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Poets of War and Peace

Above, “a rendering spun from the imagination” of Assim Jubara of the legendary poet, Mehaira Bit Aboud, whose verse inspired her tribesmen to rise up against the invading Turkish armies of 1820. My thanks to Assim Jubara of Iqoona for so kindly allowing me to reproduce his work here.

Title image, a sketch based on a photo of Al-Fasher-based Mahasin Osman Al-Tahir, pictured above. Mahasin is a Darfuri Hakkama – “folk poet, singer and protector of the social and economic rights of her community.” (Suad Musa) She has recently advocated for peace and reconciliation in her songs.

Good Hakkama songs may sweep the whole savannah belt, passed from mouth to mouth, from water hole to water hole by any singer with a good memory,” crossing clan divides. (Women Singers in Darfur, Roxane Connick Carlisle. Anthropos 1973)

Although two centuries apart, Mehaira and Mahasin embody Sudanese women’s proactive role in composing and performing poetry, chants and songs, serving to both galvanize and polarize communities. Hakkamaat, predominantly associated with the Afro-Arab tribes of Darfur and Kordofan, and past masters of the social media of their day, still exercise greater sway than many regional government agencies in forging public opinion. Described as folk poet hawks and doves – even Sudan’s “gangster rappers”, the Hakkamaat wield power to incite and inflame, and to advocate passionately for calm and unity at moments of crisis. Renewed interest in the Hakkamaat, coupled with official efforts to remold their role as influencers must be set against underplaying or sanitizing their history as instigators of ethnic conflict. In contrast, while not technically Hakkamaat-penned, the rousing songs and chants of Sudanese women urging peace and disciplined resolve – songs instantly amplified by social media – were to play a key role during the peaceful 2019 revolution.

Her words slayed dragons” – lyrics in English and Arabic from Sarra SoLo’s evocative homage to the Hakkamat (I’m a) Hakkama Ana. See too Sudan Retold, Hakkama, by Sarra Ibrahim Saeed, p143. A translation of the Arabic verse will be provided shortly.

Hakkama Ana

Deriving from semantic roots encompassing concepts of judgement, ruling, governing, condemnation and arbiter, the Hakkama denotes “ a female who possesses a raft of special qualities: a poet, a performer and a singer. Her verse focuses on words of wisdom, and she can exercise judgement and arbitration. These are the qualities that the respective society distinguishes as the basis for the individual female’s excellence.”

“Confidence, charisma, social relationships and the acquisition of sound local knowledge and cultural insight, are all requisite attributes for addressing community-centred moral values and the ethics of bravery, generosity, good behavior, solidarity and philanthropy. The woman who chooses to establish herself as Hakkamah must indeed demonstrate these necessary and coveted qualities.”

Suad M.E. Musa, on the Baggara Hakkamaat tradition, Hawks & Doves in Sudan’s Armed Conflict (see below)

“Her Words Slayed Dragons” – The Evolving Role of the Hakkamaat

Above, screenshot from UNDP and Turning Tables presents Hakama calling Sudan. The short video, embedded below, highlights the work of Hakkamaat in raising awareness of climate change and the need for community action.

This is a cultural post for

Women’s Education Partnership

See Latest News and At a Glance for more about our work.

Setting the Scene

Power Wielded; Power Feared, Power Abused?

Colonial and Contemporary Testimonies

“Aided and motivated by ethnic identity consciousness, Hakkamaat develop a tremendous agency that enables them to exercise authority and influence in order to fulfil social and political obligations compatible with the welfare of their tribes. They can pass rulings and arbitrations that are convenient for preserving the sovereignty and sanctity of their tribal territories. Their roles are therefore legitimized, honored and upheld by their communities.”

“The use of ridicule by women” can be interpreted as “a cultural method of censorship and discipline.”

Suad M.E. Musa, as above.

“The women’s tongues are greatly feared, as if they sing against a man’s courage he will probably leave the country to be quit of this intolerable nuisance. I have seen a boy almost in despair because the women, quite unjustly, accused him of having run away from robbers and left his brother to be plundered. I have known three nazirs give extravagant bribes to one of these hakkamas who threatened to sing against their meanness. The man who earns their praise is called kelb-al-Hakkama, and prides himself on the notice he receives.” (Colonial text in Sudan Arabic Texts: With Translation and Glossary edited by S. Hillelson).

“Foremost among these songs are those composed in praise of valiant deeds performed by the young men, such as the killing of an elephant, lion of a giraffe, or the pursuit of a defeated enemy or in the old days, a raid against the Nuba or Dinka for the purpose of carrying off their children as slaves. A young man has no higher ambition than to win the favor of the girls and women of his tribe…Should an act of cowardice be committed by one of the young men, as soon as it becomes known, it is the duty of the Hakkama to compose a song in which the culprit is reviled and held up to the derision and execration of all …This song having been universal in the tribe, is supposed to be sung for a whole year as a punishment to the man in question and at the same time as a warning to the rest of the tribe…Uncherished by them, he is naturally reduced to the uttermost depths of misery. (From The Cult of Bravery, Notes on the Baggara and Nuba of Western Kordofan. Yuzbashi Negib Eff: Yunis, Sudan Notes and Records, Volume 5 1922.)

