Who are the Afar people?


Paul Salopek speaks to students in Asayita, Ethi­o­pia, about the Out of Eden project. “Ethiopian kids would give almost anything to finish their schooling,” he says. (John Stanmeyer/For National Geographic)
July 26, 2013

At the start of his journey in Ethi­o­pia, Paul Salopek met many Afar people. The Afar are cattle-herding nomads, people who move from place to place. Writer Kem Knapp Sawyer e-mailed Salopek questions about Afar children.

How are schools in the Rift Valley of Ethiopia different from schools in the United States?

Salopek: One school in Ethiopia was built entirely of sticks. Light shot through thousands of cracks in the walls. It looked like a strong wind would blow the classrooms down. This was intentional: It was a temporary structure designed for the children of the Afar. The teachers sometimes strapped a chalkboard to a camel and followed the roving families to different pastures, teaching on the hoof.

A school of sticks, a school of concrete and glass: It doesn’t matter. The biggest differences I see are motivational. The Ethiopian kids would give almost anything to finish their schooling. They are driven. They perform schoolwork for long hours.

Do girls face challenges that boys don’t?

Girls face many challenges in rural societies around the globe. They often perform a lot of the domestic chores, and their parents hesitate to send them to school. So many girls don’t have the same educational opportunities as boys. This is a mistake on the parents’ part: Educating young girls is a time-tested way to climb out of poverty. Many countries now realize this: Educating the whole population (instead of just half) is an engine for prosperity.

What games do children play?

Kids make their own soccer balls out of plastic bags, rags, twine. Animals tend to be playmates, too — baby goats are carried around. Work is often incorporated into pure play — boys and girls goof off as they herd their animals across the desert, poking sticks into lizard holes, throwing stones.

The nomads of the Rift Valley love their livestock — one might even say they adore their animals. Songs are composed to favorite camels or cows. But the type of relationships with pets seen in the richer north of the world — cats, dogs — is rarely seen.

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