The Afar People of the Horn of Africa
Population: 1,440,000 (Ethnologue 2005)
(1,276,374 in Ethiopia; 2007 census)
Religion: Folk Islam
Registry of Peoples code(s): Afar: 102419
Registry of Languages code(s) (Ethnologue): Afar: aar
The region where the Afar live is often referred to as the Afar Triangle. This is one of the earth's hottest and driest spots, but also with some of the lowest temperatures on earth. Some sources say the temperatures there are the hottest on earth. Much of their territory is desert and salt flats, cut by great cracks from the sun's heat.
Older sources referred to the area where the Afar live as Danakilia, and the people as Danakil. The latter name, however, is the name of the desert, not an ethnic name.
There are about 1.4 million Afar in the three countries: Ethiopia, Djibouti and Eritrea. The 2007 Ethiopia census reports 1,276,374 Afar in Ethiopia. Population estimates for Djibouti are uncertain. Sources generaly estimate 45% of the Djibouti population are Afar, but the World Factbook suggests only 35%. Eritrea figures are generally reported as 300,000. Radical Afar sources claim a population of over 5 million.
The 2000 Djibouti census reports total population as 2000 census 460,700. The United Nations (2009) estimated population for Djibouti in 2009 was 864,000. For Afar, 40% of this would be 345,600. The 2009 issue of the Ethnologue, however, reports a decrease in population, reporting only 96,000 Afar in Djibouti. The Issa tribe of Somalis are dominant there.
Little is known of the actual specific history of the Afar people. The Afar claim a descent from Arabs, through a mythic Yemeni ancestor, though they differ racially, linguistically and culturally. A correspondent from Afar reports that the Yemeni association derives from some clans/tribes of the Afar with Yemeni origins who have been incorporated in to the Afar over the centuries, such as the Able and Adal [personal email communication, June 2009].
This kind of cultural genealogical adoption is common among Semitic and Cushitic peoples, such as some Somali clans, who also claim Yemeni Arab descent. Genetic studies in the Horn of Africa and Arabian peninsula indicate long movement between Eastern Africa and Asia across the Red Sea. Oral histories and language affinities of many peoples likewise testify to this long history of human migration and its genetic, linguistic and and cultural exchange. Sometimes this reflects cultural ties from an earlier historical period or actual instances of intermarriage, perhaps for a defense alliance.
This email correspondent points out that from an Afar point of view, the area now known as Yemen is considered a Cushitic country with aSemitic history. This is consistent with oral and legendary tradition, accounting for the association of the name "Cush" with Yemen as well as the Horn of Africa, yet the dominance of Semitic language forms in historical times.
Popular history gives some insight into the history in the two traditional divisions of the Afar. Tradition indicates that the Asayahamara (The Red Ones) are descended from a group originally invading from the Ethiopian Highlands at one time, who imposed their rule on the Adoyahmara (The White Ones).
It is thought the color designations came from the reddish soil deserts inland, toward the direction the newcomers came from, and the white saline coastal areas, where the Adoyahamara are still more numerous. The Reds remain socially dominant, and claim ownership of the lands, while the Whites tend to be the herders. Both classes are, however, distributed among all the clans of the tribe.
The Afar are one of the people about whom little is available. Their inaccecssibility makes it difficult to obtain reliable objective information.
Through their myths of origin, some clans of the Afar claim Arab descent. Their language, however, and the traditional animistic practices underlying their more recent adherence to Islam, indicate the Afar share a history with neighbouring Cushite peoples. No written Afar records exist from previous eras, and the Afar remain an oral people.
The Afar are a distinct ethnic group, referenced as a separate ethnicity as far back as we have information about peoples of the Horn, though details are few. Every people, though, is related to other peoples, of course, at some level. The Afar are a distinct Eastern Cushite people, whose language and culture are related to the Somali and Oromo. They are very traditional in culture and belief, retaining many ancient Cushite animistic practices.
