Introduction / History
The Northern Shilha of Algeria and Morocco, known as the "Rif Berbers," are numerous tribes of tough and hardened people eking out an existence on the harsh, uninviting slopes of the Rif Mountains. The land, located in the northwestern portion of Africa, is a combination of deserts, mountains, and rolling fields. It is bordered by two rivers and 145 miles of coastline.
The word "Rif" is an Arabic word meaning "the edge of cultivated area." The Rif Berbers are actually made up of 19 tribes: five in the west along the Mediterranean coast, seven in the center, five in the east, and two in the southeastern desert area.
Despite the rugged environment, these people remain bound by strong family traditions. Their farming is done mostly by hand, providing a meager crop at best. Influenced by a Mediterranean climate, the winters are mild and the summers are hot and dry. Along the coast, it is humid in the summer months.
What are their lives like?
In contrast to the Southern and Central Shilha, raising livestock plays only a secondary role in the lives of the Northern Shilha. They grow some sorgo (grain) for feed, but the fig and olive trees that cover the mountain slopes make up their principal resources. Incomes are supplemented through job opportunities in major cities of Europe. In fact, such jobs lure up to one-third of the male population for most of the year.
In rural communities the effects of modernization are scarce, despite government projects to aid farm production. The Rifs often reject these efforts as being an intrusion upon their culture and traditions.
Rif houses are usually built of stone and have flat roofs. Some of the poorer people live in wood huts plastered with mud. Houses are often placed on ridges or other such locations, at least 300 meters from the nearest neighbor. This proves to be strategic in times of defense.
The Shilha women wear colorful long dresses and head scarves. The men wear the traditional djellaba cloak, which is made of wool or cotton with wide sleeves and a hood. They also wear turbans, which are distinctive and unique to each particular tribe. Younger men often wear western style clothing.
The Rif Berbers follow a traditional Muslim, male-dominated family structure. When the man dies, each son sets up his own household, and the cycle continues.
Education is strictly a male privilege, but it does not have a high priority. If a family has many sons, they may send their third and fourth sons to an Islamic school.
Overpopulation and poverty are big problems among the Rifs. Too many children, insufficient crops, and increasing migration of the young men to the European cities are all major concerns.
What are their beliefs?
The Rif Berbers are nearly all Sunni Muslim; however, their religious practices are based more on traditions and the decisions of the community judges than on the Koran. Their societies are organized around two main systems: Islam and the tribe. However, there are many differences between urban and rural societies. In urban areas, orthodox Islam prevails; whereas, in rural societies, ancient beliefs and customs are intermingled with their Muslim faith.
Although the Rif Berbers have been one of the most responsive Berber groups to Bible correspondence courses offered by radio, there has been no known Protestant witness living among them for at least a century. Some progress has been made among the Rif migrants in urban centers.
What are their needs?
The Northern Shilha have not taken advantage of the educational opportunities available to them, apparently not realizing their importance. Modern farming methods are desperately needed to aid farm production in the mostly arid soil.
Although the New Testament and Christian witness are accessible to them, a majority of the Rifs have not yet heard the Gospel.
* Ask the Lord to call people who are willing to go to Algeria and share Christ with the Northern Shilha.
* Pray that the doors of Algeria will remain open to missionaries.
* Ask God to strengthen, encourage, and protect the small number of Northern Shilha Christians.
* Ask the Holy Spirit to soften the hearts of the Northern Shilha towards Christians so that they will be receptive to the Gospel.
* Pray that God will open the hearts of Algeria's governmental leaders to the Gospel.
* Ask the Lord to raise a strong local church among the Northern Shilha.