Sylvain Savolainen

Reporter / Photographer


The Afar nomads, or those who gaze into the horizon

Located in the East African horn, one of the hottest and driest regions of the planet, the Afar can be found in three countries: Ethiopia, the Republic of Djibouti and Eritrea.

The desert or semi desert territory the 2 or 3 million Afar occupy represents a 150,000 square meter triangle between Awash, Ethiopia, the Bori peninsula, Eritrea, and Obock, Djibouti. In each of the three countries, the Afar have kept a “national unity”: the same language, which has only had its own alphabet for 20 years, the same traditions and the same social organization.

Due to their particular way of life and the political context, the Afar have been pushed to the outskirts of society. Following the war that broke out in 1991 between the Afar and the Issa in Djibouti, formerly Afar territory, some 30,000 Afar left Djibouti for Ethiopia and some 5,000 took refuge in Eritrea, fleeing the persecutions of the Djibouti army, controlled by the Issa. Another 80,000 Afar were displaced within the boundaries of Djibouti. In Eritrea and Ethiopia, they live in more than precarious social and sanitary conditions, as their refugee status is not even recognized.

A pastoral and semi-nomadic people, the mysterious Afar, or Danakils, are both an object of fascination, because of their physical beauty, and of fear, due to their reputation as cruel warriors. All sorts of legends and fantasies depict them as ruthless killers. The uncertain origin of the Afar contributes to their mystery. For several reasons, they are often compared to the Ancient Egyptians. Whether or not they descend from this ancient civilization, most of them have maintained their traditional ways. Some of them have become city-dwellers, settling down in Tadjoura, Obock, Awash and Assaïta, which they regard as their capital. Their only wealth is livestock. The dryness of the climate forces them and their stock – dromedaries, goats, sheep and cows – to take on long transhumant journeys through the desert.

The Danakils have also specialised in salt collecting, which they do in the middle of the desert, mostly on the shores of Lake Assal, in the Republic of Djibouti. This exhausting task consists in collecting the compact clusters of salt using pick axes or even their bare hands. As it is corrosive, salt is usually collected in the morning or in the evening, to avoid the blazing hot sun. The gathered salt is then taken by caravan across the East African horn.

Many Afar today hope to improve their material conditions and their level of education by adopting a more sedentary lifestyle. Some of them even have the dream of creating a country of their own.