Coffee Rituals, Camel Shins & Ostrich Brochettes: The Beja Tribes of Eastern Sudan & Egypt – Part II

Continuing yesterday’s blog (here)…

Desert bus to Kassala in the Red Sea Province - in the lower right corner of the picture a Beja can be seen walking towards the bus.  Source - (c) David Habarlah

Desert bus to Kassala in the Red Sea Province – on the right side of the picture a Beja can be seen walking towards the bus. Source – (c) David Habarlah

Wadi Odeib - a semi-permanant Bishari dwelling.  Acacia groves are managed and controlled by specific lineages or sub-lineages, providing fuel, fodder and gums.

 Beja house, near the little trading town of Shalateen on the Red Sea coast, using drift wood for building. From here desert camel caravans coming from western Sudan would offload their livestock onto motorized boats coming from Saudi Arabia.  Picture source: © David Haberlah

Recipes at the end of this blog, which typify resources and cuisine of the Beja:

  • Beja diet in the 19th Century
  • Manna – a Beja Sweet Treat (especially for Karen Resta):
  • Beja Coffee Ceremony
  • Camel Shins (Kawaari’a) – cooked, not raw
  • Meat and Okra Stew (Bamya)
  • Ostrich Brochettes
  • Salted Meat

Project work amongst the Beja in the Red Sea Hills and along the Red Sea Coast of Egypt and Sudan:

Nomads in the Red Sea Provence” was a complex, 3-year activity combining Environmental, Social and Medical Research, Social Services Delivery, and Medical Services Delivery.  An enumeration of the activities in the project is given at the end of this blog entry.

One component of the project assessed a series of key wells that were repaired and upgraded

One component of the project assessed a series of key wells that were repaired and upgraded.

Human Health & Nutrition:

To strengthen the human and animal health research and delivery components of the project, we set up collaborative arrangements with NAMRU-3 (U. S. Naval Medical Research Unit No. 3, located in Cairo), thereby combining a variety of both human and animal medical expertise. The mission of NAMRU-3 is to conduct infectious disease research in the region and so our project in this remote area provided their staff with an excellent opportunity to obtain a wide variety of samples, while the project benefited tremendously from the medical skills of their staff and laboratories (

To provide continued medical care to the local population, I took on a recently graduated Egyptian doctor who served the area and also assisted in the medical research.  We collected blood, urine and fecal samples from local populations as part of free medical treatment and the tests were run in the NAMRU-3 labs in Cairo.  The results indicated that, not surprisingly, severe to moderate anemia was a condition of nearly all of the women.  Internal parasites and teeth abscesses linked to severely worn-down teeth were common, the latter apparently associated with consuming highly gritty foods.

Blood test results were the most surprising, for we learned that the population exhibited the highest levels of both acute and chronic Hepatitis B infection know globally (of a given population group).  Why?!  Here is where ethnomedicine makes an entry.  As in various non-industrialized areas, the Beja believed that medical treatment would not work unless a ‘hugn’ ( حقنn injection – was given.  This belief was so firmly fixed, that in order to convince inhabitants to take pills, we had to give the patients placebo injections and then tell say that the injection would not work unless the pills were taken as directed!

Another aspect of Beja health beliefs had to do with the power of blood.  It is not surprising in the arid and hot climate, in which the Beja live, that blood should be given a singular importance, both symbolically and in terms of health.  But that is the topic for a separate study.  The importance for our work was the difficulty of obtaining blood samples from people whose concept of health was linked firmly to the belief that one had to have plentiful blood in one’s body.  Also, what we did with the blood once it was taken was a tremendous concern to the people.  These problems were solved in two ways:

First, we gave those who donated blood as much cold, instant Tang orange juice as they could drink, suggesting that this would help replace the lost blood.  Folks loved it.

Second, we arranged an evening hufla – party – during which we did a little ‘dog-and-pony’ show with dry ice,  a microscope, a centrifuge, and the blood samples.  We were able to show that once spun down, the blood separated and therefore we were no longer dealing with ‘real’ blood.  And allowing the participants to view a slide of their own blood under the microscope led to a night that was long in discussions, about what were the various elements in the blood, and what their functions were.

