In Ethiopia, a small community of individuals lives on the edge of a volcano. While this might sound unbelievable enough to some people, what this community has to do just to survive is completely unfathomable. These are people who know nothing outside of hard work and must risk their lives just to stay afloat. Read on to discover what they do to live that’s so remarkable. It makes most of our hardest days look like a walk in the park.
The Small Town Of Yabelo
The town of Yabelo is located in southern Ethiopia in what is known as the Borena Zone, which borders the country of Kenya. Although many might not have heard of the town, it’s a fully functioning establishment with at least two schools, a bank, post office, and numerous gas stations.
As well as being the administrative hub of the area, the town of Yabelo also boasts a population of just under 18,500 (as of 2005).
An Even Smaller Village
However, if you head south of Yabelo for around 90 minutes down the road, you’ll find yourself in an even smaller village known as El Sod. This town is known for more than just its small population and remote location.
What makes it particularly notable is that it sits on the edge of an extinct volcano. The crater spans just over a mile in diameter, yet it’s what is inside the crater that makes it important to the villagers.
The Big Secret
So what makes the bottom of the crater so important to the villagers? Well, as it turns out, the base contains a salt lake, which gives the town of El Sod its name. It translates literally to mean “House of Salt.”
The deposit that rests at the bottom of the crater isn’t just full of regular salt, either. The lake runs down several meters and contains three different types of the substance, all of which the villagers rely on for survival.
The Three Different Kinds Of Salt
Of the three different kinds of salt found in the lake, black salt is the most common. Unfortunately, it’s also the least valuable as well. Generally, black salt is sold to people who use it for their livestock.
This is because it contains minerals that are beneficial to animals such as cattle. It’s also becoming a popular addition to vegan recipes as well. On top of the black salt, its white counterpart can also be found there, as well as salt crystals in the thickest part of the lake’s deposit.
The Forming Of The Deposit
The salt deposit found in the middle of the crater was formed millions of years ago after a series of numerous geological events in the surrounding area. A deep fissure, known as the East African Rift, created a split in the Earth that runs for thousands of miles.
This fissure in the Earth then brought minerals and water to the surface. The result was the formation of numerous lakes, salt deposits, and volcanoes across several East African countries, including Ethiopia.
Not Just Craters Were Formed, But Mountains Too
One of the most impressive things that were the result of the East African Rift is the towering Ol Doinyo Lengai, an active volcano found in Tanzania, which is unique for its natrocarbonatite lava.
After a 1960 eruption, an investigation took place which confirmed a leading geological theory. Experts were able to deduce that the magma was indeed the source of the carbonatite, which is a type of rock known to contain high amounts of rare elements.
The People Of Borena
As mentioned earlier, the people of the Borena Zone make up the majority of those living in the village of El Sod, which has a small population of just around 3,000. However, it is an incredibly diverse area.
The wider Borena one area is home to a multitude of other ethnic groups such as the Gedeo, Burji, and Ormo people. In total, nearly one million people live in Ethiopia’s Borena Zone as of 2007.
They Live All Over
Besides living within the zone in Ethiopia, many of the people of Borena also live in Northern Kenya, which borders the Borena Zone. Those who live there are regarded as a sub-ethnic group of the Orono people, which is considered to be Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group.
They even speak a similar dialect of the same language. The Borena are also not blanketed under one religion, but several are practiced, including major ones such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
The Oromo Have Their Own Ways
The populous Oromo tribe, on the other hand, have their own personal tribal and religious practices. Traditionally, they have their own sacred religion known as Waaqeffanna, a belief system that revolves around a singular god that created the universe and communicates with his followers through spirits.
Although it is considered to be an ancient religion, even among the Oromo, some three percent of Oromos (more than one million members of the tribe) still devoutly practice it regularly.
A Unique Political System
Although many of the Ethiopian tribes are unique in their own regard, the Oromo also stand out for their intriguing political system. UNESCO even declared their system of governance, known as Gadaa, as “Intangible World Heritage” back in 2016.
It is a democratic system that has been practiced by their people for hundreds of years, with new leaders being elected every eight. However, each candidate is from the same party, and the parties each have a 40-year period as rulers.
The Borena Are A Pastoral People
The Borena are a historically pastoral people, meaning that they live a mobile way of life that is dictated by the seasons and the land. Usually, these communities are made up of shepherds that herd their livestock across the open lands.
Although many of the Borena still practice this lifestyle, according to the publication Africa Lens, around twelve percent of them have settled permanently in villages. Some of them have even ended up in locations such as El Sod.
Making El Sod A Home
Establishing El Sod as a place for people to live and work took several decades to accomplish. Back in the 1950s, there was only a small grouping of isolated homes that lined the edge of the volcanoes crater.
But today, there are a few thousand residents that call this place their home. Unfortunately, there’s still no running water in the village, so when the dry season hits, the locals have to depend on water wells several kilometers away.
A Different Lifestyle
Considering how the Borena tribe lives, it’s clear that it is the almost completely opposite way of living from Western society. Drinking water isn’t the only thing the people of El Sod don’t have either.
