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Afar girl in Asaita, Ethiopia

Among the Afar

Anthon Jackson

Men had suddenly emerged from the cluster of dome-shaped aris, traditional Afar huts, some clutching old Kalishnikovs and others wooden staffs, all with curved gile daggers hanging from their belts.
Deep in the Danakil, our little game of hit-the-stone-off-the-palm-frond-fence was just heating up when shouts went up across the village. Men had suddenly emerged from the cluster of dome-shaped aris, traditional Afar huts, some clutching old Kalishnikovs and others wooden staffs, all with curved gile daggers hanging from their belts. Without hesitating they began sprinting across the desert, defying the limits of their 20-birr plastic sandals, gliding over the rugged, stony ground. The women, gazing after their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons, ululated wildly.

We watched them disappear into the date palm “oasis” to the south, a speck of green fed by a small branch of the Awash River. Somewhere beyond the enemy tribe had been spotted: Issa (Somalis).

The three of us – David, the expedition mastermind, Go’obo, our Afar translator from Addis, and myself – were now the only young men left in tiny Harissa, an obscure smattering of thatched and stone huts, encircled by a barricade of acacia branches to keep out the hyenas. It was a tough four-day trek to the nearest dirt road or power cable.

We’d reached the settlement a week earlier, following a long march across some of Africa’s most forbidding terrain. All along the route, rumors of raiding Issa had kept us on our toes. Now, with the flight of Harissa’s men and the echo of the women’s war cries, we were more alert than ever. Our game with the rock and the fence was definitely over.

By the time the Afar men reemerged from the oasis, we’d purified another round of Awash River water. I exhaled with relief upon recognizing the first lean figure as one of our companions from the journey, Muhammad. His rifle was slung over his shoulder and his gait was as light-hearted as ever, a carefree spring in his chiseled legs that made his long, curled locks bounce with each step. He was laughing. Soon we learned the outcome of the skirmish: three Issa and one Afar killed. The men of Harissa seemed content with this, and began to prepare for the following day of celebration. Tomorrow would mark the end of Ramadan.

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Our journey to the Danakil had begun weeks earlier in Addis Ababa, seemingly a world away. Here I met with Go’obo Abaco (met through couchsurfing.com), and David Lewis, an old friend I’d happened upon years earlier in Lahore. Something of a modern-day Wilfred Thesiger, David had recently written his thesis on the legendary explorer, a fellow Oxford alumnus. At the end of his life, although he’d racked up decades in the wilds of North Africa, Abyssinia and Arabia, Thesiger maintained that his most dangerous journeys were those undertaken in the Danakil. In his Danakil Diary, encounters with the Afar portray a fearless and resolutely fatalistic people, known throughout the Horn for inspiring fear in their enemies. After reading the diaries himself, David decided he simply had to go, and soon thereafter shot me an email. I was instantly onboard. The plan was to head to the dusty frontier town of Asaita, purchase a pair of sturdy camels, load them with supplies, then head off the grid. Rather than bringing along the required police escort, we’d simply hire some local guns along the way. Our goal was to trace Thesiger’s route to Lake Abhe Bad, the once-elusive terminus of the Awash River. Along the way we’d live among Thesiger’s beloved Afar, a people for whom one of the most desolate and inhospitable places on earth remains home sweet home.
While hanging around in cold, rainy Addis a few days before our trio’s first meeting, both local and expat friends at Bole Road bars balked at the plan. One called it a “suicide mission,” while others warned I’d likely be castrated, killed or both. It seemed the Afar hadn’t lost their reputation. According to one of their better-known adages, “it is better to die than to live without killing.”

