Introduction / History
The Rashaida are probably related to the ethnic Bedouin tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. Originally, they roamed the deserts along the coastline of Red Sea. They came to Eritrea from Saudi Arabia about 170 years ago, after escaping tribal wars and starvation. Now, they live in the northern coastal lowlands of Eritrea and the northern eastern coasts of Sudan. After the post-independence war of Eritrea, many of them moved inland and settled in villages. The name Rashaida means "refugee." At one time, the government of Eritrea waged war on them, making them incessant refugees. As days passed, the Rashaida acted harshly against the Eritreans in their midst and became their oppressors. Documental evidence shows how the Rashaida have kidnapped Eritreans and sold them into slavery. The Rashaida speak Arabic, while some also speak Tigre. They are the smallest of the nine recognized ethnic groups in all of Eritrea and are the only true nomadic people left in Eritrea.
What Are Their Lives Like?
The Rashaida are primarily nomadic pastoralists. The herdsmen breed goats, sheep, and camels. Since they are largely illiterate, they memorize in great detail the pedigree of their animals, keeping mental records of their herds over seven or eight generations of the flock, usually only emphasizing the female lines. Being nomads and herders, they live in tents made of goatskin and of camel or sheep hair. They are known for their hospitality, and will sit down and have water, tea and coffee with strangers. Camel milk is an extremely important part of their diet as it is a fundamental source of their vitamins and proteins, making it their primary focus for herding. Camel breeding is one of the primary sources of work for the Rashaida people. When they settled inland, the arid conditions of those areas led to them raising camels rather than cattle. They breed camels for meat to sell to the Egyptians, and for racing to sell to the Gulf States. The combination of animal-herding, occasional agriculture, and trade allowed the Rashaida to attain considerable prosperity, consisting mainly of large animal herds and gold stores. The men are excellent traders, using their camels and Toyota pickup trucks to distribute goods imported from Middle Eastern countries. Rashaida women wear beautiful veils over their faces. They are famous for their black-and-red geometrically patterned dresses or brightly colored skirts and their burkas (long, heavy veils), which are elaborately embroidered with silver thread, beads and sometimes with seed pearls. Unlike other Arab and Muslim cultures, the Rashaida women can keep part of their hair uncovered. They also adorn themselves with silver jewelry, which they craft themselves and often sell at local markets. Once a Rashaida girl reaches age 5, she is required to wear a veil that covers most of her face, except for her eyes. This practice begins when they are children so that no man besides their husband will ever see their face. Families arrange marriages. Since the sexes do not mix freely in Rashaida culture, young men and women have few chances to meet of their own accord. However, if a Rashaida girl is ready to marry, she will approach the man she wants and flirtatiously lift her veil so that he can see her chin. If he accepts her offer, he must find 100 camels for her bride price. The Rashaida live in isolated communities, preferring not to live with people of other tribes. However, occasionally Rashaida one can find them living in Tigre villages. Sometimes Rashaida men will marry women of Tigre. Since Eritrea won its independence in 1991, the Eritrean government has been asking the Rashaida to transform themselves into settled agriculturists. A large piece of land has been set aside near Sheeb (pronounced sheb), a village over 35 miles northwest of Massawa, for the Rashaida people of the region to settle. The idea is to provide schools and health clinics for a people who have never known such things.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Rashaida are devout Sunni Muslims. Their culture revolves around the core concepts of Islam. Because of their mobile lifestyle, a family prayer house is central to their worship of Allah. Until 1998, there were no known Christians among them. The situation changed when hundreds of Rashaida youth were drafted into the Eritrean army during the 1998-2000 war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The daily confrontation with danger and sharing a bunker with born-again soldier believers gave many Muslim Rashaida soldiers an opportunity to hear the gospel for the first time. In July 2000, there were seven known discipled believers among the Rashaida soldiers. Even though half the population of Eritrea is Christian (orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran), those who belong to groups not recognized by the state come under severe persecution. Surveillance, imprisonment and solitary confinement face the faithful who have no judiciary rights. Christians from Muslim or Orthodox backgrounds living in those particular regions are more susceptible to persecution from their families and communities.
What Are Their Needs?
The Rashaida are slowly settling into villages, even though there is very less to no availability of proper health care or drinking water. Illiteracy is common, and the government is making efforts to enroll the younger generation in school. There is a great need for Christian educational and gospel workers to reach the villages to transform them.
Pray for physical and spiritual freedom for the Rashaida people. Pray that the few Rashaida believers will continue to share their faith, grow strong in their faith and find ways to bring others into God's kingdom. Pray that the Rashaida people will continue to respond to the gospel message. Pray for Open Doors, an organization that works through local church partners in Eritrea to provide discipleship training, economic empowerment projects and persecution survival training. Pray that the imprisoned Christians and their families will be sustained by God's grace and presence.
Scripture Prayers for the Rashaida in Eritrea.