Icon of the anti-colonial struggle and often seen draped in her trademark colors of the former Sudanese flag – whose symbolism resonated anew in the 2019 revolution, Hawaa Jah al Rasoul, known as Hawaa al Taktaka, (1924-2012) was the daughter of a Hakama. “It is said that her nickname, Taktaka, may be attributed to the fact that she was an artist who teaches brides to dance. Other tales suggest that her name is the result of her struggle against the British as one British inspector likened her to a Taktaka tree; omnipresent. Hawaa was arrested several times on the grounds of her singing. One arrest took place after she participated in a nationalist concert at the Workers’ Theater in Atbara along with Hassan Khalifa Al-Atbarawi.” Read more in Sudan’s Hawa banat come of age

“Oh my tribesmen! Hit hard the slave who misbehaves in this place. / His women are but slaves, busy with their Jangal dancing.” The words of a Mahriyah Hakkama, referring to defeated Masalit as “’abeed”, a term for slaves, and urging her tribesmen to “humiliate and exterminate them.” (Hawks & Doves in Sudan’s Armed Conflict; Al-Hakkamat of Darfur, Suad M.E.Musa, James Curry, Eastern Africa Series, 2018, p84). The same author records: “At early dawn, I was hearing heavy guns roaring. / Oh, horsemen, my kinfolks, I advise you / Unite together; don’t let America colonize you!” Hakkaammat mobilizing public support of the Bashir regime against the 1994 United Nations imposed sanctions. (Hawks and Doves in Sudan’s Armed Conflict; Al-Hakkamat of Darfur, p116)

“At a social event for the Rezeiqat Abbala, their Hakkamah described the Tora Bora as brave, because, when they go raiding, they often bring back valuables, such as cars and heavy arms. In the meantime, she expressed distain for her menfolk, who were Janjawiid militias, for the kind of spoils they often brought – goats and hens. She implied that her menfolk were just armed cowards. Immediately, from among the crowd, a tribal leader sprang out and shot the Hakkamah dead. A close relative of the Hakkamah reacted instantly and shot the killer dead. The men swiftly contained the matter, lest it might escalate…” Suad M.E. Musa, reporting a 2004 incident in the Kutum vicinity of North Darfur.

Below, another still from the UNPD video embedded below. Hakkaamaat singing for unity and concerted action to combat climate change.

The eloquence of the Hakkamaat and their status among the community have been mobilized by local and international agencies in the battle for social, educational and political reform: “We have erased illiteracy and its torments / We assembled the letters and knew how they work. / We learned how to read, and also how to write!”

Song of a Hakkaama as reported in Sudanow

“Her Words Slayed Dragons”; the Evolving Role of the Hakkaamaat

Becoming a Hakkama A Darker Legacy Who Pays the Piper?

Becoming a Hakkama

“Around the age of 10, I used to attend routine social gatherings that brought together Hakamas and different members of society. Despite the tasks assigned to me during those gatherings, where I had to serve the Hakamas tea, I was dedicating myself to listening attentively to the songs and poems recited by them….. By the time I was 13, I was singing and chanting with several Hakamas.”

Mahasin Osman Al-Tahir, interviewed above, goes on to say with some pride that while still very young she was paid a calf in recognition of her talents, though she still works as a tea seller and restaurant owner to earn a living. Later in life, she may well be expected to reciprocate this munificence as proof of her own qualities of generosity, as Suad Musa has observed; Baggara Hakkamaat “often invite the notables and public to banquets, where they slaughter bulls and come out afterwards to sing and commend men.”

Inspired by her Hakkama grandmother, Mahasin claims “instinctive talent and creativity” are essential attributes for any Hakkama. Her story is typical of many Hakkamaat, who forge their reputations performing at important social occasions such as weddings, circumcisions and horse races. The “instinctive talent” Mahasin talks of encompasses “a vocabulary of esteemed phrases with an imagery which is adored for its subtlety, sensitivity to metrical form, flexibility of her art and a great range of subject matter stored in her memory”. For many, the Hakkama is “the treasury of community’s heritage”, and the tribe’s genealogies, recalling the deeds of their chieftains and heroes, grandfathers and ancestors, while also demonstrating wit and the ability to improvise; all embodied in a person of “dignified bearing”. The virtues she publicly upholds play an essential role in the socialization of her community’s children.

