Chasing the Afar salt caravans

June 23, 2005, vol. 33, no. 5
By Stuart Colcleugh



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As he departed SFU last December on a field trip to the remote Afar region of Ethiopia to study the country's ancient salt industry, Clement Abas Apaak's wife Mykelle quipped that he better return home with his genitals intact.

And she was only half kidding. Because until recently the fierce men of the Afar were compelled by tradition to kill and castrate male intruders to prove their manhood. “It's not very common these days but you never know,” says the African-born archeology PhD candidate and SFU student society president.

Yet despite the potential risk, Apaak, a native of Ghana, was determined to explore how the salt trade contributed to the rise of complex societies in the Ethiopian highlands, and to identify the present-day trade's cultural markers, such as ropes and tools, for the archaeological record.

The highlight of his 3-month field trip was a hair-raising stint amidst one of Ethiopia's legendary salt caravans, which travel from the highlands to the lowland Afar region's Danakil Depression to collect salt for sale in highland markets. The arduous 235-kilometre trek, made by mainly Christian highlanders attended along the way by mainly Muslim lowlanders, has remained essentially unchanged for at least 2000 years.

The huge caravans, made up of smaller groups from hundreds of different villages, embark from the highland terminus of Mek'ele almost continuously during the dry season, accompanied by as many as a million pack camels during the entire period.

But Apaak “cheated,” he says, and drove from Mek'ele to the Afar town of Berehale, about half way to the salt plains. He spent several weeks there interviewing dozens of people associated with every aspect of the salt business, including a previously undocumented group known as the Fukure.

“These are Afar women along the trail who have established relations down the generations with the men of the caravans, supplying them with goatskins for water and acting as their mothers away from home,” says Apaak. “They were a complete revelation.”

From Berehale, he joined the trail on foot with his own caravan of two interpreters, a camel handler and a guide, along with two pack camels and a goat (dinner on the hoof) for the final four-day 60-km hike to the salt.

The final stretch was no picnic, as the Danakil Depression is one of the most inhospitable places on earth where the terrain dips to 110 metres below sea level and temperatures soar to 50 degrees.

The area's vast salt flats and a few extremely salty lakes are the last remnants of an enormous long-evaporated inland sea that was once part of the Red Sea until it was cut off as a result of volcanic activity some 10,000 years ago.

The Danakil is also one of the world's most lawless regions after decades of war, drought and famine, and Apaak had two “very scary encounters.”

On the first, an Ethiopian military officer told him other foreigners had recently been attacked and robbed nearby. He offered a security escort for hire but Apaak declined. The next morning, an intimidating Afar man demanded to join his team, threatening to kill them if they didn't comply. The dispute was resolved with a small payoff after hours of formal negotiations.

But Apaak arrived safely and spent several days studying the assorted artisans who harvest the salt, shape it into various sizes and help load pack animals for the return journey. Then it was back to the highlands by truck -- he wasn't about to push his luck - for more interviews before heading back to Canada.

Throughout the trip Apaak was amazed by the complexity of the salt trade and the resilience of its participants. And yes, he is very happy to be home “with everything still attached."

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