The Afar


The Afar, also referred to as Danakil, are pastoral nomads living in the harsh deserts of Dankalia in southern Eritrea, Djibouti,and adjoining lowlands of northeastern Ethiopia. The only fertile land is near the Awash River. The Afar number approxi-mately 2 million, with most living in Ethiopia. The people are Muslim and speak Afar, a Cushitic language.

Afar are a Hamidic people, closely related to the Somali and Saho. In the 10th century, Arab immigrants introduced Islam to the indigenous people, with whom they intermarried. There are two classes of Afar, the Asaimara (nobles) and Adiomara (commoners), each consist-ing of numerous patrilineal clans. Clans formed into petty Sultanates, most impor-tant of which was the Sultanate of Aussa on the Awash River, established in the 16th century. Life revolved around subsis-tence pastoralism with salt, gathered from desert lakes, providing the main trade commodity.

Historically, Afar men were fierce fight-ers. They formed a major part of Arab armies in wars against Christian Ethiopia and for centuries served as guides for Arab slavers. They plundered caravans along trade routes and raided neighbors, killing and castrating enemies as a sign of prow-ess. Afar men still wear their traditional curved knife or jile.

The majority of Afar today remains nomadic, moving between water sources with herds of camel, sheep, and goats. The Awash district provides grazing in dry seasons. Women are responsible for the camp, constructing huts, gathering wood and water, weaving mats used for their dwellings, and tending herds. Meat, milk, hides, and salt are traded for neces-sities. Fishing is an important industry along the Red Sea.

Afar religious beliefs mingle Islam with an earlier Sky-God religion. A cult of the dead tradition has continued in the annual festival of Rebina, which includes animal sacrifice. Common cultural practices include both male and female circumcision and preference for first-cousin marriages.

Recent history has been marred by con-flict with national governments. Ethiopian expansionism in the late 19th century brought the Sultanate of Aussa under Ethiopian control. In the 20th century, Modernism established commercial farm-ing in the Awash valley, eliminating vital grazing areas. In 1975, the socialist Derg government nationalized rural lands and ended the traditional sultanate,sparking ethnic rebellion.

Galvanized by the newly formed Afar Liberation Front (ALF), the insurrection continued in the region until after the collapse of the Derg in 1991. The creation of an autonomous Afar Region in 1994 brought peace; however, drought, famine, fighting, and corruption have all taken a toll on the Afar.

Geri Shaw

Further Reading

Central Statistical Agency of Ethiopia (CSA).

“Census 2007.” Collins, Robert O. Africa: A Short History.

Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2008.

Insoll, Timothy. The Archaeology of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Lewis, I. M. Peoples of the Horn of Africa:somali, Afar and Saho. London: International African Institute, 1969.

Lewis, I. M. Saints and Somalis: Popular Islam in a Clan-Based Society. Lawrence-ville, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1998.