Now, some would argue that these methods were – or bordered on – not being ethical.  I would argue, in retrospect, that at the time we were dealing with people who were isolated from modern medicine and whose medical care was wholly entrusted to traditional doctors and midwives.  We really were beginning from the base.  But as we gained inroads with the population and the traditional healers, I was able to set up a modest training program for some of the midwives in conjunction with the Ministry of Health, which was the first health program in Egypt that worked with traditional midwives, whose practices were illegal in the Nile Valley.

Wildlife & Livestock:

Another major objective of our project was to assess domestic and wild animal health in the region.  Among other activities, we collected blood samples and ticks from camels, goats and wildlife.  During   night patrols with our 4 wheel drive trucks, we mounted lights on top of the cabs by which to night-blind the game and, using high-powered game rifles outfitted with tranquilizer darts, brought down game from our positions in the back of the trucks.  In this way, we were able to obtain a fair number of samples from a variety of wildlife – primarily gazelle, several types of gazelle, desert fox, feral goats and camels, ostrich, and rabbit.

Gazella leptoceros - J. Smit, in Sclater and Thomas, 1899. Protected.

Gazella leptoceros – J. Smit, in Sclater and Thomas, 1899. Protected.

Gazella dorcas - J. Smit, in Sclater and Thomas, 1899. Protected

Gazella dorcas – J. Smit, in Sclater and Thomas, 1899. Protected

Our Beja guides moaned unhappily, as we let the wildlife go after taking samples – all of which are ‘fair game’ in the local diets.   But at the end of each season, we did help bring down several animals that are not protected for roasting in a group party.

When, during one of my stays in Cairo, I mentioned to Dr. John Gerhardt, Director of the Ford Foundation for North Africa and the Middle East and a well-known ornithologist,  that we were finding quite a few ostrich flocks in the more remote areas.  He excitedly announced that ours was the most northern sighting of ostriches in N.E. Africa in the past several decades!  Ah, and how sad he was to learn that ostrich eggs and meat formed important parts of the local diet!  To honor our ostrich finding, a BBQ ostrich recipe is included, below.

As mentioned, the Beja managed (and still do) the long-distance camel trade in their area – a trade that begins in western Sudan as far away as Dar Fur and beyond into Libya, and transects over 1000 miles east, across the Sudan, to the Red Sea hills.  We were particularly interested in numbers of camels – their origin – health – destination – and possible zoonotic [human contactable] diseases carried by the livestock.

I was amazed, in over the 3 years of work in the area, to document the sheer numbers of camels moving up from the Sudan into the region – over ½ a million a year, trafficked into Egypt as well as across the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia.  Most were destined for meat – a few good, strong ones were destined for farm work.  (Most tourists visiting Egypt are not aware that some of the meat that they eat most probably comes from camel,  especially that used in street foods.)

Pack camels that still carry goods through remote areas

Pack camels that still carry goods through remote areas

The Beja also breed and raise elite racing camels, many of which they sell to Saudi Arabia.  Coursing across the desert on one of these steeds, especially racing, was a popular pastime and, with my years of experience in riding (horses), one that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Common livestock diseases included parasites and several related zoonotic diseases, as well as a variety of external injuries.  Problems of health and diseases, like the local inhabitants, varied seasonally. With no access to modern veterinary medicine, we also documented traditional medical practices.  For example, external injuries were uniformly treated by ‘makwa b’l-naar’ – literally, ‘ironing with hot metal’, which entails searing the wound with a red-hot sword.  This treatment was also used on the serious wounds of persons and is pretty effective – if painful.

Bishari-Man fire

Preparing coals for coffee.  Source:  © David Haberlah

The few camel that were not fit to travel on to the Nile Valley were generally sold locally and/or slaughtered.  If slaughtered – this would often be linked to a celebration.  Meat was generally boiled in large cauldrons – spiced with cardamom, peppers, and a few other ingredients, and sometimes served with flat bread.  Any remaining raw meat was salted; a recipe for salted meat is given below.


