ALTERNATE NAMES: Danakil or Adal (older sources)
LOCATION: The Afar Triangle or Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia)
POPULATION: Between 3 to 5 million (accurate census figures do not exist)
LANGUAGE: Afar (Qafar Af)
RELIGION: Sunni Muslims, Traditional Animism, few Christians333
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 1: Djiboutians; Eritreans; Ethiopians; Oromos; Somalis
The Afar are an ethnic group who reside principally in the the Horn of Africa in the countries of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti. The name Afar means “The Best” or “First” in the Afar language. Northern Afars are sometimes referred to by the Arabs as the Danakil, which refers to Danakil Desert near the Red Sea in Ethiopia and Eritrea, Southern Afars are sometimes called the Adel or Adal, a reference to the historic Adal Sultanate, which existed until the mid-1500s in the region occupied today by southern Ethiopia and Djibouti. Afars regard the name Danakil as negative and preferred it not be used to describe them.
Little is known for certain about the origins of the Afar. According to traditional accounts, there are two divisions of the Afar: Asayahamara (The Red Ones) and Adoyahmara (The White Ones). It may be that the Asayahamara are descended from a group that originally invaded from the Ethiopian highlands and who imposed their rule on the Adoyahmara.
The Afar make up about a third of the population of Djibouti and are a recognized ethnic group in Ethiopia. The Afar language (Cushitic) is spoken in the Afar region of Ethiopia, eastern Eritrea, and Djibouti. Since the Afar were traditionally nomadic herders, Afar-speakers may be further south.
The language and culture of the Afar are related to those of the Somalis and Oromos, although the Afar are a distinct ethnic group. The Afar continue to preserve and practice their traditional culture and beliefs. They have retained many ancient animistic practices.
The Afars' skin tone is generally dark brown and their facial features are similar to those of the Somalis and Oromos, although generally members of both of those groups have darker skin. The Afar are probably related to the ancient Egyptian race.
Little has been confirmed about the history of the Afar people. J. S. Trimingham, author of Islam in Ethiopia, offered this explanation: “Little is known about the the Afar because of their aversion to strangers. They didn't let outsiders in, so outsiders didn't learn much about them.”
The ancestors of the Afar seem to have settled in farmland in the Ethiopian highlands some time before AD 1000 and primarily raised livestock. Shortly after they began a gradual transition to a more nomadic lifestyle and moved to the area they currently occupy. Since then they have been involved in many conflicts with bordering tribes and peoples.
Arab writer Ibn Sa'id writing in the 13th century, mentioned the Afar. This is the earliest known reference to the group. The Afar are also mentioned occasionally in Ethiopian history. Records include mention of Afar assisting 14th-century Ethiopian emperor Amda Seyon in a campaign. Afar are also described as assisting Emperor Baeda Maryam more than 100 years later in the 15th century.
The Afar themselves claim to be descended from Arabs, through a mythic Yemeni ancestor. This myth of origin seems unlikely, since the two groups do not share a common race, language, or culture.
The Afar language, however, and their traditional religious practice of animism points to a common history with neighboring peoples in the Horn of Africa. No written Afar records exist from previous eras.
Historically, the territory occupied by the Afar was organized into sultanates, semi-independent regions ruled by sultans. In each sultanate, the group's unique culture and customs thrived. Traditionally each sultanate was made up of several villages.
The Afar maintained a loose confederation of four sultanates. The sultans did not gain their position through heredity, but were appointed by the people.
Each Afar sultan was the religious and political leader of his clan. The Afar generally do not become involved in central political governments. They are not interested in pursuing opportunities presented to them by outsiders, although in recent years they have been cautiously open to offers of aid in such areas as medical care and to programs to improve the safety of drinking water. Throughout history, the Afar have strongly resisted domination by others, and this tradition continues into the 21st century.
The Afar have been active in Muslim-led military campaigns against the Christians who inhabited the highland regions of Ethiopia. In the 16th century, Afars fought in support of Ahmad Gran, the emir of Harar, who was attempting to establish a Muslim empire in Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia).
In the 19th century, the Afar also fought with the Muslim forces of the Adal kingdom, which stretched across what is now northeastern Ethipia, Djibouti, and Somalia. The Muslims were battling with the Amhara.
The Afar were also active in the Arab slave trade, serving as guides to Arab slave traders. A major slave route to Arabia crossed Afar territory. Afars continued to participate in the lucrative slave trade until 1928 (or later according to some accounts).
Since the mid-1800s and especially in the 20th and 21st centuries, interaction with external political and economic systems has caused the breakdown of the sultanates and the traditional values they represented.