The Country Study Series comments on their ethnic affinities:
"Three other Lowland East Cushitic groups--the Somali, Afar, and Saho--share a pastoral tradition (although some sections of each group have been cultivators for some time), commitments of varying intensity to Islam, and social structures composed of autonomous units defined as descent groups. In addition, all have a history of adverse relations with the empire's dominant Orthodox Christian groups and with Ethiopian governments in general."
The Afar are a dark brown or black people with usually fine facial features, similar to the darker Somali and Oromo. They are likewise distantly related culturally and linguistically to the ancient Beja group of peoples, who are Southern Cushites, and related in turn to the ancient Egyptian race.
They are referred to by some sources as the Danakil, from the Arabic name of the Danakil Depression, or Desert, near the Red Sea in Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Amharic name for them is Adal. Adal was the name of an ancient Muslim empire that almost defeated the old Abyssinian Empire at one time. They call themselves Afar, which means in their language "The Best" or "First."
The Afar were active in the Arab slave trade, serving as guides to Arab slave traders. A major slave route to Arabia crossed Afar country, with Afar reportedly still actively trading in slaves as recently as 1928.
The Afar speech is classified as a separate language in the Eastern Cushite group. It is most closely related to Saho (Ethiopia and Eritrea), and more distantly related to the Somali and Oromo groups of languages. Linguists generally identify four distinct dialects of Afar, Northern Central, Aussa and Baadu.
Literacy rate in Afar is only about 1%; in Amharic (in Ethiopia) perhaps 3%. In Sudan and Eritrea, Sudanese Arabic is used with neighbours and trading partners.
The Afar maintain a loose confederation of four "sultanates." Rather than being hereditary sultantates, each sultan is appointed by the people, but reportedly is chosen from alternating segments in each of the four sections of the Afar.
The four sultanates are Aussa (also Asayita or Asaita) and Biru in Ethiopia, and Tajoura and Raheito in Djibouti. One older source reports a fifth sultantate, Gobad in Djibouti. The Sultan is the religious, as well as the political, leader of his clan of the Afar. Some sources report that there were traditionally eight sultanates, that than four.
The Afar remain aloof from all central governments, unresponsive to opportunities and suggestions for change, resistant to domination by others. They are cautiously open to specific benefits like medical care or water programs. Groups of Afar can be seen camped just outside the edge of Djibouti town, where they come periodically for trade or medical care.
The Afar have traditionally been a self-contained, though mobile, society, organized around salt, fish-trading and oasis stops on their treks through a salt desert unwanted by others. They have in recent history been affected by forces of Muslim militarists pushing into the highlands and plains from the Red Sea Coast and by the Amharic forces defending or expanding the land and influence of their highland Christian king.
In history, the Afar have been active in military campaigns led by Muslm leaders against the Christian highland peoples. Afar fought for Ahmad Gran, the Amir of Harar, who, in his attempt to establish a Muslim Empire in Abyssinia in the 16th century, devastated the Ethiopian Highlands. Aussa, or Asayita, is now the capital of Afar State of Ethiopia.
The Sultan of Aussa rules from the capital of the once-great Adal, an Afar-Somali kingdom. The Afar fought with the Muslim forces of this Adal kingdom against the Amhara in the 19th century. In recent decades relations with neighboring peoples has been more peaceful.
In Djibouti, where they make almost half the population, they remain under Somali domination and suffered in the ongoing struggle between Somalia and Ethiopia over the Ogaden in the 20th century. During the 20th century, the Sultan of Aussa was mollified and cooperative under gifts and titles from the Ethiopian government.
They are nomadic or transhumanic (moving from highland to lowlands with the seasons and rise and fall of the flood waters of the rivers). They carry their houses with them and reassemble them when they make temporary settlement.
Women run the home and settlement and set up the houses, which they carry on camels when they move. Women milk the goats and make butter or ghee. They are also the musicians in the tribe.