Beja diet in the 19th Century:

  • From John Lewis Burckhardt, Travels in Nubia (Originally published in 1822)
Johann Ludwig Burckhardt

Johann Lewis Burckhardt.  Source:  Wikipedia.

…The Bisharye (Beja), who rarely descend from their mountains, are a very savage people… Their only cattle are camels and sheep, and they live entirely upon flesh and milk, eating much of the former raw; according to the relation of several Nubians, they are very fond of the hot blood of slaughtered sheep; but their greatest luxury is said to be the raw marrow of camels. A few of these Arabs occasionally visit Derr or Assouan, with Senna [discussed  below], sheep, and ostrich feathers, the ostrich being common in their mountains; and their Senna is of the best kind. In exchange for these commodities they take linen shirts and Dhourra [sorghum bicolor], the grains of which they swallow raw, as a dainty, and never make it into bread. These traders do not remain long on the banks of the Nile; as the dread of the small-pox soon drives them back to their tents…

On the consumption of milk, which continues as a primary food item, a recent medical study reported that in comparing populations of the Eastern Deserts of Egypt and Sudan with nomadic populations of Southern Sudan (cattle herders in the Sudd), it was found that the former were not lactose intolerant but the latter were.  The reason links to primary dietary intake – milk in the case of the Beja and relate groups of the Eastern Desert, and cattle meat and blood in the case of the pastoralists in Southern Sudan.

Senna:  Leaves of the Cassia tree:  “Senna is a certain, manageable, and convenient cathartic, very useful in all forms of febrile diseases in which a laxative action is desired, particularly in the forming stage of bilious and other fevers, especially in children, and in other diseases where a severe impression on the bowels is not desired. Constipation does not follow its employment. It is also efficient in flatulent and bilious colics…

ALEXANDRIA SENNA is collected from Senaar, Nubia, and upper Egypt, partly also from tropical Africa, near Timbuctoo, and forwarded to Alexandria and Cairo for the European markets. The leaves are gathered by cutting the branches in autumn, commencing in September, exposing them to the sun and atmosphere until they are quite dry, when the branches are removed by threshing, the leaves placed in sacks, and sent to the places of export… (source: )

Manna – a Beja Sweet Treat (especially for Karen Resta):

  • From John Lewis Burckhardt, Travels in Nubia (Originally published in 1822)

Burckhardt-Travels in Nubia

…  A botanist would find a rich harvest in these high regions (Red Sea Hills), in the most elevated parts of which, a variety of sweet scented herbs grow. The Bedouins collect to this day the manna, under the very same circumstances described in the books of Moses. Whenever the rains have been plentiful during the winter, it drops abundantly from the tamarisk; a tree very common in the Syrian and Arabian deserts, but producing, as far as I know, no manna anywhere else.

They gather it before sunrise, because if left in the sun it melts; its taste is very sweet, much resembling honey; they use it as we do sugar, principally in their dishes composed of flour. When purified over the fire, it keeps for many months; the quantity collected is inconsiderable, because it is exclusively the produce of the Tarfa, which tree is met with only in a few valleys at the foot of the highest granite chain…

Tamarisk Trees.  Walter Reinhold

Tamarisk Trees.  Source: Walter Reinhold

Beja Coffee Ceremony:

Coffee preparation is an art in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa – just as it is amongst the Beja tribes.  In many regions the task is carried out by the lineage or household head.

Coffee preparation for guests is a ritual affair, with various spices added to the clay pot in which it is brewed. - Source: © David Haberlah

Coffee preparation for guests is a ritual affair, with various spices added to the pot in which it is brewed. – Source: © David Haberlah