After a few days of preparation, we caught a bus down into the sweltering lowlands of Eastern Ethiopia. Crossing the bridge just beyond Awash, we entered Afar territory and made a beeline northeast to Logiya, a seedy trucker’s colony sprawled along the main road to Djibouti. It was night when we arrived, but the heat was overpowering. A dust storm forced both us and all the territory’s mosquitos behind the concrete walls of a scruffy hotel. Once it had settled, we picked up our permits in the region’s bland new capital, Semera, then crammed into the last minibus to Asaita that evening, racing through a landscape that became increasingly barren. The final days of preparation in Asaita included a thorough scouring of the Tuesday Market, a hodgepodge of makeshift stalls and tents packed with burlap sacks of dates, grains and spices. We hired an entire gari (horse-drawn carriage) to get everything back to our place: UNHCR jerry cans, ropes, oil and hefty bags of berberay, pasta, lentils, onions and garlic.

By far the biggest purchase went down at the camel market just outside of town. After lengthy negotiations, we agreed on a price for two strong camels in the early afternoon. By evening, the man charged with keeping the older camel until morning was caught trying to skip town with our deposit. The beast was returned that same night, then named “Bolbirri” after the amount of the deposit (100 birr or 4£), while the younger camel was dubbed Tony. By late that night, we’d sealed the deal in the candle-lit home of Tony’s previous owner, a pious, bearded sheikh, and found ourselves holding the ropes tied around their foaming mouths, leading Tony and Bolbirri by torch-light through the pitch black alleys of Asaita. Just after dawn the next morning, Go’obo popped his head into my mosquito-net tent. My forehead was already covered in a sheet of sweat from the heat. “The camels are gone!”

I had to shake myself awake to allow the realization to set in, followed by a touch of alarm: we own camels now. I scrambled out of the tent and rushed after Go’obo, soon spotting Tony and Bolbirri hobbling down the dirt road with legs half-tied, hovering awkwardly over the tiny stalls just opening for business. Camels aren’t an odd sight on the street of Asaita, but ours were getting plenty of stares. Whoever had tied their legs was certainly not an Afar. Shouts of ferengi (foreigner) followed us as we led the beasts out of town. It was time to learn how to tie their legs properly, and time to get out of Asaita.

After three days’ march we reached the Boha River. Its banks were buzzing with life as goats, cows and camels waited to cross the crocodile-infested waters. Long-haired, sharp-toothed Afar herdsmen huddled in acacia shade drinking tea and breaking ga’ambo (maize bread), most eyes fixated on us. A few of the toughest men swam across with camels in tow, buoyed by jerry cans. The rest of us packed into an old rusted boat, weighed down with burlap sacks, stacks of reed mats and sweating boys falling over the passengers as they pulled us across by a rope connecting the other side. The Boha was deep in Danakil territory, but stepping foot on the land beyond represented a new level of adventure. Now more than ever, there was a pressing need to find our escorts, our guides, and our guns, for the lawless wilds ahead.

We soon came across a promising Afar trio, and shared a long chat beneath some acacias. Muhammad and Tur were both young and fit, “essential flesh and bone” as Thesiger had described the Afar, and far more friendly than the other candidates we’d met along the way. The third was much older, a red-eyed man promising to contribute wisdom and an insider’s knowledge of the route ahead.

After shaking hands on the new fellowship, we never saw the old man again, but Muhammad and Tur proved essential to the expedition. Each could handle a camel in their sleep, and just as effortlessly balanced Afar toughness with the occasional joke or irreverent battle song. They also carried next to nothing.

Our goal was to trace Thesiger’s route to Lake Abhe Bad, the once-elusive terminus of the Awash River. Along the way we’d live among Thesiger’s beloved Afar, a people for whom one of the most desolate and inhospitable places on earth remains home sweet home.
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Sticking to Thesiger’s route rather than cutting towards the lake, we circled the volcanic mass of the Dema’ali Terara mountain, passing through a blackened wasteland where hyenas gathered at night and jagged rocks drew blood from our camels’ feet.
In the spirit of traveling light, Tur’s old rifle had only a single bullet. Upon discovering this a few days further into the trek, Go’obo asked how he’d handle an Issa raiding party. Easy, he answered, his cool smile gushing confidence, “just line them all up in a row”.

