The Saho (sometimes called Soho) are an ethnic Cushitic peoples inhabiting the Horn of Africa. They are principally concentrated in Eritrea, with some also living in adjacent parts of Ethiopia. They speak Saho as a mother tongue, which belongs to the Cushitic branch of the Afroasiatic family and is closely related to all.
According to Ethnologue, there are approximately 500.000 to 600.000 total Saho speakers. Most are concentrated in Eritrea (350.000~400.000 speakers), with the remainder inhabiting Ethiopia (170.000 speakers , 1996). Within Eritrea, the Saho primarily reside in the Southern and Northern Red Sea regions.
230.000 Saho live between the Eastern foothills of Akele-Saho, Foro Valley, and Semhar near the Red Sea.
Saho speaking people are descendants of ancient Kushites.
The term Kushite derives from the ancient peoples of North East Africa, which started to live in this part of Africa since more than 5000 B.C., with their own culture and language. The ancient Kushite peoples are those who spoke languages of the Kushite branch of the Afro-Asiatic (also known as Hamito-Semitic) family. They are the indigenous peoples of the present day Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya.
The word "Saho" means "nomad," ("saa" means animals and "hoo" means caretaker), which is also an expression of their previous pastoral way of life.
In Eritrea, Saho mainly dwell in the Eastern foothills of Akele-Saho (aka Akele-guzai) and Semhar occupying 60% or more of the landmass. Sahos’ are also found intermingled amongst Tigrinia speaking populace in parts of Eritrea’s highland regions (Akeleguzai, Seraye and Hamasein). They also intermingle with Tigre speaking tribes in Lowland regions such as Barka.
The Saho people speak the Saho language (saahot waani or saahot zirho), which belongs to the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family, as a mother tongue. Historians and anthropologists as yet to accurately determine the exact archeological time in which Kushitic languages started to split until they become separate languages as known in modern times. According to Bender and most scholars, the split of the Saho language from the rest of the East Kushitic language took place about four thousand years ago. It is believed that this split happened slowly and gradually over many centuries. Thus, Saho speaking ancestors started to become a separate ‘linguistic and ethnic group’ about four thousand years ago.
Saho language is mainly spoken in territories bounded by the bay of Idhafale in the east of Eritrea, the Laasi Ghedé valleys in the south, the Eritrea highlands to the west (Akele-Guzai, Shimezana) as well as in borders with Tigre on the west of Eritrea. It is also spoken in Ethiopia mainly in Tigray Region.
The Kushitic languages are divided into 3 major subgroups. These include: (a) East Kushitic languages (Saho, Afar, Somali and Sidama), (b) Central Kushitic or Agaw language (such as Bilen ), (c) South Kushitic languages in Kenya and Tanzanya. According to linguistics, the Kushites spoke historically closely related dialects of the same language and they all shared a common cultural heritage.
Saho language has four main dialects: Tarua, Assawurta, Minifre, and Irob. Irob is mainly spoken in Ethiopia. Although there is no reliable accurate statistics so far, it is believed that Saho is spoken by over 320,000 speakers.
Relationship between Saho & Afar language
“The Afar & Saho have over 70% of linguistic relationships and they can communicate easily with each other without any difficulty”. (Abdulkader S. Mohammed, 1977 p8).
“The Afar & Saho share a large number of words with the same meaning, cognates are usually closely related. This is because once people speaking a common language have become socially or geographically separated (…). But some words are more resistant to borrowing than others, that means they hare less subject to change over time. In East-Cushitic languages, such words include those for universal concepts [eat, drink, rain, sky, Sun, moon, Star, Earth, cattle, etc..] and basic parts of human body”. M Nuuh Ali (1985: 21-22).
According to Leo Reinisch, (1886:795) that the Afar & Saho are not two languages but the same language. The structure & grammatical forms are the same one language. And this lies in their geographical location and isolation especially by the Saho in the highlands who kept the language.