  • Coffee beans are first freshly roasted over a small fire, often in no more than a cut-down tin can to which a wire handle has been affixed.
  • The beans are then crushed by hand in a mortar and pestle.
  • The pots used to make coffee are of red clay – of a traditional round shape, about 4” in diameter with a long neck and spout.  It is a traditional design, found throughout eastern Sudan, as well.
  • The beans are put in, together with spices, usually a few cardamom pods and some pepper.
  • This is then slowly brewed by the side of the fire – and when done, a loose sieve made of dry grasses stuffed in the top of the pot in order to keep the grounds and spices in.
  • Very small cups are then placed on a tray – the cups, too, are traditionally round and very small, holding about 2 oz of liquid.  For the last several decades small tea cups imported from China have been the most commonly used.
  • The brew is poured in, with a high sweeping motion of the pourer’s hand and arm in order to enhance aroma, sound and froth.
  • Coffee is then passed around – all the while guests and hosts have been chatting and exchanging news; now, ‘bis-mi-llah’ is exchanged as a salutary preface to drinking the coffee – or ‘qahwah’, as it is known.

But this coffee is not drunk, so much as noisily sipped; noisily, because bringing air into the sip helps to spread the wonderful aroma and flavor.

Following such a refreshing break, ‘business’ can then begin or – if guests are merely passing by – they will make their farewells with long promises to come by again very soon.

Camel Shins [Kawaari’a]


Camel shins are a beloved, traditional delicacy throughout Egypt – and as noted by Burckhardt, above, were equally enjoyed in the early 19th Century, when he found that the marrow was eaten raw.  The shins are cracked and placed in a large cauldron to which a few spices are added (pepper, salt, some onion, garlic, sometimes coriander and cardamom). This is then cooked a very long time, until the marrow has transformed the dish into a gelatinous mixture of liquid, meat and bone. The dish is usually served with rounds of flat bread or rice.

I describe the recipe here because it is such a well-loved way to prepare camel shanks.  But as most readers will not have access to them, I’ll add another very popular Egyptian dish that is also prepared by the Beja:

Meat and Okra Stew (Bamya)

© 2009 Cynthia Clampitt.

Given the arid climate and nomadic lifestyle, the Beja have access to very few vegetables.  Seasonally, a few tomatoes and other items may be grown, but throughout most of the year dried vegetables are used – particularly dried okra (bamya) and mulukhiyyah – a pungent, dried green that is cooked alone or with meat.  In villages in the Nile valley, after harvest time, okra is threaded onto long strings and hung outside of homes to dry.  Okra dried in this way has a unique, tangy flavor and is less slimy than fresh okra.


  • 1 kg sheep or goat chunks – bone in
  • 3/4 kg okra – small, if you can find them
  • 3-4 lg onions
  • 3-4 lg tomatoes
  • 6-12 cloves garlic
  • 1 t cumin
  • 1 t coriander
  • 2 T fresh mint
  • Salt – to taste
  • Pepper – to taste
  • 3 T tomato paste
  • 1 c meat stock
  • 1 lemon – juiced
  • 4 T. semna [clarified butter]

Okra – To prepare okra so it isn’t gooey:  pare off top and snip end, but don’t slice/cut them.  Soak okra in vinegar to cover for 1 hour, stirring occasionally.  Rinse and put in a colander to drain.  Okra will have plumped slightly, taking up some of the vinegar.

Meat – if you can’t get meat bone-in, buy a sheep or goat shoulder or leg and ask the butcher to cut it into pieces – not too small.  If we don’t have goat in the freezer, I always buy goat shoulder at the Greek butchers and have them cut it this way.

While okra is soaking:

  • In a heavy casserole melt 2 T semna and sear meat – remove to another pan
  • Sauté onions and garlic which will have sliced / minced
  • Add cumin and coriander (process in a blender if not powdered)  – sauté about 1 minute Add tomatoes cut in chunks, tomato paste, stock, and mint – sauté about 10 min
  • Add salt and pepper to your taste
  • Return meat and mix gently but well
  • Bake in a medium oven 1 – 1.5 hours

While casserole is baking:

  • Add 2 T semna to a heavy fry pan and gently fry okra about 10 min
  • Remove and drain
  • This step could be skipped, but it improves the flavor

Final Step

  • Remove casserole and adjust seasonings
  • Flatten top of casserole as much as possible
  • Place okra in spokes with the points towards the middle
  • Make wider and wider spokes until you reach the pan edge
  • Squeeze some lemon juice on top; cover again
  • Return to oven for about 1/2 hour – careful not to overcook the okra
  • Let set with lid on as you prepare rest of the meal – rice, or pita bread, etc.

