Monday, October 2, 2017

Pastoral Adaptation to Market Opportunities and Changing Gender Roles among the Afar in Ethiopia

A report by Uthman Hassen, Adama Science and Technology University, Ethiopia

Map of Ethiopia showing Afar Region

This report is an investigation into the major changes observed in the pastoral system of the Afar of Northeastern Ethiopia, their shift towards the market and the application of money and technology, and the subsequent changes in gender relations. A combination of ethnographic methods including semi-structured and key informant interviews, focus discussions, and life histories were used to collect data from 89 respondents in five towns. Complementary data were also collected from additional informants through informal conversations with state officials, civic and clan leaders, sages and academics. It was found that pastoralism is gradually dying, and, consequently, women engaging in the market are increasing both in number and significance. However, their success is hugely constrained by various structural forces, notably state policies, failing laws and processes, lack of formal financing, price fluctuation, and absence of appropriate technology. In the face of these challenges, the Afar women continue to effectively commoditize their pastoral products and participate in wage employment. This shift has further enhanced cash income and mobility. In the absence of formal financial agencies, the traditional sources of capital and money transferring arrangements remain important to the livelihood systems of the Afar people.

Keywords. Pastoralism, Market, Money, Technology, Afar women, Mobility, Ethiopia


Who are the Afar? 
The Afar (Afar: Qafár), also known as the Danakil, Adali, and Odali, are an ethnic group inhabiting the Horn of Africa. They primarily live in the Afar Region of Ethiopia and in northern Djibouti, although some also inhabit the southern point of Eritrea. The Afar principally reside in the Danakil Desert in the Afar Region of Ethiopia, as well as in Eritrea and Djibouti. They number 1,276,867 people in Ethiopia (or 1.73% of the total population), of whom 105,551 are urban inhabitants, according to the most recent census (2007). 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 are traditionally pastoralists, raising goats, sheep, and cattle in the desert, are organized into clan families, and are predominantly Muslim. []

This rich ethnographic report on the Afar is now available, learn about:
  • Their clan relationships, the importance of she-camels, and the feminization of pastoralism.
  • How ethical considerations of the Afar traditions and mobile money affect savings and other monetary practices among the Afar women in the market. 
  • How the Afar view state-backed currency versus livestock as “wealth”.

Excerpt: How the Afar view state-backed currency vs. livestock

“Commerce in the Afar region has been accompanied by two features of a cash economy: sharp fluctuations in the prices of commodities, and the arrival of an active class of merchants in the region. They agreed that for purchasing more tradable goods, there must be more money and favorable orientation to money as wealth. And these in turn depend on the purchasing and exchange value of money, especially for urban households. With very limited investment options, instead of depositing their money in a bank, backyard goat rearing serves as a store of productive assets and an effective strategy to avoid the fast falling purchasing power of money.

Over the years, there have been many variations in the exchange value of money compared against US dollar. The exchange value of money varies at different times, and so it is very difficult for the Afar to conceive of paper money as wealth. For example, just a quarter of a century ago, a qualified teacher with a diploma used to start his monthly salary at a rate of 347 Ethiopian birr. This amount was equivalent to 174 US dollars. Currently, a person with the same profession and qualification begins with a salary of 1663 birr, equivalent to 73 US dollars. The amount could be very insignificant if we calculate it on a daily basis, and much smaller if compared with the cost of basic commodities. For example, two decades ago, a loaf of bread that cost 0.10 birr is now 1.25 birr on average, and, according to informants, the size of the bread is also significantly reduced. These depreciations in the value of money and the rising cost of basic goods are the background for most women who reacted to the very question about money by saying, “Money has no value.”

For the Afar, livestock are self-reproducing assets that generate more value than money in the bank. In fact, conventionally, the value of wealth and assets is estimated by the size and diversity of livestock in rural villages, where maximization and diversification of livestock are the rules. Many informants asserted that they still do not consider money as wealth because of many factors, as an informant, aged 61, mentioned: 
‘The circumstances we have been living for so long were not favorable to have the initiative to consider money as our wealth and actively engage in commerce. It does not have any productive value. It never reproduces itself like our livestock do. We all prefer to own a cow or a goat instead of thousands of birr locked in the bank. The real value of money is controlled by the state, not by us.' 
The Afar’s orientation to money and banking has remained inseparable from the politics and policies of the state. Many informants cited the fact that the first branch of the commercial bank of Ethiopia was opened following the introduction of commercial farms in the area. After this, their livestock and natural resources had been destroyed. Banking and commercial farms are inseparable in the minds of many of the informants. The social meaning of money, locally known as 'genzeb', is more than a medium of exchange and wealth to be accumulated through the market, but rather is a symbol of the power of the state. Many informants echoed beliefs that money has been regarded, by national and regional governments, as a dependable means of buying political loyalties and national integration. Furthermore, as is true for many Muslim societies, the prohibition of usury has always occupied huge spaces among the Afar people. They view usury as establishing discord among clan members by dividing them into borrowers and lenders, and, consequently, destroying the bonds that have survived for generations.” 

Photo caption: Statue built to celebrate the Ethiopian millennium, just 9 years ago, in the ex-capital of the Afar, Aysaita town. Its shape is triangular, representing the Afar nation in three countries, namely Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti, commonly known as the Afar triangle. Symbolizing the hope for unity, on top of the clock (representing Ethiopia), there are two antenna projections, one pointing in the direction of Eritrea and the other to Djibouti.

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