Marriage preference is first cousin, as is also common among Semitic peoples. Descent and marriage, however, follow the father's clan ("patrilocal") rather than the mother's ("matrilocal"). Divorce rates are high.
The women usually are bare-breasted, unusual for professed Muslim peoples. The Afar practice infibrilation, the sewing together of the female vulva, a type of female "circumcision," practiced by other Cushite peoples, and some Bantu peoples. Similarly, boys are circumcised upon coming of age.
A large proportion of them mine salt from the Danakil Depression, and trade this with the Yemenis across the strait, or with Ethiopians for grain. They raise mostly goats, but some sheep, which they need for the required Muslim celebration feasts. They use camels for pack animals, but do not ride them.
The Afar living near the Red Sea are more settled, and fish for a living, selling the fish. The governments have had little success in getting the Afar to settle into permanent settlements. Some do live in the towns around the Aussa oasis, and in major towns.
In the early 20th century, the new railroad introduced new economic avenues, notably markets for their meat, butter, milk and hides, putting more Afar in contact with urban economy and the politics of the countries in the region.
They have resisted efforts of the Ethiopian government to turn them into cotton farmers through irrigation and resettlement schemes along the Awash River. The Sultan of Aussa, one of four traditional sultans of the Afar, receives land rental royalties from British concerns raising cotton, from what I understand.
They keep themselves very separate from the surrounding peoples, and are suspicious and antagonistic to their neighbours the Somalis and the various Ethiopian tribes. There is even animosity and fighting between the clans of Afar, similar to the family/clan orientation of the Somali culture, which is very atomized.
Scarcity of water is a common cause of conflict. Groups of warriors are assigned to guard herds and watering holes.
Vengeance killing has been a strong value, but is diminishing in modern times. Likewise, warfare has been the primary context for much of the culture. A few decades ago, for instance, a young man was not considered an adult until he had killed one man. His victim might be from a different people or from another Afar clan.
One European family I know who work with them report that the Afar are now more open to relationships with other ethnicities than in the past.
They are Sunni Muslims by profession, but also follow many of the traditional animistic practices and concepts. In 2004, when first gathering information on the Afar, I found no sources reporting any Christian believers among this people. In 2007, there were some reports of a few, but no firm details or statistics. Christian mission sources report that Afar Christians are now engaged in producing radio broadcasts in the Afar language. The format is storytelling following the sequence of Old Testament stories.
They are difficult to access geographically, but also culturally. In recent years, Christian agencies have been active in various economic, medical, educational or cultural assistance work among the Afar. I notice the Ethnologue reports some Afar as Christian, but gives no numbers or percentages.
The Beja People of Sudan, Eritrea and Egypt
The Borana of Kenya and Ethiopia
The Gabbra of Kenya and Ethiopia
The Gawwada of Sudan
The Somali People (Somalia, Djibouti and Ethiopia)
The Somali People of Kenya
Afar, Ophir and the Mists of History
For more on Afar
Afar Background – Arhotabba
Afar Language – The Ethnologue
Afar Language Course Online
The Afar People
Afar Pastoralists and Rain Problems
Cushitic Language Groups
Focus on the Afar people – Danakalia
UN Emergencies Unit Report 1996 (University of Pennsylvania)
Weekes, Richard V. "Afar," Muslim Peoples. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1984.
Olson, James S. "Afar," The Peoples of Africa: An Ethnohistorical Dictionary. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1996.
Phillips, David J. "AFAR or Danakil," Peoples on the Move. Pasadena, California: William Carey Library, 2001.
Lewis, I. M. "Danakil – French Territory of Afars and Issas," Peoples of the Earth (Volume Two). London: Danbury Press (Grolier Enterprises), 1973.
Orville Boyd Jenkins
Originally developed from notes written in answer to an email enquiry and posted 09 May 2004, expanded and revised periodically since then
Last revised 5 May 2010
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2004, 2007 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.