Salt Seekers of the Sahara
STAKES flash past the window of our four-wheel-drive vehicle. These posts mark the way when sandstorms obscure the road. Indeed, such storms are likely here in the Sahara Desert.
The road we are speeding along follows an ancient camel route that links the city of Agadez, in northern Niger, to the Algerian border and beyond. Our destination is the tiny village of Teguidda-n-Tessoumt—an outpost of humanity 120 miles [200 km] northwest of Agadez. There, 50 families follow time-honored methods of extracting precious salt from the clay of the Sahara.
Man-Made Hills and Pastel Ponds
Ahead of us small hills appear on the desert plain, marking our destination. Our guide parks our vehicle near a 30-foot [10 m] hill and invites us to get out and climb to the top for a view of the village. As we trudge up the slope, he explains that this mound and the others like it are man-made from the residue of many years of salt extraction in the area.
From the summit the view is captivating. Virtually everything in the village below is the color of baked clay—the ground, the walls, the roofs. The only variation is the green of the leaves of the two trees that stand as sentinels at each end of the township. The fences and houses are, in fact, made of clay. The monochrome buildings contrast with the pastel hues in the hundreds of nearby salt ponds. The area is a hive of activity—men, women, and children all hard at work.
An Unusual Extraction Process
As we descend from our vantage point, our guide explains the ancient salt-extracting process used by the villagers. “There are actually only two types of ponds,” he says. “The larger ponds, some six feet [2 m] in diameter, are used to decant the salt-laden water. The smaller ones are evaporation ponds. The water from the 20 springs in the area is itself quite briny. However, the principal source of the salt is, not the water, but the earth, and that is what makes these salt works unusual.” How, exactly, is the salt extracted from the earth?
We observe a man dumping earth into a large pond full of water from the spring. He stomps the mixture with his feet, as if treading a winepress. When satisfied with his work, he leaves the briny mix to settle for several hours. Large ponds brimming with the same muddy concoction surround him. The contents of each one displays a different shade of brown because the ponds change color as the mud settles.
Nearby, another man draws the salty water from a pond using a calabash—a utensil made from the shell of a gourd—and ladles the solution into the smaller ponds. Men usually handle this part of the process. The men are also responsible for the maintenance of the ponds. Some of them are natural depressions in the earth, while others have been dug into the rock. Where digging is not possible, the men mound clay into a ring on top of the rock. They form the clay wall by hand and then beat the barrier with a stick until it is solid. These ponds must be repaired or reconstructed every year.
What part do the women play? They do the heavy lifting, ensuring that a good supply of the salty earth is always ready for processing. They also remove the salt crystals from the evaporating ponds. They then thoroughly clean the ponds in readiness for the next batch.
Meanwhile, children scamper about among the smaller ponds. Their job is to monitor the drying process. As the water evaporates from the ponds, crystals form on the surface. If left unchecked, this salty crust would block further evaporation. So the children sprinkle the surface with drops of water to break the crust and cause the crystals to sink to the bottom of the pond. Evaporation continues until finally only the precious salt remains.
Why are the ponds such a variety of beautiful colors? Our guide explains: “There are basically three kinds of clay, or mud, found in this area, and each adds its own color to the water. In addition, the color varies depending on the salinity of the solution. Also, algae grows in some of the ponds and colors the water.” We notice, too, that the ponds change hue and tone as the sun’s burning rays shift their angle of reflection.
Salt as Money
Back in the village, the women form the moist raw salt into loaves or cakes, which they dry in the searing sun. They do not refine the salt, so the cakes stay a brownish color. We observe that the women form the cakes in three shapes—oval, round, and triangular. One of the women explains that the oval and round cakes are sold, while the triangular ones are reserved as gifts.
Who buys the salt? Nomads and salt merchants. They trek through Teguidda-n-Tessoumt, trading food and other goods in exchange for the salt. Most of the salt will be sold in the markets of the larger towns on the fringe of the desert. The raw salt from this village will likely not be used by humans. Rather, it will supplement the diet of domestic animals.
Heading back to our vehicle, we see a man digging the residual clay from an empty decanting pond. He hauls the load toward the dumping grounds and adds his small contribution to the man-made mounds. As we drive away, we reflect on how these hills bear testimony to the generations of salt seekers who have lived, worked, and died in Teguidda-n-Tessoumt.—Contributed.
[Blurb on page 22]
“The principal source of the salt is, not the water, but the earth, and that is what makes these salt works unusual”
[Map on page 21]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
Based on NASA/Visible Earth imagery
[Picture on page 23]
Extracting precious salt from the clay of the Sahara
© Victor Englebert
[Picture on page 23]
Evaporation ponds come in many colors
© Ioseba Egibar/age fotostock
[Picture on page 23]
Salt loaves dry in the searing sun