Thursday, June 17, 2010

Salt of the earth.


In both ancient and modern times, salt has been an important trade commodity for Mali.  In ancient times, salt and and other commodities were involved in the trans-Sahara trade. The city of Timbuktu was situated at the crossroads of the trade routes. Great camel caravans brought salt, iron, copper, cloth, books, and pearls from the north and northeast into Timbuktu where they were exchanged for gold, kola nuts, ivory, leather, rubber, and slaves from the south.

For centuries, salt has been mined from dry lake beds in Sahara, near the towns of Taghaza and Taoudenni.

The salt miners work for only months at a time, in one of the planet's hottest and most forbidding environments. This is place where the only drinking water is salinated and the miners will go into renal failure if they consume salt water for more than six months. The Sahara Desert is also an incredibly hot place from April-September....too hot for any human being to work in for any great length of time.

The task of harvesting the salt is purely manual - there are no machines to do the work. The miners use crude axes to carve the blocks of salt from the dried-up bed of an ancient lake. It is not an easy way to make a living.

The salt is carried to Timbuktu by camel on the caravan route called "Azalai", one of the last caravan routes in the Sahara that is still in use. The caravans arrive into town during the cool months, laden with large, rectangular blocks of salt mined from Taoudenni. In Timbuktu's salt market the blocks are sawn down into smaller chunks to be sold locally or sent onwards whole by truck or camel to southern Mali and beyond.

Here is a short National Geographic video about the salt trade and the camel caravans in Mali.  It's a short vidoe but it tells an amazing story!


While the ancient salt trade is not disappearing, a changing climate and the arrival of modern technology is threatening the future of one of the world's oldest trading traditions.

As a result of global warming, there have been fewer rainy days and this has made it difficult for the camels to make the 800 km journey from the mines in Taoudenni to Timbuktu because animals are now dying of thirst along the way. Can you imagine how parched the landscape must be for an animal that is often referred to as "the ship of the desert" to die?

There is also no doubt that the gradual substitution of 4x4 trucks for camels is alo driving many of the salt traders out of business as the trucks can carry larger loads and make the deliveries in far less time than a camel caravan.  With the introduction of the trucks, the price of salt has dropped, threatening the livelihood of those who lead the camel caravans.

For the local Tuareg community, the salt trade is not only a means of making a living but also a rite of passage. The camel caravans are a centuries old tradition for this local community of blue-turbaned nomads who make their home in northern and western Africa. While the use of trucks will make it easier for them to transport salt to markets, a part of their culture will slowly but surely die.



With the loss of the salt caravans comes the loss of our culture and our spiritual well being. The only difference between a human and an animal is culture. We must not lose our sacred culture.

University of Timbuktu Professor Salem Uld Elhagg

So why am I writing about all this? Well, believe it or not, the foodie that I am, I collect salt. I had read that salt played an important in Mali's trade in ancient times and I simply wanted to learn more about it. Little did I know what I would uncover - the saga of a centuries old tradition that still lives on today though modern technology and climate change are threatening its survival.

I have a small collection of salt from various places around the world. I have the usual sea salts from England, France and Spain but I also have more unusual ones like red lava salt from Hawaii and a lemon flavored salt from Turkey.  Do I actually use the salt?  Yes, but only in tiny quantities because I think of them as treasures to be appreciated - especially the ones that were harder to come by like my Mongolian rock salt.  Later this year, I'm hoping to buy Himalayan salt when I am in northern India but I hope that my next purchase will be in Timbuktu where I will buy a slab of Malian desert salt to add to my collection and in some small way, help honor a centuries old tradition.