National Geographic

The Gun: Africa and the AK

Afar region, Ethiopia, 11°36'17'' N, 41°13'35'' E

For generations, in the eyes of many outsiders, the continent and the gun often seemed synonymous: a corner of the globe in turmoil, a danger zone armed to the teeth, roiled by anarchy or imprisoned by police states. And the gun that enabled both afflictions: the AK-47.

Photograph by Paul Salopek

Photograph by Paul Salopek

What is its story in Africa—this machine gun, the Kalashnikov? It is a crude but effective killing machine consisting of some dozen moving parts. (Depending on the model.) Weight: roughly ten pounds. Easy enough for a child to operate. (Hence the child soldier.) At least 70 million in circulation around the world—millions of which have cluttered the mother continent.

In the desolate Afar Triangle of Ethiopia, where warrior traditions of cattle raiding endure, the Russian-designed rifle is everywhere. It is a brute symbol of power, independence, and control in a very tough neighborhood. Walking through the arid region, I have seen it in the hands of census takers, county administrators, prepubescent goat herders, and milky-eyed old men.

Photograph by John Stanmeyer-VII

Photograph by John Stanmeyer-VII

Most recently, near the village of Det Behari, a teenage boy, a child of 15 or 16, stepped in front of our camel caravan. He toted an AK with a fixed bayonet. But he meant no harm. He simply wished to alert us of the presence of rival Issa nomads. “Bad people,” he warned, pointing his gun to the south, across the green thread of the Awash River, where I imagined a young Issa boy standing similarly armed, rendering the same unthinking verdict on the Afar.

Photograph by John Stanmeyer-VII

Photograph by John Stanmeyer-VII

Africa is on the ascendant. It is home to six of ten fastest-growing economies in the world. Its people are just beginning to savor the benefits of the digital and green revolutions. Despite its old and shallow stereotype of instability, the continent is more peaceful today than any time since decolonization. And yet . . . its demon gun persists.



East and West funneled countless AKs into the continent during the Cold War. Countries such as China and the Ukraine continue to hawk their stockpiles here even today. (The biggest arms salesman on the globe, by a long shot, is the United States—but not to Africa.) And because the rifle is nearly indestructible, it continues to resurface, to sicken, to enfeeble the rule of law. In Mozambique many of these guns were collected and melted down at extraordinary costs. (Some were shaped by artisans into monuments.) In Sierra Leone, peacekeepers wished to dump them into the sea—but environmentalists objected. So they laboriously blew them up and buried the fragments. Even so, some people dug up AK’s shards and re-used them.

Africa grows stronger. But it can still relapse from the pox of the gun.


There are 20 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Bandkanon
    February 15, 2013

    The AK revolutionized warfare. It’s a direct descendant of the sturmgewehr 44 developed by the Germans during toward the end of World War 2. It is very easy to use and able to take much punishment from the environment. This allowed it to be adopted by resource poor people for aggression and self defense.

  2. Marilyn Wiedemann
    February 15, 2013

    Isn’t it nicely ironic, and even om forging, that the artist turns this faceless instrument into an actual face, a mask? Reminding us that there are always people behind the gun, and often in front of it as well.

  3. Marilyn Wiedemann
    February 15, 2013

    Correction–just noticed typo in my post. “Comforting” should be the word instead of the gibberish iPad provided. (It’s difficult to go back in this comment box once one writes.)

  4. Martay Keates
    February 16, 2013

    Great words again Paul,have a safe trip.
    Hope you keep “om forging”.

  5. ana
    February 16, 2013

    I giggled when I saw this hat you’re wearing. So extremely out-of-continent and ‘out-of-time’ too 😉

    • Paul Salopek
      February 23, 2013

      The Resistol 10X—bought in the Chihuahuita neighborhood of El Paso, Texas, a couple of years ago—has been Africanized by wind, sun, sand, and an accidental trampling by camels. But it’s still doing its job.

  6. Anna Alsobrook
    February 19, 2013

    What a sad and interesting realization. If I know anything about African culture, I suspect many of these AKs are resourcefully maintained with pieces of gum, chain-link necklaces, random pieces of melted shoes.

  7. AK Supporter
    February 22, 2013

    Paul get your facts straight, the AK-47 is a rifle, not a machine gun. Machine guns are typically open bolt gas operated systems, that fire ammunition in a belt configuration. Sub machine guns fire typically from a high capacity magazine, but use pistol cartridges. Also why does everyone feel a need to demonize this firearm? It’s a tool, no different from a hammer, knife, or screwdriver, which I might add have all been negligently used to commit atrocities around the world.

  8. Ardat Yakshi
    February 24, 2013

    I don’t know if the editors or author know this, but the herdsman in the second picture down isn’t carrying an AK, he’s got an M1A (or M14). Yet another example of the rock-solid firearms reporting I’ve come to expect from Big Journalism.

  9. Brooklyn
    February 27, 2013

    This journey sounds amazing i found out what the weapons are for. Your shoes arent bad but interesting way to make them. My teachers son helped with the website. so i guess in a way this makes me close to it. good luck on your journey if you stop in michigan i would love to meet you. so think about coming to allegan stop at l.e. white middle school i would love to meet you 🙂

    March 19, 2013

    The AK47 is the common weapon used by cattle rustlers in nomadic parts of eastern Africa

  11. Eliza
    March 27, 2013

    what if one gets mad 😮

  12. aubury
    March 27, 2013

    what would happen if someone got really mad?????o_0

  13. Randy Kreager
    December 4, 2013

    As long as people continue to “worship” guns – every continent will continue to experience violence and death!

  14. Azucena
    February 2, 2014

    Playful scene of kids walking along the “trekking cowboy”. The one carrying the AK47 smiles as if he was not aware it’s a real weapon.

  15. Jorn Wardeberg
    February 16, 2014

    I really think the technical discussion about AK 47 is strange and sickening. This weapon, like all military weapons was designed to threaten and kill other human beings. This weapon was never meant to be a hunting weapon, and certainly not a “tool”

  16. disneybaex
    April 28, 2014

    I knew that there were child soldiers in Africa because we learned about it in school, and even met an ex-child soldier, but I did not know that child soldiers were seen easily. I always thought that they hid, so they wouldn’t be seen. It shocked me when you said that they even encountered you to tell you about danger around the area. I hope you enjoy and keep going on this amazing adventure you are on.

  17. nick
    May 9, 2014

    that is how they protect themselves : )

  18. Vicki Jordan
    May 16, 2014

    Yes, the pox of the gun, the worst disease of humanity

  19. Addison P
    November 6, 2015

    Without guns we would still be using swords and bows. Guns are a much more efficient weapon, a tool to harm things weather for food or other reasons. I would much rather get shot than arrowed or sliced open by a sword. Death will always happen, for good reasons and for bad. The Africans that aren’t using aks are using apears. They are much safer and better off with an ak than with a spear

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