The Saho (sometimes called Soho) are an ethnic Cushitic peoples inhabiting the Horn of Africa.
They are principally concentrated in Eritrea, with some also living in adjacent parts of Ethiopia.
Saho are also found intermingled amongst the Tigrinya speaking population in parts of Eritrea’s southern or Debub region. They also intermingle with Tigre speaking tribes in Lowland regions.
Known as great pastoralists, the people have fought for centuries with highlanders over the pasture of the highland mountains. Some Saho are sedentary farmers and are also known for their beekeeping.
According to Ethnologue, there are approximately 500.000 to 600.000 total Saho speakers. Most are concentrated in Eritrea (350.000~400.000 speakers), with the remainder inhabiting Ethiopia (170.000 speakers , 1996). Within Eritrea, the Saho primarily reside in the Southern and Northern Red Sea regions. 230.000 Saho live between the Eastern foothills of Akele-Saho, Foro Valley, and Semhar near the Red Sea.
Saho speaking people are descendants of ancient Kushites.
The term Kushite derives from the ancient peoples of North East Africa, which started to live in this part of Africa since more than 5000 B.C., with their own culture and language. The ancient Kushite peoples are those who spoke languages of the Kushite branch of the Afro-Asiatic (also known as Hamito-Semitic) family. They are the indigenous peoples of the present day Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya.
The word "Saho" means "nomad," ("saa" means animals and "hoo" means caretaker), which is also an expression of their previous pastoral way of life.
In Eritrea, Saho mainly dwell in the Eastern foothills of Akele-Saho (aka Akele-guzai) and Semhar occupying 60% or more of the landmass. Sahos’ are also found intermingled amongst Tigrinia speaking populace in parts of Eritrea’s highland regions (Akeleguzai, Seraye and Hamasein). They also intermingle with Tigre speaking tribes in Lowland regions such as Barka.
The Saho people speak the Saho language (saahot waani or saahot zirho), which belongs to the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family, as a mother tongue. Historians and anthropologists as yet to accurately determine the exact archeological time in which Kushitic languages started to split until they become separate languages as known in modern times. According to Bender and most scholars, the split of the Saho language from the rest of the East Kushitic language took place about four thousand years ago. It is believed that this split happened slowly and gradually over many centuries. Thus, Saho speaking ancestors started to become a separate ‘linguistic and ethnic group’ about four thousand years ago.
Saho language is mainly spoken in territories bounded by the bay of Idhafale in the east of Eritrea, the Laasi Ghedé valleys in the south, the Eritrea highlands to the west (Akele-Guzai, Shimezana) as well as in borders with Tigre on the west of Eritrea. It is also spoken in Ethiopia mainly in Tigray Region.
The Kushitic languages are divided into 3 major subgroups. These include: (a) East Kushitic languages (Saho, Afar, Somali and Sidama), (b) Central Kushitic or Agaw language (such as Bilen ), (c) South Kushitic languages in Kenya and Tanzanya. According to linguistics, the Kushites spoke historically closely related dialects of the same language and they all shared a common cultural heritage.
Saho language has four main dialects: Tarua, Assawurta, Minifre, and Irob. Irob is mainly spoken in Ethiopia. Although there is no reliable accurate statistics so far, it is believed that Saho is spoken by over 320,000 speakers.
The Saho used to be pastoralist nomads like their Afar neighbours but since the 1940s they have become mostly sedentary farmers. This is due to colonial-influenced changes; creation of a dam in Foro Valley and social and cultural changes. Irrigation provides Saho farmers with beautiful fields of maize that extend toward the mountains. Towards the end of April, when the rains stop in the lowlands, many Saho who still own livestock leave the coastal area and trek with their livestock up to the highlands of Akele Guzay. When the rains stop in September, the people return for the wet season on the coastal lowlands. Honey is an important part of the Saho diet and bee-keeping prestigious. Even urbanized Sahos engage in bee-keeping.
