The Afar tradition of disability inclusiveness

Teacher Humaid Said shared his experiences of disability inclusiveness in the Afar community of Ethiopia with Tanya Caulfield of the Nossal Institute for Global Health – Anglican Overseas Aid’s partner in The Road Less Travelled project.

When he was 12, Humaid Said contracted polio and lost the use of his leg.

In many developing countries, Humaid would have been consigned to a life on the margins of his community. People with disabilities are among the poorest and most vulnerable and are often at greater risk of social exclusion.1 This, in turn, reduces their access to education and healthcare, along with opportunities to participate in decision-making and provide for themselves and their families.

But for Humaid, growing up in the rural Afar region of Ethiopia was an entirely different experience that challenges the notion that development work must always teach people about how to include people with disabilities.

The nomadic pastoralists of the Afar have a deeply embedded traditional social support network, and the concept of excluding an individual from family and community life based on their disability is perceived to be counter to Afar cultural laws.

Teacher Humaid says that in Afar culture, people with disabilities are active participants in the community.  Image: Tanya Caulfield / Nossal

Teacher Humaid says that in Afar culture, the community perception is that no one should be treated differently.
Image: Loretta Pilla

“When I was younger, I would see others participating in activities when I couldn’t, so I wished to be like them,” he explained. “But the community perception is that no one should be treated differently – there is a law in Afar tradition not to treat people differently in the family and the clan.”

Despite wishing at times that he had full use of both legs, Humaid said that in Afar culture people with disabilities are active participants in the community and are involved in different ways in socioeconomic activities.

“I can’t do physical work so there is no way people could include me but now I am a teacher, people get me to write things or read letters for them, so I am involved in other activities that I can help with or do.”

In a recent focus group discussion about disability, community members echoed the importance of inclusiveness in Afar culture.

“A person with a disability can participate in community activities, for example, a blind person can participate in community discussions to solve community problems. There is always a role for someone with a disability,” said one person in Gega.

Another explained: “Our religion says that we shouldn’t make a difference between people so there is no difference with people with disabilities … Afar culture comes together to help each other so all families and community help each other to support one another, even those with such problems.”

It was Humaid’s brother who encouraged him to pursue an education. But even though Afar culture promotes inclusiveness, he still faced plenty of challenges. Humaid said it was difficult getting to school with his stick, especially when it rained.

“In school I didn’t have many challenges but coming late to classes was a problem. I was taught by a foreign teacher so there was a language problem but this was a problem for everyone. When I came late I missed the class so this affected me and tiredness was a problem because of getting to school with the stick.

“I didn’t have a bag to put my exercise books in so it was difficult trying to carry them – they were heavy and hard to carry. Other students were coming from different areas and there were no other students from my area, so I went to school alone. People on the way would help but this was only if they happened to be there.”

When The Road Less Travelled project partner, the Afar Pastoralist Development Association (APDA), started recruiting teachers, Humaid was one of the first people to put his hand up.

“When APDA came, I had been educated up to sixth grade so I met the criteria to become a teacher. I was happy to be a teacher.

“There was one teacher in our woreda (district) who came from the town, but he didn’t come often. The teacher didn’t teach properly – and I wanted to ensure that the Afar language was taught properly. It was my calling to be a teacher.”

Support mechanisms are linked to family and clan lineage and provided through the institution of absuma, or cross-cousin marriage.

“My family can’t send me to another district because they can’t separate a person with a disability from the community and family as they are that person’s support, so I marry within the clan,” Humaid said. The absuma tradition promotes having a large family, which in turn helps people with disabilities.

A growing emphasis on disability-inclusive development is one of the most important changes in development work over the past few decades. But Humaid’s story shows that assuming disability is automatically linked to marginalisation or exclusion creates challenges for development programs working in regions where social attitudes and traditions respect and understand diversity, yet are required to provide evidence of disability-inclusive activities.

Understanding how some cultures regard disability is important for ensuring that programs are culturally appropriate and relevant.

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