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The Masalit People of Chad and Sudan

Population:      Sudan 200,713, Chad 59,123 (, 1995)
                         Sudan 173,810, Chad 66,710 (Ethnologue 2005)

Religion:        Islam (syncretized); Traditional Religion (reported by some sources)
Registry of Peoples code:  Masalit:  106392
Registry of Languages code (Ethnologue):  Masalit:  mls

Note also related Surbakhal (ROP code 109619, ROL code sbj),
Population Chad 7,885 (2000 Ethnologue), whose speech was formerly counted as a dialect of Masalit language.


The Masalit people are found in Chad in Ouaddaï Prefecture, Adré Subprefecture, around Adré.  In Sudan, the Ethnologue reports the language is spoken in Dar Fur Province, Dar Masalit and Nyala District, with scattered colonies in Dar Fongoro.  The language is also spoken to the south and east of there, and in Gedaref Region, Geneina, Mistere and Habila Kajangise.

In the three years of war from 2003 to 2006, a majority of the Masalit people have been driven from their homes.  Sources on the ground report that many are relocated in Sudanese towns of Masteri, Congo Haraza, Beïda and Arara.  Others have fled into Chad among the 1-2 million refugees in various camps and towns there.

What is now known as Dar Fur was a busy trade area from the Sixth Dynasty of Egypt, around 2300 BC.  Trade caravans travelled between Aswan in the Nile River and Dar Fur where items like ebony, ivory and frankincense from Yam in West Africa were available.  It is thought that at that time, this area was not as much a desert as now.

Various dynasties, mostly tribal or ethnic in nature, ruled the area, including the Fur, after whom it is now named.  Dar Fur is an Arabic name meaning "Land of the Fur."  This Arabic name for the region is a translation of the name in the language of the Fur people, Poraáng Baru.

The Masalit established an independent state between 1884 and 1921, called Dar Masalit.  This name is still a district name in Dar Fur Province of Sudan.

The Masalit are often very poor, living in mud huts and surviving by subsistence farming.  Until recent decades, they had long lived in a fluid ethnic situation in Dar Fur and the neighbouring area of Chad.  All the Muslims African tribes had had close interaction with the Arab tribes of cattle herders (Baggara, for "cattle people"), and commonly intermarried and shared other social interactions.

Recent decades of an active Arabization campaign conducted since the 1970s by the Khartoum government has hardened the ethnic identities in the area, and led to a reactionary re-identification by all the black Muslim tribes as "African."  In 2003 an active military rebellion began in response to the political, military and social/political discrimination against the southern tribes by the Arab government.  Though they still identify themselves as Muslims, they have sharpened the distinctions between themselves and the other tribes more positively identifying themselves as Arab Muslims.

The Masalit language is also called Masalit.  This is a Nilo-Saharan language in the Maban group.  The majority are also bilingual in Arabic.  Few can read or write in French (applicable in Chad) or Arabic, the national language of their countries.  In Chad there are three dialects of Masalit:  Northern Masalit, Western Masalit, Southern Masalit.

Until recently the Masalit language has not been reduced to writing.  A dictionary was published a few years ago [Edgar, John. A Masalit grammar: with notes on other languages of Darfur and Wadai. Berlin: D. Reimer, 1989. (Sprache und Oralitat in Afrika; 3)].

In previous editions of the Ethnologue, the form of speech called Surbakhal was classified as dialect of Masalit.  In the latest Edition 15, Surbakhal has been reclassified as a separate language [(Code sbj].  Some sources may count the 7,885 (2000 Ethnologue) Surbakhal speakers (ROP code 109619) together with the Masalit.  The Surbakhal also use Masalit as a second language.

The Ethnologue reports that the majority of the Masalit use Arabic as second language; however, people in the central area and women know only limited Arabic.  Another spelling of the name is Massalit.  It is also sometimes called Kaana Masala or Jwisince.  Literacy rates reported by the Ethnologue for Chad indicate literacy in Masalit language is below 1%, while literacy in Arabic is below 5%.

