Photos and text by Andrea Vecchiato
This is the Danakil – the Great Depression, the hottest place on earth and potentially the lowest; a desert at least 155 metres below the sea level. It is in the Afar region of Ethiopia, known as the cradle of humanity, where the bones of Lucy and even earlier hominids were discovered. The Danakil is a titanic salt mine in the open. The people who dig up and cut the salt are not Afar nomads but migrants who come from every part of Ethiopia to work for the season, before the heat becomes unbearable.
The salt is already on the surface, it’s the crust you walk upon – they just cut it in large tiles, scrape away the brown sand and pile it up to sell to the Afar merchants when they arrive with caravans of hundreds of camels; a majestic and haunting spectacle, reminiscent both of archetypes older than the Bible and desolate visions of the future from Tattooine in Star Wars or the Mad Max movies. It feels both grandiose and desperately pointless at the same time.
The tiles of salt are eventually sold, thousands of miles up north, in the outskirts of Mekele, the city of culture as a food supplement for cattle. A minuscule economic niche – a bubble market where no one makes much profit despite the epic process. There are no white western corporations to blame or african landlords to accuse for this living, but then again there is not much desperation, defeat or self pity in these workers. Depression isn’t a word that carries the same meaning for them as it does for me, and the desert is what it is – definitely not the accursed place that I associate with Gustave Dore’s engravings of the Inferno. These souls are neither in hell, limbo or purgatory, they get on with their work and don’t ask for charity or tips for their picture to be taken; they are appreciative and surprised when you offer them something. They don’t care if I feel bad for them – it’s definitely my problem and not theirs. It’s obvious I’ve come to this place with expectations and projections of my own but it’s not depressing at all.