Sunset Looms for Africa's Salt Trekkers

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High up on his camel, Adam Mahamoudane surveys the scene below him. The dry, sandy riverbed is a sea of color. Some 60 camels mill about, stirring up the dust and leaving apple-shaped footprints in the sand, while riders rest on their haunches in the shade of acacia trees. Most of the men — Tuareg nomads from the small oasis town of Timia in the West African nation of Niger — wear loose fitting, black trousers, with yellow or white edging around the hem. Over the trousers hangs a cotton robe held at the waist by a colorful belt. Many wear turbans and sunglasses. One rider holds a bright blue and orange umbrella to protect himself from the sun, which at 8am is already blistering hot. Along the riverbed, small groups of drummers beat out time on animal skins stretched between rocks.

A couple of men collect names of the riders entering the big race. Adam is on their list. At age nine, he is the youngest competitor. The race will be a rite of passage for Adam, into the traditions of the Tuareg people of the central Sahara. The competition is both a demonstration of skill, and an opportunity for the village of Timia to celebrate the wedding of Adam's sister. A cry goes up and all the camels rise at once. One lets out a low growl. Women ululate and clap.

And the cameras roll.

A small crew of English filmmakers is in Timia to capture the race and wedding for an episode of a new Thirteen/WNET New York and National Geographic Television documentary series called 'Africa.' The series, premiers on Sunday September 9 with a look at life on the Kenyan savanna. (Adam appears in episode two, entitled 'Desert Odyssey.') The series aims to show aspects of Africa far-removed from the famine, war and disease of popular perception. "So few people in America really know about Africa," says co-executive producer Jennifer Lawson. "I wanted to give people a better view, a more complex and comprehensive view of Africa."

The camels lope up to the start line, men shouting, animals bellowing. The riders sit on camel saddles, their feet resting forward in the curve of each camel's neck. A bridle runs back from a silver ring through each animal's right nostril. The camels crowd together as the starter raises his starting stick, but before he can drop it, a huge cheer sends the camels lurching forward in one heaving mass. Their long legs kick forward, riders bobbing to and fro atop 60 dancing humps. The race comprises two laps of Timia's valley floor — less than 4 miles in total. Adam comes in second to last, and finds a group of sweating men arguing over which of them finished first. The camels buck and bray, feisty as ever.

The race marks the beginning of a much longer journey for Adam and 15 of the village men — a six-month-long, 1500-mile caravan trek from their home in Timia, across the desert, to the salt oasis of Bilma. After collecting a load of Bilma's salt, which still occurs in the form of upright pillars as described in the Bible, the group will head south for Nigeria, where they will sell their cargo to Hausa traders. It is an age-old example of the "comparative advantage" theory of international trade: the salt farmers, the transporters and the traders each stick to what they do best. There was a time when the salt ferried by the Tuareg was worth more than gold or silver, and trade routes crisscrossed north Africa from Timbuktu to Cairo. Today, the camel caravans have mostly disappeared, replaced by overloaded trucks which tire less easily and require fewer men. Adam and his town folk are part of a dying breed. "It's very difficult," the boy told me. "I'd have preferred to have been in the pasture looking after the camels."

No wonder. On the camel caravan, Adam and the men wake at 3am and begin walking at just after 4. They eat breakfast on foot; Adam races between the walking men serving tea and a porridge made of dates, millet and goat's cheese. They walk until 10am, and then ride through the heat of the day, then stop as the sun sets and feed the camels before eating their own meal, usually more porridge or dried fruit. "The worst thing is when you run out of pasture and the animals get tired," says Adam's uncle, Ebuche Saghdou, who made his first salt trek 30 years ago at age 17. "They can last up to a week without water but without pasture they are not strong. You must leave them to die."

It's tough for the filmmakers, too, as the journey sees them plagued by sandstorms, rainstorms and tropical diseases. But they're driven by a desire to show a different side of Africa. "By concentrating on the lives of ordinary people we offer a viewers a point of connection," says producer-director Harvey Lilley. "People are getting bored of simple wildlife films about Africa." Adds Lawson, "We've had so many films about Europe, Australia, but we rarely see features on Africa. Our history as African-Americans has such a gap in it."

On the side of a dune one day's camel ride from Timia, a camel skeleton bakes in the searing sun. A few patches of heat-hardened skin cling to the chalky, white bone. The sun bleached vertebrae of the neck lie in a graceful curve where the animal fell; a couple of ribs have been pulled away by a scavenger. "I feel my life has been hard and I know Adam's will be hard too," says Adam's uncle Saghdou. His eyes hang low in his weathered face, dragged down by time. "The desert is our enemy. It's like a devil," he says. "Everything you see moves or changes. The horizon is gliding, the sky moves. Even we must keep moving."