Introduction / History
The colorful Rashaida came to Eritrea from Saudi Arabia about 170 years ago. Living in the desert along the coastline of the Red Sea, their homeland extends from Massawa, Eritrea, to Port Sudan, Sudan.
Rashaida are primarily nomadic. The men are excellent traders, using their camels and Toyota pickup trucks to distribute goods imported from Middle Eastern countries—a lucrative endeavor. A portion of their wealth resulted from renting their camels to freedom fighters during Eritrea's 30-year war of independence.
Rashaida women always wear beautiful veils over their faces. This practice begins when they are children so that no man besides their husband will ever see their face. Once when visiting a Rashaida family, I noticed a mother kiss her young daughter - the veil separating her lips from the child's cheek.
The Rashaida live in isolated communities, preferring not to live with people of other tribes. However, occasionally Rashaida can be found living in Tigre villages or Rashaida men will marry Tigre women.
A gentle approach to the Rashaida initiates a warm, hospitable response. A field trip with 20 Tigrinya students afforded me this experience. On the way to a Rashaida village, our bus got stuck in the sand. We dug and pushed, and an hour later the driver had the vehicle back on a solid surface. By this time our water was depleted, and we were exhausted.
A Rashaida trader in his pickup truck approached, stopped and recognized our need. He offered water and a visit to his village. Nine students climbed in the back of his truck and were driven to meet his four wives. The rest of us went to a nearby family's yard and drank tea with them. It was a meaningful display of Rashaida openness to strangers.
Islam is at the core of Rashaida culture. Due to their mobile lifestyle, a family prayer house is central to their worship. Until recently, no known Christians were numbered among them. However, the situation changed as hundreds of Rashaida youth were drafted into the Eritrean army during the 1998-2000 Eritrea/Ethiopia border war. The daily confrontation with danger and sharing a bunker with born-again believers gave many an opportunity to hear the gospel for the first time. In July 2000, there were seven known discipled believers among the Rashaida soldiers.