From the roof of the beaten 1980s
for as far as I could see across the vast stretch of open, multi-khaki colored
land. The sky overhead was blue like the way dry desert skies are at
mid-day: impossibly blue. The sun was a shiny pale yellow disc
hanging in that impossibly blue sky, and a soft breeze that sometimes got up the
courage to be a gust of wind blew against me, across the humps of the
camels, and over the daggers strapped behind the belts on the smalls of
the back of the nomadic people.
Locals were eyeing us with curious caution. Some might have never laid
their deep brown/black eyes on a white person. We were accompanied by
an Ogaden native who spoke , so the ice was broken through him; we
were there to see one of the most fascinating places on earth.
Every day, bands of nomadic camel herders bring their camels to the 40
salty wells of Shinile. Some may walk for days for this opportunity to
fatten up their camels, the lifeblood. Camels are used primarily for
transportation and food. The nutrient-rich camel milk literally keeps
the people alive, especially in times of little rain.
A dull ring emanates from the wooden bell hanging around a camel’s
neck. Each herder crafts his own bells, each bell having its own distinct
sound which allows the herder to know where his camels are at all times.
Songs can be heard coming from the direction of one of the wells. Men
are singing in unison as they pull up leather bags filled with water. Once
brought up from the possibly 100 feet deep source below, the water is
immediately dumped into a log trough where camel heads that were
looking out at other camel heads quickly drop to the water-filled, hollowed-out
Too salty for human consumption but able to be processed by the camels,
the wells maintain water year round in one of the driest places on the
planet. Even more impressive, each well was hand-dug by the herders.
“How long does each group get to drink?”
“About two hours.”
“And the men pull up the water for two hours?”
“Yes. And they rotate around so you get a rest. But that’s not
“Is there a waiting line? How do you know which group goes next?”
“You must wait your turn. We know who came in when.”
Stories of fights breaking out between groups are not uncommon.
Sometimes impatient herders try to sneak into a well, or claim they arrived
before another group. Unfortunately, the matter is sometimes, though rarely,
settled by brandishing a few of those daggers, and perhaps a gun. Getting
your means of survival to its refueling station can be a matter of life
and death out there.
Truly mesmerized by the scene around us, we knew we were having a
special experience. With permission, we took out our camera and snapped a few
photos to try and capture what our eyes were witnessing. Most of the people hid their faces.
Offering our thanks for letting us have a glimpse into their lives, we
tried to convey to the herders how being there would be a highlight of our
time in Africa. They shyly smiled, the way humble people do when positive
comments are passed their way.
Looking back over my shoulder, I tried to engrain the scene into my
brain. I hoped to never forget it.
(written 5 March 2006)