may be another dimension we should consider: the activation of protective spirits around Kunama lands. Even the processional route the Andinnas traverse seems to have a protective magical dimension.

Another layer of politics is from recent colonial rule and European religion. The earliest accounts of Andinnas (of Kunama culture generally) come from Swedish and Italian missionaries, and are deeply stained with their prejudices against indigenous religion and culture as pagan superstition. A Swedish letter from Kulluku village refers to the mother of a young convert as a “witch doctor.” The woman may well have been an Andinna.


Sexual politics of a mother-right culture under siege

Kunama women do not stay in the house; they move freely across the land in daily life. Especially young women cover a lot of terrain in bringing home water. For this reason, as well as the strong mother-right customs of their culture, they have the reputation of being “free” among neighbouring peoples. These outsiders, both the Muslim Sudanese and Christian and Muslim Ethiopians, believe that Kunama women hold headship over their men. 1This belief is fortified by the lack of sanctions against Kunama women taking lovers, something that the patriarchal neighbours disapprove and severely punish in women.

Traditionally, Kunama women are free to take lovers as they choose, as a different source explains: “As soon as she reaches puberty, a Kunama girl is given a hut of her own where she can entertain her male friends. She is totally free to choose her own boy-friend, a lover or her future husband. It is very seldom that the Kunama parents would practise pre-arranged marriages for their children.” When an unmarried woman takes a lover and becomes pregnant, her parents ask her who the father is. They ask him if he is willing to marry her. If he refuses, she goes through the ‘Mashkabara’ ceremony. The young man provides a cow to be sacrificed, and the young woman’s extended family comes to mark her passage from girlhood.

The traditional values of the Kunama are communal and strongly egalitarian in many ways. It is a culture of sharing, free of class stratification or of one group lording it over another. Society is organized around the mother-kin, and we have already seen the importance of the Andinna priestesses. However, Kunama women are subjected to female genital excision and even infibulation. These may have been adopted from their patriarchal neighbours, who have invaded and raided and oppressed them for centuries.  However it came to be, excision is now deeply embedded in the culture. A third of Kunama women suffer the most severe form, known as infibulation. In this extremely painful ordeal, the clitoris and entire vulva are amputated and the external labia are sewn together into a wall of flesh. Heterosexual intercourse can take place only by cutting the woman open. The Kunama have a name, koda, for the special relation between two women who passed through infibulation together, their legs tied apart to each other.

Andinnas dance for the dead at burial in communal graves, to the same song that is sung for the grain harvest.

This priestess lineage connects with the Kunama ancestors, whose souls come from the spirit-country Arka. In their society, lands are communal, and so if a husband leaves there are no severe consequences. Nevertheless, women are tempted to marry patriarchal men from the wealthier highlands.

The ritual has remained unchanged for 2000 years. The ancestors call women by making them faint at graves. They dance with sword and spear to greet ancestors, to the east and to the west. (The weapons are considered symbols of power, defensive only, and are related to the Meroitic queens of Sudan.) During initiation, the woman falls to the ground, and her hair must touch the spear to connect with the ancestral spirits. The Andina should not be open to all spirits. They call names of the ancestors; a woman touching her hair is a sign that she’s connecting with them. The women not always comfortable as they anticipate what ancestor will come.
The Andina take a different name, Lugus, when in ecstasy. They put on a beautiful, hornlike crown of fat, over an unnamed sacred substance, and wear it during the weeks of the annual rite. The women display entranced speech and gestures, often asking for chewing tobacco, and perform other acts of the spirits. They are forbidden to use water the morning after their initiation; the young Andina clean with sesame and chew it. During several weeks of ritual, they walking over the land, many miles in special iron shoes used only for this occasion. Walking through villages they’re given coffee, tea, sesame. When greeting an older Andina, they kiss her and grab her vulva.

At end of the ritual period, the women dance for hours. They sacrifice a chicken, whose blood they drink, then they roast it and eat with sesame and honey, no other spices. After this finale, the Andina spirits return to their world. A reversed ritual of entranced women takes place over the sword and spear. They symbolically die and are carried back to the village by men, and are said to be able to jump over the huts in their potentized state. One spirit of a very old Andina initially refused to leave a young woman’s body. The initiates stay together on a mat for one night in this return passage.

They awaken in a deep trance, with no memory of the past weeks. Their skin is cut with little stones and herbs and ashes rubbed in, to make a sign so that Andinas can recognize each other. The ritual is repeated every year when the sun and moon appear together on the horizon.