N.B.: placing okra on top of dish rather than mixing it in further inhibits gooey-ness.


  • Place casserole on the table
  • Have side dishes of either rice or pita bread
  • Prepare a simple tomato, onion, cucumber, olive salad
  • Serve with an oil-lemon-spice dressing
  • Guests serve themselves into bowls
  • Side dishes for serving salad
  • Finish with sweet, mint or cinnamon tea and fresh fruit

Another recipe for okra stew can be found here:

Ostrich Brochettes: egyptpage2.htm-Underwood-Ostrich Farm-trimmed

When the Beja prepare ostrich, it is generally cut into strips, threaded onto green sticks or onto the end of long knives, and grilled over the fire.  That’s it.  Here is a recipe for barbecued ostrich that comes from South Africa via the “Ostrich Cookbook,” an anonymous stenciled recipe collection of South  African origin, sold through DB Enterprises, Elk City, Okla.


  • 2 ts salt
  • black pepper
  • 2 ts dry mustard
  • 6 (21/2- to 3-ounce) ostrich fillet steaks
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1/2 c vinegar or lemon juice
  • 1 ts grated lemon zest
  • 2 ts sugar
  • 1/2 c oil


  • Mix salt, pepper to taste and mustard in bowl.
  • Rub mixture into steaks.
  • Place meat in dish.
  • Mix garlic, vinegar, lemon zest, sugar and oil in separate bowl.
  • Pour over meat and let marinate 4 – 24 hours, turning every hour.

Grill steaks to desired doneness on barbecue or stove-top grill, basting with sauce.

Makes 6 servings

Salted Meat:

Animals are usually slaughtered only for a celebration, and due to lack of refrigeration, either many guests are invited, or the meat is preserved by drying or by salting.  Here is a useful salting recipe that comes from Nigeria:


  • 2.5 kg fresh bushmeat: camel,  sheep,  goat
  • 500 g coarse salt
  • l tsp saltpetre
  • 2 tablespoon sugar


  • Mix the salt, saltpeter and sugar together in a large glass or china bowl.
  • Rub the mixture well into the meat.
  • Sprinkle a little more dry salt over the meat.
  • Cover and leave in a cooled place.
  • Pour out any liquid that collects daily; sprinkle with more salt and mm(??) over until dry for a few days.
  • Remove from bowl; sprinkle with more salt and wrap in clean muslin and store until required.
  • To use: Wash meat thoroughly and soak in cold water for 4 hours or preferably overnight before cooking.

Source:  OnlineNigeria, Courtesy of Laura Edet

* * * * *

Details of the Project:

“Nomads in the Red Sea Province” A Sahelian Environmental Research, Social Services Delivery, and Medical Services Delivery Project, funded by USAID-Cairo with in-kind technical and logistic support provided by NAMRU-3, Cairo (U.S. Navy Medical Research Unit) and collaboration with the Egyptian Ministry of Health,  the Desert Locust Control Authority, the University of Cairo, and the American Research Center in Egypt.

A research and services delivery program for nomadic populations of the Southeastern Desert of Egypt and Northern Sudan, including:

