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Africa's Danakil Desert
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Africa's Danakil Desert

By Virginia Morell
Photographs by Carsten Peter

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The negotiations lasted a full afternoon, but at the end Ali granted us permission to enter the land of the Afar and to stay in Hamed Ela until we joined the caravans. We were their guests, Ali said. They would help us, but he made it clear that we would have to abide by their rules. He then assigned Edris to protect us and make sure we did what we were told. Which is why now, in the wee hours of the morning, we couldn't very well say to Edris that we were simply going to continue our journey with the salt caravans without him. Besides, if the Ugugumo rebels were in the canyon, as Edris claimed, they knew full well that we were heading their way. We were, after all, part of the dagu, and news of us had undoubtedly been broadcast across the desert.

"I don't believe this story about the Ugugumo," said Carsten, as we pondered our dilemma. "None of the other caravans are stopping, and they must have heard the same news. We should find a new guide and go on."

I too wanted to continue, but I wondered what chance we had of finding a guide at 3 a.m., or of finding anyone to disagree with Edris's decision. Zelalem suspected Edris was simply tired, or that he just wanted more money, so he took him aside and gently began to cajole him.

I took advantage of this enforced pause to rest my eyes. The previous morning we'd gone to the salt mines to meet the traders who'd agreed to let us join their caravans, then waited for them to load their animals with the blocks of salt. Just after noon, the merchants had urged their heavily loaded camels to their feet and turned them toward Hamed Ela.

The camels, linked nose-to-tail, crunched in a long line across a landscape that glistened and rippled like pack ice in the Arctic. Salt stretched away from us in all directions, but no one looked at it. Animals and men alike pointed their noses and eyes to the northwest, where the highlands rose like a rumpled fortress on the horizon. Over there, far beyond Hamed Ela, was Berahile; over there was rest.

Our own small party had stopped in Hamed Ela long enough to hire mules to ride behind the camels to the first night's campsite, nothing more than an empty stretch of rock and sand. Like the caravanners, we slept in a chill, howling wind for about three hours, then broke camp just after midnight. When I asked some of them how many times they'd made this journey, they'd laughed, "Always." There was never a time, they said, when they were not walking across the desert.

"We can go now," Zelalem said softly. I came to with a start. "Edris says we can go with the caravans. He just wanted us to hire his friend so he has someone else with him." We already had hired another of Edris's friends in Hamed Ela, so we chuckled at this explanation.

"Why did he warn us about the Ugugumo, if that's all he wanted?" I asked. Zelalem shrugged. "He still says they are there ahead of us. But he says he and his friend will protect us from them—the 'enemies.'" Zelalem smiled. "That's what he calls them, enemies."

A few straggling traders were heading up the sandy riverbed with their camels, and we mounted our mules and fell in behind them. Edris took his position at the head of our party, walking with determined strides into the narrow darkness of the canyon, his Kalashnikov balanced across his shoulders. He would keep an eye out for the enemy, he promised. And then he began to sing.

Little is known about the origins of the Afar people, but linguists classify their language as Cushitic, deriving from an ancient tongue of the Ethiopian Highlands. Their wandering way of life has left no obvious archaeological record, yet scholars know from 2,000-year-old stone inscriptions in the highlands that nomads traveled with (and taxed and harassed) camel caravans in the Danakil Desert even then.

Today the Afar regard themselves as one ethnic group, but geopolitically their population of about three million is divided among three countries: Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti. It is a territorial reality that has split clans and families, spawning rebellious groups like the Ugugumo. Regardless of which country they live in, the Afar share a general lifestyle, traveling across the desert with their livestock.

"We are the people who move," one woman said. "From the beginning that has been our way."

Nor is there really any other way to survive in Afar Land, or Cafar-barro as the Afar call it, particularly if you depend on a diet of camel and goat milk as they do. Less than seven inches of rain falls each year in the Danakil, often in a sporadic manner, and the only fertile soil lies far to the south of the Lake Asele salt mines, along the Awash River, one of the unusual rivers on Earth that never make it to the sea. It sinks instead into another salt lake on the Ethiopian-Djibouti border. Aside from the garden strip of the Awash, the rest of the desert is as dry and sterile as a Martian plain.

