National Geographic

Electronic Oasis

Dalifagi village, Ethiopia, 10°37'34.8'' N, 40°18'43.9'' E

Water is gold in the Afar Triangle of Ethiopia. No surprise. It’s in one of the hottest deserts in the world. Walking for three days recently near the western scarp of the Rift Valley, guide Ahmed Alema Hessan and I found one smear of muddy rainwater to ease our camels’ thirst. But we stumbled across a new type of waterhole a day later—a coveted oasis of electrons, the village of Dalifagi.

Photograph by Paul Salopek

The immense saltscapes that straddle the borders of Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Eritrea weren’t even mapped until the 1920s. For centuries, the martial Afar pastoralists who ruled the area resisted all incursions by the outside world. Today, though, they embrace the information revolution with a vengeance. “It has given them power,” says Mulukan Ayalu, 23, an Ethiopian government technician who maintains the tiny power plant at Dalifagi. “They can call different goat traders. They can choose their selling prices.”

The diesel generators of Dalifagi don’t throw much shade. And they offer meager habitat for weaverbirds or gazelles. But the Chinese pistons chug out a 220-volt current for six hours a day. In the process, they’ve transformed an end-of-the road outpost that was pristine desert just 20 years ago into the latest hub of the information revolution—a magnet for Afar pastoralists who walk from miles around, desperate to slake their cell phone addiction with a battery charge.

Mulukan Ayalu, who may be the busiest man in Dalifagi. Photograph by Paul Salopek

As well master of the electronic oasis, Ayalu recharges nomad cell phones for a few cents. On Mondays—market day—trail-worn Afar pastoralists line up at his office door with the folds of their sarong-like shirts laden with dead cell phones of faraway neighbors. Customers who drop off their phones for recharging are given a handmade token. The numbers now rise into the hundreds. Some purveyors of scarce electrons on Africa’s information frontier get even more creative. In the nearby Afar town of Asaita, one local entrepreneur has jigsawed together a Frankensteinish apparatus that quick-charges clients’ phones in minutes.

Photograph by John Stanmeyer-VII

At night, when the power is on, the residents of Dalifagi engage in a new cultural practice that didn’t diffuse from Manhattan—the power dinner, with cell phones clamped to ears. When two Afars meet in the desert, they often conduct a dagu, a formal exchange of news with a lengthy call-and-response greeting. “Now we dagu, dagu, dagu all the time on the phone,” Ahmed Alema Hessan says.

As oases go, the electronic waterhole at Dalifagi would never draw adventure tourists, much less inspire the verse of caravan poets, but it is the real story in sub-Saharan Africa. Nine hundred million people. A headlong sprint into the digital age that leaps over a century of analog technology. Exploding aspirations. Consequences unknown.

In Ethiopia, the government is aggressively expanding its state-run mobile network. Last year, cell use ballooned by an astonishing 30 percent, to more than 17 million subscribers. In isolated Dalfagi, even the frontier rusticity of the communal wall plugs will fade. Next year, fixed power lines arrive. “Twenty years from now? There will be a different Afar people,” said Haji Boddaya Qibad, a local political leader of the nomads. “Life won’t be camels and sheep anymore.”

Photograph by Paul Salopek

 

 

There are 40 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. lorna
    January 28, 2013

    the oasis reminds a little of a story from New York just after Hurricane Sandy. A home that had power ran a cord out to their gate and attached a power bar so people who had not yet got power, could charge their cell phones.
    great minds do think alike

  2. robin mellings
    January 28, 2013

    Brilliant project,and very exciting. I have signed up to email updates etc. I love the Nat. G
    magazine and the wonderful planet earth, we all inhabit.

  3. Ian Rolfe-Vyson
    January 28, 2013

    Very exciting, would love to be there, unfortunately time is of an essence.

  4. Denise Wessels
    January 28, 2013

    I had a similar experience in Tanzania with the Massai…they still have all their traditional “tools”, but then tucked into the red plaid wrap was the cell phone.

  5. Hollie Olivia Whitehead
    January 28, 2013

    I love this ‘project’ (if you can even reduce it to that). What a journey! What an inspiration! What an eternal story. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I walk with you, too. <3

  6. Mike
    January 28, 2013

    Interesting! I hope that everyone’s weekend was great and safe, and that goes for the week ahead!

  7. Lynn Sherwood
    January 28, 2013

    So, here I sit in a Canadian blizzard, having shovelled out my front walk, sharing an adventure in the Ethiopean desert half a world away, where it all began. Extremely cool. Thank you. I will be waiting for your next post.

  8. Jenny Mackintosh
    January 28, 2013

    Wonderful project, I wish Paul well and look forward to following his walk.

  9. Rita
    January 28, 2013

    All their cell phones should come with a solar charger.

