Nara people


Nara / Baria / Nialetic

The Nara are an ethnic group inhabiting southwestern Eritrea and Ethiopia.

The society is divided into four subtribes, who are traditionally animist. They are mostly subsistence farmers.

The Nara ( formerly known as the Baria) are a Nilo-Saharan speaking people who live in Gash Barka region of Eritrea around north and east of Barentu, Marvin Lionel Bender estimated they numbered around 25,000, and were divided into four clans; with two main dominant clans called "Higir" and "Mogareb" that numbered about 10,000 each, and smaller clans called "Koyta" and "Santora".  Recent estimation of their population is thought to be around 63,000.

Nara people map

The Nara name means "Sky Heaven", and speak a language called "Nara-Bana"; meaning "Nara-Talk".



Among the Biher-Tigrinya people's oral tradition, known as the Mashaf Nay 'Alitat, or History of peoples, it claims that the Nara people had inhabited the country since "the beginning of creation" (1997, Pankhurst, p.27). According to the Nara's oral traditions, they suggest that they once lived near Keren (1991, Okbazghi Yohannes, p.8). Evidence of the Nara people's existence are provided as far back as by Greek and Roman classical writers (1997, Pankhurst, p.27). Stabo shortly before the turn of the first millennium stated that a tributary of the Nile near Meroe of the Sudan was called the Astaboras, which professor Pankhurst assumes is the river later known as the Atbara, a name which seems signify the Astfa, or river, or the Bora, I.e. Baria (1997, Pankhurst, p.27). Pankhurst describes this as "the group which Diodorus of Sicily at about the same time referred to as the Megabari or Adiabari, all three words based on the term bari" (1997, Pankhurst, p.27). The ancient Greek historian Diodorus states that they carried round shields covered with raw-hide and clubs with iron knobs, and Pliny that they lived "over against Meroe", and included nomads who ate the flesh of the elephants (1997, Pankhurst, p. 27).

Another  indication of the Nara people in a fourth century AD is also found in an Aksumite land charter of Kings Ella the great Church of Seyon at Aksum had been given "the Baria of Demah", the latter being a territory north of the Mereb River (1997, Pankhurst, p.28). Evidence of fighting against the Nara is also provided a few centuries later in an inscription by another Aksumite ruler named Hasani Danel. He claimed to have come to Kassala, near the Eritrean-Sudanese border, after which he stated he "plundered the Baria"(1997, Pankhurst, p.28).

According to Murdock ( 1959, 170- 171) , an Arab traveler visited Aiwa ( near Khartoum, Sudan) in AD 872 and left a mention of the ' Barya' (Nara) and 'Cunama' (Kunama) tribes who were living on the borders of the Alwa Kingdom (1967, Anthropological linguistics, v. 10,  p.1). One final early glimpse of the Naras is provided by the late tenth century Arab geographer Ibn Hawqal. He states that they, and the neighbouring peoples, among them the Bazin, i.e. the Bazen or Baza now better known as the Kunama, lived in the Barka valley, and fought with bows, poisoned arrows and spears, but did not use shields (1997, Pankhurst, p.27). Another custom the Naras had according to Ibn Hawqal is, "pulling out their fore teeth and of slitting their ears" (1997, Pankhurst, p.27). He goes on to add that they lived in mountains and valleys, where they cultivated the land and raised "large and small cattle" (1997, Pankhurst, p.27).

Centuries of slave-raiding against the Nara people, who were then known as Baria  people, led to the adoption into the Tigre, Blin, Tigrinya and Amharic languages of the word Baria as a generic name for a slave (1997, Pankhurst, p.356). In 1876, a European travel by the name of Dermot Robert W. Bourke described the Nara as people who "have no fire-arms, and only hunt and destroy with spears and knives."(1876, Dermot Robert W. Bourke, p.147)

In the late 19th century, a European traveler described the Nara as:

"In many respects they resemble the warlike tribes of the Red Indians, though they are certainly superior to them in size and strength. They will follow a travelling party for days, giving not an indication of their presence, and speaking to one another wholly by signs, of which they have an extensive vocabulary. But they will never show themselves until the time comes for striking the long-meditated blow, when they will make their attack, and then vanish as mysteriously as they had come. On one occasion nearly two hundred Barea came overnight to the outskirts of a village, and there lay in wait In the early morning, two of the principal men of the village, one a man who was celebrated for his majestic and somewhat pompous demeanor, took a walk toward their cottonfields, and found themselves in the midst of the Barea, who captured them, and carried them off to be sold as slaves to the Arabs, who would probably sell them again to the Turks." (The Natural History of Man: Africa By John George Wood, p.746)



