Life on the edge of a volcano sounds pretty precarious; but for one remote community in Ethiopia, it’s all they know. These people, mostly from the Borena tribe, have spent generations building their way of life around the volcano. And yet, while their remarkable existence is undeniably a testament to the human spirit, it’s also one that carries plenty of health risks.
The town of Yabelo lies in southern Ethiopia, within the so-called Borena Zone which borders Kenya. As well as functioning an administrative hub of the area, the town reportedly includes at least two schools, a bank, post office and a pair of gas stations. That may not sound like much, but Yabelo’s population was just under 18,500 as of 2005.
Head south from Yabelo for around 90 minutes on the road, and you’ll end up at an even smaller village. El Sod is notable for more than just its tiny population and remote location, however. That’s because it sits on the edge of an extinct volcano. The rocky landscape feature spans just over a mile in diameter, but it’s what is inside the crater that’s of utmost importance to the villagers.
So what is it that draws people to this volcano? Well, the base of its crater contains a salted lake. And that explains the village’s moniker – El Sod literally translates to “House of Salt.” The deposit situated at the bottom of the lake runs down several meters, and it contains three different types of the substance – all of which the villagers rely on for their survival.
Black salt is the most common output from the lake, and it’s the least valuable. It’s typically sold for use by animals, because it contains plenty of mineral benefits for cattle. In addition, it’s becoming increasingly popular in vegan recipes, too. Alongside hefty amounts of black salt, you’ll also find its white counterpart and even salt crystals in the lake’s thick deposit.
The salt crater formed millions of years ago following geological activity on the continent. A so-called deep fissure – now known as the East African Rift – created a split running thousands of miles and it brought minerals and water to surface level. The result was the formation of multiple lakes, salt deposits and volcanoes across countries including Ethiopia, Uganda, Zambia, Kenya and Mozambique.
One such formation created by this enormous rift is Ol Doinyo Lengai – an active Tanzanian volcano that’s distinctive for yielding natrocarbonatite lava. And in 1960 its eruption led to an investigation which eventually confirmed a leading geological theory. Experts were able to confirm that magma is the source of carbonatite – a type of rock that’s been known to contain high amounts of rare elements.
As we mentioned earlier, the Borena people make up the vast majority of El Sod’s population of 3,000 people. The wider Borena Zone area, however, is made up other ethnic groups including the Gedeo, Burji and Oromo people too. And in total, nearly one million people lived in Ethiopia’s Borena Zone as of 2007.
The Borena people mostly reside in their eponymous zone in Ethiopia, but many live in northern Kenya – which borders the Borena Zone. They’re a subethnic group of the Oromo people – Ethiopia’s most populous ethnic group – and accordingly speak a variant of the same language. The Borena subscribe to a number of faiths including traditional religions, Christianity and Islam.
The wider Oromo tribe, meanwhile, have traditionally had their own religion called Waaqeffanna. This belief system revolves around a singular god who created the universe and communicates with his subjects through spirits. And even though it’s mostly an ancient religion, around three percent of Oromos – some one million people – still actively subscribe to it today.
Among Ethiopian tribes, the Oromo are also noteworthy for their political system. Interestingly, UNESCO enshrined their means of governance, known as Gadaa, as “Intangible World Heritage” in 2016. This democratic system has been practiced by the Oromo people for hundreds of years, and it sees new leaders being elected every eight years. However, the candidates are all from the same party, as the parties each have a 40-year period in power.
The Borena community is historically pastoral – a mobile way of life dictated by seasons and the land. Typically, such communities are comprised of shepherds moving livestock across open plains. And while the majority of the Borena people still practice this lifestyle, according to the publication Africa Lens, around 12 percent have settled permanently in villages and towns such as El Sod.
Most of the transition to El Sod has occurred over the past several decades. Back in the 1950s only a handful of isolated homes lined the edge of the volcano’s crater. Fast forward to the 21st century and hundreds of residences now litter the area. However, there’s still no running water in the village, and when the dry season hits the local tribespeople depend on water wells several kilometers away.
