Relational Bridges

Afar of Djibouti

A white arch spanned the paved road at the entrance into Afar territory. This region takes up the northern half of the country and is home to one-third of Djibouti's population. The country is dry and arid, with drinking water at a premium. Steel drums along the main road are filled periodically by government water trucks.

We entered an Afar village as guests of an Afar language teacher. She had worked with her students for over one year. The students and teacher became the best of friends. It was on the basis of their relationship that her aunt's village extended a warm welcome to us.

Our group was served tea in one of the village homes. The language teacher graciously served us as we sat on blankets and mats. We had a delightful time. Afterward, the teacher guided us on a tour of the entire village. We stopped at almost every house, extending greetings and taking pictures. It was a pleasant introduction to Afar family life.

Nothing was hidden and every aspect of Afar living was shared openly with us. We saw new homes, single family compounds, the famous Afar oven in each yard, cattle corrals, camels and a small irrigated garden. Our guide was obviously happy to share her guests and language students with her family. The highlight was stopping to meet her aunt.

What we missed seeing were the men of the village. At the edge of the village two men were making charcoal. Otherwise, no men were around, although the sun was setting. Our guide explained that the men had gone into the town to chew khat, an herbal stimulant, with their friends. Making initial contacts and participating in daily life is the essence of Afar existence and flows across relational bridges.

Returning to Djibouti City, home to 60 percent of the population, we met a young man who offered to take us to meet his mother and sister at their home. They live in a crowded slum area, but when we arrived we found the home locked and the women gone. Our guide then directed us to another sister’s home.

Houses in the area are constructed from tin, plywood and cardboard. Our young guide said that 20 to 30 people often live in one room in order to afford the rent. His own home consisted of two rooms with only three people living there.

We stepped into his sister's two-room home. The living room was comfortable, and a large screen TV was showing world news. It was interesting to hear our guide speak intelligently of world news.
Our guide's sister is divorced and has five children. They are all enrolled in Arabic- speaking schools rather than French schools, because the fees are cheaper. The father, who is in the Djibouti military, pays for the children's education.

While strolling through the market area, we stopped at a shop where I bought sugar and rice for our guide's mother. Then we stopped at a roadside stand and drank a soda. I noticed a homeless man sleeping under an old SUV nearby, and my heart was touched. Bidding good-bye to our guide, we concluded our Afar tour.

Before we departed from Djibouti, my guide called and asked to see me. He presented me with a gift of eyeliner in a handmade beaded purse for my wife. It was an expression of thanksgiving from his mother for the sugar and rice I had given her. The family’s kindness reminded me that Afar life flows along relational channels whether among the poor or affluent. Building relational bridges opens the door to the Afar heart.

Afar of Eritrea

Our team of three traveled to Tio, Eritrea, on August 24, 1999, to begin preliminary research of the Afar people group. We hired a four-wheel drive Land Cruiser with a driver in order to give identification and endorsement of the trip.

The road from Massawa to Tio was the most rugged overland trip I have ever taken in Africa. Battling rocky mountain passes or desert sand was the order of the day. The journey afforded little aesthetic beauty, but three places overlooking the Red Sea were breathtaking. The terrain was composed primarily of volcanic rock or sand and was constantly changing. One section was covered with smooth black rocks—some the size of soccer balls.

The journey from Massawa to Tio is about 300 kilometers. One hour out of Tio, we approached a section of road with deep ruts in the sand extending about 50 yards. Despite increasing speed, the driver failed to keep our vehicle on top of the sand and it bogged down. With darkness approaching, we knew we had a problem. No shovel was available, so with branches from a bush and our bare hands the digging began. Eventually three trucks arrived on the scene. One had a cable that the driver used to pull us out.

Town of Tio
Dirty and exhausted, we drove into Tio at 7 p.m. I was surprised to discover there were no hotels in town, so we accepted the invitation of the assistant administrator to stay at his house. His generator had started at 6 p.m., providing light, electric fans and entertainment. He had the only TV in town, so he placed it in his living room window and selected the Eritrean Tigrinya channel. About 50 to 100 people gathered to enjoy the programs through the evening.

The Tio subregion is home to 23,000 people – primarily Afar. About 3,000 live in the town of Tio, and another 2,000 live in nearby villages. Tio is built on a peninsula that extends perhaps 500 meters. A truck delivers drinking water drawn from a well some distance from town, but people also have their own personal wells that provide water for other purposes. The water level is six to eight feet beneath the surface. Everyone uses the eastern beach for a toilet, and the tide takes care of waste disposal.

At Tio’s elementary school, Afar and Tigrinya teachers instruct around 500 children. A new middle school under construction will provide training for 300 sixth- and seventh-grade students. Afar youth come from across the region and are housed in dorms three kilometers from the school premises. The dorms are located near a good water source and give some assurance that the students will maintain their Afar culture.

There appears to be an opportunity for English instructors at the middle school. People in the community remember a Peace Corps worker teaching English at a school in Assab, which was a positive experience. With the new school, leaders hope to have someone come to Tio.

A new hospital facility is located on the eastern side of the peninsula in a section of town where a few cement block houses have been constructed. Otherwise, houses are built of wood or sticks and straw.

The primary disease appears to be tuberculosis, with malnutrition a close second. Vegetables and fruits are not available on a regular basis and the lack of them contributes to health needs. A limited amount of fish is available due to fishermen sending their daily catch across the Red Sea to Yemen in order to get cash. People seem to prefer goat meat and mutton, which is readily available at several local butcher stalls.

A new road from Massawa to Assab is now completed. It passes through Tio and local merchants are pleased, for they know this important link will be a big boost to their business ventures. Tio's village elders believe the new road will entice the nomadic Afar to build villages along the road for the purposes of trade and education.

