The Afar population is about one million divided into different antagonistic clans. They occupy the territory called “afar”, a triangle of about 150 000 km2 which southern angle is marked by the city of Awash, the eastern angle by the city of Djibouti and the northeastern angle by Dahlak Islands in Eritrea .
The triangle is limited on the west by the foothills of the Ethiopian plateau. The part of the territory which is in Ethiopia forms today a State which is part of the Ethiopian Federation, designated under the name of Afar State. It has one million inhabitants, 80% of the total Afar population, the other 20% being shared between Eritrea and Djibouti. Afar State is divided into five zones. The capital, Assaïta, is located about sixty kilometers south of Serdo in zone 1, near Djibouti border. The road from Awash to Djibouti first crosses Zone 3 from Awash to Adaytu and then Zone 1 to the border. Zones 4 and 5 occupy most of the Escarpment and Piedmont, to the latitude of Alage Amba. Zone 2 could be assimilated to the Danakil region with, in addition, part of the escarpment up to the altitude of 1,600 m, between Amba Alage and the Eritrean border. The climate of this region is arid, with very high temperatures reaching 50 ° C and more in the region from Lake Afdera to the Erta Ale volcanic chain and the salt plains of Dallol. The most favorable area for animal husbandry is located in the foothills of the highlands where vegetation is characterized by large acacias parasol (also called acacias round-headed). In the more arid areas grows Acacias Senegal which produce gum Arabic.
The year is divided into four seasons, which are recovering with difficulty from the last Nino phenomenon, which has disrupted the climate of East Africa:
– Karma: Rainy season, from July to September (1,000 mm in good years)
– Kahira: Dry season, from September to November
– Gilal: Dry season, from December to March
– Sugun: Small rainy season, from March to April
The Afar people speak Afar-Af, a language of Cushitic origin and follow the Islamic religion. They respect the practice of the five prayers and Ramadan and follow the Sunni branch of Islam. They wear amulets with qur’anic verses to protect themselves from demons and evil spirits.
Before Islamization, the Afar apparently already believed in a single God who could not have material representation.
The history of the Afar people is lost in the mists of the time. They are mentioned in the 13th century in the writings of the Arab geographer Ibn Said under the name of Dankal and are reunited under the kingdom of Adal. In the 16th century, the kingdom suffered the expansionary pressure of the Oromo, conquering populations from the South.
Since antiquity, the afar population has been divided into two branches, each having its own genealogy: the Asohimera, from the family of the Sultan of Aoussa) settled in the lower part of the triangle, and the Adohimera, which occupy the higher parts of the piedmont and the escarpment.
The social life of Afar
The social organization is based on the system of clans (kedo): noble clans and commoner clans. They are about one hundred, controlled by a chef called Kedo Abba Kedo. The various clans were united under the authority of sultans, the most important are: Tajoura and Raheito in Djibouti, Aoussa and Biru in Ethiopia.
The type of authority held by the leader of the Aoussa Sultanate is similar to a head of state or president. The clan is subdivided into local communities or abbabagu, divided into families, in the broadest sense of the term (kadda buramara), themselves placed under the authority of a grandfather. The household (bura) is the family nucleus whose different members are Abba (father), Ina (mother), Anna (aunt), Abu (grandfather) and Aboya (grandmother). The members of the clan are solidary and therefore, depending on their income, to cope with any crisis or other situations (famines, marriages, deaths, etc.) that may occur in the clan. The tribal territories are limited by natural boundaries such as wadis, hills and rocks.
Judicial power is exercised by the Dinto, an institution whose purpose is to maintain internal peace, on the basis of the law called Mad’a, transmitted orally. Any problems that may arise in everyday life are solved within the clan. The Dinto legislates, among other things, marriages, the use of pastures and water points, as well as problems relating to felonious acts. The law of retaliation is applied. A murdered man must be avenged by his brothers, but the murder can be redeemed by the payment of compensation that corresponds to 100 camels. The loss of one eye will be compensated by 50 camels, one broken arm or leg by 50 cows. If the victim is a woman, the compensation will be reduced by half. Every ten years, the elders of the different tribes meet to proceed with the settlement of blood debts
The rituals that govern social life are numerous and all deserve to be stated. We will content ourselves here to describe the circumcision ceremonial. At the age of 15, boys are circumcised in public by the hand of a valiant warrior, under the supervision of the oldest and bravest men on horseback. All the members of the tribe gather around the boy to listen to the slightest groan of pain. After the operation, the boys must call, as loud and clear as possible, as many names of cows as possible, to prove their resistance to pain. All the cows they manage to name – rarely more than two or three – become their property. Scarred by suffering and bleeding, they must then hunt and kill an animal, even if it is only a bird or a lizard, and bring it back. A man can ask for divorce in case of infertility of his wife. A woman may also ask, for example, when she feels that her husband does not have enough milking cows. If a woman wants to divorce her husband to contract another union, her future husband must pay twelve cows to free her from her first engagement. In this case, all the children stay with the father, except those in childhood, who live with their mother. In the afar family, the woman occupies a subordinate position and her rights are limited. It is the man who decides where to set up the hut, the most opportune time for the transfer of the camp, the purchase or sale of the animals, etc. The children keep the herds. The lack of schooling causes a high the illiteracy rate (close to 98%) in rural areas.
In everyday life, tasks are clearly shared between men and women. The man is responsible for the safety of the family, participates in the decisions of his clan, keeps the herds of oxen and dromedaries, milk the camels, builds the enclosure, kills the sheep or goats and prepare the meat. The woman, for her part, educates the children, builds the tent, collects the wood, is responsible for the chore of the water, keeps the flocks of goats and sheep, takes care of the lambs and goats, churns the milk
The economy of the region is essentially pastoral. The Afar are semi-nomadic pastoralists, they have fixed camps, where they always return after transhumance. Sour milk and oats constitute the main food; meat is only consumed during the festivities. The camp consists of tents, made of wooden arches and vegetable mats, and animal enclosures. The enclosures of calves are fenced by branches or stone walls. Cows and camels stay outside during the night, guarded by shepherds. The cows, recently crossed with zebus from Asia, belong to a very ancient breed; perhaps the Ankole breed who lived in the Sahara more than 4000 years ago, recognizable in some prehistoric paintings. A cow can give three liters of milk a day, a camel six, a goat and a sheep a cup. This justifies that, during exchanges, a camel is worth two cows and a cow twenty goats.
The resources derived directly from the herd are insufficient for the survival of the group. To make up for it, the Afar go to Bati and Senbete markets where they sell butter, goats, sheep and salt bars and buy from Oromo farmers, vegetables, tobacco, spices, vegetables, grain, aluminum cookware and clothes. They also find additional resources in handicrafts, logging, charcoal production, salt mining and salt transportation. Afar populations are easily victims of famine, especially in the event of drought affecting the herds. An estimated 300,000 people died in 1973 due to lack of food and water, while more than half of the Afar population, some 800,000, perished miserably during the famine in 1984.