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The Kanemite royal history, the Girgam, refers to the Zaghawa people as the Duguwa. Today, Zaghawa refer to themselves as the Beri, while the name “Zaghawa” comes from the nearby Arab peoples and became better known. They have their own language, which is also called Zaghawa, and the breed of sheep that they herd is called Zaghawa by the Arabs. They are semi-nomadic and obtain much of their livelihood through herding cattle, camels and sheep and harvesting wild grains. It has been estimated that there are between 75,000 and 350,000 Zaghawa. [1]

Zaghawa are first mentioned in Arabic language texts. The Arab geographer al-Ya’qubi, in a description written around 890 spoke of them as the “Zaghawa who live in a place called Kanem,” and proceeded to list a string of other kingdoms under Zaghawa rule which cannot be identified for sure, but make it clear that they had some sort of hegemony over most of the smaller complex societies that stretched from at least Lake Chad to the Christian Nile valley kingdoms of Nubia, Makuria and Alwa. Ya’qubi also mentioned that the Zaghawa sold slaves to the north. Al-Ya’qubi and other early accounts make the Zaghawa to be nomadic and it appears that their hegemony over this region was not unlike the sort of loose rule that nomadic cultures sometimes exercised over settled populations elsewhere in the world.

Zaghawa overrule continued for a considerable period, the geography of the region given by Al-Idrisi in 1154 and Yaqut in 1220 also reveal an oasis centered system of Zaghawa power, and includes the two main towns of Kanem, Manan and Anjimi. Al-Idrisi is first to provide anything like a detailed geography (1154).

Ibn Sa’id, however, writing in 1270 provides a new geography showing that Kanem at the very least had become independent, and research by German scholar Dierk Lange studying the Girgam or Diwan of Kanem, argue that the change in sovereignty is correlated with changes in the origins of the wives of the rulers, moving from northern clans, presumably associated with the Zaghawa to a single southern lineage. This transformation and ibn Said’s contemporary evidence both suggest that the power of the Zaghawa was broken, probably in the reign of Kanem’s ruler Dunama Dibalami (c. 1210-1248).

Although Zaghawa power was broken by the rise of Kanem in the Lake Chad region, Zaghawa retained control over a considerable portion of the lands lying east of Kanem, and it is only in the late fourteenth century that Darfur is mentioned as an independent state by the Egyptian historian and geographer Maqrizi.

Following the rise of Darfur and Kanem, the Zaghawa appear to have controlled only desert areas and ceased to be a major regional power.

Where Are they Located?

The Zaghawa (also spelled Zakhawa) are an ethnic group of eastern Chad and western Sudan, including Darfur.

What Are Their Lives Like?

While they are not very powerful in Sudan, they politically dominate Chad. The current president, Idriss Déby and several former prime ministers of Chad are Zaghawa, as well as many other members of the government. Thus the Chadian Zaghawa are among the richest and most influential people of Chad.

However, in Sudan, the Zaghawa are caught up in the Darfur crisis, and have suffered much loss from the troubles there. The Zaghawa of Sudan are among the peoples living in the refugee camps in Darfur and eastern Chad.

The Zaghawa have been among the tribes in Darfur who have been referred to as “African” even as other tribes that have fought with them have been called “Arab”.[2]

In 2000 an alphabet based on livestock brands was created for the Zaghawa language.

What Are Their Beliefs?

As a result of Tijani Muslim missionaries from West Africa who were traveling through their area to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, the leadership converted to Islam. In the 1940s, the Zaghawa began to turn to Islam from Animism en masse. In Darfur, the Zaghawa are well-known[2] for their piety. Due to the fighting in Darfur, where they are targeted by local Arab militia due to their ethnic heritage, 100,000 have become refugees across the border in Chad. [3] [4] A Zaghawa tribesman named Daoud Hari wrote a memoir about Darfur called The Translator, which spread knowledge about the atrocities in Darfur.