The leadership of the Afar National Regional State in Ethiopia has faced many challenges as the traditional customs and culture of the Afar come under the influence of Western groups and other African cultures. During the early years of European colonization in Africa, the Afar coastal regions (part of present-day Eritrea) witnessed several battles. The Afars demonstrated tenacity and bravery in resisting the advancements of foreign forces.
The presence of foreign forces in the coastal regions of their territory threatened the sovereignty of the entire Afar nation. However, the Afars were no match for the Europeans equipped with high technology weapons. Despite persistent resistance from Afar fighters, Europeans succeeded in occupying the coastal territory. As a result of the European presence, the Afar people were divided. The modern-day nations of Djibouti and Ethiopia (and later Eritrea) resulted.
In 1967, the territory colonized by the French changed its name from “French Somaliland” to the “French Territory of the Afars and Issas.” In 1977, it became the independent nation of Djibouti.
In 1975 after an Afar sultan led an unsuccessful attempt to restore sovereignty, the Afar Liberation Front (ALF) was born in Ethiopia. In Djibouti, a similar movement simmered throughout the 1980s, eventually culminating in an Afar insurgency in 1991.
Groups of modern-day Afar may be seen camped just outside Djibouti, the capital and largest city in Djibouti. The Afar may travel to Djibouti to engage in trade or to seek medical care.
In Djibouti, where they account for almost half the population, the Afar remain under Somali domination and suffer in the ongoing struggle between Somalia and Ethiopia over the coastal territories.
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
The Afar live in a region often referred to as the “Afar Triangle.” A large part of this triangular area is made up of the Danakil Desert, one of the earth's hottest, driest, and most inhospitable spots. The terrain is characterized by desert flatlands. There is little vegetation and limited wildlife. The Araf are among the only people who have survived life in this difficult terrain.
The Danakil Desert is a deep depression, reaching a depth of nearly 400 feet (120 meters) below sea level. One of the lowest elevations on earth, daytime temperatures may reach 50°C (145°F) in the sun. Much of the desert territory is made up of salt flats, cut by deep cracks from the sun's heat.
There are isolated mountain groups, interrupted by valleys where the thorny acacia, also known as the thorntree, grow. The desert region is occasionally dotted with green oases of doum palm trees. The large oval yellow fruit of the doum palm tastes similar to gingerbread, giving the tree its common name, gingerbread tree. The fruit may reach two to three feet in length.
There are between 3 and 5 million Afar spread across the three countries: Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Eritrea.
The Afar language belongs to an Eastern Cushite group. Linguists generally identify four distinct dialects of Afar: Northern, Central, Aussa, and Baadu. Arabic is widely used with neighbors and trading partners.
The Afar language (Qafar Af), like Somali and Oromo, uses the Roman alphabet. The Afar language follows the subject-verb structure. While there is little written history, the Afar language is rich in oral traditions. There are many Afar proverbs, narratives, songs, and riddles. In addition, the Afar have a very comprehensive plant and animal nomenclature system.
Afar culture is oral in tradition. Afar oral literature reveals a high esteem for military prowess, with a whole repertoire of war chants. Today, Afar songs tend to extol the virtues of the camel. The Afar have a myth of origin that describes Arab ancestors traced to ancient Yemen.
Afars also think their color designations (Asayahamara or Red Ones and Adoyahmara or White Ones) came from the reddish soil of inland deserts and the white saline coastal areas.
Many Afar proverbs relate to their hot, arid environment. for example, a proverb for the salt flats worker is “As rain falls from morning clouds, so should a man cut salt early in the day.”
The Afar began to convert to Islam in the 10th century after contact with Arabs. Afars adhere to the Sunni branch of Islam, but also follow many traditional animistic practices and concepts. The unique style of Islam they practice incorporates pre-Islamic beliefs, such as belief in the sky-father god, Wak. They also believe that the spirits of the dead possess power to influence the living. In addition, some Afars believe that certain trees have sacred powers.
Rituals that persist from ancient Afar animism include anointing one's body with butter or ghee (clarified butter) and the annual celebration of Rabena, a holiday to honor the dead.
In general, religious and community activities are governed by Shariah (Islamic law) as put forth in the Muslim holy book, the Quran. The Afars observe special days for sacrificing animals and for rainmaking ceremonies.
A small percentage of the Afar practice Orthodoxy. Christian mission sources report that Afar Christians are now engaged in producing radio broadcasts in the Afar language. The radio broadcasts use a storytelling format to recount the tales of the Old Testament.
In recent years, Christian agencies have been active in various economic, medical, educational, or cultural assistance work among the Afar.
The Afar observe the Muslim holy days.