Yet the Danakil is also a creative, hyperactive geologic wonder, its volcanoes, fissures, faults, hot springs, and steaming geysers all part of the birthing process of a new ocean. The Earth's crust is separating here, tearing apart along three deep rifts geologists call the Afar Triple Junction. One day in the very distant future (some scientists have calculated about a hundred million years), when the rifting is complete, the salty waters of the Red Sea will spill across Cafar-barro, erasing forever the camel trails of the Afar.

"That will happen if it is God's will," Ma'ar Mohammed, the chief salt-tax collector in Hamed Ela, had shrugged. He was a tall, thin man with sharp features and a beaked nose, and he had a wad of qat leaves, a mild stimulant, stuck in his cheek. We'd rented a palm-thatch house from Ma'ar while we explored the salt plains and mines near Lake Asele before joining the salt caravans, and some afternoons he stopped by to talk about Afar history and culture.

"Only Allah knows these things," Ma'ar said on the possibility of waves lapping across the Danakil. Like his fellow Afar, Ma'ar is a Muslim. Islam seldom came up as a topic, but the Afar clearly regard their faith as the one true religion. "But there are things a man can do, and even though we Afar are men of peace, we should fight for our unity like Osama." Despite the remoteness of the Danakil, the Afar know all about Osama bin Laden. "There is only one Afar," Ma'ar continued, raising his index finger high in the air, "not three. We must fight to be whole again."

But few outside observers expect the Afar to be reunited—at least not in the near future. They are very territorial, even between clans, and inward-looking, not outward. Although they're well known as determined fighters (despite Ma'ar's disclaimer), who don't think twice about killing their enemies, they don't have a history of strong leaders, men capable of holding their clans together in some common cause, largely because of fierce rivalries among their clans.

It was that lack of leadership that Ma'ar fulminated against. Getting an Afar to fight and die for the Danakil, for Cafar-barro, or for their clan was the easy part. The desert may have struck me as hellish, but for them it was their gift from Allah—land and grass and water that gave them life and that they, in turn, would lay down their lives for. And, indeed, young Afar men were dying for it regularly; we heard of battles and killings throughout our six-week stay in the desert. In that context Ma'ar's reference to Osama bin Laden made sense since the Afar associate him with bravery and aggressiveness, two skills an Afar man needs in quantity. In fact, strength of mind and body were really all anyone required for survival in the desert, Edris and Ma'ar had told me. For them it was perfectly natural to live in a land of firebrick-red and black stones, where it hadn't rained in over a year, where every Afar had lost most of his camels because of the severe drought, and where any living green thing popped out at you like the Hope Diamond. There was really nothing to it, except that you must be brave and you must fight. "In our history we have always been fighters," Edris said one afternoon, joining in Ma'ar's discussion. "We live in the desert, and because it's a hard land, we must fight, even though killing is against the law of Allah. And when we fight, we use whatever we have: guns and knives, rocks and sticks. We will even bite with our teeth. You use everything when you fight against your enemies."
It was that kind of ferocity and tenacity that by the 20th century had European explorers almost reflexively combining the word "castration" with the Afar, as if any man unlucky enough to fall into their hands was certain to lose his manhood. "I was prepared to accept the fact that they would kill a man or boy with as little compunction as I would shoot a buck," wrote the British explorer Wilfred Thesiger about his 1933 expedition along the Awash River. "Invariably" the victim was then "castrated. . . . It was impossible to exaggerate the importance that the [Afar] attached to this practice, rating as they did a man's prowess by the number of his kills."