Socio-political structure of traditional Saho society was strongly patriarchal and the roles of the grandfather and father were highly respected. The extended family had the power to control the behaviour and conduct of its members, and elders were cherished as the cultural transmitters of the society. Marriage followed patterns related to the degree of family relations, and matrilateral cross-cousin marriage was strongly preferred. In the absence of formal government-supported security system, the extended family system and kinship affiliations played and continue to play an important role to support the aged, widows, and the handicapped and young people. Those who live in urban areas support their family members and kins in the countryside. Regarding the customary law of the Saho, when there is an issue the Saho tend to call for a meeting or conference which they call '"rahbe". In such a meeting the Saho people discuss how to solve issues related to water, pasture or land, clan disputes and how to alleviate these problems. This is also discussed with neighbouring tribes or ethnic groups and sub-clans to reach a consensus.
A skilled representative is chosen for this meeting, this representative is called a "madarre". A madarre brings forth arguments to his audience and sub-clans or tribes who are involved and tries to win them over. This is discussed with clan or tribal wise men or elders. On smaller scale conflicts between 2 individuals, one of the 2 takes their grievances to the "ukal", they in turn appoint "shimagale" or mediators for the dispute.
The Saho are predominantly Muslim. Majority of the Saho had adopted Islam by the 13th century due to the growing influence of holy men and traders from the Arabian peninsula. A few Christians, who are also known as the Irob, live in the Tigray region of Ethiopia and the Debub Region of Eritrea.
As most parts of the pre-colonial Africa, land is owned commonly by the clan. It was because of this common ownership of land it was easy for colonialists and indigenous state to take away the land from pastoral nomads. Italians declared land owned by pastoralists as belonging to the State. Surprisingly, The 1994 Land Reform proclamation by the Eritrean government, did not rise up to the expectations of pastoralist communities, since did not accord them any legal rights to their land.
The three types of land ownership, which are prevalent among Saho are:
Traditional Saho society was strongly patriarchal and the roles of the grandfather and father was highly respected. The extended family had the power to control the behavior and conduct of its members, and elders were cherished as the cultural transmitters of the society. Marriage followed patterns related to the degree of family relations, and matrilateral cross-cousin marriage was strongly preferred. In the absence of formal government-supported security system, the extended family system and kinship affiliations played and continue to play an important role to support the aged, widows, the handicapped and young people. Those who live in urban areas support their family members and kins in the countryside.
The organizing principle of Saho society was a decentralized egalitarian (acephalous) system, in which leaders of sub-tribes and clans were democratically elected for specific period of time in general meetings (rakhbe) of elders and wise men. The main responsibility of the elected leaders were securing the basic requirement of their sub-tribes and mediating and settling problems according to the customary laws.
As with nearly all Eritrean ethnic groups, engagement is arranged by the parents of the boy and the girl. The future husband and wife do not know about each other’s character till they get married. A family who wish to secure a spouse for their children will call a meeting and discuss the issue to ensure that the spouse whom they want to choose for their family member is not introduced, pledged or promised to another family.
They try to find detailed information about the girl`s family life and gather information on her character through gossips and visits. this is done before the official negotiation takes place in order to choose a woman who will adjust to the family`s codes of behavior and to facilitate her integration into the household to avoid future tensions. The mediation is handled by the elders (shemagelle), one of whom should be the uncle of the spouse. If the two parties comes into an agreement, they introduce themselves into the family of the young women. The deal, which requires the reciprocal giving and receiving of gifts and cash money, is left for the two families to make
The mediators brings with them gifts such as coffee, sugar, money or wheat and give them to the family who in turn prepares food (porridge) for the guests.
After eating the meal, honey and milk are served as a sign of hospitality, then they prepare coffee and start to discuss. The Saho call this process of starting discussion "afti-fakkot", which means "opening the mouth" to talk or discuss. All the gifts go to the mother of the fiancee (liisho), and the male family members of the couple fixed the date of the marriage and discuss what contribution shall be made as dowry by the groom or the gift to be given to the bride.