RITES OF PASSAGE
Marriage is an important rite to the Afar. A first cousin is preferred as a spouse. In terms of geneology and marriage, the lines are patrilocal, that is, they follow the father's clan rather than matrilocal, that is, following the mother's clan. Divorce rates are high.
Rituals involving the genitals are practiced for both boys and controversially girls. The Afar practice infibrilation, the sewing together of the female vulva, in an effort to ensure virginity. Boys are circumcised upon coming of age and are judged for their ability to endure the pain of this procedure. Following circumcision, a boy may select the bride of his choice, although he is strongly encouraged to select a first cousin.
The Afar have traditionally kept to themselves, maintaining an isolated but mobile society.
Among the Afar, when a host offers a guest a drink of milk and the guest accepts, a bond is formed. The tradition of the bond requires that the host protect the guest if trouble arises and for avenging his death if he is killed.
The Afar people are known for their fierceness and fearlessness. They are hostile toward anyone who crossed their lands without permission. Because of the nomadic lifestyle of the Afar, any who visits Afar territory will find himself trespasing on tribal or family territory. Roads and pathways are not regarded as public walkways, since the Afar regard the territory as their own property.
Travelers may carry an official warrant from the government designed to allow travel through Afar territory. The warrant is not always honored by the Afar, however. Tradition dictates that the Afar are responsible for anything that happens on their land. Thus, they are unenthusiastic about unknown visitors. Travelers must seek permission for the Afar leaders before traveling through their territory. If permission is granted, Afar hospitality will be extended to the traveler.
The Afar maintain self-segregation from neighboring peoples. They are suspicious and antagonistic to their neighbors, especially the Somalis and other people of Ethiopia.
While the Afar are suspicious of humans who invade their land, they feel protective of all wildlife. The Afar respect and preserve their physical environment and try not to harm the meager plant and animal life sharing their hostile territory. The Afar may be largely responsible for the protection of the edangered African wild ass (Equus africanus), which has become extinct elsewhere in Africa.
The Afar lead a nomadic lifestyle, moving from highland to lowlands depending on the flood seasons. They carry their tent-style houses with them, packed on the backs of camels. The dome-shaped tents are made from palm ribs covered with palm mats. The tents provide shelter at night and a respite from the blistering sun during the day. The tents are erected, usually by the women, usually near water spots.
The Afar people in this area are usually found to be mal-nourished. Since there are few natural sources of water for the Afar people, water must be tanked in. Water is an expensive necessity for the Afar and scarcity of water often leads to conflicts. It is not uncommon for the Afar to be anemic or afflicted with malaria. Each community has a small group of men assigned to guard their herds and water. The guards are not reluctant to use violence to protect these precious resources.
The Afar people generally live in groups isolated from mainstream society. The clan, a group of extended families, is the most important political and social unit of Afar culture.
Descent is patrilineal. The Afar believe that men inherit strength of character from their fathers, but their physical characteristics from their mothers. Spirituality is also inherited from the mother. Afar men typically marry just one wife. Traditionally girls were eligible for marriage at age 10.
The Afar culture includes unique items of clothing. Men and women generally wear the same article of clothing, the sana-fil, which is a length of fabric wrapped around and tied at the waist. The woman's sanafil was traditionally dyed brown, but modern Afar women have adopted multicolored sanafils. The man's sanafil was traditionally undyed, and that preference persists to the modern day.
Married women traditionally wear a black headscarf called a shash. Afar men are also known for wearing the jile, a long, double-edged curved dagger, at their waists.
The diet of the Afar consists of fish, meat, and sour milk. They also enjoy a porridge made from wheat flour and heavy round pancakes made of wheat topped with red pepper and ghee (clarified butter). Milk is so important to the Afar that it is also used as a social offering, given to visitors to establish a proper guest-host relationship.
Reflecting Muslim practice, food must be handled with the right hand. The left hand is used for impure purposes. Using the left hand for food, to accept a present, or for shaking hands is considered a serious affront.
The Afar enjoy a a type of palm wine made from the doum palm.
Literacy levels are low among the Afar people. Education in the Afar language is still inaccessible to the majority of the rural population in the Horn of Africa. There are some schools in the more densely settled areas and in communities along the main roads. However, courses are taught in Amharic, an offi-cial language in Ethiopia. Afar families are more likely to send boys away to study than girls.
What schools do exist are overcrowded, poorly equipped, and understaffed. For children of Afar, the school year and the location of the schools does not match well with the migratory cycles of the nomadic families. Since boys and young men are likely to be among those who must travel to ten the family herds of goats and sheep, it is nearly impossible for Afar children to participate in traditional schooling.
Literacy campaigns have been undertaken by international organizations. In addition, the Afar cultural and political leaders in Ethiopia have focused their efforts on improving educational opportunities, access to healthcare, and transportation. Reflecting their fiercely independent tradition, the Afar believe that they will be able to solve their own problems if these tools are in place.