Such passages, of course, have made their way into every guidebook, together with sweaty-palmed descriptions of the instrument used in the operation—the 16-inch curved dagger (gille) most Afar men wear strapped below their waists. But not one Afar man we met would own up to ever using it for anything other than dispatching a goat. (Other recent visitors have reported seeing dried human male genitalia hanging from the rafters in Afar homes, or in one case used as a snuff pouch.) The Afar intensely dislike the image of themselves as murderous barbarians and especially as masters of castration. It's a bald-faced lie their enemies spread about them, they insist, and if they'd ever done such a thing, it was only because their enemies had done it to them first.

The enemies. This is a favorite term among the Afar, and they apply it to anyone who hungers for their land. As strange as it seemed to me, there are other people who want this desert terrain, and not just for the salt. Although limited, there is grass after it rains, and the oasis-like valley of the Awash River offers year-round crops and water. The Issa Somali, nomads like the Afar, have pushed into the desert from the southeast, and west of Djibouti's Lake Assal the Afar and Issa Somali regularly kill each other over animals and pastureland. But these battles mean nothing, Ma'ar said; they would not lead to a united Afar.

And the Ugugumo? Ma'ar gestured indifferently, as if waving away a fly. "They're fighting, but without support. It's not like a real war; it won't bring us together." Ma'ar had checked his watch. It was nearly sunset, and it was time to collect the taxes on the salt caravans. There was gold in the desert, all right, and he wasn't about to let any of it slip past him.

Our caravans had paid the tax too—seven Ethiopian birr (about 80 cents) for each camel, five for each donkey and mule (and twice that sum if you were not an Afar). With hundreds, sometimes thousands, of animals passing through Hamed Ela each day, the taxes amounted to a princely sum. As we rode through the night with the salt traders, it occurred to me that an underfunded liberation army like the Ugugumo might want a share of that money.

Edris walked just ahead of us, taking the canyon rocks and sand in long, steady strides. Starlight showed steep red walls, in places scoured into hollows, clefts, and caves from flash floods. Edris shot his flashlight into these and other secret hiding spots, ever watchful of the enemy. But if he saw one, or if some were spying on us from the canyon rim, we never knew it. The caravans didn't pause, nor did we.

"The girl I love is not the short one, not the tall one," he and his friend Abdallah sang, their voices echoing up the canyon. "The girl I love is the perfect height: medium." When they stopped singing, the only sound was the splashing and squishing of camel, mule, and donkey hooves in the Saba River as the caravans climbed up its banks and farther into the canyon. Sometimes a man would utter a few quick commands to a camel, or swat a mule's backside with a stick, but then the silence fell over us again—the quiet of hard labor and tired men and beasts. It was difficult keeping sleep at bay, and more than once I nearly tipped off my saddle. Then I knotted my fingers in my mule's mane and bit my lips to force myself to stay awake.

Edris had said the salt traders would stop to rest soon after dawn, and as the sun peeked over the canyon rim, I began to hope "soon" was now. But the merchants traveled on for another hour, finally halting where the canyon widened into a broad, sandy gulch. Curiously, no caravans had passed us in the opposite direction—toward Lake Asele—and none were resting here either. Where were they?

"Maybe they're farther up the canyon," said Zelalem. Now that day had come without any enemy attack, we were further inclined to disregard Edris's warning about the Ugugumo. "Maybe they have a different place to rest."

The last few camel teams in our caravan came slowly up the canyon, and the merchants led their animals up a gentle slope above the river, then ordered them to kneel. Each man had a task: Some unloaded the salt blocks and hobbled the camels and mules, some lit small fires for brewing tea and baking bread, while others fetched sacks of hay from a cave to feed their animals.
"Assabah—yassaboh," they sang as they worked. "Be strong—I'm strong."
When the men finally fell asleep, they did so where they sat drinking their tea. Their bodies spilled across the rocks as if they were resting on pillows of eiderdown. Edris [Hassan] joined in the work. "I would be traveling with the caravans too, if my camels had not died," he said when he returned to our campfire. He had lost five out of his herd of six in the year-long drought, one so severe aid organizations were now trucking in sacks of grain to help. Edris's loss wasn't something exceptional, he added—all the Afar were suffering similarly. Besides, they were accustomed to times of hardship.

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