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Published: October 2005

Africa's Danakil Desert

Volcano Light

Cruelest Place on Earth

Baking temperatures, wastelands of salt—it's hard to imagine a more brutal landscape than Africa's Danakil Desert. But for the Afar people this is a home to die for.

By Virginia Morell
Photograph by Carsten Peter

"I have news," Edris Hassan announced gravely. Seating himself on a boulder above Ethiopiaís Saba River in the northern Danakil Desert, he propped his Kalashnikov assault rifle beside him. Edris was tall for an Afar, one of the pastoralist peoples who roam this harsh land, and built like what he was: a warrior and militiaman. For our small party of travelers he was also guard and guide, his reputation and weapon smoothing our way through the Afar, considered among the fiercest people in the world.

In the town of Hamed Ela, while waiting to join the salt-trading caravan we were now traveling with, I'd learned from Edris that news, or dagu as the Afar call it, is a weighty subject, something to be pondered and assessed. It is more than a bush telegraph or village gossip, more than the latest headlines. Instead, in a ceremony of handshakes and hand kisses, the Afar pass along recitations of all they have seen and heard, a poetic litany that can bealmost Homeric in its detail and precision. It is through dagu that they learn of any newcomers to their desert realm, of the conditions of water holes and grazing lands, of missing camels and caravans. They learn of weddings and funerals, of new alliances and betrayals, of the latest battles fought, and the conditions of the trail ahead. They learn about what has changed in a changeable land, and in the world at large, and from all this they pick a course of action. Those who pay the closest attention to the news, they say, may go on to survive, Inshallah—God willing.

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