After the date of the wedding ceremony is fixed, the whole village takes part in collecting firewood, water including logs and branches for the construction of the make-do shed for the wedding feast.
As is common in other ethnic groups, prior to the wedding day, the bride-to-be is made to refrain from inordinate eating, confining herself to meager fare, which includes milk and dried bread. The idea is based on the belief that a bride should present herself to her husband in a proper physical and mental condition.
The bridegroom and his friends are expected by tradition to travel to the village of the bride, but they are not allowed to enter the village until a certain ceremony is performed. This ceremony consists of sending buttered bread from the village to the waiting group.
Usually the marriage ceremony takes place one year after the engagement. In the rural areas, it is celebrated during the harvest seasons, whilst in the urban centres the preferred time is the summer vacation and the period before the celebration of the Ramadan.
Saho men wear a sarong, usually white or plaid. Men used to grow their hair until it was about chin length and either covered it in clarified ghee to condition it but this customs has almost disappeared nowadays
Some women might pierce one nostril with a metal ring and most Saho women decorate their hair with metal rings and beaded diadems. They follow the Islamic injunctions in the way they dress avoiding as much as possible short and short-sleeved dresses. As for men, they are forbidden to wear shorts or sleeveless shirts during worship.
Before the coming of the Italians Saho women used to wear ornaments (Jewellery) on the head, nose, hand and leg. Most of this gold and silver was crafted by local professionals. But unmarried women did not wear any jewellery except beaded necklace.
Girls wear their hair in various styles until they grow old depending on their age and marital status. During mourning, Saho women undo their hair, part it into two strands and stay like that for four months and ten days.
Like the rest of womenfolk in various ethnic groups, Saho women also use Kohl, Likhay, Ilam or Henna and Tish or smoke bath. Slashing the cheeks (slightly) is at times practiced by women during marriage.
According to the Saho ethnic group, there are certain things when done at a wrong time cause malediction. The ungodly time is mostly at nighttime.
For example, brushing one’s teeth at night results in poverty, chewing gum at night is like eating the flesh of dead people, sitting on millstone results in death of parents.
In addition, sweeping floor at night is believed to take away riches, undoing the hair at night results in too much thinking and worrying and pulling out the tooth results in eventual and complete falling-off of one’s teeth.
As regards to places and objects, it is forbidden to leave an umbrella open inside a house as it causes disruption. It is forbidden to pass urine on water and to slaughter an animal indoors.
Sleeping on the left of a woman results in an offspring who may become unruly and troublesome. One is not allowed to pass urine facing northward as holy sites are found in that direction (the holy land) whistling in a place where the holy books are kept is considered a devil’s act.
Standing by the side of a seated person is frowned upon, as it is believed that the standing person draws blood from the seated person unwittingly.
The usual way of eating among the Saho ethnic group is for the family to sit at the same table to eat. However, in the past, the husband and wife ate together only until they had their first child. Afterwards, they ate separately because according to tradition, the moment the first child is born the wife begins to feel shy of her husband. Today this practice is declining due to urban influence.
Since the Saho are entirely Moslem, alcoholic beverages are never used. The most common beverages are tea and coffee. Coffee is flavored with ginger while cinnamon is added to tea. The rich drink coffee three times a day, while the poor make do with one.
The descendants of ancient Saho speaking people, are descendants of ancient Kushites who ruled Egypt in 25th dynasty and played a central role in Africa’s greatest and oldest civilization at Meroe, the present day northern Sudan and lower Egypt.
Ancient Saho speaking people, as descendants of ancient Kushites, have left strong traceable evidence of their over 5000 years of rich history. The traceable evidence include ancient rock paintings, monuments steles, ruined building, ancient pottery … etc. Some of these are found in Saho land such as in (Qohaito, Kaskase, Adulis (Adola/Ado-Lai ), Balaw Kalaw, ruins of Matara.
