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Who are Blin Speaking Communities?
In general, the literature of Blin people is not yet well developed. However, since the 18thC, they have well-documented materials by foreign visitors in their land. Of course, my objective is not to give a Scientific material here, rather highlight the main political discourses that have immensely changed the socio-demography of today’s Bilen speaking communities of Eritrea.
Genealogy of Blin People before 10thC
In my second part, I tried to explain a brief history of Blin people. They belong to the Agaws of today’s Eritrea and Ethiopia who have succeeded their ancient language and way of life. It is not easy to explain how the socio-demographic evolution took place among the Agaws before the 10thC. However, their exposure to Christianity (4thC) and later to Islam(7thC), and the political chaos they faced then after have definitely greatly impacted who they are today.
The Agaws are believed to be the original inhabitants of today’s Eritrea and Ethiopia. They belong to the Kushitic family of ancient Nubia(Sudan). The Nubians had great civilizations in ancient Nubia(North Sudan) before they expanded further along the Red Sea. Some of their historical landmark cities include own urban centers like Nubia, Dongola, Adulis, Axum, Lalibela, etc.
Kushites are the ancient Africans who lived between the Nile river and the Red Sea. They are the ancient Africans who lived between the Nile river and the Red Sea. According to the Biblical and Islamic Scholars genealogy, Kush was the son of Ham and grandson of Noah as given in Figure 1. For example, the Bible has mentioned in Genesis 10:6 Kush and descendants as given in the family tree below. Though there some controversial issues regarding the history behind Kush father, Ham and the Curse of Noah, their mention shows us how significant they are in world history.
In a research paper presented by Dr. Idris Abubeker on the occasion of Blin Conference held in Stuttgart(2017), Blin people were mentioned in history by their names and were briefly described by Arab historians who visited in the horn of Africa in the 12thC. According to his findings, an Arab geographer, botanist, Historian El-Idrissi(1100 – 1167 or 1175), Blin people were living between the land of Abyssinia and the Beja. Blin and Balion was their name and were Coptic Orthodox Christians who had absolute control of their land. According to El-Idrissi, the Blin people embraced Christianity in the early days of its expansion. Not only this, El-Edrissi described people as people having “stringency and determination” qualities. During those days, Blin had a relationship with the neighboring people Bejas, the Abyssinians, and Nubias and distant people such as the Romans.
According to Dr. Idris Abubeker, another well known Arab poet who recorded about Blin people was Ibn al-Qalaqis of Alexandria(1138 – 1172), visited Dahlak Island via Aden in 1169, witnessed the Blin people demolishing mosques in protest of Islamic expansion around the Coastal line.
Like all Kushitic people, Blin people trace their ancestral origin some 4000 – 5000 years ago. Apart from the Lasta – agaws narration, there are some oral folklores in Senhit area around Megarih (Keren) which dates back 3000 years old. These oral folklores tells a clue about the existence of well-established centers of Kushitic families around Megarih. It is believed these establishments destroyed by natural disaster.
Families/Clans like the Laguen(ላጐን), also called Bet Musha, Kelew(ከለው) believe that they are the ancient settlers of Senhit. The Laguen people have still retained some of their ancestral traditions and values. They are religious clergies and masters of Ge’ez language. Now, the Laguen people speak different languages, follow different religions and live throughout Eritrea.
Genealogy of Blin People After 10thC
Most Agaws trace their genealogy that dates back from Emperor Mara Takla Haymanot, the founder and ruler of Zagwe Dynasty(916 – 919) and then until Emperor Harbai(1262 – 1270). The short list of Zagwe Dynasty rulers provided in the genealogy of Royal kings of Ethiopia is given in the table below. However, this table seems not complete compared to what Fidel Mekonen has provided.
After Emperor Harbai(1270), the Solomonic kingdom of Abyssinia emerged and the power was transferred to Showa. The Agaw continued to rule their province(Lasta) as an autonomous region under a new title, Wagshum. With time, Wag is removed. Now, all Agaws appointed their local reign from Lasta to have the title, “Shum, or Sim”. Until today, this honorary title is common among the Kushites of Eritrea and Tigray.
Therefore, it is quite easy to know with whom the Blin people of Eritrea are associated with. Until today, their language, their culture, and way of life, and their religious practice and social structure and customary laws are similar with those of the Agaws who are living in Ethiopia to this day.
