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Africa's Danakil Desert
OCTOBER 2005
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Africa's Danakil Desert

By Virginia Morell
Photographs by Carsten Peter

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"Sometimes the drought comes because of war or politics," Edris said, explaining that government intervention at border crossings had on occasion prevented the Afar from following the rains and the greening of the grasses. "Then you can blame men for it. This time, the drought is from Allah. It's a blessing He's chosen to give us." In the gift were lessons of survival. In the desert, you accepted what came your way; you learned to live with loss and to live without material desires.
 
Four hours later, just after noon, we got under way again. The route led slowly upward, taking us into the first tier of mountains, but there was no respite from the sun. Its searing heat danced over the rocks and up the canyon walls, and there was still no sign of the other caravans.
 
And then, in the late afternoon, we rounded a bend and came face-to-face with the merchants bound for Lake Asele. There wasn't a single line of camels and mules like ours. Instead they were arrayed like a wall, with lines of animals three and four abreast. In an instant we were engulfed in a brown sea of men and animals and dust. For the rest of the day there was no end to the caravans—it was a migration of biblical proportions.
 
"Where have they all come from?" I asked  Zelalem.
 
"I don't know. They're Tigrayans," he replied.
 
Now the canyon widened into a landscape of pointed hills and dry plateaus. The trail split, and Edris led us away from the Lake Asele–bound caravans, up a sandy wash where there was at last some shade. An Afar man stood alongside the canyon wall, and Edris went over to greet him—to get, I thought, the latest dagu. The man was not like the salt merchants, sweaty and disheveled; his green plaid sarong and polo-style shirt looked fresh. And unlike traditionally dressed Afar men, he had a fully loaded hand-grenade belt strapped around his waist, instead of the curved gille. He balanced a Kalashnikov on his shoulder and gave Edris a welcoming smile. They stood close, laughing, kissing the backs of their hands, and pressing their shoulders together.

"He's Ugugumo," Zelalem whispered.
"The enemy?" I asked. "But Edris knows him. They look like friends."
"Maybe Edris once fought with him," said Zelalem. "Maybe that's why he knows the enemy's habits. Maybe sometimes Edris is also Ugugumo."

I took this news in silence. At times the desert was full of shifting shapes—the dancing figures of mirages on the salt flats, the dust devils that spun out of nowhere and vanished into nothing. It did not come as a surprise that the Afar, so much a part of their land, had learned the desert's tricks. Three other men, armed like Edris's friend, came walking down the wash. They nodded pleasantly at us and stopped to give Edris more hand kisses. If these were the enemies Edris had wanted to protect us from, they certainly didn't seem hostile or intent on causing us any trouble.

"But they might have," said Zelalem, who had gathered his own dagu from the passing Tigrayan caravans. The Ugugumo—these men whom Edris was now embracing—had formed an armed blockade in the canyon, right at this very point, for two days. They'd refused to let any caravan pass until Ali Hassan shared some of the salt-tax wealth—the Afar's gold—with them.

"They need money for bullets, guns, and grenades," said Zelalem. "They want to fight the Eritreans."

Ali Hassan had given the Ugugumo what they wanted, and they'd released the caravans. That explained the masses of caravans we'd encountered.

Would the Ugugumo have harmed or robbed us if Ali Hassan hadn't negotiated with them?

Zelalem shook his head, as mystified as we were by the mixture of enmity and friendship among these Afar men. "They have their own ways," he said.

Edris came up to join us. He was smiling, as one does after meeting friends. He rested his Kalashnikov across his shoulders. He hadn't lied to or cheated us. He'd given us reliable dagu about the Ugugumo—they'd been in the canyon causing trouble for the caravans, just as he'd said, and hiring another person to help him protect us had probably been a wise move. He was now ready to guard and guide us the rest of the way to the salt market at Berahile.

Tired of the long ride, I slid off my mule and fell in behind him. Twilight was settling over the desert, turning it soft blue and gold. Somewhere in the hills ahead of us, other members of the Ugugumo were plotting, readying their weapons for a skirmish, trying to make the border disappear with bullets, to make the Afar one again.

"Allah put us here," Edris said, when I asked why they loved their desert. "It is a hard life, but this was His biggest blessing to us, Cafar-barro."

The desert has shaped the Afar, and it would shape us too, if we stayed long enough, Edris said. Then we would come to know it not simply as a place of harsh rocks, gravel, and lava but as a shelter, a home, an open stretch beneath the sky that offers all a man and his family need: grass for the livestock, palms for weaving the thatch of a home, special shrubs for making a toothbrush or curing a stomachache, and canyons with deep, cool water holes. In time we would come to be like the desert, spare in our needs, sharp in our wit, fierce in defense of our family. We would become, like the Afar, independent and self-reliant, a people who regard strangers warily. We would trust no one but other Afar and, even then, only those in our kedo, our clan.

We would have dozens of words for water and rain, and we would smile and thank Allah for His blessing when the sky poured, even when it brought floods. For after the rain summer would come. The grasses would sprout. And we would, like the Afar, move to those green pastures.

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