The Afar have a traditional type of dance, called jenile, which is associated with their ancient religion.
The Afar nomads have a unique culture. They tend their livestock, primarily sheep and goats. Sheep are raised for Islamic holiday meals and celebrations. The Afar herd their animals to find water and land for grazing. Camels are used as pack animals, but the Afar do not ride them To maintain this nomadic lifestyle, labor is divided along gender lines.
Women are responsible for setting up the burra (or camp). The burra includes two or more tents. Women manage the dayto-day running of the family's life, and when it is time to move, women repack the household goods on camel's backs for transportation. Women also milk the goats and make butter or ghee (clarified butter). Music-making also falls to the women of the tribe.
Many Afar work at Lake Assal in the Danakil Desert mining salt. They trade the valuable salt with the Yemenis across the Red Sea, or with Ethiopians for grain. At one time, salt was cut into blocks and wrapped in palm leaves for transport. Modern miners shovel salt into large plastic bags. The Afar sell the salt that they dig from the desert, along with milk and animal hides, at markets in Senbete, Ethiopia, among other marketplaces.
The Afar living near the Red Sea are more settled. They engage in fishing and trading for a living. Governments in Ethiopia and Djibouti have urged the Afar to establish permanent settlements, but the Afar persist in sustaining their nomadic lifestyle. The Afar have not responded positively to the efforts of the Ethiopian government to encourage them to resettle in areas where irrigation systems support the enterprise of cotton farming. Only a small minority of Afars has migrated to urban areas.
In the early 20th century, the development of railroads made it possible for the Afar to transport their goods—meat, butter, milk, and hides—to new markets. This brought more Afar into contact with other ethnic groups and the urban economies of the region.
A traditional game among the Afar is kwosso. Kwosso is played by two teams. Each team tries to keep a ball made of rolled goatskin away from their opponents.
Few Afars engage in Western-style games or sports activities. The majority of them are nomadic pastoralists and so have little leisure time.
Among the few who enjoy sports, however, soccer is the most popular.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
Entertainment media, such as television and radio broadcasts, are accessible to the small number of educated Ahar living in urban areas. The majority of Afar do not participate in recreational activities in the Western sense.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
The Afar traditionally engage in various kinds of skills such as wood and metal working, weaving, pottery, and tanning.
They weave fabric to be made into traditional clothing, including the man's sanafil, a white cloth wrapped at the waist and tied at the right hip. The woman's sanafil is wrapped the same way, but the fabric is dyed brown. Fabric is also woven for the optional shash, a black cloth that married women may choose to wear on their heads.
The Afar do some metalworking to produce tools and instruments, such as the jile, a curved, double-edged dagger.
The Afar are a pastoral people with a fearless reputation. Coping with the modern development of the installation of irrigation systems in the lowlands is one of the many challenges facing the Afar. The national governments, especially in Ethiopia, are attempting to displace the nomadic communities by encouraging them to establish permanent settlements and cultivate cotton, made possible by the supply of water for irrigation.
The basic necessities of life which include water, health services, education, and means of communication are largely inaccessible to the Afar people. Their nomadic lifestyle that requires them to travel long distances in search for water and pasture puts the lives of the Afar and their herds at the risk of perishing in the Danakil.
In addition, persistent border conflicts between Ethiopia and Eritrea, coupled with drought conditions, compound the problems faced by the Afar. The ongoing conflict has displaced some Afars and have made cross-border animal trading less reliable. Many Afar are malnourished and do not receive adequate medical care.
The Afar region of Ethiopia is one of the areas where the people are to a very large extent illiterate. This exacerbates the Afar's difficulty in dealing with natural catastrophes, malnutrition, war, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
The Afar are a predominantly patrilineal community. There are deep-rooted traditions that have a negative impact on women's lives. The Afar customs pertaining to marriage, paternity, and dress are skewed in favor of men.
Afar believe men inherit traits such as strength of character from their fathers, but physical characteristics like height from the mother.
The division of labor is largely unequal, with women assigned more manual work than their male counterparts.
Afar families are more likely to send boys to school than girls. The fact that educational materials are lacking in the Afar language makes it even more difficult for the average person to gain access to vital information in his/her own language. According to the United Nations (UN), illiteracy severely affects Afar women more than men.
The Afar practice infibrilation, a type of female circumcision, to control the virginity and sexuality of women.
Other challenges faced by Afar women include poverty, homelessness, and lack of fresh water, disease (HIV/AIDS and others), food shortages, refugee camps requiring resettlement, political instability, and neglect.
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—by M. Njoroge
"Afar." Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/afar
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