A few days on, we saw the glimmering strip on the southern horizon that was Lake Abhe Bad. Sticking to Thesiger’s route rather than cutting towards the lake, we circled the volcanic mass of the Dema’ali Terara mountain, passing through a blackened wasteland where hyenas gathered at night and jagged rocks drew blood from our camels’ feet. Our Afar friends warned of the “demon government” that ruled the desolate area.

By 8am on the morning of the final march, David’s watch thermometer passed 40°C. A few hours later it was well into the 50s, and our water was running dangerously low. At last Abhe Bad came into view again, this time to the east. The Djibouti shoreline was a faint watermark on the horizon. We paused to take in the view Thesiger once traveled so far to see. Then, like a mirage in the distance, our little patch of date palms came into view over a rocky ridge, and the faint sound of rushing water became too loud to deny.

Soon the camels were lapping up Awash River water and our crew had stripped down to bathe in a flurry of streams that cascaded into pools beneath the shade of date palms. Perhaps delusional after the long trek, each of us felt we’d arrived in Eden, an oasis at the end of the world. For a long moment, our yearning for exploration and adventure – the same relished by Thesiger throughout his illustrious life – seemed quenched.

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The Afar

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After a drawn-out village council, Harissa’s chief granted us permission to stay indefinitely. He and his right-hand man, Gura, began to make rounds at our camp, offering dates from the oasis while helping themselves to our berberay pasta. In turn, we were invited to join them in the shade of the aris, sharing tiny cups of coffee, giant bowls of warm milk and fresh ga’ambo. In the mornings, they revealed their tribal structure, methods of teeth sharpening and facial scarring, and what it means to be an Afar. Once an Afar man has left the desert, Gura explained, he is no longer an Afar.

With daily village visits, trips to the oasis and long afternoons chewing chat, the hours and days soon began to blend. Until the day of the clash with the Issa to the south, there was little to distract from the constant and overbearing heat of the Danakil.

On our final day in Harissa, the Eid festivities doubled as our own farewell party. To start off the morning, we joined the men on a walk beyond the oasis to the somewhat underwhelming mosque, a knee-high circle of black stones. Gathered here, not far from the site of yesterday’s skirmish, were Afar from all the surrounding villages. It was a solemn service, and afterwards we mingled for the ritual daagu, man-to-man exchange covering all the most important topics: Issa sightings, grazing lands, chat, the weather, and the health, illnesses and deaths of fellow clansmen. Back in the village, we paid Gura for an Eid goat, and shared the meat among our crew.

In the evening, a band of young boys from the village serenaded our camp with Afar battle songs, jumping and clapping in unison, their little voices booming collectively in the darkness. I imagined they’d remember the time the ferengi came to Harissa. They asked us to follow them just beyond the thorny barrier that surrounded Harissa, where dozens of villagers were gathered for more singing and dancing, their bounding, silhouetted forms almost invisible under the new moon.

Having traced Thesiger’s route to the Awash terminus, we opted for the direct route back to civilization, reaching the Boha and Afambo – the first town intermittently connected to the power grid – in just three days. Here, due to inconsistencies in our permit, our team was carted off to the local jail around midnight and our camp placed under police watch. Released the next evening just in time to hop on the last truck to Asaita, we sold Tony and Bolbirri a few days later, said goodbyes to our Afar friends and made the long trip back to Addis. Our days of Harissa dates and the oasis of dreams were already fast becoming a fond but distant memory.

Anthon is a roaming photographer and writer originally from Ogden, Utah. His childhood traced an arch around the Indian Ocean, dividing years in South Africa, Australia, Singapore, Ethiopia and India. In his final month at university, he became one of the first Americans in thirty years to receive a diplomatic visa to Iran, and picked up his first DSLR the day before the flight.

He’s been shooting, writing and traveling ever since. Over the last six years he’s authored numerous guides for Rough Guides and A-Z World Travels, while his photos have been showcased in gallery exhibitions both in Egypt and the USA, as well as by Outside, Lonely Planet, GEOSpecial and more. Having traveled to over eighty countries, he feels most at home in Cairo, Istanbul and Aarhus, Denmark – his current base.

Website: anthonjackson.com
Facebook: anthonjacksonphotos

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