The Masalit are an ethnic group inhabiting western Sudan and eastern Chad. They speak the Masalit language, which belongs to the Nilo-Saharan family.
The Masalit primarily live in their house land Geneina, the capital of west Darfur, a few thousand of them live in Al Qadarif, East Sudan
There are 145,000 Masalit scattered throughout Sudan, the majority of whom inhabit parts of Northern Sudan, Darfur, Dar Masalit, and the Nyala District. The Masalit language, also called Masalit, is part of the broader Nilo-Saharan group.
According to Ethnologue, there were 440,000 total Masalit speakers as of 2011. Of these, 350,000 inhabited Sudan.
As agriculturalists, the Masalit grow millet, sorghum, peanuts, okra, and some fruits. They also gather honey and tree gum, and raise cattle, sheep, and goats to supplement their diet. Historically the Masalit have been both self-sufficient and self-contained, yet due to drought and increased pressure on the land, their contact with other groups in the Darfur region has greatly increased.
The majority of Masalit live in sedentary villages. Like other sedentary African farmers in Darfur, conflict with pastoral Arab groups over land and resources has been going on for generations. These age-old clashes were more or less contained by traditional methods of conflict resolution until the 1970s. During the last few decades severe drought, competition for scarce resources, easy access to firearms, and the lack of a democratic atmosphere in which such disagreements can be justly handled, have all contributed to the erosion of peacekeeping efforts.
Many Masalit whose land has been destroyed by the Janjaweed are former soldiers and policemen of the Sudanese government. Knowing that the government works in conjunction with the Arab militias, many of these men have quit their jobs and joined the SLA and the JEM.
The Masalit are also known as the Kana Masalaka/Masaraka, Mesalit, and Massalit. They are primarily subsistence agriculturalists, cultivating peanuts and millet. Further south in their territory, they grow various other crops, including sorghum. The typical Masalit dwelling is conical in shape, and constructed of wood and thatch.
Most Masalit today adhere to Islam, which they first adopted in the 17th century through contact with traveling clerics.
The Masalit are often very poor, living in mud huts and surviving by subsistence farming. Until recent decades, they had long lived in a fluid ethnic situation in Dar Fur and the neighbouring area of Chad. All the Muslims African tribes had had close interaction with the Arab tribes of cattle herders (Baggara, for "cattle people"), and commonly intermarried and shared other social interactions.
Recent decades of an active Arabization campaign conducted since the 1970s by the Khartoum government has hardened the ethnic identities in the area, and led to a reactionary re-identification by all the black Muslim tribes as "African." In 2003 an active military rebellion began in response to the political, military and social/political discrimination against the southern tribes by the Arab government. Though they still identify themselves as Muslims, they have sharpened the distinctions between themselves and the other tribes more positively identifying themselves as Arab Muslims.
The Masalit language is also called Masalit. This is a Nilo-Saharan language in the Maban group. The majority are also bilingual in Arabic. Few can read or write in French (applicable in Chad) or Arabic, the national language of their countries. In Chad there are three dialects of Masalit: Northern Masalit, Western Masalit, Southern Masalit.
Until recently the Masalit language has not been reduced to writing. A dictionary was published a few years ago [Edgar, John. A Masalit grammar: with notes on other languages of Darfur and Wadai. Berlin: D. Reimer, 1989. (Sprache und Oralitat in Afrika; 3)].
In previous editions of the Ethnologue, the form of speech called Surbakhal was classified as dialect of Masalit. In the latest Edition 15, Surbakhal has been reclassified as a separate language [(Code sbj]. Some sources may count the 7,885 (2000 Ethnologue) Surbakhal speakers (ROP code 109619) together with the Masalit. The Surbakhal also use Masalit as a second language.
The Ethnologue reports that the majority of the Masalit use Arabic as second language; however, people in the central area and women know only limited Arabic. Another spelling of the name is Massalit. It is also sometimes called Kaana Masala or Jwisince. Literacy rates reported by the Ethnologue for Chad indicate literacy in Masalit language is below 1%, while literacy in Arabic is below 5%.
In Chad the majority use Chadian Arabic as second language. French is also a common second language on the Chadian side of the border. In Sudan the second language is Sudanese Arabic.
The Masalit are farmers, as their neighbouring tribes are. Before the recent fighting in Dar Fur, the Masalit were self-sufficient in subsistence farming, including raising cattle. In the fighting, their cattle have been stolen and their homes, tools and crops have been destroyed.
The Masalit, Zaghawa and Fur, the three largest African peoples in Dar Fur, claim Islam formally. They have traditionally intermarried and had extensive social interaction with the Arab tribes of cattle-herders, commonly called Baggara. The Masalit, however, as well as their other African neighbour tribes, retain many of their traditional practices, in spite of concerted efforts by the Arab-dominated Sudan government to Arabize the peoples.
For instance, like the Nuba and other peoples in Southern Sudan, they brew a traditional beer called marissa. This beer is high in Vitamins B and has long been a staple in the Masalit diet. They did not consider this drink as an "alcohol" in the sense of the Islamic prohibition.
The focus changed when the Shariah (Islamic Law) provisions were strictly implemented under Jaafar Nimeiry's Islamization program in the 1970s. The African tribes in Dar Fur, who considered themselves devout Muslims, resisted this intrusion into their lifestyle.
The Masalit differ from the stricter northern Arab version of Islam, also, in the greater freedom of the women of the Dar Fur tribes. They commonly make bricks and are engaged in house-building, not an Arab woman's task.
All the peoples of Dar Fur Province have suffered in the various overlapping conflicts in the region. For over 20 years the fighting was basically the north-south conflict, with the southern African tribes resisting Arabization, and gradually fighting for full independence from the Arab minority ruling the country from Khartoum.
More recently, a similar local resistance has arisen in addition, with Darfur-based rebel groups directly opposing the official Sudan army militarily. A third front has covered the same geography with a regional Arab militia called Janjaweed (Janjawid) harassing the local African populace, reportedly supported by official government troops.
In the attacks by the Janjaweed, it is reported by local sources and various international observers that the high instance of rape appears to be one of the "deracination" strategies of the Arabs, if not the official government policy of Khartoum, adding more Arab genes to the African Muslim peoples of the region.
There are other historical sources of tension between the various groups in the region. The old slave trade in the Fur kingdom exported Africans from other parts of Sudan to the Arab world. Conflicts over water occurred periodically between the semi-nomadic herding peoples, who commonly call themselves Arab even though they are dark-skinned, and the settled farming peoples.