Where God Goes for Salt - Editorial

This is the full editorial for the photo story - "Where God Goes For Salt".   You can see the accompanying photo story here.

From the perspective of a satellite the volcanic lake in the El Sod crater on the border between Ethiopia and Kenya looks like a black eye staring out of the parched red landscape. Yet the satellite does not see the hundreds of people submerged in the black water, mining high quality salt here every day.

The journey around the crater rim takes one and a half hours, the descent into the crater forty-five minutes. The walk back up to the rim takes around one hour, and that is if you are in good shape. However, a stroll in the volcanic sand between the black cliffs is not the reason why dozens of the residents of the South Ethiopian village called El Sod (literally “House of Salt”) wind their way down the narrow path to the crater floor every day. The two-kilometre descent takes them to the black lake with a diameter of several hundred meters which conceals a deposit, several dozens of meters thick, of culinary gold: salt. The shallow water is so saturated with salt that within a matter of minutes the miners’ black bodies become animated alabaster statues.

One of the most respected miners is Momino Hussien. Every morning he picks up his wooden stick polished by time and descends with deliberate steps to the black lake. “I first entered the boke – salt water – almost sixty years ago. I was then fourteen years old and we used to load the salt onto camel caravans that took it to Kenya. Today the camels have been replaced by trucks, but apart from that nothing much has changed,” says the now seventy-year-old Momino. Sixty years represents approximately three generations, and in the western world, at least this would be more than adequate space for many changes to have occurred. Only this is Africa. El Sod still lacks running water and electricity, and the sole evening entertainment is a low-quality cinema that runs on a petrol generator. During the dry season, drinking water is brought in from wells several kilometres away dug in the traditional method where the savannah is decorated with green trees.

  |  El Sod

One of the most respected miners is Momino Hussien. Every morning he picks up his wooden stick polished by time and descends with deliberate steps to the black lake.

The actual mining of the salt is just as traditional – with the miners’ bare hands and without any contribution from technology. Mining knowledge is handed down from father to son, and so Momino’s four sons go down every day with their father, just as he has done for so many decades. “Two of them manage to attend school, but most importantly they mine the salt to provide for the whole family”. Momino thus summarises the pain of the tribal lands, where boys begin work while still children in order to meet their families’ needs and have no time for school. “It is difficult for them to make enough money to be able to move to a larger town to find work. Once you start with the salt, you will die with it”. Today it is no longer possible to apply the old Ethiopian proverb from the time when salt was still used as currency: “When the cone of salt gets fatter, it wants to be washed in the river”. Something akin to our “You never miss your water until your well runs dry”.

The daily rhythm of life in the boke has changed so little over the decades that you could set your watch by it. In the morning the first miners use sticks to break up the salt that has condensed overnight on the surface of the lake and tread it to the bottom so that they can collect it with shovels and their hands. At the same time as the miners are breaking up the salt crust, caravans of donkeys are starting the climb up the crater weighed down with dozens of kilos of salty gold, which is then placed in simple open storehouses to await the arrival of the trucks from Kenya and Ethiopia. This morning transport regime is forced upon them by nature. As soon as the sun’s rays strike the walls of the crater with full force, donkeys and, sometimes, even people collapse during the climb.

The miners in the water have no protection from the sun, so as noon draws near they move into deeper water and use their shovels to fill buckets with salt from the lake bed, which is then placed in huge piles around the shore of the lake. The quality of the salt depends on where it is mined. “We mostly mine black salt – it is good for animals and is the cheapest,” says Momino. “White salt is more valuable and is used in food, while the rarest and most expensive are salt crystals, which also have healing properties”. One hundred kilos of black salt is worth around three dollars, crystals go for ten dollars and white salt is worth around five dollars. “If I work the whole day, I can mine between forty and fifty kilos of black salt. A hundred kilos of crystals takes a week,” explains Momino.

