People of Eritrea
Eritrean Afars, also known as Denakils, live mainly along the south eastern sea coast of Eritrea in the southern red sea region and the offshore islands in a highly segmented, patrilineal society.
The Afar are of Hamitic stock and came to Eritrea in the second wave of migration, around 2000 BC. Historically, the pastoral Hamitic people came from the deserts of southern Egypt and northern Sudan to the Barka valley. Pushing the former Nilotic inhabitants southward, the Hamitic tribesmen expanded further into the central highlands and then to the red sea coastal areas.
The Afar have been renowned for their prowess in battle for centuries. They have a long history of independent sultanates and strong warrior traditions. Their ancestors have lived in Denkel since antiquity and they appear in inscriptions originating from both South Arabia and the Aksumite Empire. Many of their songs and much of their oral tradition is built on this.
Today, the traditional Afar society is ruled by sultanates made up of several villages, headed by a 'dardar'. The Afars are predominantly Moslem, and were among the earliest Eritreans to convert to Islam.
They began to convert to Islam in the 10th century after contact with Arabs. The brand of Islam they practice is heavily syncretic and includes many elements of their older, indigenous religion which focused on the Sky God. The Afar language is a branch of eastern Cushitic related to the Somali language.
Camels make up the most common means of transport as their caravans move from watering hole to watering hole. Most move to higher ground with the arrival of the November rainy season to avoid flooding and mosquitoes.
Pastoral Afar families typically live in large hemispheric tent houses known as an 'ari', made of hides and woven mats stretched across a framework of wooden poles that can be easily dismantled and carried by camel over long distances. The Afar supplement their diet of milk and meat by selling salt that they dig from the desert along with milk and animal hides at markets.
As with many African cultures, scarification, the practice of cutting the skin to produce a permanent scar, has a long tradition amongst the Afar. Most scars are made on the face; the eyebrows are slashed for mainly medical motives, such as curing inflammation or infections of the eye. They prefer small slashes that leave very small scars. However, the slashing of the cheeks for whatever purpose is very rare among the Afar.
After the approval of marriage, the mother of the bride goes and tells her daughter that she is going to get married. The father of the bride and groom then go to the sultan and get his approval and make the wedding official. Afterwards the men pray for the success of the wedding.
The wedding rituals begin three days before the wedding. The married women of the village have the Boccali ceremony. Here oils and cosmetics are prepared for the bride. Boccali is the name of the ointment which the women make out of scented butter infused with different perfumes, herbs and leaves.
After mixing the ingredients with the butter the women, while singing blessings, dig up a hole in the brides’ tent and bury the Boccali in a black clay pot. The clay pot is immensely significant since as it is passed down through generations especially for this ceremony. Meanwhile, the men of the village build the hut for the bride and groom, called the Ainta to live in after the wedding.
The eve of the wedding is celebrated at the house of the sultan. The evening begins with the blowing of the Banta, a traditional horn. The Dinkora, a drum is played and food is provided by the grooms’ family. The bridesmaid and groom’s men then dance around the drummer bearing daggers and swords. The women wearing their best jewellery dance while wielding swords.
On the wedding, day the groom’s best friend gives the groom a haircut and washes his hair with an egg and his body with henna. The groom then ties a red band around his head.
As for the bride, her friend braids her hair and she rubs the Boccali on her skin and face. The Sultan then administers the wedding vows. It is an interesting tradition that three to four days prior to the wedding until the time the bride takes her wedding vows, she is not allowed to touch the ground and is carried everywhere.
After the wedding, the bride is carries out to the Ainta, accompanied by the women all cheering, singings and dancing. The groom then arrives at the Ainta also accompanied by the men in a similar manner.
A goat is slaughtered at the entrance and the groom crosses over it to get inside. To finalise the wedding ceremony the entire village then hit the outside of the Ainta with sticks and daggers to show the bride the strength of her new husband.
Being Moslems, the Afar children go to Koranic school when they reach school age. However parents make sure that their children learn the art of fishing, swimming and other skills related to life in the coastal and arid zone of Eritrea.
Afar children like to play hide and seek and traditional chess using camel droppings. But their favourite game is a kind of rugby that is unique to the region; they play the game half naked. In this ethnic group, children are given all the freedom to enjoy themselves. The family eat together with the children and the children are never bossed around in the house.
Although, as with most people, some Afar have migrated to cities and have adopted more cosmopolitan ways of life, the majority still are nomadic herders.