Culture & Religion

Kunama people look quite different to their neighbours. Apart from a darker skin, Kunama women decorate their hairs with metal rings and beads and do complex hairdos. Beaded necklaces and metal anklets and bracelets are still popular among Kunama women too. Kunama young men wear multi-coloured handmade cotton clothes and have uniquely huge crown of fuzzy hair or dreadlocks. In Sudan, most Kunama have been converted into Islam but in smaller communities near the Eritrean border the traditional religion revolving around the figure of the trance priestesses (Andinna) is still alive.


Kunama Spiritual Andinna Matriarchs

The  institution of Andinna is common and widespread among the Kunama. This name can be used in a broad sense for any woman who becomes entranced, and more specifically for the women (andinna shadia) who are chosen by the ancestral spirits and are recognized as called and formally initiated. Only women become entranced and enter the sisterhood of Andinnas.

According to Gianni Dore the term Andinna “may be related to andà, great one, elder, ancestor… perhaps alluding to their function of mediating with the world of spirits (inà is a suffix that indicates a quality of of something).” Every year, the Andinnas fall in trance in the dry months of December and January, after the sorghum harvests. For three or four days up to a fortnight, they roam across the land, across dry, often difficult paths, visiting and being ritually welcomed into villages, where they heal and perform divinations or channel the spirits of ancestors. They “cure with herbs, are able to drive away evil spirits and protect from misfortune.”

To begin with, the Andinne undo their hair and are anointed with butter. They cover the front of their head and sometimes two forelocks with a white, hornlike crown of sheep fat. [And, according to Frank-Wissman, the fat is mixed with other sacred substances, possibly herbs.] They hang long black feathers from their heads and hold poles, the senior Andinnas carryiing staffs with bells on top for calling the spirits.

“They gather within a dagasà enclosure, usually four or five of them with their apprentices, a small, ad hoc feminine confraternity; they drink aifa, the local sorghum beer, they eat valuable foods like sesame and honey, burn incense, hold a sword. They enter trance to the accompaniment of music, singing in call and response. They also express themselves with masculine voices and bearing in public performances, and may threaten or pursue anyone who comes close…”

The Andinna are said not to remember what they say or do during these trances. The words they speak are a mixture of Kunama with Arabic and Tigrinya (a majority language in Eritrea), with glossalia (non-words) and infusions of Islamic words and place-names such as Mecca and Medina.

The women carry swords, lances, sticks, shields, feathers, and sheep fat, for ceremonial use; plants and roots for curing, and sacrificial   animals. “Even the entranced movements in their strangeness and irregularity (such as scrambling up on the roof of a hut or into the trees) are codified… Spectators sometimes participate by stepping up to support the women when they fall to their knees or into someone’s arms in deep trance.”

“The traumatic experiences of the andinna women make them agasè, intermediaries between the living and dead. Immersed in the pain of the living, they are called to resolve the sufferings of life; with their traveling as shadows, hella, between the earth, lagà, of the living and that of the dead, they reassure on the fact that the dead don’t have suspended accounts, but respond to the anxietes of the living on the fate of those whose death is not certain.”

At the end of the sacred period, the Andinnas go through ceremonies that return them to normality. Their relatives prepare sorghum beer and invite guests; the women often gather together in a single hut, even if there are various spirits, and they make sàmeda, the festival with the closing dance as the period of trance ends.

The andinnas return and are greeted by their relatives, who ask “How was your journey? Are you well?” And then: “Have you seen our relatives? They answer that they have met this one and that one. Various kinds of rites are performed. Some announce and prepare the ceremonies for the dead on behalf of the relatives. Others, the sasalilé, perform divinations, receiving questioners from behind a cloth, speaking in the voice of a dead relative who asks for sacrifices. Pollera describes them being wrapped in a futa on the ground, and hidden there, speaking in tongues.
This hiding of the entranced seer behind a veil or cloth appears in many places, including Indonesia, Philippines, Uganda, the beaded veils of the izangoma in South Africa and the machi in Chile.

At the end of their sacred journey across the land while immersed in ancestral consciousness, the Andinnas return to their village for the closing ceremonies. One Italian observer described how the women danced four times, then returned in procession, with the head Andinna coming last. They were joined by two ex-andinnas who repeatedly cried out, “sullum, sadellà lilina ibba” (“goodbye, Father Sadallà, I leave you…”).

