And the Ugugumo wanted to liberate this land. What was there to be freed, I wondered? Why would anyone fight over this hellacious place? And how had it come to have such a hold on these people?
The salt merchants I'd asked the day before looked baffled by my question. "It's the salt," they said, hoisting blocks the size of encyclopedias onto their camels. "It's our corn; it's our gold. Of course we would fight anyone who tried to take it."
He'd met the merchants at the salt mines that lie beyond Hamed Ela and border Lake Asele in the heart of the northern Danakil. More than 300 feet below sea level, the salt lake and plains are one of the lowest points in Africa (the absolute lowest, at 512 feet, lies farther southeast in the Danakil at Lake Assal in Djibouti). Here, teams of Muslim Afar and Christian Tigrayans from the Ethiopian Highlands gather daily ten months out of the year to mine the salt and ferry it by camel, mule, and donkey to markets in Ethiopia's mountains and beyond into Sudan. In the past the salt blocks (called amolé) were used through-out Ethiopia as money. Although hard cash has replaced the salt, the trade itself remains the main livelihood of the northern Afar, and they guard their treasure—as well as every grain of sand in their desert—like the Argonauts of old.
The Afar make sure that no one robs them of their salt by studiously overseeing the mines and caravans. Every merchant must stop at the salt-tax collector's hut in the dusty enclave of Hamed Ela on the edge of the salt flats and pay a fee for each camel, mule, and donkey in his caravan. At the mines, every job—from levering the salt from the earth to running the outdoor tea kitchens—is assigned and managed by an Afar. Theirs is a strict monopoly, and it has made them proud and dictatorial. They do not hesitate for a minute to let you know that once you set foot in their salt kingdom, you are subject to their commands.
We found that out in Berahile, which sits about midway up the escarpment that rises above the desert. The government offices of the northern Afar region—a semi-autonomous part of Ethiopia—are located in Berahile, the main market town for the Afar caravans, which is presided over by the turbaned and dignified Ali Hassan Bore. Before venturing to the mines, Carsten, Zelalem, and I paid Ali a visit, joining him and his retainers on the veranda of one of the squat government buildings. In his 50s, Ali had the bearing of a sultan. He wore a beige polo shirt and green plaid sarong with a wide leather belt; a short dagger was discreetly tucked into it. Over his shoulder he displayed a not-so-discreet, but holstered, Colt .45-caliber pistol. His front teeth were chipped to points, crocodile-style, a cosmetic embellishment that Afar men and women consider beautiful. Ali sat soldier-straight in his chair, while his assistants crowded close by, some squatting on their heels, others leaning against a wall. Like Ali, they were all heavily armed, and they listened carefully to our request to visit the salt mines; their eyes were narrowed and suspicious as they squinted against the sun.