Further, if one is curious to know who the Bilen speaking communities in Eritrea are, it is quite easy to study Kemant people of Ethiopia and other Agaws who are still living in Lasta, Gonder. Agaw families who are living scattered in Ethiopia are the ancestral families of today’s Blin people of Eritrea who are living in most areas of Sahel, Hamasien, and Seraye people are living in Eritrea.
After the fall of the Zagwe Dynasty, new Agaw families were forced to flee in fear of persecution by the Amharas and migrated all along to the Senhit in search of a secured place. The newcomers settled there either by force where the indigenous people not strong enough to protect their land or their number was too small so that there was free land that allowed them to integrate without dispute. Nevertheless, there is no recorded or oral history that gives a clue about a land dispute between the then newcomers and indigenous that can potentially accuse the newcomers as land grabbers.
Most Blin families recall their family genealogy starting from the 10thC. AC as most Blin speaking communities of Eritrea associates themselves with the Kushites families of Agaw, from Lasta. This gave them a lineage with the last kingdom of Agaw, known by historians as Zagwe Dynasty or Kingdom(916 – 1270). There are new genealogical studies about the Blin people which trace their lineage up to King Mirara
A book written by an Eritrean Anthropologist Fidel Mekonen asserts that the majority of Eritreans are of Agaw origin. Even the book by itself is titled, “Sons of King of Kings Mirara Teklehaimanot, ደቂ ንጉሠ ነገሥታት ምራራ ተኽለሃይማኖት.
Fidel Mekonen has conducted an extensive two weeks online seminar via Paltalk to Eritreans about the origin of the people. In the seminar, he discussed in detail about Blin people.
From this youtube, I tried to draw the family tree of Bet Tarqe. A similar family tree can be developed to the rest Bilen speaking communities.
Tribes of Blin People
In the last 100 years, Blin people had experienced two kinds of social clustering executed at the order of the ruling regimes. Such clustering was not at the will of the people but the rulers. It was done so to disrupt the social make-up of the Blin people. Once the social make-up is shaken, it becomes easy for the rulers to exercise their agenda, “divide and rule policy”. According to Michael Gabir, Italians introduced the clustering after 1932 by demolishing the village based self-autonomous federal system in which each village was composed of several clans. Italians changed it into dependent tribal system headed by the colonizers appointed tribal chiefs. And, the second clustering was introduced officially in 2002 whenPFDJ grouped them into one Ethnic group.
Italian imposed Social Clustering of Blin people: Two Grand Tribes
During the Italian period, Blin people had seen two different experiences. Italians as a friendly colonizer, Italians as an aggressive colonizer. Until 1932, Italians did not disturb the social make-up and internal administrative system of Blin people. The people were living in 25 administrative villages. Each village had its own “Shum or Sim”. They continued to use their Customary laws and traditional way of life in which they were used to live with. But, this village type self-autonomous administrative system was convenient for Italians to exercise their power.
In order to have absolute control, they had to demolish the was Blin people used to live by introducing a new administrative system. Hence, in 1932, they forced the Blin people to be grouped into two grand tribal associations. As a result, Blin speaking communities who were living in Senhit and Bogos were forced to be grouped into two larger tribes: Bet Tarqe and Bet Tawqe. This made many small clans who were not directly associated with these two groups but used to have their own customary laws to revolt against. This imposed system brought division among the people. Though Italians managed to impose their rule, after the fascist regime was defeated, Blin people started to re-organize among themselves. From the early 1940s, this led to the bitter internal friction among Blin speaking communites which has its footprints until today. This will be discussed later.
Before 1932, Blin people had semi-federal system of administration where each village was considered as a sovereign small state. Each village was autonomous in its internal administrative systems and land managament.
The first clustering of Blin people happened during the Italian colonization period(1890 – 1941) when Italians destroyed the village-based traditional federal system introduced in 1932.
PFDJ Imposed Social Groupings: One Ethnic Group
In Part I/IV; I tried to discuss the origin of ethnic groupings in Eritrea. It was PLF, later EPLF, which has introduced the ethnicity concept in the Eritrean political atmosphere. Since its inception, Blin speaking communities objected the concept. As a result, EPLF did not succeed in bringing the people in one table. In fact, after independence, unexpected social friction emerged after EPLF officials called a demonstration that supports “Blin ethnicity”.
Since the 1950s, Blin people had settled their internal politics by embracing social groupings which put them into three tribes. From 1950s to 1991, Ethiopia embraced the “Three Groups” and conducted its administration system accordingly. In all administrative affairs that deal with Blin people, there were three nominated representatives that deal with the people. But, EPLF was following different system as tht of Ethiopia. Blin people were represented by one. Hence, Blin people had issues on their affairs as Ethiopia and EPLF were administering the people differently.