The time spent in the aggressive salt water is the cause of a series of health problems, which only get worse as the years pass. “Scratches and eczema are the most painful,” says Momino and points to the large lesions on his legs caused by the salt. He is one of the lucky ones – unlike many of his colleagues, his long working life has not ruined his health completely. “After working in the boke for several decades, some of us lose their sight, hearing or sense of smell. I have seen people broken by their work in their fifties, and others in their thirties. Still others have lost their minds. That is the worst case, because then they are no longer real men and cannot care for their families. Where is the family to get the money they need to live? Only few of us survive into our seventies or eighties and in the end the salt eats us all”. The nearest medical help is dozens of kilometres away – in the towns of Yabello or Awasa – and in any case no ointment would be able to heal any wounds overnight before the worker returned to the crater. The only protection from the corrosive salt is a local medicine made from leaves and a mud bath at the end of the day, when all the miners thoroughly scrub away the white deposits from all over their bodies in a small stream of fresh water.

  |  El Sod

It is difficult for miners to make enough money to be able to move to a larger town to find work. Once you start with the salt, you will die with it.

The mining in the boke is not directed in any way by international salt companies and every miner is actually his own private mining and export company. “Not so long ago the central government noticed us and began taxing the mining and sale of salt. This meant that we had to raise our prices and life is now much more difficult financially,” says Momino. “The cost of living has changed. While in my youth I could purchase a goat for five birrs, today it would cost around eighty (approximately 8 dollars)”. In an attempt to neutralise the negative impact of the taxation on family budgets, a mining union was recently established to collect membership fees and use these funds to provide its members with financial support – to buy medicines, for example.

Only a few dozen miners have joined the union, and they spend their working time arguing about how much and what quality salt they are entitled to from the common pile, while the people not in the union happily continue mining in small groups organised on the basis of agreement. “The unions do not yet function properly, because nobody knows how to run them and all the money they collect mysteriously disappears. This means that there is no money to cover medicines or to pay for funerals and to look after the survivors, and this leads to more arguments,” says Momino, who thinks that unions are a good idea, but is unhappy about how they have been implemented. In the event the unions became capable of taking action, they could negotiate the tax rate directly with the government officials or stand up to the private company that wants to purchase the crater.

When looking at the crater, any European would imagine that it is all simply a matter of bringing in a few pieces of heavy equipment, installing a conveyor belt system and industrialising the mining. Yet this is precisely what the original inhabitants do not want. They see technology as a threat to their futures. “The crater would be mined more rapidly than we mine it now and many of us would lose their jobs thanks to this technology,” says Momino, summarising the most important objections. “If we work for ourselves, nobody tells us what our salary should be and we can earn more than if somebody was paying us a fixed wage”. The truth is that the existence of El Sod is conditional on the presence of salt in the crater – without the salt the life would quickly go out of the village.

So how did the salt get into the crater in the first place? Momino is sure he knows: “Five hundred thousand years ago there was a mountain here that touched the clouds. Burning rocks flew out of it and one day it finally collapsed, leaving behind our boke. At least this is how my father described it”. He is right about something that actually happened around sixty-five million years ago, when the African continent was split by a deep fissure reaching from Mozambique to Syria. This geological restlessness was accompanied by volcanic activity, which is also responsible for the famous Tanzanian volcano Oldonyio Lengai. And when Africa cried her burning tears of pain, the ground opened up, allowing minerals and underground water to come to the surface to give us the famous huge African lakes and these salt craters. El Sod is not a unique example – around eighty kilometres away there is another boke and only a few hundred kilometres to the southwest there is the fourth-largest salt-water lake in the world, Turkana. However, the residents of El Sod are convinced that their salt is the best because it has the best healing properties. “And crystal salt is a good aphrodisiac,” they never forget to point out.

  |  El Sod

Hard work every day – from sunrise to sunset. But most of the miners don’t want to change their lifestyle. Industrialising the mining is precisely what the original inhabitants do not want. They see technology as a threat to their futures.

