Our house is a very very very fine house: Day 3 with the Afar Pastoralists

Lying on my camping mat in our grass hut, I woke up to a strange noise: a sloppy, sloshy sound. I squeezed out of the hut–bend over double, one shoulder then the other, one hip then the other. And discovered the source of the sloshing.

Sitting in the shade of her mother’s house, Asia rocks a skin churn.

Asia Hassan Ali, 6, was churning goat milk into butter. It takes about half an hour of concentrated effort to make butter. But this morning’s churning wasn’t very concentrated, as Bruce and I both wanted to try it, and then were distracted by all the milking going on.

Sisay finds a kid of his own.

The baby ruminants were in a thorn enclosure away from their mothers, getting progressively more and more panicked as their mothers were milked. When they were finally released, their cries drowned out the churning as they hurtled through the crowd looking for their mothers. Actually, quite a few of the goat kids just ran for any random goat and tried their luck. Mothers kicked the kids away, calling for their own babies. The young girls who were helping with the milking picked up the kids and carried them to the correct mothers–knowing better than the goats themselves which baby belonged to whom!

Finally the mothers and babies are reunited and the camel milking begins. Although there’s some competition.


We didn’t see many of the village women the evening before, but with the work of a new day beginning, the women emerged from the houses to milk or to get water from the river, about an hour round trip. When the river is flowing, the women will go there for water, reserving the birkat for when seasonal water is gone.

Returning from an early morning water run

I was careful to ask Ahmed Ali Dawud for permission to photograph his mother, wife, and daughters, and check with the women themselves before snapping a picture.

We were offered milk and bread for breakfast, and one of Ahmed’s wives, Hawa Lali, prepared coffee. (I should say something about names–a person has three names, their own, their father’s and their grandfathers. This is the general custom throughout Ethiopia. In most cases when I asked for the names of people I photographed I was given all three.)

It was moving day. While we were having breakfast, I was watching two girls dismantle the house we had slept in.

Asia Hassan Ali, 6, and Hawa Hamad Mayaye, 9, take down the guest house we stayed in

It was time to move. The next encampment was near a small mountain about 8 km away. If it doesn’t rain, they will stay for about 20 days. If the rains are good, maybe a month.

Hassan Halo and Adam Mohammed wrangle a recalcitrant camel
Asia Mudahib, 5, starts as the camel she is running past suddenly lurches to its feet
Hassan Halo tries to get someone’s attention
Hassan Halo and Kadiga Halo with her infant on her hip,

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Udawka Ali stands ready to lead her camels to greener pastures. Her name means “short” but she’s at least half as tall as a camel!



7 thoughts on “Our house is a very very very fine house: Day 3 with the Afar Pastoralists

  1. This is amazing! Jim says that you should get a job with National Geographic! I agree that the photos are spectacular, but your comments and your experience also really get my attention and bring back a variety of wonderful memories! I love that you this opportunity!!


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