  • Organizing and mounting a series of interdisciplinary (medical, nutritional, hydrological, natural resources, and socioeconomic) research and preliminary implementation expeditions in the project area, jointly conducted with NAMRU-3 and liaison with Cairo University, the American Research Center in Egypt, and the Ministry of Health;
  • Designing and implementing a paramedical extension program, together with project physicians, including work with the project doctor to train paramedics selected from the local population;
  • Conducting case studies of traditional healing practitioners and midwives in the area; training project doctors in appropriate field methods for working with traditional healers and midwives;
  • Coordinating the livestock, medical and natural resources components of the project with NAMRU-3 physicians, livestock veterinarian and technicians who trained the project doctor in tropical disease processes; analyzed human, floral, and faunal samples collected during expeditions conducted in the project area;
  • Administering and implementing the quarterly distributions of USAID Title II Emergency Food Distribution for nomadic populations of the area: responsible for distributing 23 tons quarterly of wheat, oil, maize, including designing a recipient delivery program which would bypass powerful, local merchants;
  • Negotiating the contracting and building of the first medical outreach facilities in the area with government counterparts, local Islamic religious leaders, and private contracting firms;
  • Negotiating the purchase and fitting-out of 2.000 gal. Diesel, 4×4 water trucks with specially designed pumping apparatus, to service ancient wells in the remote sites of the project area (2-3 days round trip from the Red Sea coast base camp), and 4×4 project vehicles designed for the project;
  • During and after the tense Sadat assassination period and associated Sudanese incursions into the project area, negotiating continuation of project activities among competing and highly restless religious and community elites, together with Egyptian military, Provincial Governor, Ministry of Health-Cairo, and various central and provincial Ministry offices having project input or interest;
  • During this time, we were the only non-Egyptian allowed into the sensitive project area along the contested Sudan/Egyptian border;
  • Collaborating with the Minister of Health  in Cairo and his staff, on issues of better integrating traditional healers into GOE health services and training, and on recognizing the important role of traditional healers in remote tribal areas;
  • First program or project in Egypt given permission by the Ministry of Health to officially work with and train traditional healers.

About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Beja, Cuisine, Egypt-Ancient, Egypt-Recent, Food, History, Humanitarian Assistance, Indigenous crops & medicinal plants, Middle East, Pastoralism, Recipes, Research & Development and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Coffee Rituals, Camel Shins & Ostrich Brochettes: The Beja Tribes of Eastern Sudan & Egypt – Part II

  1. Pingback: Locusts and Hyenas: The Red Sea Hills of Egypt & Sudan | DIANABUJA'S BLOG

  2. Pingback: Natural Environment of Egypt & Mohammed Kassas « DIANABUJA'S BLOG

  3. badar uddin says:

    shake hand for bright future with us ,

    badar uddin


    • dianabuja says:

      Dear badar uddin – I have just seen your note, and apologize for the late reply. Of course, I give great good wishes to you and you colleagues in the szab foundation! You are doing wonderful work. And Ramadaan Sa’iid!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: The Day Sadat was Assassinated « Dianabuja's Blog

  5. Pingback: Green Mint Tea and Beduin Carpets at Mersa Matruh, Egypt « Dianabuja's Blog

  6. Pingback: Coffee Customs in Eastern Sudan and Egypt: The Beja Tribes « Dianabuja's Blog

  7. brian says:

    THe Beja love their coffee. One of the street roundabouts in Port Sudan is decorated with a 20 foot high statue of a coffee pot and four cups.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: How Humanitarian Assistance Changes Local Diets and Markets « Dianabuja's Blog

  9. cbertel says:

    Is charcoal really eco-friendly in the long run?


    • dianabuja says:

      In the context of preparing a cup of coffee, nothing is completely eco-friendly, but I would argue charcoal is more so than huge machines together with all of the increased inputs and outputs required by an espresso machine. The solution – or better solution – is just to chew the berries, as was the practice here in central Africa when coffee bushes were still wild and their beans traded here and there (i.e., precolonial).

      Interesting question, though!


  10. dianabuja says:

    Karen – yes, this method of coffee-making is not only more ‘user-friendly’ but also more ‘eco-friendly’ small pots + charcoal vs. huge, expensive machine.

    Cynthia – Thanks for the reference, which I’m not familiar with. MSF is very big here in Burundi.


  11. cbertel says:

    About the placebo injections, this is pretty much the usual belief just about everywhere, or so it seems — I saw it in Honduras and Haiti, too, when I worked in clinics as a nutritionist, and many people working in development have told me the same thing. I guess it makes sense, an injection is a very visible thing and, in many cases anyway, brings about a rapid improvement in health. Have you read James Orbinski’s “An Imperfect Offering?” About his work with Doctors w/o Borders (Médicins Sans Frontières).


  12. Karen says:

    Thank you for the manna, Diana. 🙂

    Love the coffee-making, also. Seems much more efficient than these enormous espresso machines.


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