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Afar Triangle, Ethiopia, 10°32'35'' N, 40°22'37'' E

The concept of the Web arrived long ago in the nomad strongholds of Africa. Fast, reliable information is a survival tool—not a luxury—when it comes to locating scarce water holes or avoiding roving cattle raiders.

In the pale thorn country of Ethiopia, the Afar herders have formalized a system of news-sharing called dagu. Anyone walking through the landscape can be stopped and buttonholed for information in a ritualized verbal exchange. Participation is obligatory. Phrases such as, “how is it?” (wagari) and “it is clear” (sahali), are repeated in long cycles between more substantive questions, until the participants squeeze each other dry of details. The word me’enahai signals the end of transmission. To outside ears, it can sound like two computers “talking” in binary code.

La’ad Howeni and Ahmed Alema Hessan swap news in the Afar badlands. When pastoralists meet, information flows. Photograph by Paul Salopek

“It’s more accurate than our Internet,” said Kassa Negussie Getachew, an Ethiopian anthropologist who’s written a book on Afar culture. “You have to tell things exactly in a dagu. Whether a man has a scar on the left side of his forehead, for example. This will be passed precisely through many people. Even your walk will be part of the dagu exchanges all the way to Djibouti.”

Click to hear an Afar dagu exchange.

There are 12 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Bob Beck
    February 3, 2013

    This is fascinating. The purpose is different, but the formalized method seems a bit like that of the bards who memorize very long poems and transmit them orally.

  2. Margy
    February 4, 2013

    Thank you once more…and I see that Alema is once again wearing his plastic sandals.

  3. kangpokpi
    February 4, 2013

    all across the sahel and the sahara, herders of all ethnicities pass information this way, along a living network. they know far more accurately than from any weather forcast where the grass is growing, where the rain is falling or failing, where the natural ponds and wells are being re-generated after the dry season: (or which ones are still producing during the dry season); and also what are the going prices for animals at the various market points (usually cross-roads) and information about community life. your point about accuracy is very well taken, but i have learned to take some of the more “gossip” type information with a grain of salt…

  4. Linda
    February 4, 2013

    Thank you again! So interesting. Traveled to Mali 10 years ago and found the language between the people like a song~~

  5. lorna
    February 5, 2013

    I love the sound of other languages ..thanks for uploading the dagu and thank your guides for allowing us to hear them

  6. Raju Kane
    February 5, 2013

    One suggestion. In each of your posts, along with the latitude and longitude can you also mention the distance you have walked from the beginning of the journey? Would be fascinating to keep track.

    • Paul Salopek
      February 9, 2013

      Good idea, Raju. I will propose it to the site curators. In the
      meantime, you can see the dispatches visualized on a map at
      http://www.outofedenwalk.com. Many thanks.

  7. Deraj Deraj
    November 24, 2013

    To my great delight I’ve recently discovered Paul Salopek’s wonderful blog and the related sites which post and repost the details of his wanderings… Wonderful! and FRUSTRATING. After an hour of searching, I can find no easy way of following Pauls journey step by step from the beginning. If I am not utterly missing the obvious, then WHERE??? is the ARCHIVE – ORGANIZED BY DATE OF POST AND/OR BY DATE OF EXPERIENCE…. IF you’ve left it out on purpose, then why? why? why? when it would make it so much easier for the (I suspect) thousands of us who are following Paul’s trip. Please give us the tools we need. (Pretty please?) —– Deraj – Vancouver British Columbia, Canada

  8. akl
    November 24, 2013

    Deraj:
    Yes, the site is not designed well in this respect. There is no easy way to go straight to the first post and read forward. I clicked “Previous Posts” and then just kept incrementing the page number in the URL until I reached the beginning (page 6). Then read the posts in reverse order.

  9. Jim Kasper
    December 30, 2013

    Paul,

    This update gets me thinking about how you get along linguistically on the trail. How readily do your ears keen to a language? How swiftly your tongue to the strange sounds and syllables? At the human pace of 3 miles per hour, are you finding that your ability to “dagu” improves as surely as you march forward? Or, are you already well versed in the languages you meet with as you move from dialect to dialect? Just curious.

    -Jim

  10. Azucena
    January 15, 2014

    Hi Paul,
    What’s the background noise in the dagu exchange? Is it the sound of people walking?

  11. Sally Ann Wyeth Barr
    February 1, 2014

    Deraj and Aki,

    I’ve been able to follow from the beginning by going to http://www.outofedenwalk.nationalgeographic.com and clicking on the archive at the top of the page. : D

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