They also don’t have electricity, which means compared to the Western world, their entertainment is limited after a hard day’s work. However, one modern treat that they do have is a very basic cinema that is powered by a petrol generator.
No Easy Job
Those who live in El Sod lead hard lives. Their workday is incredibly hard, relying exclusively on the salt from the volcano’s crater in order to support themselves. They’re a community of salt miners, and that’s the way that it has been for decades.
On a daily basis, the men of the town hike down to the crater and dive into the lake in order to collect the precious mineral. They then sell it to nearby towns and establishments.
The Same Work For Generations
The community of El Sod has lived on the edge of the volcano and mined for salt for generations, and little has changed. Each day, workers begin by descending a thin two and a half kilometer trail in order to reach the crater’s lake, which lies 340 meters below the village.
The miners then continue to break up the surface salt that has collected overnight and push it to the edges of the lake to be picked up by shovels.
They Need Animals To Help
While the miners get to work clearing away the top layer of salt, donkey caravans begin the treacherous climb back to the top of the crater carrying dozens of kilograms of salt. However, the animals must make their way to the top as early as possible, because the heat of the midday sun can cause them to collapse.
The miners are at the mercy of the sun as well, and as it goes higher in the sky, they are forced to move deeper into the lake for shelter.
There Are Worse Things Than The Sun
Although the heat is incredibly intense, that isn’t the only concern that the miners have to be concerned about while working at the crater. For example, most of the time, the men work in the nude, because the saltwater is so corrosive that it completely erodes their clothes.
It is also harmful to their skin, leading to rampant cases of skin disorders such as eczema and extreme irritation of the skin.
A First-Hand Account
In 2010, Borena diver Momino Hussien told Africa Lens that the workers’ health only gets worse as the years go by. He continued, in an interview with photojournalist and writer Jarmila Kovarikova:
“I have seen people broken by their work in their fifties, and others in their thirties. Still, other 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 going to get money that they need to live?”
There’s Little Medical Attention
On top of the grueling and deadly conditions that the workers are faced with, there’s also very little medical help in the area.
According to Africa Lens, if there is a medical emergency, workers have to travel for dozens of kilometers in order to find medical attention. Furthermore, even if they do make it to the hospital in time, there’s never a quick or easy way to remedy their ailments.
Protection From The Salt
Terribly, there are only two forms of protection that the workers can utilize in order to prevent the salt from severely harming them. The first one the miners use is a local leaf-based medicine that they can apply to their wounds.
The second is that they take a mud bath after a long day of work. They then scrub away all of the mud and leftover salt with fresh water. Unfortunately, these only mildly help.
Their Skin Isn’t The Only Thing They Have To Worry About
Although the salt on their skin can cause serious ailments, the workers are also very concerned about getting the saltwater into their bodies. So, in order to prevent this, one of the methods that they use is making makeshift plugs from lumps of earth wrapped in plastic bags.
They then put these in their noses and ears in an attempt to keep the salt out, but it doesn’t do much. According to Hussien, unfortunately, many miners still lose their sense of smell and their hearing. With little to do for their eyes, many also go blind.
They Become Covered In Salt
The crater is filled with so much salt that by the end of a hard day at the lake, many of the workers are covered in salt from head to foot. Kovarikova notes that at the end of the day, the workers look like “animated alabaster statues.”
As terrible as the conditions are, it’s proof that these men are doing everything they can to make the little money they do in order to keep their families alive.
A Lot Of Work For Low Wages
Kovarikova went on to say that the most common salt found in the crater, black salt, generally sells for around $3 for every 100 grams. The white salt, on the other hand, sells for more, but only $5.
However, the more rare crystal salt sells for around $10, but it’s much harder to find and even more difficult to excavate. Momino explained that “If I work the whole day, I can mine between 40 and 50 kilos of black salt. A hundred kilos of crystals take a week.”
A Different View Of Rain
Besides living in an established society and not the traditional pastoral lifestyle of other Borena people, those living in El Sod have also have opposing views when it comes to the rain.
People not living at El Sod welcome rain happily, especially a downpour, as it allows them to lead their cattle to watering holes as well as provides drinking water for themselves. The miners at El Sod, however, do not.
Rain Is Problematic
Although rain provides valuable drinking water for the people at El Sod, it also has its downsides. For the miners working at the crater, rain can be a significant issue because it causes rising water levels, which makes it more challenging to extract the salt from the bed lake.
Simultaneously, the rain and the mud also greatly affect the quality of the product, leaving only the lower-quality black salt available to mine.
Rain Makes Things Even More Dangerous
Despite rain making the miners’ jobs harder than they already are and decreasing the quality of the product, it brings on another set of dangers. During the dry season, the caves surrounding the crater are home to venomous snakes.
Unfortunately, when the rains come, they descend on the lake and are a threat to the miners. The snakes’ fast-acting toxin can paralyze those it bites and can kill before anyone has time to reach the hospital.
