Short Story
Senegal /

Raking salt in the crystal ponds of West Africa

In the salt ponds of Senegal; digging, lugging, breastfeeding and wrestling are not necessarily mutually exclusive tasks.

Each day Adama, Cumbá and Aessatou head to the salt ponds at Palado, a small village 170km southeast of Dakar, to harvest salt. While Adama and Aessatou have been plying their trade in the flats for the past 5 years, Cumbá has only recently joined the team. Adama and Aessatou are 30, Cumbá is 1. The three support each other in the field as best they can. Adama helps baby Cumbá with water and milk, Cumbá offers moral support and thanks to her Mum for all the hard work she does on her behalf; she does this by smiling and giggling to lift spirits. Even though baby Cumbá is inexperienced in the salt ponds, she’s passionate about the craft. When she disagrees with Mum’s technique, she shares her views by bursting into tears, though some believe this is her way of asking for another refreshing splash of cold water.

Meanwhile, in ponds a few hundred metres away, Ousmane and Cheerck have been digging, raking and transporting salt since 6am. They are students studying literature in Dakar. At the end of each semester they return home to work in the field in order to support their young families. The labour-intensive process of raking salt each day is not enough to warrant a lazy evening in front of TV each night. Turns out Cheerck is not just a student and experienced salt miner – he’s also an elite sportsman. When he finishes work he’ll be taking part in a wrestling match in front of 2000 people back in Dakar. In Senegal, wrestling is a major national sport and Cheerck is hoping to become one of its stars.

But in this part of the world, it’s harvesting salt that puts food (and flavour) on the table. Senegal is the largest salt producer in west Africa, mining over 450,000 tonnes every year. Small-scale harvesters like Adama, Cumbá & co. are responsible for around one-third of the country’s production. Palado village has one of the region’s largest salt production sites and the economic benefits have been felt by the entire community.Harvesting in an area with low rainfall is crucial to the evaporation process. In a region where erratic rainfall has led to huge losses in local agriculture, harvesting salt has become a lifeline for people whose finances live week to week, and sometimes day to day.

Unlike Senegal’s famous Lake Retba, which is three meters deep, the human-made ponds of the Fatick plains in Palado barely cover the ankles. Before the salt of Palado ends up on a bowl of Chicken Yassa, it begins as a plot of brown earth. A rectangular pond is carved and dug by hand. Salt water is then transferred from a nearby canal and placed into the new pit. Once the water has evaporated in the sun, the salt crystals are harvested by raking them into piles. Harvesting in an area with low rainfall is crucial to the evaporation process. As the pond is cleared of salt by workers, the minerals pigments and variable algal combine with the reflection of the sky to create a rich pallet of colour – perfect for photographers. After enough salt has been raked from beneath the warm water, it is shovelled into buckets weighing up to 25kg each. It’s then time to haul the buckets across the pond to the mountains of salt at the edge of the plot. From here they will be transported to the refinery where it will be washed, drained, cleaned and refined for the nation’s next bowl of Yassa.

While women labourers like Adama and Aessatou are not uncommon in Senegal, they are very much the in the minority. Like most societies, Senegalese society is still very traditional; women are expected to perform housekeeping duties and raise the children while men earn all the income. However, women like Adama quite literally do it all. Adama performs hard labour in sweltering heat by day; she then performs domestic chores and sustains an entire household by night. For Adama; digging, raking, lugging and breastfeeding are not mutually exclusive tasks, they are all part of a day’s work. However, she will still earn less money than her male counterparts who essentially carry out the same job (sans the breastfeeding).

As the day grows hotter and hotter and bodies more become tired; no-one feels the stress more than baby Cumbá. This is when we learn that Cumbá is much more than a pillar of strength for her Mum, and much more than a model for Australian photographers, she’s also the official timekeeper at the salt ponds at Palado. And it’s a job she takes very seriously. At 2pm each day, when temperatures begin to really bite, Cumbá informs the women that they need to stop what they are doing and depart to the village for lunch (or in Cumbá's case, a siesta). She does this by crying, loudly. Only when the women stop work does Cumbá stand down from her duties.