A Harvest of Salt

In the Djiboutian desert, an improbable crop

By / September 2013

My throat felt constricted and parched as waves of heat and emptiness washed over me. Even though it was late fall and early morning, the temperature had already passed forty degrees Celsius. My fellow photographer, a third-generation Djibouti bookstore owner from India, parked his truck next to the Djibouti Dry Port on Rue de Venice and pointed across the desert to a series of rises that appeared to be no taller than a camel’s hump, difficult to distinguish from the stark background.

“That’s where they harvest salt,” he said.

“I don’t see anything,” I said.

“You want to walk out?”


Powdery dirt covered the salt flats, rose in circular poofs around our ankles, and left streaks, like dried mustard, on our skin. But the earth was deceptive. The dirt disguised a layer of slippery mud. Every few steps one of us slipped, nearly tumbling into the muck.

Pink and blue plastic bags caught on thorns that curled up from the ground like the fingernails of a corpse. Empty soda bottles, flattened plastic bleach jugs, and discarded clothing littered the area. Sun and dust and wind would soon turn this refuse to burnt, shadowy remnants. The garbage increased near the banks of a small river, emerald with slick sewage and algae.

We scanned left and right for a place to cross. In some areas the river was over our knees and used by humans and animals as a bathtub and a toilet. I had no interest in getting my feet wet. We followed a trail to the shallowest, narrowest spot, and scrambled across stones that barely peeked through the stagnant water. My shirt clung to my back and shoulders. Mud caked my feet and flimsy sandals, I hadn’t dressed for an off-road exploration. The heat, the sand-blasting wind sucking away my words, the sweat, the smell of sewage, the blinding glare from sky and earth, the desert swallowed me whole and left me panting.

I couldn’t help but notice, as we slipped and stumbled across the desert, the scant chance of life here in this desolation. Milkweed plants, dried thorn bushes, and mangroves separated the salt flats from the shimmering sapphire Gulf of Tadjourah, and beyond, the Red Sea. There were no trees to shield the sun, nothing to cast a sliver of shade. Burned tires cracked and flaked ash. Narrow footpaths and the tracks of donkey carts crisscrossed a trickle of brackish water.

For ten years my husband and I had drive by these salt flats. On the way to work at the University or to drop our kids off at school or to meet with another professor. I had glanced this direction and seen lone figures walking, walking. Bent under loads of firewood or water jugs roped together. Leading camel trains to the stone-lined watering well. Guiding long-horned cattle, the curve of their ribs visible through their hides. But I had never been here, never looked down from this hill of dirt, never seen what greeted me on the other side of the mounds.

Salt pools. Dozens, in all stages of evaporation. Some sparkled clear and watery, others pure white, gray and diamond, the sunlight reflected into miniature rainbows. Several were bright green from algae, with clumps of salt streaked along the sloping rims.

Others were pink. Pink the color of a rose, a grapefruit. Pink the color of a prom dress, a girls’ first nail polish, the late summer sunset.

Four men perched on a bed made from ropes wound tight around wooden posts and watched us gape at the pools. One volunteered to demonstrate how he harvested the salt. He stripped off his t-shirt and outer shorts. His back was dark from sun and skinny and rippled with sinew and ribs. He grabbed a shovel and jumped down barefoot into the salt pool. The water, once still, splashed and protested this disturbance as he scooped and threw the water up against the sandy sides where other salty throws had begun to dry into scrapes of white.

Once the salt was harvested, the men would fill sacks and load them onto camels. The camels would begin an arduous walk over the ancient camel route through Djibouti, past the Salt Lake, the lowest point in Africa, to Ethiopia where the salt would be sold and traded. Salt for the table. Salt shipped to Minnesota to clear the sidewalks of ice. Salt to preserve food and make it taste good. Salt to remove onion and garlic smells from fingers. Salt to clean coffee stains from mugs and water rings from tables. Salt in the laundry to remove sweat stains and brighten colors. Salt to soothe bee stings.

The man smiled and waved and shoveled some more. White bags of USAID wheat, now filled with salt, sat like obese sentries behind him. A blue tin powdered milk can rolled down the embankment and clattered against stones at the edge of the pool. Another worker hid behind the wheat sacks and peeked out, curious but shy. Pink pools, smiling men, one of them wrinkled and with hair orange from henna dyes. Someone had tied a woman’s red headscarf around a stick and thrust it like a totem into the ground.

There was life here. Even here in the desert where salt water and clay and heat and wind gave the illusion of an earth stripped of prospects. Even here in the labor of shoveling salt from pools of pink and green.

Back at home I washed my feet while my youngest daughter rode her bicycle. She was a streak of red and green, pigtails flying behind. After ten years of working in partnership with Djiboutians to develop the educational system, after ten years of painstakingly slow progress, I had needed that trek to the desert. I needed to see that there would be pink pools where it seemed life could not exist. I needed to see those smiling, wrinkled men with orange hair shoveling water against the dirt to make salt.


Rachel Pieh Jones has written for the New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and Running Times. She lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children and blogs at djiboutijones.com.


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