The Nara-bana language virtually has no history of literary tradition until only 1976 when some concerned members of  the ethnic group tried to write the Nara language using the Arabic script. (2002, Chefena Hailemariam, p.106). Both the Nara and Kunama, who are geographical neighbors; show similar results on correspondences with the ancient Meroitic: Nara a bit higher, while Kunama lower. Linguistically, the languages are not close: Kunama is family H under Nilo-Saharan; Nara is sub-family E3 of East Sudanic (1981, Bender, p.31). Bender (1971:177) gives only 7% common basic lexicon between the two languages (1981, Bender, p.31). The East Sudanic family to which the Nara-Bana language belongs to is the largest and most complex family in the Nilo-Saharan, as established by Greenberg.

All the different Nara clans can understand and communicate in direct Nara-Bana conversation, but have considerable difficulty in overhearing people of other sections talking among themselves in their dialect (1976, Bender, p.599). The differences involve both vocabulary and grammar. The main second language among the Nara is the Tigre and a substantial minority are bi-lingual (1976, Bender, p.599). The Nara use the Tigre language for intercommunications with neighboring Kunama people and other ethnic groups of Eritrea (1998, James Minahan, p.78).


Economy & Society

The Nara economy is based on agriculture, although many people weave, trade, hunt, or breed animals to supplement their incomes. Their principal crops include sorghum (the universal staple), wheat, barley, millet, legumes, vegetables, fruits, sesame, linseed, tobacco, and the stimulant known as kat.

Gathering of forest products provides vines for ropes and baskets, as well as wood for stools. Men do the hunting, herding, and milking; but both men and women participate in the farm work. Surplus crops and woven crafts are traded for other items, such as spices, iron and iron works, jewellery, and clothing.

Social organisation of the Nara people is based on the clan and subclan, with people living in villages and hamlets. The lineage system is patrilineal, unlike that of the Kunama people. Land belongs to the clan and shared out among the families in the clan. Nara society is divided into four clans; with two main dominant clans called "Higir" and "Mogareb" that numbered about 10,000 each, and smaller clans called "Koyta" and "Santora".

The Nara men practice polygyny, which means that they generally have multiple wives. The Nara require a substantial bride-price, which usually includes cattle and other valuables. The normal residential unit is an independent nuclear or polygynous family occupying a compound, within which each married woman lives in her own separate hut.

The Nara community consists either of a single compact village or a cluster of small settlements. The people live in round huts made from an interweaving of rods and twigs overlaid with clay. The conical, thatched roofs extend down to the ground, giving the hut a beehive effect. The dwellings usually have two entrances. They are commonly clustered together in sites away from the main trails and in areas that can be readily defended from bandits.

Prior to their conversion to Islam (late 19th Century), it is believed that the Nara society, like the Kunama, was characterized by matrilineal descent. In Nara society, when boys and girls reach the age of 14, a ceremony is held to celebrate their manhood and womanhood respectively. After this ceremony, they are generally regarded as adults.


Culture & Religion

Due to various reasons, the Nara converted to Islam in the 19th century A.D. (2002,Hitchcock,  Osborn, p.84). Today, the Majority of the Nara are Muslim, but with an animist minority (1998, James Minahan, p.78). Prior to their conversion to Islam, it is believed that the Nara society, like the Kunama, was characterized by matrilineal descent (2002, Hāgarāwi māḥebar, p.56). In Nara society, when boys and girls reach the age of  14, a ceremony is held to celebrate their manhood and womanhood respectively. After this ceremony, they are generally regarded as adults (2007, Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, p.2) .

Nara women are usually unveiled, have considerable liberty, and are treated with honour. The men usually wear brightly coloured pieces of cloth that are similar to togas. Most men also wear turbans. They smoke tobacco, and, to some extent, chew the stimulant kat. They drink liquor, even in public places.

The Nara were forcibly Islamized, depriving them of the equality that had existed between the sexes. Today, the Nara are almost exclusively Muslim, having been forcibly converted to Islam during the late 19th century. Numerous elements from their old religion, however, still flourish on among them. Islam, in many cases, has failed to become internalized, possibly because of the way in which it was forced upon them. Villages usually have a mosque, which looks much like the other houses. Many villages have Imams, who teach the Koran. The Nara are not rigid in prayers or fasting, and few make pilgrimages to Mecca or other holy places.

Moreover, few Nara, except those who are very religious, known in detail the Muslim proscriptions or the Koran; and most of them know little, if any, Arabic. However, they refuse to eat pork or the flesh of animals killed by someone of another religion.