The village of El Sod is something of a rarity. Since the 1950s, when the edge of the crater was decorated with only a few isolated dwellings, hundreds of houses have now appeared. The people of the surrounding plateau have placed their bets on the hallucination of enrichment in the “salt fever” and have begun to live differently to their forefathers. The vast majority of the three thousand residents come from the Borena tribe, which numbers over two million people in the south of Ethiopia. They traditionally have a pastoral way of life and only just under twelve percent of Borena have settled down in towns and villages like El Sod. While the herdsmen, who during the dry season lead their herds dozens of kilometres to watering holes, impatiently wait for the rainy season, the miners in the boke greet the first rains with annoyance. “When it rains the water level rises and it is hard to get to the salt on the lake bed,” says Momino. “And salt combined with rainwater is not as good quality as during the dry season. When it starts to rain, we can only mine black salt for cattle”.

During the rainy season the miners can expect other pitfalls too. Cobras, which during the dry season stay in the caves in the surrounding cliffs, are found in the water and they have been known to bite miners entering the lake in the morning. The miners live in terror of being bitten by a cobra at the base of the crater, knowing that the neurotoxin poison will paralyse them before they can get to the rim and that the hospital with the antidote is extremely far away anyway. “There is a shaman in the village who knows how to kill cobras. When we see a snake, we chase it into the bushes and we call the shaman. He first puts it to sleep with some special movements, and then he breaks its neck,” Momino claims. In his long life he has never been bitten, but he has survived many even worse situations, such as raids by Kenyan soldiers and Somalis running amok. He has witnessed his best friends being murdered in tribal wars and has even spent time in prison unjustly. All of this is evidence that although at first glance El Sod appears to be a village at the edge of civilisation, it definitely does not suffer from a lack of interesting events. Among the miners, just like in the prospector villages during the gold rushes, all types of individuals can be found, from deserters and veteran soldiers to dreamers with great plans. When we sit down together in a dark room to drink some tea, they talk about how they imagine their futures. As a rule Momino merely sagely smiles.

For him the boke is a place whose inherent laws he has come to know perfectly, and he knows where it is going. “Nothing will change here – ever,” he tells his colleagues. For generations to come people will come to the crater, mine the salt, die from it and earn just enough money to survive. “Who would come here and set up shops, when we don’t have money to buy anything?” Huutaa, a sixty-seven-year-old veteran soldier who has worked in Kenya and who is able to look at the future in a constructive way, holds another view: “All my children go to school. I do not want them to spend their lives in El Sod. I do not want them to be covered in salt every day, for them to be blinded by it. I do not want them to live here. When they complete their studies they will be capable of taking on the world and leaving for a better life. They will not have the same life as their father”. This may be one of the exceptions that the villagers are fond of recalling: somebody was able to break their bond to the boke and leave.

The relationship between the miners and the salt water is bittersweet. Although it harms them and takes their lives, they know that they cannot live without it. They would like to escape, but they have neither the means nor anywhere to go. A return to the pastoral lifestyle their fellow tribesmen lead is practically impossible, because they would need too much money to establish their herds and gain the necessary respect. Neither can they find employment elsewhere, as they only know to do one thing, and do it well – mine salt. Even after sixty years of working every day in the boke, Momino still puts salt on his dinner. “I simply like salt” he says with a smile.

Text: Pavel Dobrovský
Photographs: Jarmila Kovaříková

Published On:

Wednesday, December 08, 2010


Jarmila Kovarikova

About The Author

Photographer and photojournalist. Capturing reality in a compelling way without the photographer’s interference is her favourite field of photography. In the last five years she’s made journeys to developing countries documenting social issues. Among the most notable are her features about the problems of AIDS in Southern India, orphans living in the sewers of Odessa in Ukraine, the lives and the training of wrestlers from poor backgrounds in Senegal and The Gambia.

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