In 1992, EPLF was busy in the formation of transitional government and in the process of preparing for Referendum. It is at this moment that he wanted to promote the ethnic groupings. But the people appointed for that matter were not honest in dealing with the matter. Though, the ethnic groupings was mainly based on language spoken, some officials, like Girmay Gergish and Mehari Chinie used their power to manipulate the notion. They provoked land property issue while calling people for unity. This angered the people and new conflict emerged. This particular incidence brought unprecedented social damage among the then relatively peaceful communities.
After the incidence of 1992, it became difficult to unite the Blin communities under one ethnic group. It was only after 2002, that the people were forced to accept the “Three Blin People”. In fact, the notion “three” was a strategy to manipulate those who were against the unity. Otherwise, “Bihere Bilen – ብሄረ ብሌን” is the one that the ordinary people know.
Before 2002, Blin speaking communities were grouped into three grand tribes. They are: Bet Tarqe, Bet Tawqe and Bet 12 Neged. three tribes had their own history to exist.
Today, Blin people are identified as “Blin Ethnic group”. They were pressured to be grouped in one cluster after national security and high rank government officials from the totalitarian PFDJ regime of Eritrea(as you can see in the table) forced them to be merged into one ethnic group. The Blin speaking communities resisted for the clustering but have no option except to follow orders.
Under the “3 Blin Ethnic Group, there are 32 clans clustered into three different groups as shown below.
- Bet Tarqe
Bet Tarqe is composed of 6 larger clans, where one clan is further divided into 4 sub-clans, making it 9 clans. They are living mainly around Keren, with the exception of one, Anseba Lemechei family. As shown in the figure, the clans clustered in Bet Tarqe are: Hada Family(Hadembes, Demat, Tessi’En, and Edekel, Ghebru, Debru, Lemecheli, Begeday and Satif.
Bet Tarqe claim that they are the true Blin people. They claim that Bilen language belongs to them. But, this claim has not ground. In fact, it has been challenged since such claim started to emerge. In fact, this kind of claim and other ownership issues are the main source of friction among the Blin speaking communities, especially between Bet Tarqe and 12 Neged.
2. Bet 12 Neged
This group is composed of several clans which are living in Senhit area. Most of these clans are late comers to the land of Senhit and some claim they are the indogenous people. These clans clsutered themselves in the 1950s in order to have their own representative. They did not want to be dependent with Bet Tarqe. Until today, there is minor dispute between Bet Tarqe and Bet 12 Neged.
As shown in the figure below, Merir, Mettu, Beynu, Hatima, Ekhereru, Genday, Tekher, Khulu, Kellew, Fassila, Zaul Elama are the Clans clustered in Bet 12 – Neged. They live mainly among Bet-Tarqe though they have their own land.
3. Bet Tawqe
Bet Tawqe are blin speaking people who are living in Halhal and its visinity. Their number is large. They claim that they migrated to their current territory from Hamassien. There are clans who live among Bet Tawqe tribe who claim their origin to be from the Arab Peninsula. But, this claim is challenged by the clans themselves. There are also other clans who claim they are not from Agaws. It could be true but, those who claim like that might be the indigenous Kushitic families of Eritrea who lived in the area for thousands of years. The motive for their claim could be because they are unable to trace their history like other clans of Blin speaking communities say.
Tawqe tribes are the composition of two groups: 1 – those who claim they are direct descendants of Tawqe, and the other groups are clans who joined Tawqe sons to form the tribe. These are:
Tawqe sons – Tsefae, Gebsha, Semerechen, Hatish, Lamedri.
And the other group: Tsinfay, Dengin, Jewen, Danshim, Lagu’en and Jengeren.
There are some social conflicts among Bet Tawqe tribe, especially land issues and clan frictions which had let them to clush among themselves several times.
Tribal Conflicts within Blin People
Though, the feelings of tribal conflicts within Blin people seems to have culminated these days, there are some remenants where people are not courageous to discuss about them openly. The tension between Bet Tarqe and 12 Neged seems alive with some verbal exchanges here and there. The feelings of belonginess, pride for the Blin culture and ownership of Blin language, as well as rulers of the Senhit land as well as its inhabitants are vividly alive.
