Does anyone understand the Afar people? 6

Just as promised, I will be exploring the experience of the people in Ethiopia in the face of policy changes and world interactions. Today, I will focus on the Afar people as I attempt to make sense of the interactions between both the Ethiopian government and the West regarding their nomadic lifestyle.

Afar living structure. Image from

Afar living structure. Image from

The world has taken interest in the Afar people who live in the Afar triangle (parts of Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Eritrea) over the last couple decades. I found it to be noteworthy that the only coverage by the BBC, a major Western news source, about the Afar people or even the Afar region in Ethiopia was that a group or tourists was kidnapped in 2012 (BBC). This does not encourage me to trust that BBC has a broad understanding of the Afar culture. The Afar people maintain a nomadic lifestyle, following the clouds- as they bring the rain for their livestock to eat. The common form of nation-states has been challenged by this nomadic lifestyle as it does not fit into the mold, and conflicts that arise cannot be solved through governmental policy changes. An example of this is the historical challenges that have occurred between the Afar and Issa people in parts of Ethiopia as well as Djibouti. Many of these disputes have been over pastoral lands and access routes (Feyissa and Hohne).

The Ethiopian government has a history of attempting to end the nomadic lifestyle of the Afar people. Policy makers wanted to change the mobile way of life towards a more settled way of consistent farming. However, the pastoralists themselves were not involved in this process— thus practically ensuring the lack of success of these actions. Luckily, since 1991 the government has slowed down its attempt to force the people to give the pastoral land over to the government for its own use, and many Afar people have regained lost land. However, there continues to be threat of the government creating state farmlands and compensating the landowners. The issue is that compensating these pastoralists does not allow them to continue to make a living for their families as they are trained to be pastoralists and not traders or to have other jobs (CAPRI).  Going along these same lines, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism is celebrating the 27th World Tourism Day in the Afar Regional State from September 22-30.  However, there is notably a lack of information about positive effects this tourism has had on the actual Afar people. Far too often, this takes the shape of subjugating these people to being treated as animals at a zoo (ENA).

In my research I came across another aspect of Western ideals placed on this nomadic people. The Afar stood out for their extremely high rates of Female Genital Mutilation. As with many communities where FGM is a common practice, there are many spokeswomen who try to spread warnings as to the dangerous consequences of this procedure. However it is also an important part of the Afar culture and is considered a religious act to ensure virginity of the women prior to marriage. I am sure that Dani will delve more deeply into FGM at some point during the semester, so I will not go to into detail here. However, when thinking about the nomadic lifestyle of the Afar people, I found their FGM practice connected to the Western way of addressing cultural differences. (Don’t get me wrong, I am not a fan of FGM, but I do try to approach it from an unbiased angle and understand the role it plays in the Afar culture.) Some Western organizations have succeeded in reducing the rate of FGM among the Afar to 59.8% (28toomany). The push to educate about and reduce the consequences of FGM is just part of an attempt to change the Afar culture. Other development organizations have deemed the Afar people to be uneducated, based on modern Western standards, and many attempts by outside organizations to educate the community have failed, mostly because of the very nomadic nature of the Afar people. The Afar Pastoralist Development Association (APDA) is addressing this. Ismael Gardo says that by making the education portable, it can transport along with the people and ensure sustainable education. He explains how the key is to make the classes move when the students do; including the furniture and even blackboards (VOA).




ENA (Ethiopian News Agency)-

Feyissa, Dereke and Hoehne, Markus (Eds) 2010. Borders and Borderlands as Resources in the Horn of Africa (Eastern Africa Series) James Currey.

VOA (Voices of Africa)-



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6 thoughts on “Does anyone understand the Afar people?

  • Anne Read

    I really enjoyed reading this post on the Afar people of Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Eritria. It shows just how Western depiction in the media can define the perspective that most of the world has on groups of people like the Afar. This reminds me of a similar perception that a lot of the world has on the Somali people purely based on the incidents of piracy. Western portrayal can cause huge groups of people to be stereotyped, as well as their traditional practices. There is a very negative outlook on FGM, mainly stemmed from Western depiction, and though I don’t approve of the practice, I like how you acknowledge in the post that it plays an important role in the Afar culture, and its meaning can never fully be understood from an onlooker’s biased standpoint.

  • Tarikwa Leveille

    I really enjoyed this post about the Afar people. The title of the post caught my attention right away because, although they are geographically dispersed throughout the horn, I don’t think anyone truly understands their culture at all. From personal experience, even in Ethiopia, I would say a majority of the population would not know who the Afar people are because in Ethiopia, there tends to be tendencies that privilege one tribe over another. If you ask any Ethiopian to name existing tribes in Ethiopia, she or he will likely say Tigray, Amhara, Oromo, Gambela, etc. Because they are a minority group, mostly because they do not fully embody the so called “Ethiopian culture” or the fact that a majority of them are Muslims, in a way that makes them isolated as a tribe living in a predominantly Christian and Ethiopian culture. In some tribes in Ethiopia, to be acknowledged of who you are as a tribe has a lot to do with the tribe having to fit with the social and cultural norms of the majority.

  • ibrahim

    yes i am afar from Djibouti , origin kush like Somali and oromo ; in Ethiopia the majority of the land belong to the kush people