Historians and anthropologists as yet to accurately determine the exact archeological time in which Kushitic languages started to split until they become as separate languages as know in modern times. According to Bender and most scholars, the split of the Saho language from the rest of the East Kushitic language took place about four thousand years ago. It is believed that this split happened slowly and gradually over many centuries. Thus, Saho speaking ancestors started to become a separate ‘linguistic and ethnic group’ about four thousand years ago.
According to the oral traditions, the Idda, Kabota and Asa-bora are the most ancient Saho ancestors in the current Saho region. The Saho call these three tribes the guardians of the Saho land (Badho Ambadish or Badho Sogos in Saho language). As the oral history narrates "an Idda man married a woman from kabota tribe and later destroyed Kabota in a bitter war, so that Idda became the dominant tribe in the region, and extended its powers up to the highlands. The Asabora, according to legends, are ancestors of the Minifere tribeswho commonly descended from one Asabora woman.
Oral traditions maintain that some Saho clans came from diverse geographical origins and all adopted Saho, as their common language and all shared a common cultural heritage. Some Saho clans affiliate their origins to Islamic dignitaries during Khilafa period including to one of the four Khalifas themselves. This should not be surprising, as well known in this region; peoples of the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula have a long history of human migration across the red sea, intermarriage, intensive linguistic, social and cultural exchange.
The people of Saho were known for their fierce opposition to any foreign invaders and colonial aggressors. Their oral history and poems tell many amazing stories of bravery and sacrifices they had offered over the last two centuries. They uncompromisingly and heroically defended their beloved land from repeated attempts of highland Abyssinian rulers to invade their land and had defeated Raas Araia and Raas Alula until the Italians invaded Eritrea in 1889.
The Saho, before the Italians’ occupation, were organised as clans, which have become federated into several major tribes. They had chiefs, their affairs being managed by councils of elders. This did not suit the Italians’ need for close control and accordingly they appointed chiefs in charge of each tribe: a measure, which made for administrative efficiency if not for popularity. These chiefs have been dismissed outright by the current government without introducing an alternative system.
Today, the risk of losing oral Saho history and heritage is greater than ever. It is like watching strong winds spreading great fire with little resistance hoping that we would be left with some of our possessions. Therefore there is an urgent call for spreading awareness and a massive responsibility upon every concerned individual and every organised Saho group of the current generation, wherever they are, to collate and document their ancestors’ history, however they can.
The Saho are organized under sub-tribes known as Kisho, Mela, or Are. Each sub-tribe is divided into numerous kinship groups known as Dik or Abusa, which usually bears the names of individuals, the founders of the lineage.
All Saho tribes share a common language, culture, and history. However, not all Saho tribes have common origin or trace their lineage to a common ancestor. The earliest known Saho tribes, known as “Bado Ambalish” or bearers of land, are Kabota, Idda, Asa Bora & Gadafur.
The dominant Saho tribes today are conquerors of the earliest Saho tribes. However, the conquerors adopted Saho language and culture; others came to settle among them in around 800 A.D. to preach Islamic religion. They too gradually adopted the language and culture eventually becoming part of the Saho tribe.
Contemporary Saho tribe can be divided into 11 tribal groups. Many of the clans have a single clan-head called Redanto, who presides over a hierarchy of lesser chiefs and headmen known as Nabara and Chiqqa. These clan leaders do not preside over political-legal courts with firm means of executing their judgments and upholding their position.
Rather they are to be regarded as representative figureheads exercising an extremely important role in mediating within their own clan in conjunction with clan elders and in negotiating with other groups. Most important group decisions reflect a general consensus amongst the elders.
The Saho people as it has already been narrated is composed of several tribes (kisho, meela or qabila). This includes: