Influential female singers known as “Hakamat” are still fuelling inter-tribal conflict in Sudan's Darfur region, despite efforts to teach them about building peace in their communities.
Traditional songs which ridicule fellow tribesmen who try to defuse conflicts with neighbouring groups help stoke tensions in the region.
In November 2011, two groups – the nomadic cattle-herding Rizeigat tribe and the farming community of Fayreen – clashed on the border between Darfur and South Kordofan region, resulting in dozens of deaths.
The incident was a stark reminder of the power the Hakamat still exert within their communities. Although members of both groups were keen to avert bloodshed, it was the female singers who commanded most influence.
Like many clashes along this fractious border, the disagreement arose when cattle belonging to the Rizeigat were allowed to wander onto communal farmland owned by the people of Fayreen.
Fayreen tribesmen responded by slaughtering the cattle, prompting a strong response from the Rizeigat. A temporary halt to hostilities was then called when the Fayreen offered to pay compensation for the loss of the cattle. The Rizeigat accepted the offer.
On returning to their village, the Fayreen men who reached the agreement were confronted by groups of Hakamat singing songs about cowardice. The women removed their Islamic headscarves to indicated their lack of respect for the men and to question their manhood. They walked barefoot to suggest that the men had run away so fast that they did not have time to fasten their shoes.
Faced with such ridicule, the men took up arms and returned to fight the Rizeigat, resulting in dozens of deaths on both sides.
UNAMID, the joint African Union and United Nations peacekeeping mission in Darfur, is keen to work with Hakamat women to teach them how they can help bring peace to the region. But Saieed Salim, UNAMID public information assistant in Nyala, admits this is no easy task.
“It is difficult to change them to sing for peace,” he said. “It is possible to give them money and to organise some cultural events that the Hakamat can come and sing at. But when they go back to their own tribes and communities, we see that the old values are still dominating their singing.”
UNAMID has participated in recent workshops to discuss peace-building initiatives with the Hakamat singers and has supported government efforts to set up education programmes for them. Salim says such initiatives have enjoyed some measure of success, but admits it is a slow process.
Rasha al-Fangry, project co-ordinator in Khartoum for the NGO Peace Direct, has noticed some positive changes in the Hakamat singers recently, and says that they are starting to understand the importance of promoting peace rather than war.
“It is not easy to get them involved in the peace songs, but on a community level we see that people are fed up with taking revenge all the time,” she said. “These women have suffered a lot. They have lost their fathers and their sons. Explaining about peace can encourage them to take responsibility.”
In June last year, the Rizeigat and the Misseriya – two nomadic tribes whose rivalry goes back generations – clashed in North Darfur.
Behind the line of fighters on each side stood a line of Hakamat women, using songs to exhort the men to wage war. Because of their encouragement, the fighting lasted more than three days and resulted in hundreds of deaths.
Al-Fangry says that following this battle, some of the women got involved in a project to promote peace in the community. Since then, warfare between the two tribes has stopped.
Huda Rahmatallah Moshawer, a Hakama from Nyala, recalls how her songs used to inspire men to go into battle.
“When I was 16 we were attacked by thieves who stole our cattle,” she said. “Some men went to fight to get our property back, and returned victorious with the cattle. Others fled in panic. We thanked those who returned in victory, and sang of their manliness. As for the others who ran away, we ridiculed them and sang about how they looked like men but were not really men.”
Moshawer says that these days, she advocates for peace and no longer provokes conflict between communities.
“I still sing for my tribe and for my family, and I thank them for their presence and their generosity,” she said. “But I do not sing only for a specific tribe – I sing for the Rizeigat, Hakamah, all of the tribes, that there may be peace among us.”
Omda Ahmed Ateem Osman, a tribal sheikh and coordinator for camps for displaced people in and around El-Fasher in North Darfur, explains why the Hakamat women matter so much.
“The Hakamat are an integral part of the cultural management of the community,” he said. “This makes them exist right in the centre of the community, and so the singer comes to represent the entire tribal mini-society and becomes part of the administrative structure of Darfur.”
It is difficult to quantify how prevalent the Hakamat are, but according to Al-Fangry, they remain an important component of “the vast majority of tribes in Darfur”.
It is not just tradition that drives the women to sing about war. Money plays a role, too.
During the Darfur conflict, Hakamat were regularly used by tribal leaderships as a way of influencing communities, often in return for payment.
“Traditionally, women used to support men in this respect,” said al-Fangry of Khartoum for Peace Direct. “Recently, we are seeing them singing because they are receiving funds, perhaps from the tribe or the chief. If we provide them with money, then they won't sing about war as their major source of income.”
The sheikh says it is worth trying to get women to sing for peace, but he warns these efforts have to match the realities on the ground.
“For those who want to encourage the Hakamat to play a role in the peace process, they have to look at the problem in its entirety rather than just focus on this part,” Osman said. “If they sing about peace whilst there is no real peace to speak of in Darfur, this could make them lose the support of their community.”
Osman also says that anyone arranging work with the Hakamat must be careful to ensure the initiative is perceived as politically neutral, given the history of protracted conflict in the region.
“Communities in Darfur now have a greater degree of awareness [than in the past] and they cannot be exploited again,” he said.
So are these initiatives having the desired effect? Mariam Mohammed Adam Abu Alhemeira, director of a local NGO called Alrohamaa, thinks that they are working, but that it will take time to see results.
She says the Hakamat are now more likely to interact with different tribes and have a better-informed overview of the region, rather than just having an isolated view based around their own tribe.
“Today the Hakamat are peaceful – not as they were before, when they were used for war. The Hakamat are often illiterate and uneducated. But today they know where responsibility towards country and community lies. They have now learned that the command ‘go to war' is not good and that that this destroys the rights of others. Now they say, ‘I call for peace'.”