So as we can see, the Borena tribe’s way of life is radically different to Western lifestyles. And it doesn’t end there; in addition to not having any drinking water, El Sod has no electricity, either. That means there are precious few entertainment options available after a hard day’s work – beyond a very basic cinema powered by a petrol generator.
And the tribespeople’s working day is undeniably hard. The inhabitants of El Sod rely exclusively on the salted lake in the volcano’s crater for their livelihood. That’s because they’re a community of salt miners, and they have been for decades. Typically, the men dive into the lake daily to collect salt – which can then be sold on to nearby towns and countries.
Salt mining has been this community’s way of life for generations. Workers start their day early and descend a two and a half kilometers down a thin path to reach the lake, which sits 340 meters below the village. Then, the first miners break the surface salt which has collected on the lake overnight – pushing it to the depths of the lake to be picked up by hand and with shovels.
While the miners are clearing away the top layer, donkey caravans begin the arduous climb back to the village – loaded down with dozens of kilograms of salt. The animals must depart first thing, because the powerful sun rays which emerge later in the day can cause them to collapse. That’s not to say that the men working on the lake have any protection from the heat, though. And as the day inches closer to noon, they’re forced to move deeper into the lake for shelter.
But it isn’t just sun damage which can cause problems for the divers down on the volcano lake. For instance, most of the time the men are completely nude, because the salt water is so corrosive that it destroys their clothes. It’s also dangerous for the skin – causing conditions such as eczema and scratches on the miner’s bodies.
Borena diver Momino Hussien told Africa Lens in 2010 that the workers’ health only gets worse as the years go by. He told the photojournalist and article author Jarmila Kovarikova, “I have seen people broken by their work in their fifties, and others in their thirties. Still others 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 to get the money that they need to live?”
It doesn’t help, of course, that there’s very little medical help available to the community in El Sod. In fact, according to the publication, the workers have to travel dozens of kilometers to find medical attention in the towns of Awasa or Yabelo. And even if they reach a hospital, there is no miracle cure to solve their problems in time for them to recommence work the following day.
Unfortunately, there are only two means of protection from the salt’s corrosive properties. First, the miners use a local leaf-based medicine. And second, the divers typically hop into a mud bath when their working day is over – before scrubbing away the leftover salt in a freshwater stream.
To prevent the salt from entering their bodies, the workers create makeshift plugs from lumps of earth wrapped in plastic bags. They then insert these into their ears and nose, but it can be to little avail. Sadly, according to Hussien, plenty of divers still lose their sense of smell and hearing. Furthermore, with no protection available for their eyes, others have gone blind from their work.
Such is the totality of the salt in the crater’s lake that it takes mere moments for divers to find their skin completely covered. In that sense, according to Kovarikova, they effectively become “animated alabaster statues.” But they’re doing it to put money in their pockets and food on the table, because the salt is central to El Sod’s economy.
Kovarikova added that as the most common type, black salt generally sells for around $3 for every 100 kilograms. The same quantity of white salt sells for more – around $5 in total. But it’s the rarer crystals that fetch the most for the miners, with a going rate of around $10 for the same weight. Momino explained, “If I work the whole day, I can mine between forty and fifty kilos of black salt. A hundred kilos of crystals takes a week.”
In breaking from the traditional pastoral way of life of the Borena, the miners at El Sod have opposing views to their fellow tribespeople with regards to the rain. On the one hand, the herdsmen welcome the downpour, because it gives them the opportunity to lead their cattle to watering holes. On the other, however, the divers greet the rainy season with dismay.
Rain frustrates the workers in the crater because rising water levels make it more difficult to mine salt from the bed of the lake, Hussien told Africa Lens. Meanwhile, downpours also affects the product’s quality and the only substance available at that time is the less-valuable black salt. This limitation is a major downside to the rainy season in El Sod, but it’s not the only one.
The rain also introduces its own share of dangers to what is already unsafe work. In the dry season, the caves surrounding the crater are home to venomous cobras. But when the rains come, the snakes descend on the lake and sometimes bite the miners. The reptiles’ fast-acting neurotoxin can paralyze divers long before they reach the hospital. And, according to Hussien, there is only one legendary shaman who is apparently capable of killing the formidable cobras.
