News / Africa

Change Looms for Ethiopia's Ancient Salt Trade

A worker extracts salt from the desert in the Danakil Depression, northern Ethiopia, April 22, 2013.
A worker extracts salt from the desert in the Danakil Depression, northern Ethiopia, April 22, 2013.
Reuters
Abdu Ibrahim Mohammed was 15 years old when he began trekking with caravans of camels to collect salt in a sun-blasted desert basin of north Ethiopia that is one of the hottest places on earth.
 
Now 51 and retired, he has passed his camels to his son to pursue this centuries-old trade in "white gold" from the Danakil Depression, where rain almost never falls and the average temperature is 94 degrees Fahrenheit (34.4 Celsius).
 
Abdu Ibrahim Mohammed, a retired salt merchant, poses for a photograph close to his home in the town of Berahile in Afar, northern Ethiopia, April 20, 2013.Abdu Ibrahim Mohammed, a retired salt merchant, poses for a photograph close to his home in the town of Berahile in Afar, northern Ethiopia, April 20, 2013.
x
Abdu Ibrahim Mohammed, a retired salt merchant, poses for a photograph close to his home in the town of Berahile in Afar, northern Ethiopia, April 20, 2013.
Abdu Ibrahim Mohammed, a retired salt merchant, poses for a photograph close to his home in the town of Berahile in Afar, northern Ethiopia, April 20, 2013.
But the tradition of hacking salt slabs from the earth's crust and transporting them by camel is changing as a paved road is built across the northern Afar region.
 
Although the road being cut through the Danakil Depression is making it easier to transport the salt, the region's fiercely independent local salt miners and traders are wary of the access it might give to industrial mining companies with mechanized extraction techniques that require far less labor.
 
"Most of the people who live here are dependent on the salt caravans, so we are not happy with prospective salt companies that try to set up base here," said Abdullah Ali Noor, a chief and clan leader's son in Hamad-Ile, on the salt desert's edge.
 
"Everything has to be initiated from the community. We prefer to stick with the old ways," he added.
 
The tarmac road will link the highland city of Mekele with the village of Dallol in the Danakil Depression, a harsh but hauntingly beautiful geographical wonder of salt flats and volcanoes once described as "a land of death" by the famous British desert explorer Wilfred Thesiger.
 
The road has cut from five hours to three the drive from Mekele to Berahile, a town two days' trek by camel from the Afar salt deposits that are one of Ethiopia's main sources of the crystalline food product.
 
New roads like these are gradually helping to transform this landlocked Horn of Africa state, which has a unique culture and history but has been racked by coups, famines and droughts, into one of the fastest-growing economies on the continent.
 
As Africa's biggest coffee producer, Ethiopia's economy remains based on agriculture, which accounts for 46 percent of gross domestic product and 85 percent of employment. But its nearly 94 million population — the second biggest in Africa — is attracting the attention of foreign investors hungry for new markets.
 
Access to Market
Further south in the Danakil Depression, at the salt reserve of Lake Afdera, industrial salt production is already under way.
 
A company named Berhane and Zewdu PLC came to the desert plains near Hamad-Ile in 2011 aiming to produce salt there, according to Noor.
 
Clan leaders saw the threat to their ancient trade and lined up to oppose the project. Fearing sabotage of its equipment, the company left the following year, local people said.
 
But Noor still welcomed the new road.
 
"The new highway will give easy access to the market, which will bring benefits and development to this region," Noor said.
 
The development he talks of is visible in Berahile, where caravans from the salt pans come to drop off their cargo so it can be transported to the rest of the country. Most residents are involved directly or indirectly in the salt business.
 
Telephone and electricity networks have been extended to the town over the past four years, a new Berahile Salt Association was established in 2010 to facilitate trade and a recently built salt store is now the biggest construction in town.
 
"Thousands of people benefit from this work as the salt here is exported throughout the country," said the head of the association, Derassa Shifa.
 
For now, tradition and modernity co-exist — the organization buys salt from the caravans that make the four-day trek to the salt flats and back, then sells it to merchants who carry it away by truck.
 
The salt blocks, which were once used as a unit of money, are sold across Ethiopia, many of them to farmers to provide their animals with essential minerals. Ethiopia has the largest livestock population on the African continent.
 
Life is harsh for the thousands of camel herders and salt extractors who use traditional hoes and axes to carve the "white gold" out of the ground in the Danakil Depression.
 
Many of the salt diggers live in Hamad-Ile and hire out their services to different caravans.
 
The work, however exhausting, still draws thousands onto the baking salt flats.
 
"You forget about the sun and the heat," said Kidane Berhe, 45, a camel herder and salt merchant. "I lost a friend once on the salt desert because he was working too much with no protection from the sun. Eventually he just collapsed."

You May Like

US Imposes Sanctions on Alleged Honduran Drug Gang

Treasury department alleges Los Valles group is responsible for smuggling tens of thousands of kilograms of cocaine into US each month More

At 91, Marvel Creator Stan Lee Continues to Expand his Universe

Company's chief emeritus hopes to interest new generation of children in superheroes of all shapes and sizes by publishing content across multiple media platforms More

Photogallery New Drug Protects Against Virus in Ebola Family

Study by researchers at University of Texas Medical Branch, Tekmira Pharmaceuticals is first looking at drug's effectiveness after onset of symptoms More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebolai
X
George Putic
August 20, 2014 8:57 PM
While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Ferguson Calls For Justice as Anger, Violence Grips Community

Violence, anger and frustration continue to grip the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Protests broke out after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager on August 9. The case has sparked outrage around the nation and prompted the White House to send U.S. Attorney Eric Holder to the small community of just over 20,000 people. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas has more from Ferguson.
Video

Video Beheading Of US Journalist Breeds Outrage

U.S. and British authorities have launched an investigation into an Islamic State video showing the beheading of kidnapped American journalist James Foley by a militant with a British accent. The extremist group, which posted the video on the Internet Tuesday, said the murder was revenge for U.S. airstrikes on militant positions in Iraq - and has threatened to execute another American journalist it is holding. Henry Ridgwell has more from London.
Video

Video Family Robots - The Next Big Thing?

Robots that can help us with daily chores like cooking and cleaning are a long way off, but automatons that serve as family companions may be much closer. Researchers in the United States, France, Japan and other countries are racing to build robots that can entertain and perform some simpler tasks for us. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.

AppleAndroid