Though the tribes of Bet Tawqe have their own internal complex issues, they seem to be in good terms with the tribes of Bet Tarqe and 12 Neged. In fact, since the 1940s, Bet Tawqe played a great role in bringing these two tribes into an agreement.
- The case of Bet Tawqe and 12 Neged
The disagreement netween Bet Tawqe and clans of 12 Neged seems quite historic. It has its historical roots of interdependence and co-existence under the leadership of Tarqe family. According to different historical records, starting from the 16thC, Bet Tarqe started to organize as a confederated tribal unit under the leadership of Gabre Tarqe. Gabre Tarqe had an Agaw ruling title, “Shum – ሹም”. He joined many clans under his tribal confederate, including those who do not belong to his direct family line, including those who were natives of the Senhit/Bogos area and newly arrived Agaws from Hamassien, Seraye, Semhar and other areas.
It is believed that Senhit was inhabited by other native agaw descendants way before the arrival of Bet Tarqe. Some of these clans include Belew which belong to the Tigre clan of Mensa’e. As Bet Tawqe became the new rulers of the land, Kelew felt under their rule. Therefore, Belew became part of the Bet Tarqe tribes territory and forced to pay taxes.
Other clans who took refugee in Senhit area from the highland of Eritrea were also felt under the leadership of Bet Tawqe. These small clans later started to identify as a separate group as there were social discrimination issues, and imposed taxes to be paid to the tribe chief. Social discrimination includes, marriage and property ownership.
In the beginning, this might not have a big problem as Bet Tarqe had the power to impose their rule over the rest. However, no one wants oppression. With time, it natural for people to fight for their freedom. This is what I believe the beginning of the existing friction between the Bet Tarqe and 12 Neged.
This friction did not emerge out of no where. First, it is the Bet Terqe who came to Senhit, occupied the land of others and who imposed their rule. Second, those newly arrived clans from Hamassien were powerful enough to challenge the rule imposed by Bet Tarqe, reject any discrimination and pay taxes. They are all Agaws and they had similar customary laws which they had inherited from their Agaw ancestors. Therefore, the 12 Neged clans started to distance themselves from the authocratic rule of Tarqe family and have their own leader.
Italians had also their own share in the internal politics of Blin communities. The social groupings introduced in 1932 had reduced the number of representatives and chiefs from 25 to 2. This groupings had a purpose to serve Italian interest by weakening the people. Clans who were independent on their own affairs would definitely find such groupings difficult to accept. Power struggle is another issue that could have created a bitter competition among the clans. This friction had an effect on the internal politics of Blin people that continued throughout the 1940s and 1950s.
In the 1940s, a political development took place where Bet Tarqe and 12 Neged took their internal conflict to a new phase. When British Administration in Eritrea allowed establishment of Civic and Political Associations, Eritreans started to organize themselves based on their family lineage, political, religious, professional and other groups. It is for the first time that each family in Eritrea started to write its family geneonological roots and history. Not only this, Customary laws which were mainly kept among the elders started to be published and ciruclated in each family member.
The freedom given and liberal political environment created during the British Administration period(1941 – 1952), allowed the 12 Neged to reclaim their independence from the Tarqe tribe more easily. Not only this, when the Federal Government of Eritrea and Ethiopia was established, Eritreans had a chance to elect their representatives.Though the main actors were political organizations, the politicians involved their families, clans and tribes in their succession to power.
During the 1940s political termoil, politicians from Bet Tarqe and 12 Neged were in favour of the Unity with Ethiopia. And, this inclination might had historical reasoning and fear of religious domination. But this general inclination did not end their historical struggle for independence among themselves. Rather, dominatio for power emerged. This triggered the struggle for full independence of the 12 Neged.
Generally, the Blin communities were divided into two political camps: those who support Unity with Ethiopia, and those who support full independence of Eritrea. And, this was not based on political consciousness but religious affiliations and fear of the unknown. In this regard, Bet Tarqe and 12 Neged were in the Unity camp, and Bet Tarqe in the Independence bloc.
Within this, Senhit region had to send two delegates to the then formed Eritrean Assembly. Hence, it becomes obvious that each political camp will be represented. Therefore, the competition remained within the two major tribes who were supporting for UNITY with Ethiopia. this group had diverse clans within it and the 12 Neged were not in full control of their affairs because of the historical affiliation they had with Bet Tarqe. When they were electing their own local delegates/deputies, four(4) was given to Bet Tarqe and two(2) to the 12 N. This shows the unfair and unjust representation.