It seems that Eritrea’s Afar people have lost their sailing heritage, falling victim to the internal combustion engine and fossil fuels.
Living along the southern Red Sea coast of Africa, the Afars were made famous by the finding of the earliest human remains in the Afar Desert (once the Sea of Afar, and a Sea again one day due to rising sea levels).
For unknown millenia the Afars sailed the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Spreading their lateen rigged sails they carried out trade and social intercourse from Egypt in the north to Somalia and Kenya in the south to Oman in the east. They may well have ridden the seasonal monsoon winds even further, for the winds that blew them to Oman continue uninterupted to India and than reverse and blow back to Africa again. They probably were regular visitors to the Persian Gulf for the ancient Persians wrote of visitors from Africa.
Their ancestors were at the center of a trade route between Egypt (Kmt), Greece and Rome and India and beyond to China from ancient times from their Red Sea capital of Adulis/Punt, located near todays Port of Massawa in Eritrea.
The Great Red Sea Tsunami that completely obliterated Adulis between 600-700 AD must have almost completely wiped out the Afar towns and villages along the southern Red Sea coast, leaving for future generations little of what was once an advanced maritime based civilization.
Sailing the seas without a compass, sucessfully using the power of wind to travel thousands of kilometers and back, the Afar could have been the first to venture onto the seas and oceans. For if they were the first humans, and lived next to and harvested food from the Red Sea, wouldnt it make sense for them to be the worlds first sailors?
Today the Afars are addicted to the internal combustion engine and without diesel fuel and petrol/gasoline they are helpless to travel or catch the fish that is their sustenance. The Afars no longer sail their samboks or small skiffs, it is far easier to fire up the engine and head straight to where they want to go, no hassle, no work, just go there.
Lets face it, sailing a boat, especially a large sambok, is no easy matter. A great deal of hard work and practical scientific knowledge is required, especially if you are traveling for weeks with a cloud covered sky. No compass, no moon or stars or even sun to guide you, how do you know which direction to head? The Afars knew, but todays Afars no longer do. Thousands of years of accumulated wisdom lost in one or two generations?
I am not saying there are no Afars who can sail, Eritrean Admiral Karikari or some of the other gray headed wisemen may still be able to. But they don’t.
The younger generation of Afars can only gaze in envy when they cross paths with a sailboat, for engines can and do break down in the middle of the ocean, wouldn’t it be best to have the alternative of sailing?
Can the Afar’s sailing heritage be saved? Maybe, though it may take a rebirth by future generations to see sailing become part of the Afar culture once again.
Thomas C. Mountain is an historian and educator living and reporting from Eritrea since 2006. See thomascmountain on Facebook, thomascmountain on Twitter or best reach him at thomascmountain at g mail dot com