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Djibouti - People

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 810,000 (July 2014 estimate), Djibouti is inhabited by two major cultural groups: Somali and Afar (also referred to as the Danakil). Despite historic rivalry, both groups are Muslim, Cushitic-speaking; have nomadic traditions; and share close cultural affinities. Djiboutians are traditionally individualistic, independent, and hospitable. They are friendly toward Americans and Europeans.

Eighty percent of Djibouti’s population is urban, and most people live in the Djibouti City. Population density is about 19 persons per square kilometer. Children and elderly persons constitute half the population.

Djibouti’s primary cultural groups are the Issa and the Afar. The Issa resides in Djibouti, Somalia, and Ethiopia. It constitutes 60 percent of Djibouti’s population and lives mainly in northern Djibouti. The Afar is an ethnic group that resides in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. It comprises 35 percent of Djibouti’s population and lives mainly in southern Djibouti. Though tensions are high between the Issa and Afar, the groups are linguistically, culturally, and economically similar. Both speak Cushitic languages, are Muslim, and have nomadic lifestyles. In addition to the Issa and Afar, Europeans, Arabs, and Ethiopians live in Djibouti.

The Somali (Issa), who also speak an Eastern Cushitic language, are concentrated in the capital and the southeastern quarter of the country. Their social identity is determined by clan-family membership. More than half of the Somali belongs to the Issa; whose numbers exceed those of the Afar. The Issa, of the Dir clan-family, comprise about 40 percent of the total population, while the Afars form roughly 35 percent.

Somali are predominately members of the Gadaboursi and Issaq clans. Somali people of Africa occupy all of Somalia, a strip of Djibouti, the southern Ethiopian region of Ogaden, and part of northwestern Kenya. Except for the arid coastal area in the north, the Somalis occupy the nomad regions of plains, coarse grass, and streams. They speak a language of the Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic (formerly Hamito-Semitic) family.

The Somalis are primarily nomadic herdsmen who, because of intense competition for scarce resources, have been extremely individualistic and frequently involved in blood feuds or wars with neighboring tribes and peoples. Their conception of Islam is vague, and religious practices are dominated by the worship of ancestral saints.

With the townspeople and agriculturists of the urban centers, especially along the coast of the Horn of Africa, where intense and prolonged intimacy with the Islamic tradition has rendered the culture highly organized and religiously orthodox and where geographic position has turned the townspeople into commercial middlemen between the Arab world and the nomadic tribes of the interior.

The Afars are descendants of Arabian immigrants in the third century B.C. They are the first of the present inhabitants of Ethiopia to perpetuate their pastoral life into fullscale nomadism. They inhabit northeastern Ethiopia and in Djibouti, where, with the Issas, they are the dominant people. Denakil is the name used by surrounding tribes to identify them. Amharic Adal, Arabic Denakil people of the Horn of Africa, speak Saho, a language of the Eastern Cushitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic (formerly Hamito-Semitic) family.

The Afars' subsistence economy depends on livestock, especially goats, some camels, and more rarely, cattle. There are some exceptions, such as fishermen in the coastal areas and agriculturists in the Assau Oasis. The Afars also mine and export salt.

Proud, highly individualistic, and feared by outsiders, the Afars are organized in patrilineal kin groups. Cooperation in larger units, such as subtribe or tribe, is induced only by warfare against other tribes or neighboring peoples. Two distinct classes, the Asaimara ("Red Men") and Adoimara ("White Men"), constitute the landowning, titled nobles and the lower-class tenants, respectively.

French and Arabic are the official languages of Djibouti. French is used in business and political affairs. In addition, most Djiboutians speak Somali and Afar languages of Cushitic origin. Educated Afars and Somalis speak French. The Djiboutian Somali dialect is common in Somalia and used in broadcasts.

The Djiboutian family averages six or seven children. A marriage is considered as much a union of two families as of two individuals. Divorce is an accepted and common part of the culture. Traditionally, Muslim men may marry up to four women. Each wife raises her own children, and her household is in charge of a specific task, such as agricultural work or tending to livestock.

Polygamy is common among the Issa people, but Afar men usually have only one wife. Adult status for the Afars and Issas requires a genital operation, with or without ceremony, usually in childhood. For Afars and Issas, boys are circumcised and girls undergo clitoridectomy, a practice designed to ensure virginity.

Djiboutians respect their elders and the dignity of others. With their nomadic tradition, Djiboutians do not forge strong relationships with neighbors. Clan membership determines individual social relationships and social standing. Courage in combat also determines status for men.

Djiboutian nomads are generally undernourished herders with few possessions and weak livestock. They live in branch-framed, transportable huts called toukouls that are covered with woven mats or boiled bark pulled into fine strands and plaited; they are transported on camels.

Good-quality urban housing is in short supply. Most urban and rural housing consists of one-room huts, thatched roofs and walls made of wood poles plastered with a mixture of mud and cow dung. Newer urban structures are built with concrete blocks. Many urban dwellings experience flooding, as they are built on land below sea level. Rural area residents lack municipal water and sewage treatment facilities. Rural houses are overcrowded, and animals typically live in close proximity to inhabitants. International aid programs subsidize government housing.

The state provides primary and secondary education, but all higher education is private. Djibouti has an average literacy rate compared to the rest of Africa: 46 percent of the population is literate; 60 percent of males is literate; and 32 percent of females is literate. Population 460,000 (2001 est.)

The government has overall responsibility for education. When citizens are 6 years-old, they begin primary education, which lasts for 6 years. Secondary education, usually starting at the age of 12, lasts for 7 years and consists of an initial 4-year cycle followed by a 3-year cycle.

Because Djibouti does not have a university, students who participate in higher education study abroad, mainly in France. In 1995, 26 percent of the school-age population was enrolled in primary and secondary schools, while 32 percent was enrolled in primary school. The government’s total education expenditure that year was 10.3 percent. Approximately 36,220 students attended primary school and 11,860 students attended general secondary and vocational schools (including teacher training).

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Page last modified: 25-11-2015 16:18:19 ZULU