Djibouti Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Djibouti is not one of the larger nations of the world, but it is located in a very historically significant spot. In this lesson we'll talk about the ethnic groups of Djibouti and see what this reveals about their connections to this region.


Ever heard of the nation of Djibouti? Not everyone has. It isn't one of the largest in the world, nor the most populous. In fact, it's about the size of the state of New Jersey, with only a tenth of the population. But, it's located in a pretty important place. Called the Horn of Africa, this section of Africa is where the Red Sea, Arabian Sea, and Indian Ocean meet. So, historically this was a major center for international trade. That's had an impact on this nation's population. Oh, and one last thing: it's pronounced Jee-boo-Tee. The D is silent. I know you've been wondering.


Ethnic Groups: The Somali

Djibouti has a total population of around 828,000 people, so it's not overly populous. Researchers estimate that the region was settled not long after the Nile Valley, and that the first settlers in Djibouti may have come from Egypt. However, today the majority of people in Djibouti came from somewhere else in Africa: ethnically, roughly 60% of the total population of Djibouti identifies as being Somali.

Overall, this is unsurprising. Somalia is just south of Djibouti, and the Somali ethnic group is native to the Horn of Africa. Thanks to Islamic trade routes that ran across the medieval world via the Indian Ocean, Somali merchants in the Horn of Africa grew pretty wealthy, and embraced Islam partly due to its importance in maintaining trade relations with the Arabian Peninsula. In fact, Somali merchants in what is now Djibouti may have been amongst the first people within the continent of Africa to embrace Islam.

The majority of Djibouti is ethnically Somali

Now, while most of Djibouti is Somali, that's not the end of the story. Somali ethnic groups are clan-based. The overall clan to which Djibouti Somalis belong is called the Dir, which harkens back to an ancient founder of that name who likely had ethnic ties to Saudi Arabia. Dir himself was said to be the uncle of another man named Esa Madoba, the founder of the sub-clan called the Issa. Technically, most of the Somalis in Djibouti belong to the Issa sub-clan, although a fair number also belong to the Gadabuursi, which is another subgroup of the Dir.

The Afar People

Somalis make up most of Djibouti's population, however the nation does have one sizeable ethnic minority. The Afar ethnic group make up about 35% of the total population. Historically, the Afar are likely the descendants of people who entered the Horn of Africa from the Arabian Peninsula around 300 CE. So, yes, they came from…afar. Sorry, couldn't resist.

The Afar were traditionally a semi-nomadic society that was organized into loose sultanates, or kingdoms under a sultan. Today, the Afar people of Djibouti still recognize many of their traditional sultanates, although this is more ceremonial than anything else. Many Afar today are still semi-nomadic pastoralists as well, herding sheep, goats, and camels across rural parts of Djibouti and neighboring Ethiopia. They are also predominantly Muslim, but they do speak a different language than Djibouti's Somali population. The Afar speak an Afro-Asiatic language called Saho-Afar, which is from a completely different language family than the Cushitic language of the Issa Somali population.

The Afar people are the largest ethnic minority of Djibouti

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