Herbert S. Lewis (1966:42) assumes that Afar & Saho have evidently been in their area long enough to have diverged into two closely related but distinctly different languages.
The Saho used to be pastoralist nomads like their Afar neighbours but since the 1940s they have become mostly sedentary farmers. This is due to colonial-influenced changes; creation of a dam in Foro Valley and social and cultural changes. Irrigation provides Saho farmers with beautiful fields of maize that extend toward the mountains. Towards the end of April, when the rains stop in the lowlands, many Saho who still own livestock leave the coastal area and trek with their livestock up to the highlands of Akele Guzay. When the rains stop in September, the people return for the wet season on the coastal lowlands. Honey is an important part of the Saho diet and bee-keeping prestigious. Even urbanized Sahos engage in bee-keeping.
Socio-political structure of traditional Saho society was strongly patriarchal and the roles of the grandfather and father were highly respected. The extended family had the power to control the behaviour and conduct of its members, and elders were cherished as the cultural transmitters of the society. Marriage followed patterns related to the degree of family relations, and matrilateral cross-cousin marriage was strongly preferred. In the absence of formal government-supported security system, the extended family system and kinship affiliations played and continue to play an important role to support the aged, widows, and the handicapped and young people. Those who live in urban areas support their family members and kins in the countryside. Regarding the customary law of the Saho, when there is an issue the Saho tend to call for a meeting or conference which they call '"rahbe". In such a meeting the Saho people discuss how to solve issues related to water, pasture or land, clan disputes and how to alleviate these problems. This is also discussed with neighbouring tribes or ethnic groups and sub-clans to reach a consensus.
A skilled representative is chosen for this meeting, this representative is called a "madarre". A madarre brings forth arguments to his audience and sub-clans or tribes who are involved and tries to win them over. This is discussed with clan or tribal wise men or elders. On smaller scale conflicts between 2 individuals, one of the 2 takes their grievances to the "ukal", they in turn appoint "shimagale" or mediators for the dispute.
Saho men wear a sarong, usually white or plaid. Men used to grow their hair until it was about chin length and either covered it in clarified ghee to condition it but this customs has almost disappeared nowadays. Some women might pierce one nostril with a metal ring and most Saho women decorate their hair with metal rings and beaded diadems.
The Saho are predominantly Muslim but with a 30% of Christians, who are also known as the Irob, live in the Debub Region of Eritrea.
As most parts of the pre-colonial Africa, land is owned commonly by the clan. It was because of this common ownership of land it was easy for colonialists and indigenous state to take away the land from pastoral nomads. Italians declared land owned by pastoralists as belonging to the State. Surprisingly, The 1994 Land Reform proclamation by the Eritrean government, did not rise up to the expectations of pastoralist communities, since did not accord them any legal rights to their land.
The three types of land ownership, which are prevalent among Saho are:
Traditional Saho society was strongly patriarchal and the roles of the grandfather and father was highly respected. The extended family had the power to control the behavior and conduct of its members, and elders were cherished as the cultural transmitters of the society. Marriage followed patterns related to the degree of family relations, and matrilateral cross-cousin marriage was strongly preferred. In the absence of formal government-supported security system, the extended family system and kinship affiliations played and continue to play an important role to support the aged, widows, the handicapped and young people. Those who live in urban areas support their family members and kins in the countryside.
The organizing principle of Saho society was a decentralized egalitarian (acephalous) system, in which leaders of sub-tribes and clans were democratically elected for specific period of time in general meetings (rakhbe) of elders and wise men. The main responsibility of the elected leaders were securing the basic requirement of their sub-tribes and mediating and settling problems according to the customary laws.
A family who wish to secure a spouse for their children will call a meeting and discuss the issue to ensure that the spouse whom they want to choose for their family member is not introduced, pledged or promised to another family.
They try to find detailed information about the girl`s family life and gather information on her character through gossips and visits. this is done before the official negotiation takes place in order to choose a woman who will adjust to the family`s codes of behavior and to facilitate her integration into the household to avoid future tensions. The mediation is handled by the elders (shemagelle), one of whom should be the uncle of the spouse. If the two parties comes into an agreement, they introduce themselves into the family of the young women.