The women moved across the clearing, performing protective ritual theater and offerings: “they turn, with weapons lowered, execute right and left turns like soldiers, cross arms, remove their diadems of fat, scatter aifa-beer and milk to the four directions, leap toward the east, hissing, and then compose  themselves. Finally they closed with a sacrifical meal of chicken and injera.”

In Oganna, the procession ends up in the lower part of the village, where the Andinna dance on the final day. They act out raids with lances, chasing away spirits. A 1966 description recounts that three andinnas sang to the sound of the stringed abankalà, always played by men (while only women play the kubulà drum). [69-70] The Andinnas made four turns around the neñeda clearing with their lances, shouting, “Ussumullai, alanga, gasc, negusc, makkamedina, eliti, bitame!” They kissed the drawn sword, then the lance. Each one sacrificed a hen and drank its blood. In the afternoon they acted out a cattle-raid. They started singing outside the village and reentered, shouting over and over “Sanni morò, sanni morò abbagarà naneto. Sanni morò.” Then they ate the sacrificed meat, washed themselves and, crying, went over to a space in front of the huts.

Although the Kunama are matrilineal, the profession of Andinna is not handed down by descent, only  by spirit calling. They have a saying, “Andinnas don’t have heredity.” They may have children, but not as married women (kokidiginà) whose unions are contracted between two families. They join another social category, the kokàta, who are women free to pursue love affairs as they choose.

When an Andinna accepts a student, she teaches her how to control her spirits, and ultimately decides when the novice andinna is ready to begin her practice. “The teachers of possession and their students consist of a temporary confraternity in the dry months of December and January, leading a life apart, moving from village to village and carrying out divinations and curing activities.”  They can bring through many kinds, of families or villages or deities, often on request: “… the andinnas can be invited by relatives of another village and there make festivity and fall in trance.”

“The girls are initiated and put through a long training which includes control of the body and voice. When the relatives, after having failed to find other means of resolving the crises, finally decide to take the girl to become apprenticed to an Andinna…” she is given a structured way of dealing with her state. The author calls possession “a system of action and knowledge that they absorb through a controlled process, which gives order to ‘disorder’, that coordinates everyday time with extraordinary time…. The students accompany and do services for the andinnas as they rove the spaces between this village and that…”

“The Andinnas are ankoradina, which means they are skilled with herbs and roots, carry out curing activities.” Some are sadinà (“those with sada”) which means both healing medicine and poison. The sadinà also uses ceremonial and sacrifice in her treatments. She goes several times around a sick person with a female goat, if it is a woman; with a billy goat, if a man. She offers an invocation to Annà [the co-gendered Supreme Deity of the Kunama] “that what I give you with joy will bring good effects.” She collects the goat’s blood in a receptacle and mixes the medicine into it, then bathes her patient with it, and gives a little of its meat in a broth mixed with the medicine. They split the cooked meat, and the rest of the medicine the patient mixes with milk or beer every two or four days. [Dore, 57-8, citing Ilarino Marichelli]

Other magical titles include usìne and awawe (sorcerers), and the awame, travelling healers who take out “dirt” and do massage, cure with roots and herbs. The Kunama conceive of illness as able to hide or insert itself into the body. A skilled healer can expel it through massage, especially abdominal massage, a process referred to as ula-kieke or nieke.  Lugga, an andinna of Oganna, described how “we take out sand, stones, bones” from the body of sick people.

Diviners deal with spirits of dead relatives and help people in personal and family crises. The sesalilà are seers whose consultations are done at dusk, speaking from behind a curtain. The categories of awame, sesalile and andìnna are female professions, and often overlap.  Sometimes a diviner will tell where the medicine is to be gathered. Dore mentions a traveler’s account of a female diviner (wäyzäro) Essai in `Addi Sasalù, along the customary route of the Andinnas. [54, citing Sapelli's Memories of Africa]

So many aspects of Andinna spirit-selection, altered states, prophecy, and healing fit the patterns of shamans and medicine people all over the world. They travel between the worlds of the living and dead. Like shamans in many traditions, they say they do not remember what they say or do during their ecstasies. Even the strong involvement of ancestral spirits fits patterns in South Africa, Congo, Siberia, Mongolia, Chile, and other parts of the globe. The fact that the Andinnas are all women may be attributed to the matrilineal/matrilocal culture of the Kunama.