Roxane Connick Carlisle, researching the songs of Darfuri women in the 1970s noted how the themes embraced by the Hakkamaat of the Zaghawi, Fur and Baggara reflected the realities of their tribal way of life and the nature of their women’s autonomy. The Zaghawi Hakkamaat, she observed, focused on camels and camel raiding and rustling. They also sang of the springs of Bir-el-Malha, praising the endurance and courage of the men who journeyed through the desert there to bring back natron – prized in the region as a treatment both for camels and rheumatism; “ we will never find such a man again, strong as steel and beautiful as silver. …he must ride nine days across the desert passing no trees no wells…” The women also sung in praise of the boys that guarded their sorghum fields while their menfolk were away. She noted:

“The Zaghawi sat down to sing, quietly gathered her dress around her, leisurely recalled her thoughts and performed in a relaxed low-key manner whereas Fur women sang standing head thrust upward, chest high, intensity expressed in every muscular gesture with a sustained energy throughout her performance”

Until recently, Hakkamaat have been viewed as fiercely independent, enjoying authority and empowered to challenge judgements laid down by local judiciary. Some have suggested their role serves to “challenge gender-subordinating practices” among their communities or that it reflects patterns of nomadic life where women, left alone to tend to the family while their menfolk are away, must defend values ensuring the wellbeing and survival of the tribe. Others view the power of the Hakkamaat as a function of the exclusion of women from the formal political sphere.

A Darker Legacy

“The case of Maryam Zakhira was highlighted. Maryam was an influential, charismatic Hakama who was sentenced to death due to her role in a conflict involving her tribe. Her incitement resulted in the death of dozens. She was charged with the possession of guns and ammunition as well as incitement to violence. The participants agreed that Hakamat were often exploited by others through misinformation.”

Hakkamaat have been implicated in numerous ethnic conflicts. Nadine Rea Intisar Adam, in her study of Hakkamaat in peace building, quotes Amnesty International reports that Hakkamaat accompanied their Janjaweed tribesmen in attacks on villages, singing in praise of the rape and looting of their victims. This “exclusionist behaviour”, Amnesty International contends, is rooted in perceptions of what was necessary for survival. Suad Musa notes that in line with the Bashir government’s Islamist and Arabization ambitions, Hakkamaat were encouraged to promote religious attitudes akin to those of the regime, refrain from instigating certain conflicts and offered training in literacy and other skills. Much of the traditional dancing integral to Hakkamaat performances was frowned upon or indeed lost as strict Islamic dress and conduct was urged. During this time, Hakkamaat were given military training, integrated into army and police structures, and given “powers to arrest and search” (Nadine Rea Intisar Adam).

As Hakkamaat moved away from the countryside and their structures became more urban, it is claimed that their verses lost authenticity and became “lifeless diction overloaded with NIF slogans and flattery of people just because of their status ….they have become identified as mere government instruments with little independence to resist temptation…” (Suad Musa). Others have noted that the urbanization of the Hakkamaat also facilitated the shift towards more peace-based content in their songs.

Who Pays the Piper?

“That sort of hakama is no longer seen in Darfur. They were living in darkness. That darkness has now been replaced by the light. All of the hakamas in Darfur are no longer singing for war, but instead are chanting for peace. Today, the hakamas are much more aware of the complicated issues of the community than they have ever been.”

Mahasin responding to the issue of conflict incitement.”

Mahasin Osman Al-Tahir

Mahasin’s words above are reassuring. Sudanow reported the words of one Hakkama who insisted on logical engagement; “if you talk to them (men) wisely and with patience and understanding, they will understand. The same report claimed that Hakkamaat are removing ridicule and sarcasm from their poetic arsenal. Certainly their involvement in peace building initiatives, climate change awareness and FGM campaigns would indicate the role of the Hakkama is being harnessed in the cause of social justice at some level. Numerous workshops are organized by INGOs and both Sudanese and international agencies are keen to incorporate the Hakkamaat into their vision of a more equitable Sudan.

However, some urge caution in assessing the authenticity of the Hakkama’s recent stand on such issues. For Nadine Intisar Adam, the Hakkama has become the darling of media and INGO attention with its pleasingly dramatic narrative of warmongers turned peaceniks. ”Being a Hakama (or claiming to be one) has become a means of attracting attention and joining certain initiatives” and of course being paid for women subject to “peer pressure, lack of education – the vast majority of Hakkamaat are illiterate – and economic duress.

However deep-rooted the Hakkamaats evolving role proves to be, Huwaidahs story, below, is a cause for cautious optimism that the spirit of inter-ethnic unity, peace and collaboration so passionately sung and chanted by women in 2019 will endure and find echo in the eloquence of the Hakkamaat.


Hakamat and Peacebuilding 2004-2012

Women Singers in Darfur, Sudan Republic, Roxane Connick Carlisle. Anthropos 1973, Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft mbH

This is a cultural post for

Women’s Education Partnership

See Latest News and At a Glance for more about our work.

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