Wildlife Isn’t The Only Danger Either
As if risking their own lives from the salt in the crater or dealing with venomous reptiles wasn’t enough, there is still more to worry about. Despite the village’s remote location, other humans also pose an issue.
Hussien told Africa Lens that Kenyan soldiers and Somalis have also raided El Sod in the past. Horribly, he’s even seen some of his friends lose their lives in tribal wars that have plagued the area for far too long.
Life Goes On
No matter how unfortunate their situation may be or gets, life for the people that live in El Sod and work in the crater goes on.
Hussien remarks, “I first entered the boke-salt water- almost sixty years ago. I was 14 years old and we used to load the salt onto camels caravans that took it to Kenya. Today, the camels have been replaced by trucks, but apart from that, nothing much has changed.”
Men Aren’t The Only Ones To Work Hard
While the men break their backs and risk their lives for salt down in the crater, they aren’t the only ones doing hard work. The women who live in El Sod also have a role to play, and it’s by no means easy.
Besides taking care of the village while the men are away, they are also responsible for helping with the livestock, especially feeding them. The children also help. Just two of Hussien’s sons attend school, and the other four go down to the crater to help provide for the family.
The Cycle Continues
Considering that the people of El Sod have been mining down in the crater for generations, it doesn’t seem like it will stop anytime soon. With few children able to attend school, the cycle will continue. Hussien commented, “Once you start with the salt, you will die with it. Nothing will change here – ever.”
Another miner noted that working in the crater only provides enough money to barely survive, and nothing more. He continued, “Who would come here and set up shops when we don’t have any money to buy anything?”
Some Have Hope
However, not everyone in the community feels the same way about the circumstances as Hussien. Others have more hope and are doing everything they can to help the youth of the community.
Another village elder, Huutaa, stated, “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.”
Some Of Them Resist Change
Although the lives of the citizens are hard, it’s challenging for change to occur when many members of the community are resistant to advancements in technology. As a matter of fact, industrialization is almost something the whole village is against because a streamlined way to mine the salt would mean that almost everyone would lose their livelihood.
Hussien explained, “the crater would be mined more rapidly than we mine it now and many of us would lose their jobs thanks to this technology.”
They Want To Work For Themselves
Furthermore, industrialization and the expediting of the mining process would mean the establishment and involvement of a corporate entity.
Hussien went on to note that, “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.” It’s clear to see why some members of the community would rather live a hard life than have no life at all.
Change Is Happening, Whether They Like It Or Not
Unfortunately, even though the village is resisting the ways of the 21st century, the past few decades have proven to be problematic. To their dismay, in the early 2000s, the Ethiopian government began to place a tax on salt that’s been mined or sold.
This has forced the people of El Sod to raise their prices. Although the miners have managed to stay independent and free from corporations, their cost of living has significantly risen.
The Village Took Matters Into Their Own Hands
In response to the salt tax, the villagers of El Sod banned together and established a union. This new group charged a membership fee and used the money to provide financial support for essentials such as medical supplies.
Unfortunately, so far, the union has proven to have more negative than positive effects, mostly attributed to a lack of organization. Moreover, a lot of the money collected tends to disappear mysteriously. This results in a conflict between the miners, causing more problems than they already have.
It Has Resulted In Violence
Although the union seemed like a good idea at the time, that wasn’t the case, and some violence has broken out over the issue, especially the salt that is collectively gathered in the crater.
A lack of money also prevents the organization from being able to run effectively, when realistically, it should be a force to help negotiate the tax rate with the Ethiopian government over salt. Nevertheless, the union was poorly implemented, according to Hussien.
El Sod Isn’t All On Its Own
Considering how many different salt mines like the one in the El Sod crater there are, it’s no surprise to learn that the people in El Sod are not the only miners risking their lives for salt.
The East African Rift opened up more than enough of these salt deposits along what is known as the Danakil Depression. This area, which is commonly referred to as the “cradle of humanity,” experiences increasingly high temperatures all year round.
Lake Afrera Was Once A Major Producer Of Salt
Lake Afrera is one of the locations that sits along the Danakil Depression, which measures around 100 and 124 square kilometers. Much like El Sod, it is an incredibly difficult place to mine. Regardless, it has been mined for the mineral there for centuries.
Even worse, the lake bed shifts on its own and can cause miners to lose their footing and become sucked into the sediment. However, in 2011, a volcanic eruption filled the lake with sulfuric acid, making the salt inedible.
El Sod Remains The Same
Although the volcanic eruption may have ended the mining for those who worked at Lake Afrera, it did mean that the miners no longer had to risk their lives in order to retrieve salt.
That is not the case for those in El Sod, and their livelihood remains at the lake at the bottom of the crater. At this point, the villagers have fallen into a vicious cycle, and many of them are unable to return to their once-nomadic lifestyle.
A Sad Reality
Unfortunately, for those who are still working as salt miners in the crater, it doesn’t seem anything will change for some time.
This is due to some of their resistance to change, as well as many of their inability to find jobs outside of mining, considering that it’s all that they have known. Because of this, many of the people at El Sod will never know a life outside of the village or down in the crater.