The mediators brings with them gifts such as coffee, sugar, money or wheat and give them to the family who in turn prepares food (porridge) for the guests.
After eating the meal, honey and milk are served as a sign of hospitality, then they prepare coffee and start to discuss. The Saho call this process of starting discussion "afti-fakkot", which means "opening the mouth" to talk or discuss. All the gifts go to the mother of the fiancee (liisho), and the male family members of the couple fixed the date of the marriage and discuss what contribution shall be made as dowry by the groom or the gift to be given to the bride.
Usually the marriage ceremony takes place one year after the engagement. In the rural areas, it is celebrated during the harvest seasons, whilst in the urban centres the preferred time is the summer vacation and the period before the celebration of the Ramadan.
The descendants of ancient Saho speaking people, are descendants of ancient Kushites who ruled Egypt in 25th dynasty and played a central role in Africa’s greatest and oldest civilization at Meroe, the present day northern Sudan and lower Egypt.
Ancient Saho speaking people, as descendants of ancient Kushites, have left strong traceable evidence of their over 5000 years of rich history. The traceable evidence include ancient rock paintings, monuments steles, ruined building, ancient pottery … etc. Some of these are found in Saho land such as in (Qohaito, Kaskase, Adulis (Adola/Ado-Lai ), Balaw Kalaw, ruins of Matara.
Historians and anthropologists as yet to accurately determine the exact archeological time in which Kushitic languages started to split until they become as separate languages as know in modern times. According to Bender and most scholars, the split of the Saho language from the rest of the East Kushitic language took place about four thousand years ago. It is believed that this split happened slowly and gradually over many centuries. Thus, Saho speaking ancestors started to become a separate ‘linguistic and ethnic group’ about four thousand years ago.
According to the oral traditions, the Idda, Kabota and Asa-bora are the most ancient Saho ancestors in the current Saho region. The Saho call these three tribes the guardians of the Saho land (Badho Ambadish or Badho Sogos in Saho language). As the oral history narrates "an Idda man married a woman from kabota tribe and later destroyed Kabota in a bitter war, so that Idda became the dominant tribe in the region, and extended its powers up to the highlands. The Asabora, according to legends, are ancestors of the Minifere tribeswho commonly descended from one Asabora woman.
Oral traditions maintain that some Saho clans came from diverse geographical origins and all adopted Saho, as their common language and all shared a common cultural heritage. Some Saho clans affiliate their origins to Islamic dignitaries during Khilafa period including to one of the four Khalifas themselves. This should not be surprising, as well known in this region; peoples of the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula have a long history of human migration across the red sea, intermarriage, intensive linguistic, social and cultural exchange.
The people of Saho were known for their fierce opposition to any foreign invaders and colonial aggressors. Their oral history and poems tell many amazing stories of bravery and sacrifices they had offered over the last two centuries. They uncompromisingly and heroically defended their beloved land from repeated attempts of highland Abyssinian rulers to invade their land and had defeated Raas Araia and Raas Alula until the Italians invaded Eritrea in 1889.
The Saho, before the Italians’ occupation, were organised as clans, which have become federated into several major tribes. They had chiefs, their affairs being managed by councils of elders. This did not suit the Italians’ need for close control and accordingly they appointed chiefs in charge of each tribe: a measure, which made for administrative efficiency if not for popularity. These chiefs have been dismissed outright by the current government without introducing an alternative system.
Today, the risk of losing oral Saho history and heritage is greater than ever. It is like watching strong winds spreading great fire with little resistance hoping that we would be left with some of our possessions. Therefore there is an urgent call for spreading awareness and a massive responsibility upon every concerned individual and every organised Saho group of the current generation, wherever they are, to collate and document their ancestors’ history, however they can.
The Saho people as it has already been narrated is composed of several tribes (kisho, meela or qabila). This includes: