The Afar Tribe: Afar History, Language, Culture, Women, Religious Beliefs

The Afar Tribe

The Afar tribe are a Cushitic-speaking people who live in the Horn of Africa and go by the names Danakil, Adali, and Odali. They are mostly found in the southern coast of Eritrea, the Afar Region of Ethiopia, northern Djibouti, and the entire country of Djibouti.

The Cushitic branch of the Afroasiatic language family, which the Afar speak, includes the Afar language.
Only Afars live in the Horn of Africa, and their ancestral lands border both the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.

The warrior tribe known as the Afar is skilled in using blades and daggers in battle. They respect their laws and cherish their culture. koo liih anii macinay kamol ayyo mogolla, which translates to “I accept you in my home as a brother but I do not accept that you put my authority in question,” is an Afar proverb. Because the Afar have yet to agree to be humble, they are at odds with the other ethnic groups.

One of the Afar’s claims to fame is due to an anthropological find in the Afar Depression. In 1974, anthropologists discovered a new species’ of man at Hadar in the Awash Valley in Ethiopia. This new species was termed Australopithecus afarensis (“afar ape-man”), and is believed to have walked around Eastern Africa between 2.9 to 3.8 million years ago. The body was found to be female and named Lucy. Lucy was able to walk upright on a human-like body but still retained a small ape-like head and primitive teeth.

Demography of The Afar People

The Afar principally reside in the Danakil Desert in the Afar Region of Ethiopia, as well as in Eritrea and Djibouti. They number globally 2,774,800 (, 2023). The Afar make up over a third of the population of Djibouti, and are one of the nine recognized ethnic divisions (kililoch) of Ethiopia.

The Afar consist of two subgroups:

  • The Asaemara (“red ones”), who are the more prestigious and powerful nobles living primarily in the area of Assayita
  • The Adaemara (“white ones”), who are the commoners living in the desert areas. Those who live in the desert inhabit one of the most rugged regions in the world, known as the Afar Plain or the Danakil Desert.

One area, called the Danakil Depression, consists of a vast plain of salt pans and active volcanoes. Much of it lies 200 feet below sea level and has daily temperatures as high as 125 degrees F. The average yearly rainfall is less than seven inches.

The Afar Tribe

Language Of The Afar People

Afars are native speakers of the Afar language. It belongs to the Afroasiatic language family’s Cushitic branch.

Ethnic Afars in Ethiopia’s Afar Region, as well as in southern Eritrea and northern Djibouti, speak the Afar language. Afar speakers can be found farther out, though, as the Afar are traditionally nomadic herders. Afar is a member of the Saho-Afar dialect cluster together with Saho.

Economy Of The Afar People

Nomadic pastoralism is the traditional form of subsistence for the Afar, although some coastal Afar are fishers. Livestock consists of goats, sheep, and camels where the terrain is suitable, and some cattle in a few places. The Afar subsist mostly on meat, both domestic and wild, and dairy products, along with agricultural products that are sometimes stolen and sometimes obtained in trade with villagers in the Rift Valley or in the highlands.

Until about 1930, the Afar were involved in the trans-Red Sea slave trade, which may have added substantially to their subsistence base. More recently, the Afar have engaged in trade with Christian farmers on the Abyssinian plateau to the west, exchanging butter, hides, livestock, and rope for agricultural goods.

The pastoralism of the Afar is actually closer to transhumance than to full nomadism. Transhumance is a patterned movement of people among several regularly visited locations, at least one of which is permanently occupied by a part of the population, or is improved by some structure, such as a house, corral, or storage bin.

The encampments established during the seasonal migrations often consist of no more than grass lean-tos. The migrating unit has a more permanent homestead somewhere else, with larger dwelling structures surrounded by thorn-and-brush fences.

Often, it is only the younger members of the group who go on the seasonal migrations; they take the more highly valued camels and cattle to higher pastures, leaving the sheep and goats in the care of the older folk at the more permanent location.

Religious belief Of The Afar People

Islam is the predominant religion of the Afar. The Afar is Sunni Muslims and some follow the practices of the Sufi sect. The practice of Islam is rather unorthodox, particularly among pastoral Afar, in comparison to other groups (e.g., the Somali). Islam is believed to have been first introduced into the Afar by migrant Arabs as early as the ninth century or earlier.

Then it was spread across many places by Afar merchants from the coast and non-Afar people from neighbouring areas such as Harar and Argoba (Getachew, 2001). There are still traces of the Cushitic religion, which can be seen in shrines erected on mountain tops to offer sacrifices to the sky/god Zar/Wak. Zar/Wak, the father of the universe, perhaps provided an easy transition to Allah and Islam.

Jenile, or oracle dancing, is also connected to the Cushitic religion ( which includes some of their older religious beliefs, particularly a dominant Sky-god), and aspects of the dance may have been incorporated into Sufi Islamic ceremonies.

Music And Dance

Afar in the culture, dance is an important and supports the important moments of life. Dance (LAALE), performed exclusively by men, or dance (MALABO),performed exclusively by women and dance (KEEKE) together men and women, for example, accompany the ceremonies of marriage. In the Afar traditional register, there are games (SAXXAQand KASSOW), songs of praise (GAALI SAARE and FARAS SAARE ) and prophetic words of the soothsayer (ADAL).


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 Afar Tribe


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.

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 role of women 

Afar women play a central role in the production and household income earning. Besides their contribution to domestic chores (cooking food, fetching water and taking care of children), they are engaged in milking of small ruminants such as goats, looking after small stock animals in the field, as well as selling of some livestock products such as butter. The construction of the traditional mat house typical of many mobile pastoralists is also the task  of women.

Nevertheless, despite their role in reproductive and productive activities, women occupy a marginal social status in Afar society. It is often the case that Afar women do not have full membership rights while their own male children do. For example, women do not have equal rights as their male counterparts with regard to inheritance. They are also less likely to be treated equally before the traditional jurisdiction. Hence they tend to be submissive and timid. 

The role of clan elders

Age is an important factor in the traditional leadership structure of the Afar. Elders not only command resources at the household and community levels but they also shape the behaviour of children and grand children. Elders have a symbolic authority over younger generations and hence play a significant role in the provision of informal education and disciplining of the young generations. Through fairy tales, proverbs and stories, elders pass on tradition, folk-culture and wisdom to successive generations.

However, post 1960s developments in the area have resulted in changes to the strength of the customary rules of social relationship and economic exchange, and to the extent to which elders influence the youth. There has been a growing threat to the type of gerontocracy that existed for centuries in Afar land. In the past, elders were able to manage and counterbalance the aggressiveness and military orientation of the youth. The adoption of agriculture and urbanized life (together with other factors such as increased vulnerability to livelihood crisis due to drought and famine as well as the influence of highland culture) has created a favourable ground for rather individualistic mentality and less concern for communal tradition.

The economic and social support network weakened. The youth now have little regard to customary ways of dealing with things and are defiant to traditional laws and guidelines. Hence rebellious behaviour has increased on a substantial scale. On the extra-local dimension some challenges have started to flourish over the past decades due to the influence of global processes.

Today, respect for elders and the traditional hierarchy of authority has been seriously diluted through westernisation. The diffusion of new western values signalled the breakdown of tradition and custom, whichhad once provided effective mechanisms of social control. These current trends create psychological stress within individuals and societies. Generational conflicts and disagreements, therefore, appear to have become endemic. This phenomenon has had serious repercussions for the basic norms of social and economic cooperation among different groups among the Afar and their neighbouring territories. 

Social status, property relations, and household decision making

In typical Afar households, men are heads of respective families. Men are generally accepted as an authority figure and have the greatest share of rights over property and children. Household heads also decide on such matters as mobility and sale of livestock. Although household decision-making is often based on subsequent negotiations with women, men have the ultimate say. Livestock may be owned individually although they are regarded as assets of the entire household. Children have their own livestock. Following birth, a child receives female goats or a camel “to see the luck”. This takes place during initiation ceremonies such as circumcision or the tying up of the umbilical cord. If the animal reproduces and survives environmental hazards, the child is considered lucky. First-born babies have the advantage of getting more animals.

Female children often receive fewer animals than male children. Women generally occupy a lower social status in Afar society. When the head of the family dies, moreover, daughters do not inherit property on an equal basis with sons. Should the children of the deceased father be females only, the father’s close agnatic kin (especially the father’s-brother) will have a share.

The household division of labour in is based on gender and age. Accordingly, male adults manage the herd and the household. The husband undertakes the herding, milking and selling of animals (often following discussion with his wife). The wife, on the other hand, fetches water, grinds grains, and prepares food in the house. She also sells small stock animals and ropes (Aketa). Women are also actively involved in the preparation of temporary shelters (Senan Ari) for newly married couples.

Children assume a prominent role in herding and related activities. Calves and small stocks are tended in the nearby areas by children (boys and girls) and sometimes by female adults. Most adult men do not normally carry out manual work unless they are poor and do not have grownup children. They are responsible for managing all matters pertinent to the household and the community at large, for example, defending the family and its herd from 
wild animals and raiders, settling legal disputes, marriages, bride-price, marital problems and arranging ritual ceremonies. Otherwise, they have to do the much harder task of herding camels in far away places.

The basic resources (livestock and land) are mainly under the control of men who are responsible for the major economic decisions of purchasing and marketing of proceeds. Although women are excluded from major decision-making and control limited resources, they, make decisions and have control on the income from sales of milk products and skins. With reduced herd sizes, the quantities of these products are decreasing and thus the role of women in their control is also decreasing. There are cases where women own some animals but they cannot make major decisions, such as how to dispose them without the husbands’ permission.

Some writers (Markakis, 2004) have pointed out pastoralism is not only a mode of production but also a way of life and a culture. The two features are closely related. The Afar case is no exception.

Afar pastoralists are well aware of the dilemmas in their mode of production and tend to take rational actions as coping mechanisms with the aim of easing the burden on pastoral resources by minimizing herd and household size. Some of the specific measures taken include mobility of household units, reduction of herd size during particular seasons, taking up farming and other income generating activities in order to reduce exaggerated reliance on livestock husbandry and herd size. Environmental and ecological factors forced the Afar pastoralists to show a steady inclination to agro-pastoralism. Successive  governments have also encouraged the process of sedentarisation and agro-pastoralism in the Afar. As is the case with other east African herders the Afar pastoralists are drawn into the market in order to satisfy some of the basic household economic requirements.

Kinship, marriage and territorial organization of the Afar

The Afar has a social organization which is similar to that of other pastoral societies in Africa such as the Somali. Central to the Afar social structure are descent and affinal ties. The Afar have a patrilineal descent system based on which a person belongs to a particular clan (mela). Afar settlements are composed of a mixture of clans although each locality is identified with a major clan and affines. 

This makes it easier to organize social, economic and political support in times of crisis. Clan members are expected to share resources and help each other in emergencies. Such support becomes practically difficult to claim when members of a kinship group or a particularclan are far apart. The current dispersion of Afar over distant areas within and outside Ethiopia in search for wage employment is thus considered by many Afar as a setback to clan solidarity in many respects, including dispute settlement. According to some writers, the Afar have a saying related to intra-clan sharing behaviour: “Sagage’ri nama lakal masa” (Literally: a cow’s tail is equidistant from both its legs.) This means: Those belonging to the same group share and share equally, both the good and bad.

Hence, residents either belong to the same clan or are marital relatives. But in each settlement there are also local groups as movement into and out of these settlement areas is more or less free. Getachew (2001) has observed that the Afar try to maintain solidarity through a strong clan identity. Majority of the Afar who have migrated to other places establish strong links with their place of origin in the rural areas through regular visits, sending remittances back home.

There are several clans in northern Afar of which the dominant are Seka, Damohita, Dahimella, and Hadarmo. Each clan is divided into several sub-clans and lineages (Affa). Clans are represented by clan heads, who access leadership status based on their age, strength in decisionmaking and overall credibility in the society. Leadership positions are sometimes accessed through inheritance. Upon the death of a clan head, his sons will be considered for the position but if they lack the necessary quality of leadership, an election may be arranged.

Clan heads are entrusted with the responsibility of regulating the behaviours of clan members. They are also expected to mobilise clan members for some positive pursuits, including co-operation in certain domestic activities and raising money for compensation for any physical or psychological damage caused upon others during violent conflict. They make sure that every clan member is socially, economically and politically secure. As a result of this burden, it is not uncommon for people to reject proposals for heading a clan. This also signifies that loyalty to clan leaders should be maintained at all cost. The Afar expresses this through a proverb: “Essi Amoita Hamita Mella Ke Daar Akak Maki Me Garbo Aysuk Matayssa” (A forest through which a river has ceased to run, and a clan even slightly unfaithful to its leader are both on the decline).

