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Old 7th December 2020, 09:56 PM   #1
Yvain's Avatar
Join Date: May 2017
Location: France
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Default Some considerations regarding the Gile - Billao hybrid

Some times ago, I was lucky enough to acquire a specimen of this very uncommon type of knife, and decided to do some research on its origins, here is the result.

Those of you already familiar with Somalian weapons might indeed notice something weird : while the hilt is characteristic of some billao (from the Somali ethnic group), the blade is, however, definitely similar to those seen on the oldest gile/jile (from the Afar).

We could argue that it is the product of a later pairing of a gile blade on a billao hilt, however, no traces of such re-mounting can be found on this knife. Moreover, this isn’t the only example of this hybrid type, and at least another one as been presented on this forum : . Finally, and, perhaps, most importantly, we do have one contemporary source depicting this hybrid type. Indeed, one example of those knives can be seen on a postcard (see second picture and detail crop), which, thankfully provides us a lot of information.

We can learn, indeed, that the postcard was edited by K. Arabiantz in Djibouti. Although I didn’t found much on Arabiantz, the Quai Branly museum gives us the information that he was both a photograph and an editor between 1905 and 1920. I was able to find another version of this postcard on the Boston museum of fine arts website : , bearing the inscription : “Djibouti, le 3 juin 1909 / Paul Gallot”. From this, we can learn that the picture must have been taken between 1905 and 1909. Everything on the postcard being written in French, and the presence of a stamp reading : “IMPR. / REUNIES / DE / NANCY” (associated printers of Nancy), let us know that Arabiantz was most likely French, or at least working with French associates. This information is extremely useful, as it considerably reduces the geographical scope of our research. Indeed, the territory controlled by the French in Somalia was actually really small compared to the territories occupied by the Afar and the Somali. It is thus likely that this picture was taken in Djibouti itself or its surrounding (aka the “Côte Française des Somalis”, as it was called at the time), as there wouldn’t have been any reason for a postcards photograph to step out of the security offered by the colonial powers.

So, we do know when and where this type of knife was used, but the most important question remains : who used them ? Well, the men pictured on the postcard are described as “Somali warriors”, which actually doesn’t gives us much information. Sure, they aren’t Afar (at least according to the editor of the postcard), but considering the multitude of Somali clans and sub-clans, this isn’t telling us much. That is, until we take a look at the geographical disposition of the clans and ethnic groups of this area.

Indeed, as can be seen on the map attached (fourth picture, courtesy of the CIA, yes, no kidding …, the main Somali clan around Djibouti are the Issa, neighbors, as you can see, of the Afar. Things thus are getting more precise, and we might be looking at a couple of Issa warriors.

Still, that doesn’t explain why an Issa, that is, a Somali, would use a knife whose blade is directly inspired by an Afar (thus, not Somali) dagger.

Indeed, Afar and Issa are often portrayed as mortal enemies, and one only need to look at the geopolitical situation of Djibouti, Somalia, and Ethiopia in our days to verify the veracity of this statement. In fact, the rivalry between Afar and Issa is often described as being hundreds of years old. In those circumstances, it is indeed difficult to imagine how cultural exchanges could have developed enough in a state of perpetual warfare for a weapon type to transfer from a group to another.

The solution to this problem might be found in “Anatomy of Issa-Afar violence” by Muauz Guidey Alemu. In this article, the author analyses the roots and the evolution of the Afar – Issa conflict, pointing out two extremely interesting points. One, the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, though short-lived, had the effect to bring into the country large stockpiles of guns and ammunition, that were used both by the Afar and the Issa. In effect, the clashes between the two groups became more deadly with the use of modern weapons of war, lasted longer, and became more violent, with strategical goals of lasting occupation of territories, or even outright elimination of the other group. Two, the fact that the Issa were loyal to the Italian, while the Afar engaged in active resistance furthered the divide between the two ethnic groups.

As it as been often observed, violence between ethnic groups doesn’t stop at borders, and the worsening of the relation between Afar and Issa spread in all the neighbouring countries were those two groups were present. The issue even worsened when it became linked to the conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia in 1963 and 1977, when Somalia attempted to invade Ethiopia on the basis of the Pan-Somalian concept. Today, the deep, entrenched, hatred between the two ethnic groups leaves very little hope in a reconciliation.

However, and as demonstrated by Muauz Guidey Alemu, this was not always the case, and the all-out war situation between the Afar and the Issa seems to be a rather recent development, created by European colonization attempts, and fueled by modern day nationalism. The original conflict between the Issa and the Afar must have been way closer to the occasional clashes for resources that are to be expected between two nomadic, pastoral, populations, interspersed with periods of peace and exchanges between the two groups, especially in the area of Djibouti. This is in fact suggested in the article “Pour une histoire des Arabes de Djibouti, 1896 – 1977”(For an history of the Arabs of Djiouti, 1896 – 1977), in which Alain Rouaud outlines the fact that in the 1930’s the Issa of Djibouti usually associated with the local Afar in their protests against the arrival of outsiders : Yemenis, or even non-Issa Somalis !

With those information in mind, this humble knife seems to be way more than what it looks. It is indeed a testimony of the occasional peaceful exchanges between the Afar and the Issa, now long forgotten in the long, bitter, conflict between the two groups. It is also a symbol of the deleterious effects of colonization and nationalism, and a proof that conflicts in Africa can’t be reduced to mere tribal warfare.

I will be sure to preserve this witness of an other time with as much care as I can.


Anyway, I hope you found this interesting ! I’m in no way a specialist of African geopolitics, and I’m sorry if I misrepresented or over simplified any issue, feel free to correct me if that’s the case !

I added some references below, although I didn’t list every article, recent or less recent, documenting the conflict between the Issa and the Afar, as there is A LOT of them. Search for it in google news and you will find plenty example.

On the more academic side of things, and if you wish to research the matter, be aware that, as the conflict between Afar and Issa is an ongoing political issue, there seems to be a lot of propaganda and disinformation online, from one side or the other. I even found a (very) dubious and biased article published by a predatory journal on the subject ! So keep that in mind and be critical of your sources.


Another billao/gile hybrid (top), presented with a billao (middle), and a gile (bottom) :

A postcard published by K. Arabiantz, with some information regarding his activity :

A dated example of the postcard showing the two Issa warriors :

Ethnic groups and clans distribution in Somali and Djibouti (go to “thematic maps” and “Ethnic groups, from Somalia and Djibouti map, CIA 1977) :

ROUAUD Alain, “Pour une histoire des Arabes de Djibouti”, in Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines, n°146, pp. 319-348, 1997 :

ALEMU Muauz Gidey, “Anatomy of Issa – Afar Violence”, in Journal of Developing Societies, n°33 (3), pp. 1-18, 2017 :
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