Key Contacts
One of the village elders is blind. We met him at a restaurant while drinking a cool Coca-Cola. Dressed in a wraparound cloth bound with the Afar green belt, he heard our voices and spoke loudly to us, drawing everyone’s attention. He shared with us the history of Tio, an appreciation of the Italians who governed Eritrea for 60 years, and the community’s hopes for the future based on the new road and school. He specifically asked if we would come and teach the children. He agreed to teach us Afar if we taught them English. The old elder gave us his name and asked for his picture to be taken with us. It appeared to be a very special moment for him. He may be the Cornelius whom the Lord has prepared for the Tio area.

A young man preparing for sixth grade in the new school met us at the restaurant. His mother was sick, so he came for a meal. Sitting at a table near us, he tried to understand our English. We asked him to help us learn Afar greetings, and through this exchange we struck up a friendship. The next night, the eve of our departure, he entered the restaurant and walked up behind me, gently patting my shoulder. It was a tender expression and communicated his pleasure with our brief acquaintance.

Tio has one old dilapidated mosque and a few scattered prayer houses. Not once during our two-day visit did I hear a Muslim call to prayer. There appears to be openness to the presentation of the gospel. Certainly the elders’ approval would be necessary. The town is so small that the people could easily crowd someone out if they did not approve of his evangelism efforts.

In the past, Red Sea Mission invested a lot of time, money, personnel and prayer in Tio with no apparent lasting results. However, seed was sown and must bear fruit in the near future.


  • Afar men don’t wear typical Muslim attire, but they do wear prayer caps on Fridays and for pictures. It seems they have their own style of Islam, which is more of a folk Islam and certainly not orthodox Islam centered in the mosque.
  • Anyone going to Tio needs to know God is sending him. The difficulty of the task, isolation from the outside world and difficult living conditions demand a clear call and purpose.
  • The timing is right to take the good news of the gospel to Tio. The new road, the Afar villages springing up near it and the new middle school drawing students from across the Afar homeland speak of progressive change. What an opportunity to touch the entire Afar nation!
  • No gospel witness is available to the 23,000 Afar in the Tio subregion. They are perishing in their sins for lack of a messenger. Who will go to the heartland of the Afar? Who will be known as the one who brought the light of the gospel to the Afar?



Introduction / History
The Afar (Danakil) claim to be descendants of the son of Noah, as recorded in the Bible. They are located in the East African countries of Djibouti, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. The Afar prefer to be known as the Afar, since the Arabic word danakil is an offensive term to them. They are a proud people, emphasizing a man's strength and bravery. Prestige comes from killing one's enemies.

The Afar consist of two sub-groups: the Asaemara ("red ones"), who are the more prestigious and powerful nobles living along the coast; and the Adaemara ("white ones"), who are the commoners living in the mountains and the Danakil Desert. Those who live in the desert inhabit one of the most rugged areas in the world. One region, known as 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.

What are their lives like?
Most of the Afar are nomads who herd sheep, goats, cattle, and camels. A man's wealth is measured by the size of his herds. The women are responsible for tending the sheep, cows, and goats, and for looking after the camp. The men care for the camels and donkeys, and take down the camp when it is time to move.

Not all of the Afar are herdsmen. Some of the Asaemara who live on the coast are fishermen, while many of the Adaemara mine salt. Those who work in the Danakil Depression pry loose slabs of solid salt during the dry season, supplying ready-to-use salt in the form of crude blocks.

Although some Muslims are permitted to have four wives, Afar marriages are usually monogamous. Girls may marry as early as age ten. Marriages between first cousins are preferred, particularly between a man and his father's sister's daughter. The night of the full moon is favored for a wedding ceremony, and the presence of someone able to read the Koran is required.

Meat and milk are the major components of the Afar diet. Milk is also an important social "offering". For instance, when a guest is given fresh warm milk to drink, the host is implying that he will provide immediate protection for the guest. If a person is killed while under the protection of an Afar, his death must be avenged as if he were a member of the clan.

The Afar live in camps surrounded by thorn barricades, which protect them from the attacks of wild animals or enemy tribesmen. Their oval-shaped huts, called ari, are made of palm mats and are easily moved.

What are their beliefs?
Early in their history, the Afar were heavily influenced by the Islamic religion; and today, Islam is still held in great esteem. The people do not eat pork and rarely drink alcohol. Those who can afford to do so, make a pilgrimage to Mecca.

In addition, many pre-Islamic beliefs and customs are also prevalent among the Afar. They believe that certain trees and groves have sacred powers. They also have various religious rites such as anointing their bodies with ghee (a type of butter). Spirits of the dead are believed to be very powerful, and a "feast of the dead", called Rabena, is celebrated each year. They also give annual offerings to the sea to ensure safety for their villages. Many people wear protective leather amulets that contain herbs and verses from the Koran.

What are their needs?
Because the Afar are a proud, independent people, they have had a very turbulent history. In recent times, the government has built houses with kitchens and bathrooms - luxuries previously unknown to these nomads.

There is a great need for pure water sources for the Afar and their herds. In recent years, they have suffered because of famines and drought in the region.

Prayer Points
* Ask the Lord of the harvest to send forth additional laborers into Eritrea.
* Pray that God will grant wisdom and favor to the missions agencies that are focusing on the Afar.
* Ask God to anoint the Gospel as it goes forth via radio to this tribe.
* Pray that God will reveal Himself to these precious people through dreams and visions.
* Pray for the small number of Afar believers and ask God to give them opportunities to share Christ with their own people.
* Ask God to raise prayer teams who will begin breaking up the soil through worship and intercession.
* Ask the Lord to bring forth a triumphant Afar church for the glory of His name!

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