  10. etim calabar
    January 28, 2013

    so great to be part of ur journey..well done

  11. Claudia
    January 28, 2013

    So exciting! My bookshelves are full of adventure and survival books. National Geographic is an old friend and I look forward to this ongoing account of a world traveler.

  12. Jocelyne Tufts
    January 28, 2013

    What an amazing world we live in!

  13. stan rook
    January 28, 2013

    What’s next, the moon, Mars? Great feat!

  14. Nancy Brown
    January 28, 2013

    What an adventure and remarkable undertaking. I’m totally captivated and plan to travel vicariously with you to the end But I’ll be 80 then, so please don’t dawdle!

  15. Barbara Lindecke
    January 28, 2013

    What an adventure! Thanks for sharing your journey.

  16. Carol Van Ness
    January 28, 2013

    I just “found” your journey through Natl Geo. this is an amazing journey that you have embarked on. I look forward to following you on this path.

  17. Lis Young
    January 29, 2013

    Paul, good luck in your fascinating journey. I read it for the first time today, and it is significant because just yesterday I started planning my retirement – which will coincide with the end of your trek. My kids are almost grown and I, like you, I am venturing into unknown territory walked so many times before by those who came before us. Reading your reports along the next 7 years will remind me at every step of that there is a wonderful world out there. I look forward to walking with you.

  18. Solomon Legesse Hae
    January 29, 2013

    In addition, it is one of the interesting tourist sites of Afar, Ethiopia where U can see Ertale active volcano.

  19. Daphne Chan
    January 29, 2013

    Simply fascinating. So refreshing to experience with you something so different from the concrete built up jungles that we urbanites live in. . . and what difference technology like cell phones make in this remote part of the planet . . .

  20. payton
    January 30, 2013

    Wow. That’s amazing what people are doing now. When i was small we didn’t have cell phones

  21. Juergen Schumann
    January 30, 2013

    I have already travelled a great deal in my life,but I soak up these wonderful stories.I love nature and meeting people and don’ think much of the urban jungle a la Dubai.I am looking forward to this most unusual journey.

  22. malaramuthan rajamoni
    January 31, 2013

    The article is anazing

  23. Raghu Nathan
    January 31, 2013

    Nomads greeting each other on cell phones! The world is such a beautiful place!

  24. wpstanley
    February 1, 2013

    Should I call this science or what, well its science made in Africa, good one there.
    http://whitepagesng.com/

  25. YUSEF RIVERA
    February 1, 2013

    GOOD JOB

  26. David Morrison
    March 3, 2013

    You’ve got an excellent nose for the dynamics of a place. I am thoroughly enjoying your travels. Thank you so much for your good work.

  27. Patricia
    May 21, 2013

    Just started reading the posts — wonderful and inspiring! Looking forward to catching up and following along!

  28. Denise Whatley
    November 28, 2013

    Why do they not have solar chargers? It would seem the perfect environment for their use.

  29. Denise Whatley
    November 28, 2013

    solar chargers? recommented to request followup

  30. Guarac Camargo Assunção
    December 22, 2013

    Maravilhoso! Gostaria de acompanhar todos os trajetos dessa aventura via email

  31. Jim Kasper
    December 30, 2013

    When I lived in Malawi, in a remote fishing village as a Peace Corps volunteer, I was amazed to see how many people – young and old alike – had cell phones tied around their necks. I went back to visit in 2012, and even the grandmothers were chatting on them. Incredible.

  32. Janet
    January 17, 2014

    Can you give us the phonetic spelling of “dagu” so that we can say this wonderful word correctly and hear it upon our foreign ears?

  33. Mc
    January 17, 2014

    Great article

  34. Mc
    January 17, 2014

    Great article!

  35. Ben Duke
    January 24, 2014

    Wow! I am really impressed by this story, it really shows how all of the world is becoming technological, I wonder how they ‘Quick Charge’

  36. anastasia
    January 25, 2014

    what about the back story of how these cell phones are produced: the toxic materials, the people (children sometimes) who assemble them, the industrial wasteland technology leaves behind? Why are we so quick to celebrate the absurd pace of cell phone communication? What is happening to us? We are addicted to speed and information at what cost? Is it not ironic that while you are supposedly walking at a human pace we are experiencing your walk through a digital device that operates at light speed? I’m getting dizzy just thinking about it!

  37. donna underwood
    February 4, 2014

    Just started fol,owing the journey after reading article in National Geographic. I am captivated by the project and will be following along. Will be sharing with my son , 16years old, whom I am homeschooling. We will learn a lot from your adventure. Thank you and God Bless!

  38. nick
    May 9, 2014

    you are amazing how are your legs still attached to your body.

  39. nick
    May 9, 2014

    i want that gun that guy has on his back

  40. colton
    May 9, 2014

    i want thae ak on the guys back

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