Introduction / History
The Socotran live on the island of Socotra, which is located in shark-infested waters between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Socotra's name is traced back to Sanskrit (an ancient Indic language), meaning "island abode of bliss," and is mentioned in various legends.
The inhabitants of Socotra differ from mainland Arabs, and are believed to be a mixture of Greek, Portuguese, African, and Arab. Their language is a version of the ancient Himyarite language, which was spoken in pre-Islamic Arabia for many centuries.
Socotra was long ruled by the Mahra sultans of southeastern Yemen. Their rule was interrupted by Portuguese occupation between 1507 and 1511. In 1834, the British tried, but failed, to purchase the island. However, in the 1880's, the sultan accepted British protection for the sultanate. The sultanate finally came to an end in 1967, when Socotra became part of Yemen.
What are their lives like?
Very little information is available on the Socotran. It is extremely difficult to gain permission to visit the island of Socotra, which has long been regarded as the "ends of the earth." Few serious surveys of the island have been undertaken.
Socotra is a windswept island of temperate climate. The Hajhir mountains occupy the interior of the island, with a narrow coastal plain in the north and a broader plain in the south. Socotra has only one small airstrip to which there are no scheduled flights. The island is inaccessible to ships during the monsoon season.
The people live in two distinct zones - with differences and similarities in life styles. The coastal people are fishermen. Some engage in pearl diving. The mountain Socotris are semi-nomadic Bedouin. They have 'home' villages, but wander very large areas with their goats, cows, and sheep. There are also camels in both regions. They are used as beasts of burden, and provide meat, hair and milk. Donkeys are also widespread across the island.
The island's principal exports include ghee (a type of butter), fish, and frankincense. The capital (and largest town) is Hadiboh, which is located on the northern coast.
The basic diet is rice, fish (on the coast) bread, goat and sheep. Flour, sugar and rice and other staples are brought to the island by ship perhaps fortnightly if the seas are quiet and the pirates are having a nap!
Fuel is scarce on the island as it is a low rainfall so very little wood for fires. Gas bottles are filled when the bulk ships come. They often don't. Shortages of deisel and gas are the norm.
The island has long fascinated scientists because of its high numbers of rare plant species. The plants of the region are related to those of the northeast African highlands and the plains region of Somalia. Altogether, 216 species are unique to Socotra, of which 85 are considered to be threatened. Many of the plants have economic or medicinal value, but little has been done to exploit this opportunity.
There is evidence that Christianity was introduced to the people of Socotra as early as 535 AD, when a Nestorian Bishop resided on the island. It is believed that the Christian church there was a result of the work of the Apostle Thomas.
The Socotran remained faithful to their beliefs as late as 1542, when St. Francis visited them on his way to India. Sadly, by 1680, Christianity was virtually extinct, due to both oppression by the Arabs and the neglect of the Nestorian patriarchs to support the mission on the island.
What are their beliefs?
Today, the Socotran are almost completely Muslim. Approximately half of them belong to the Shi'ite Zaydis sect, which is quite fanatical and rigid in its form. Most of the Zaydis are warriors and perceive all wars to be a manifestation of Jihad (a Muslim "holy war" or crusade against infidels). They take their name from Zayd, who first established a state south of the Caspian Sea, and died in 864 AD. Zaydis reject all forms of Sufism (a mystic sect of Islam). The remaining Socotran are either Sunni Muslim or (to a minor extent) Ismailis.
Though their beliefs are based mainly in Islam they have, until recent years, been very low key on that. Influences from the mainland, which is more fundamental, have changed the way people practice their beliefs. Women wear the lithma or the black burka which they did not do some years ago. However, the women in isolated mountain villages are more relaxed and wear the typical bright colors.
What are their needs?
Their needs are mainly dietary and medical. There are no commercial vegetable gardens - only small village plots that are dependent on a meager water supply. The hospital is staffed mainly by Russians who provide the best service they can under difficult conditions due to lack of money for modern equipment. Hygiene is basic.
There is also a need for more education facilities and personnel. Learning English is a way to secure employment in the growing tourist industry and in commerce on the island. The education system is chronically short of teachers for the towns and villages. Many teachers come from the mainland for short terms.
Conditions on the island are inhospitable to non-Socotran. It is very hot all year round and there are four months of summer monsoonal winds when ships cannot berth. All work and schooling stops and foreigners leave.
The isolation of the Socotran from the rest of the world presents difficulty to anyone wanting to engage these people with the Gospel. Permission to visit the island must be obtained from the Yemeni military, and the only hotel on the island is reserved for military use.
The Scriptures will not be distributed or used without some form of spiritual breakthrough. Prayer is key to opening the doors of the Gospel to these people.
* Ask the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers into Yemen to minister life to the Socotran.
* Pray that Christian radio broadcasts will be made available in the Socotran language.
* Pray that God will give the Socotran believers boldness to share Christ with their own people.
* Ask God to raise up prayer teams who will begin breaking up the spiritual soil of Socotra through worship and intercession.
* Ask the Lord to bring forth a triumphant Socotran church for the glory of His name!
Text source: Copyright © Bethany World Prayer Center and James Jeffrey. Used with permission.