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Erta Ale Volcano in northeastern Ethiopia has had active lava lakes for more than a hundred years. It is the most active volcano in Ethiopia. It was especially active in the first half of last year (2017). Its name is given in the Afar language which is spoken by the Afar people who are indigenous to the area. In English it means "Smoking Mountain," but the Afar also call it "the gateway to hell." It lies on the edge of an area known as the Danakil Depression. That area, the confluence of three tectonic plates, was once covered by the Red Sea. Today it is also a harsh landscape, parts of which are ever-changing sulfuric acid springs and lakes and salt flats. It is where Lucy (one of the oldest hominins ever discovered) died three million years ago.
The Afar live next door to the birthplace of Islam (modern-day Saudi Arabia) and have a history of trade with the Arabian Peninsula. So it is not surprising that they adopted aspects of that religion during its early years. In practice, though, orthodox (Sunni) Islam is only observed among the urban Afar. The semi-nomadic Afar (who are the majority) maintain their people's traditional isolationism towards outsiders and outside influences. While Islamic law and practices are observed, this is alongside ancient Cushite Animism, which includes ancestor veneration, sky-god and sacred-tree worship and animal sacrifice.
Claiming a history of descent from Arab peoples (which is unsupported scientifically), the Afar name for themselves means "the first" and "the best." Although mentioned as far back as the thirteenth Century, CE, little is known about their history. The "White" Afar (Adoyahmara) are likely the elder group. They live in more eastern regions where the landscape is dominated by whitish salt flats and coast. The "Red" Afar (Asayahamara) came from the inland, western regions where the landscape is dominated by reddish desert and volcanic lava. The Asayahamara are said to have invaded, conquered then intermarried with the Adoyahmara.
The Asayahamara continue to be the wealthier and more politically dominant sub-group today. They are more likely to live a modern, sedentary life in urban centers as well as to hold positions in government office. They are also more likely to belong to one of the many Afar-affiliated political groups. In the past there were four such groups — the Sultanates of Aussa (Awsa), Biru, Tajoura and Raheito. Of these, Aussa was the most successful and influential. Its former Sultan (until his death in 2011), Alimirah Hanfere, was (and still is) regarded by Afar and others as both an Afar and an Ethiopian hero.
Alimirah lived through both the Italian occupation and Ethiopian monarchy — as well as the establishing of Djibouti and Eritrea as sovereign nations. Out of the turmoil surrounding this recent history grew a number of political movements representing the Afar people. Both the Afar Liberation Front and the Afar National Democratic Party are active in Ethiopia today.
Any group representing the Afar today, politically, economically or socially, faces a formidable task. Although non-governmental organizations have been working increasingly in the area for a few years, the Afar, for the most part, have little access to basic necessities. A paved road runs through their territory and on into Djibouti and, on the Ethiopian side, forms the closest resemblance to infrastructure — that is if trucker shantytowns like Afdera can be called infrastructure. A new railway line connecting Addis Ababa to Djibouti was also opened recently and it passes through the south of the Afar Region. Together these two arteries have the potential to open up trade for the Afar.
Along the Red Sea coasts of Djibouti and Eritrea the Afar make a reasonable income from fishing. But most of the inland Afar Region of Ethiopia is barren. The landscape often looks more lunar than terrestrial. Water and vegetation are both scarce. It is here that the vast majority of Afar are semi-nomadic and make their income from livestock herding. Often the herds are tended by children. Many of these children, especially girls, do not go to school. Partly this is because the nearest school is likely to be too far away. Often it is because the sheer necessity of finding grazing land and water do not allow a luxury like formal education.
Before his death Sultan Alimirah said "Education is the most important thing for my people. You cannot do anything without education." His words should perhaps be his epitaph: they are as true today as then. But formal education is not available to many Afar and, as noted previously, basic survival takes priority even when it is. The sight of two girls walking home from school is rare here and is only to be seen in urbanized communities supported by infrastructure. I visited a school in one remote Afar community where the school drop-out rate is particularly high — especially for girls. I was taking supplies into the school and took advantage of the opportunity to address the students. After a brief talk about the importance of staying in school I asked the students which of them would not drop out. This girl was the first to raise her hand. The chances of her receiving an education good enough to escape the cycle of poverty are low.
Her father is likely a salt miner — if he is still alive. Hers is a community where most of the income comes from salt mining. The work is manual, harsh and grueling. Most of the men who do this work do not live into their fifties. For ten months of the year they toil under a baking-hot sun (this is the hottest place on earth measured by average, year-round temperature) with little food or water and only basic, hand-held tools. Together they produce almost all of Ethiopia's salt. So important is this livelihood that an ages-old Afar proverb goes: "As rain falls from morning clouds, so should a man cut salt early in the day."
While the men do this work Afar women are to be found at home. Traditionally, the division of labor follows strict gender roles in Afar society. So women will be found caring for children, cooking and cleaning until the men return home after sunset. But not all men return every day. The nearest salt market is a week away by camel. Each day the salt that was mined is loaded onto camels that are then herded into caravans — often up to a hundred strong. The men take it in turns to shepherd these caravans by night and day, resting only when the fatigue or the heat overpowers them.
The Afar are a proud, resilient, unconquered and fascinating people who have kept their indigenous identity alive in a part of the world that is inhospitable and which has seen its share of religious and political turmoil. Today they are poor and marginalized. Yet they will likely be one of the longest-surviving indigenous people well into the future.
Photography copyright © 1999 -
Ray Waddington. All rights reserved.
Text copyright © 1999 - 2023, The Peoples of the World Foundation. All rights reserved.
A Grain of Salt: Indigenous Afar Salt Miners of the Danakil (short film on YouTube)
Focus on the Afar People
Browning, V. and Little, J., (2008) Maalika: My Life among the Afar Nomads in Africa. Sidney: Pan Macmillan.
Olson, J.S., (1996) The Peoples of Africa: An Ethnohistorical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Pastner, S., (1984) "Afar." In R.V. Weekes (ed.) Muslim Peoples: A World Ethnographic Survey. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.