by Andrea Semplici

danakil salt lakesAhmed Ela is a terminal. It is the harbor for the caravans we have followed through the canyon. A deep valley receives the people of the dromedaries.

The miners watch the camel drivers move between the huts. It is a long catwalk. at least three thousand arrives every week, say the laborers, who make a rough estimation of the work awaiting them.

Nothing has changed overtime. The blacksmiths have forged the blades of the godama, small strangely shaped axes. The quarrymen have whetted them on smooth stones. Tomorrow will be a workday. tomorrow they will go to the salt plain to carve the salt.

This is work in the Danakil. Its desperate tenacity.  At night each caravan will be assigned a team of cutters through a lottery with sticks and drawings. In the morning, in a dawn which will not give way to the daylight, the caravans set off for their new journey. In the heart of the salt plain.

The caravans form a single row. They merge with the horizon.  They cause the horizon to waver gently. the row of dromedaries is a magnificent spectacle.  They move slowly. They put on an air of stoic resignation, at the same time suggestive of a calm strength. They walk. It is their job.

The miners walk in front of them, the cutters carry long sticks which they will use to lift the salt crust. The mine built with thousands of aligned hexagons about ten kilometers from Ahmed Ela, breaks the geometry of the plain and forms an irregularity in the desert.

And this is the day’s work. The mine is a burning hive of men, sweat, stretched tendons and eyes that already sense the fatigue. The men are busy bees. Everybody is busy. Nobody hesitates. Only the camels roar, forced to stand still at the edge of this salt seaquake.

The camel drivers unite the rope, watch the cutters at work, count the salt blocks as they are stacked and start to tie them together. it is a desperate and orderly chore. The miners, the fokolo, scratch the salt crust with the blade of the axe, make a sign cut with precision, use the blade as if it was a wedge. The sticks are leavers.

This is really a hard work. You need to be strong to be able to lift up a block of salt. Three men shout to encourage each other. I see leg muscles stretched to rupture. I see how the efforts exhaust the arms. Eventually the crust comes off in a crash. It is upside down. The desert is upside down the surface of the salty sea has been uplifted.

It is a big slab, a crude shapeless polygon. The miners catch their breath. They lean on their sticks but their eyes already search another corner of the quarry. The work continues.

The slab is passed on the hedele, the afar cutters. There is an unwritten rule on this assembly line: the miners are in general Christians from the highlands while the cutters are people from the Danakil, Muslims. Nobody controls the entire work chain. There cannot be inequality in this tremendous fatigue. Wisdom at the end of the world.

The hedele are skilled workers. They have the gift, the habit, the patience of their know-how. It is their task to shape the shapeless. They transform the salt slab into tiles of different sizes, in ganfur. Their work in the middle of this desert is a kind of chiseling.

They are accomplished craftsmen, these cutters. they sit on their hills, a position which is unbearable for white men. They squat for hours, they hold their axe in a firm grip, they raise and lower their arms at a steady pace, without hesitation, continuously. there are no mistakes.

They are able to sculpt over one hundred ganfur in one day. Sometimes more. They work tirelessly in the sun which becomes merciless with the passing of the hours. Only a rag on the head protects them from the sun. The skin of their injured, wrinkled hands is as thin as tissue paper and often breaks but the fingers still have the force of pilers.

Multi- colored socks protect their feet. The salt corrodes the skin and they look for some pointless protection. The more fortunate ones have a pair of glasses. Eyes, hands and feet carry the marks of this extremely hard work.

On the way back the load of the dromedary is a geometric equilibrium. Fifteen ganfur on each side. The animal protests about the weight. it roars but knows that it must get up like a puppet drawn by strings. The camel driver swings his arm, points in a direction and the small caravan sets off. it is already midday, the heat is merciless, but they have to move.

The journey starts again. The tenaciousness of walking treading in the footsteps left in the morning. Some cutters indulge in a moment of rest. There is even a cafe in the mine. A wall made of salt protects a fire where a teakettle simmers.

The caravan is already far away. There is something epic in this endless coming and going, a place which appears to be at the end of the world, but would deserve to be at the center of the world.

Eskinder Hailu - Manager, Highway Tours

Eskinder Hailu
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