In Chad the majority use Chadian Arabic as second language.  French is also a common second language on the Chadian side of the border.  In Sudan the second language is Sudanese Arabic.

The Masalit are farmers, as their neighbouring tribes are.  Before the recent fighting in Dar Fur, the Masalit were self-sufficient in subsistence farming, including raising cattle.  In the fighting, their cattle have been stolen and their homes, tools and crops have been destroyed.

The Masalit, Zaghawa and Fur, the three largest African peoples in Dar Fur, claim Islam formally.  They have traditionally intermarried and had extensive social interaction with the Arab tribes of cattle-herders, commonly called Baggara.  The Masalit, however, as well as their other African neighbour tribes, retain many of their traditional practices, in spite of concerted efforts by the Arab-dominated Sudan government to Arabize the peoples.

For instance, like the Nuba and other peoples in Southern Sudan, they brew a traditional beer called marissa.  This beer is high in Vitamins B and has long been a staple in the Masalit diet.  They did not consider this drink as an "alcohol" in the sense of the Islamic prohibition.

The focus changed when the Shariah (Islamic Law) provisions were strictly implemented under Jaafar Nimeiry's Islamization program in the 1970s.  The African tribes in Dar Fur, who considered themselves devout Muslims, resisted this intrusion into their lifestyle.

The Masalit differ from the stricter northern Arab version of Islam, also, in the greater freedom of the women of the Dar Fur tribes.  They commonly make bricks and are engaged in house-building, not an Arab woman's task.

Political Situation:
All the peoples of Dar Fur Province have suffered in the various overlapping conflicts in the region.  For over 20 years the fighting was basically the north-south conflict, with the southern African tribes resisting Arabization, and gradually fighting for full independence from the Arab minority ruling the country from Khartoum.

More recently, a similar local resistance has arisen in addition, with Darfur-based rebel groups directly opposing the official Sudan army militarily.  A third front has covered the same geography with a regional Arab militia called Janjaweed (Janjawid) harassing the local African populace, reportedly supported by official government troops.

In the attacks by the Janjaweed, it is reported by local sources and various international observers that the high instance of rape appears to be one of the "deracination" strategies of the Arabs, if not the official government policy of Khartoum, adding more Arab genes to the African Muslim peoples of the region.

There are other historical sources of tension between the various groups in the region.  The old slave trade in the Fur kingdom exported Africans from other parts of Sudan to the Arab world.  Conflicts over water occurred periodically between the semi-nomadic herding peoples, who commonly call themselves Arab even though are dark-skinned, and the settled farming peoples.

Human Rights Watch reports:
"The government and its Janjaweed allies have killed thousands of Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa—often in cold blood—raped women, and destroyed villages, food stocks and other supplies essential to the civilian population. They have driven more than one million civilians, mostly farmers, into camps and settlements in Darfur where they live on the very edge of survival, hostage to Janjaweed abuses. More than one million others have fled to neighboring Chad but the vast majority of war victims remain trapped in Darfur...."

Dar Fur was an independent Sultanate from around 1700.  In the 1780s, the Sultan of Dar Fur extended his area by conquering Kordofan, now also a province of Sudan.  In 1874, Dar Fur submitted to the Egyptian Khedive, and in 1898 recognized the sovereignty of the Anglo-Egyptian administration of the Sudan.

In World War I, Dar Fur made a bid for independence by allying with Turkey against the British.  However, the British conquered Dar Fur in 1916, since when it has been part of Sudan.  Since the 1970s, the Dar Fur area has suffered some of the effects of the northern Arab war prosecuted in the south against Southern tribes who wanted to secede from the Sudan.

War has been the primary factor in the last few decades of the Darfur area.  A civil war lasted about 20 years, until the end of the 20th Century.  A new conflict arose in 2003, involving local Arab militia called janjaweed attacking the African peoples village by village in a campaign of terror, reportedly supported by the Sudanese military.