In terms of size, the Seka clan is largest. In fact it is said that the town of Ab’ala is also named Shiket because it is largely inhabited by members of the Seka clan. Members of this clan are believed to have religious power. Politically, however, the Damohita clan is dominant and can be considered aristocratic. For these reasons the Damohita and Seka clans play significant roles in dispute settlement processes as ritual leaders.

The Afar practice exogamous marriage and polygamy is exercised in accordance with Islamic laws. There are several marriage patterns. These include inter-clan marriages between unrelated people, cross-cousin marriages (Absuma) and leviratic arrangements (widow inheritance). It is claimed that cross-cousin marriages are stronger than marriages between unrelated persons because no serious harm is inflicted on ones own blood and flesh in times of conjugal conflict.

In the interior parts of north Afar country, cross-cousin marriages are almost always mandatory. In some areas particularly in the south fierce inter-clan fighting may arise as a result of failure to adhere to such a norm. In areas close to the ethnic borders, however, such a norm is loosely observed as a woman can marry men other than her mother’s brother’s sons.

On the other hand parallel cousin marriages are strictly forbidden for cultural reasons. One informant commented: “even though this [parallel cousin marriage] is not completely forbidden (haram) in religious terms, our Ada[custom] does not allow us to exercise it.” There is, of course, an explanation for this. A person cannot marry his father-brother’s daughter because ideally these children belong to one father.

 A Father-brother may, upon the death of father, replace the biological father and marry the widow of his deceased brother. The same applies for the mother-sister’s children. In short, father- brother and the mother-sister are potential fathers and mothers. Betrothal for marriage engagements may begin during childhood. This is done following a nominal payment in cash. The actual wedding however usually takes place when girls reach their mid teens during which there is a transfer of bride wealth (alekum) amounting to about 1000 Birr or more. The amount to be paid in bride-wealth varies from family to family as it is ultimately decided, in negotiations, by the girl’s father. The paid money is partly spent on the purchase of some food items and material for establishing an Afar mat house (Senan Ari) for the new couple.

Wedding ceremonies take place in the house of the bride’s family where friends and relatives enjoy their porridge. Upon marriage, residence is normally patrilocal and the couple may stay there until the bride gives birth to a child. If the husband wants to take his wife, he has to pay 30 to 50 Birr to her family.

This money is actually used for buying butter (subah) and wheat flour for the newly married couple. This is done on one market day (Thursdays). A few days later, the boy’s father brings two camels, loads them with the butter (subah), wheat flour and mat (Senan) and takes the couple to the place where they will construct their own house. The wife’s mother usually accompanies the couple to help them construct their house and returns home after three days. When the wife gets pregnant, the husband usually takes her back to her family for delivery. The husband would then dismantle the mat house.

After a period of up to four months following delivery, sometimes after a whole year, the couple return to their home, which they would have to re-erect. The same procedure is commonly followed at the second and third pregnancies. Depending on the capacity and willingness of the husband to support his wife economically and socially, a wife may continue to deliver at her parents’ home even after the fourth child. The northern Afar tend to have as many children as possible. One justification for this is that children are viewed as an opportunity for the diversification of household income as they may engage in a variety of activities, such as trade, salt caravans, labours migration and herding thereby averting the consequences of a decline in income from any one particular activity.

In the early years of marriage, however, the birth of many children may constitute a burden on the husband. One common solution is migration by the husband to Saudi Arabia or Djibouti in which instance the wife and children move to live with the wife’s parents. 

As highlighted earlier, it is evident among the northern Afar (conceivably more than in the southern part of the Afar region), that people adopt sororate and levirate marriage arrangements. A man is forced to marry his brother’s widow when the original husband dies. Similarly, a woman must replace her sister as a wife when the latter passes away. This practice is said to be for the sake of the children of the widow (Gubna) or that of the widowed (Ardiglu). In accordance with Islamic laws, for a few months after the death of her husband, a widow (Gubna) is expected to exhibit some self-punishing behaviours including avoiding luxury things such as delicious food, perfume and so on.

Summing up, the Afar social organization is highly segmented with small social units such as clans, sub-clans, lineages, and households. Each of these has the autonomy to deal with its own domestic matters. Within these units, kinship groups enjoy a multitude of reciprocal rights while at the same time fulfilling certain obligations that are instrumental for inter-group solidarity, and continuity of the group as an economically and socially viable entity. Within a pastoral context, the rights and obligations include, the sharing of bride wealth and blood.