Despite the village’s remote location, other dangers appear to abound constantly. Even if the miners survive or avoid being bitten by snakes, they’ve had to toil through even deadlier scenarios. Hussien told Africa Lens that El Sod has been raided by Kenyan soldiers and Somalis in the past. And he’s even seen friends murdered in tribal wars which have afflicted the area.
For the Borena people, though, life ultimately goes on, just as it has for decades. Hussien said, “I first entered the boke – salt water – almost sixty years ago. I was then 14 years old and we used to load the salt onto camel caravans that took it to Kenya. Today, the camels have been replaced by trucks, but apart from that nothing much has changed.”
It’s not just the men of El Sod who must bear the burden of diving for salt, though. The women of the village also have their role to play – gathering branches and wood for the cattle. Even the kids pitch in; just two of Hussien’s sons attend school, and all four of them go down into the crater to provide for their family.
As we can see, mining is truly generational for the community in El Sod. And with children unable to find the time to attend school, there’s very little opportunity to break the cycle. Hussien opined to Africa Lens, “Once you start with the salt, you will die with it. Nothing will change here – ever.” The miner explained that workers in the crater only make enough to survive, and nothing more. He added, “Who would come here and set up shops, when we don’t have money to buy anything?”
Not everyone in the village shares Hussien’s view, however. His fellow elder Huutaa told the publication, “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.”
But change is undoubtedly difficult when the community as a whole is so resistant to advances in technology. In fact, industrialization is apparently something of a dirty word in El Sod, because installing equipment to fast-track the process would effectively destroy the villagers’ way of life. With rapid mining equipment in place, there would be no need for the daily toil on which they rely. Hussien added, “The crater would be mined more rapidly than we mine it now and many of us would lose their jobs thanks to this technology.”
What’s more, industrializing the process would mean input from a corporate entity. Hussien continued, “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 perhaps easy to see, then, why the inhabitants of El Sod so oppose technology, even if that opposition does leave them trapped in a seemingly endless cycle.
But even as the town resists many of the trappings of the 21st century, the past couple of decades haven’t been easy. Some time in the 2000s, Ethiopia’s government placed a tax on salt that’s been mined and sold – forcing the El Sod residents to increase their prices. And while the miners have managed to hold onto their status as freelancers, their cost of living has risen significantly.
In response to the salt tax, the villagers then decided to establish a union. This collective charged a membership fee and used the money to provide financial support for essentials such as medicines. However, the union has proved detrimental so far – mostly owing to a lack of organization. What’s more, the money collected often vanishes mysteriously. The end result is much arguing from the members, and it eats into valuable working time as a result.
Sadly, the union participants have often come to blows over shared entitlement to the salt which is collectively gathered from the crater. And the lack of tangible funds stops the organization from being able to operate effectively. In reality, it should be a force to negotiate the tax rate with the Ethiopian government, but the union appears to have been poorly implemented, according to Hussien.
However, El Sod isn’t the only place in Ethiopia where miners risk their lives for salt. Much like the East African Rift which gave way to that volcano and crater, so too did tectonic plate activity create the conditions for a series of salt lakes along the so-called Danakil Depression. The area, which is known as the “cradle of humanity,” has extremely hot temperatures all year round.
Lake Afrera sits along the Danakil Depression – measuring somewhere between 100 and 124 square kilometers. And despite the danger that it entails, salt has been mined there for centuries. Apparently, the lake bed shifts at will and it can cause miners to lose their footing and be swallowed by the abyss. But in 2011 a nearby volcano erupted – filling the lake with sulfuric acid and rendering its salt inedible.
While that cataclysmic event may have spelled economic disaster for the miners, it did mean that they no longer had to risk their lives for the salt. This is not so in El Sod, though; life in the salt crater continues to this day. The villagers there apparently lack the means to return to a nomadic lifestyle, and they would struggle find employment elsewhere as they have always only ever mined the substance. So for many, this extraordinary way of life in remote Ethiopia is all they’ll ever know.