Attacks actually began against these tribes in the mid-1900s, and extensive attacks were launched in 2001 and 2002 against Fur and Zaghawa villages [Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide]

Three rebel groups in Dar Fur are now fighting the Sudanese government.  These groups arose partly as a defense against the increased actions for Arabization by the Khartoum government.  "The rebels took up arms in 2003, accusing the government of discriminating against the black African residents of Darfur" [BBC News 9 May 2006]

The breadth and ferocity of this victimization has elicited numerous international charges of genocide, and comparisons with the massacres not many years ago in Rwanda.  The tribes most directly attacked appear to be the Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa.  All the peoples in the whole Darfur and some of the Kordofan have been affected.

However, over the three years of this conflict, estimates of those killed range from 200,000 (BBC) to 300,000 (Various sources).  More have been displaced, estimated by different sources to be between 1 million and two million [BBC World News, 8 May 2006].  Already in November of 2003, the number of refugees who had fled into Chad was numbered at 300,000.

Many of these have fled west into Chad, and are living in makeshift refugee camps, living as they can.  Many die to starvation and diseases related to their living conditions.  In early 2006, the conflict itself spread into Chad, with the Janjaweed forces crossing the Chadian border to attack refugees and local residents in that country.  The Chadian government seems powerless to stop this conflict, worsened by the apparent alliance of this informal Sudanese militia with Arab rebels in Chad, also terrorizing the local populace.

African Union troops have been there in 2006 for observation only, and there was pressure from the AU and other quarters for a strong UN or NATO force to enter with an active mandate for defense and settlement of the conflict to stabilize the area.  The African Union had brokered peace talks between the Sudanese government and the Darfurian rebels, but a fragile cease-fire broke down on 2 May before any final agreement, and fighting resumed.

Ongoing attempts by the UN and the African Union continued to be frustrated by the Sudan central government's intrasigent delaying attitude.  Local problems at times even prevented humanitarian assitance groups from operating.  The fighting on the Chad side of the border accelerated in 2007, flaming into civil war in that country.

In October 2007, another UN-sponsored negotiating team was meeting to finalize peace.  Included in this peace panel were such well-known, credible international figures as South African former Archbishop Desmond Tutu and fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner, former US President Jimmy Carter.  Meanwhile a camp and equipment of the African Union peacekeeping force was viciously attacked even as the new panel were meeting with representatives of the Khartoum government.

After a shaky peace deal and more violent and political disruption in 2010, a peace agreement was developed in several stages, until a final agreement was agreed to on 14 July 2011.

The Masalit are nominally Muslim but as well as their Friday prayers in the village mosque, they continue to direct prayers to their traditional gods of land and sky.

Sources generally report that there are no known Christians among the Masalit.  In July 2008, I received information from a confidential source that there are four baptized Masalit Christinas on the Chadian side of the border.  I have not been able to confirm this from independent sources.  There is no Bible reported in their language.

Related Profiles
The Baggara Arabs of Sudan and Chad
The Daju Peoples of Sudan and Chad (Includes additional external links)
The Fur of Sudan and Chad

For more on The Masalit People
Horn of Africa Customs; Masalit, Daju, Fur, Others – Emory University Law School
Masalit, Fur and Zaghawa most affected by Janjaweed Attacks – Human Rights Watch
Masalit and Others Traditional Practices; Political and Cultural History of Darfur – Middle East Report
Masalit Group of LanguagesEthnologue
Masalit Suffering in the Darfur War – Fellowship for African Relief
The Peoples of Darfur – Cultural Survival

Dar Fur History
Masalit and other Darfur ethnicities; Darfur HistoryWikipedia "Darfur"
"History of Darfur"Wikipedia (includes several Smaps)
Short History of Darfur with Links – Korean Minjok Leadership Academy

The Dar Fur Conflict
Article by an Eye-witness with book reviews – Royal African Society
Background to the Dar Fur Conflict – Human Rights Watch
The Peoples of Darfur – Cultural Survival
Short History of the Dar Fur Conflict – Fellowship for African Relief
US Calls for UN Force in Darfur – BBC News
Who Are the Darfur Rebels? – BBC News

Orville Boyd Jenkins
First written and posted 11 May 2006
Last updated 9 January 2014

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2006, 2007 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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