National Geographic

New World

Dubti, Ethiopia, 11°44'5'' N, 40°59'30'' E

Moving north and then east, we abandon the desert and stub our toes on the anthropocene—the age of modern humans.

Asphalt appears: the Djibouti-Ethiopia road, throbbing with trucks. We inch through a series of gritty towns. Dust and diesel. Bars. Shops with raw plank counters. Garlands of tin cups clink in the wind outside their doors.

Then, near Dubti: a sea (no, a wall) of sugar cane. Miles of industrial irrigation. Canals. Diversion dams. Bulldozed fields. Ahmed Alema Hassan, my infallible guide, becomes lost. As we search for a way through the cane, night envelops us, and we end up pulling the weary camels in a gigantic circle. “Wow, man!” Alema says in surrender. “No way! Too much change!”

This is the Tendaho sugar plantation, a multimillion-dollar Ethiopian-Indian project that is making the Afar Triangle bloom. Fifty thousand migrant workers will soon toil here, tending 120,000 acres of desert that has been scraped, shaped, molded, and flooded by the Awash River to sweeten the world’s coffee, its tea. Eventually, it could make Ethiopia the sixth largest sugar producer in the world. It will help break the country’s dependence on foreign aid: a good thing.

But progress is rarely shared equally for those involved. There are winners and losers in every improvement scheme. Here, one of the losers is a bright young Afar woman—a girl, really, though her poise is very old. She is wrapped in a red dress. She stands by a new levee. She is collecting water from what used to be the Awash River.

“The company moved us off our land,” she tells us, waving her arm at the cane. “We get a little work, us Afars, but it is always the lowest work. Watchmen. Shovel work.”

A typical sugar plantation salary: $20 a month. The girl says police were sent into local nomad communities to chase out the diehards who refused to move. Shots were exchanged. People bled on both sides.

How old is this story? It is one of the oldest stories in the world.

What are the exact names of the Sioux removed from the Black Hills of the Dakotas to accommodate gold miners? Who knows? Who are the people who surrender their traditional livelihoods today—Irish farmers forced out of business by market policies in Europe, or Mexican ranchers shunted aside by highways—always for some common cause? It is impossible to keep track now. Humanity is remaking the world in a radical and accelerating cycle of change that strips away the memory of place as well as topsoil. Our era’s breathtaking changes flatten collective memory, disrupt precedence, sever lines of responsibility. (What so disconcerts us about suburbia? Not only its placelessness but a void of time; we crave a past in our landscapes.)

Dubti is a bustling green frontier. Hardworking men and women from all over Ethiopia are flocking there, bringing new hopes, tastes, voices. A new plantation housing complex will shelter 3,000 families. In the heat waves of distance, an Afar drives his goats past the boxy buildings: a living ghost in a landscape of deepening amnesia.

Ethiopian police watch anthropocene video, Afar Triangle. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Ethiopian police watch anthropocene video, Afar Triangle. Photograph by Paul Salopek

In Dishoto, another truck stop town, I recharge my laptop at a police station. The officers are all outsiders, non-Afar. They are friendly, curious, generous. They ply Alema and me with tea. (It is dense with sugar.) Our conversation is derailed by Ethiopian TV. The policemen stare at nation-building music videos: pop tunes played over video loops of strip mining, road building. We thank them. We walk on.

A Czech novelist, Milan Kundera, once wrote: The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

The Afar girl’s name is Dahara. She is 15.

There are 29 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Bandkanon
    February 21, 2013

    The losers in a rural nomadic transition to an industrial economy is unavoidable. Where else are businesses going to get their cheap labor? Perhaps the best that governments can do is to make the transition as painless as possible.

  2. Salem
    February 21, 2013

    Should we ever stay in nomadic lifestyle, or shall we bear the pain and move to embrace modernity along with its possible offer of better life quality, better education, better health service? or shall we stay running behind goats and camels?

    It is amazing to learn how people from the west use any opportunity to pass the unbalanced view of our strife for development by empesasing the loss. Asking a 15 year old girl, it is sad to learn you want to pass the message to the public that development is so costly to the local herders. In deed it is costly, but we better pay and move, at least we will then one day stop begging the west for our bread.

  3. Carmen
    February 21, 2013

    Thank you for sharing your observations along your journey with us readers. You are obviously a very thoughtful man.

  4. Max
    February 21, 2013

    Thank you for this story!

  5. Dana
    February 22, 2013

    Wow. As I finished reading your last dispatch my thoughts turned from wonder and curiosity to “ugh”. I appreciate your compassionate view and wonderful writing, and I look forward to the rest of the journey.

  6. Yalew bekele
    February 23, 2013

    thank you paul for the information you shared with us as it happened infact paying a heavy price

  7. Nan
    February 23, 2013

    Interesting. I enjoyed reading this. I agree with the “flattening of collective memory” – it is convenient in the “interest” of development.

  8. Antonio
    February 23, 2013

    It is possible to find the places using the coordinates on Google Maps. They do need some “translating”.

  9. Antonio
    February 23, 2013

    I knew cane fields as a young boy. Some of my childhood days include the falling of ashes from the burning of some of these by people struggling against the powerful, who owned the land, the cane and the sugar. I knew this ashfall before seeing snow. I like the name Dahara. Anyone know its meaning?

  10. Paul
    February 25, 2013

    To find the places mentioned using Google Maps, convert the latitude and longitude shown at the top of each article to decimal values and enter those values into the search box at the top of Google Maps. To convert the degrees, minutes and seconds to decimal values, I use the following web site: I am sure there are other sites as well. Remember to enter latitude first then longitude. Separate the values with a comma.

  11. Gary Boivin
    February 25, 2013

    In any endeavour, one has to start somewhere. Usually, that means sacrifice for those who leave their homes to “go where the work is”. It is sacrifice for those who leave their homes, to “make way for the work”. In the end, the benefits of this work must fall on the backs of native and immigrant alike.

  12. Cassie
    February 27, 2013

    Someday I
    want to travel the world like you are

  13. Justin Bieber
    February 27, 2013

    This is amazing you are very awesome for doing this

  14. alicia
    February 27, 2013

    i think its amazing how ur doing this u are very cool(:

  15. Justin Bieber
    February 27, 2013

    hey hey hey this is awesome

  16. cassie
    February 27, 2013

    you are a good man and very awesome:)

  17. Barbara Standley
    February 28, 2013

    Tendaho! It was talked about in Addis Abeba when I was Peace Corps volunteer there in 1966-67! Well, it seems to have finally been put into action. Too bad that the immediate human fallout was, yet again in this world, ignored.

  18. Linda Laursen B.
    March 8, 2013

    Amazing to watch these discussions unfold via your site. Every educator should be using your walk in the classroom. So many applications are possible, across the curriculum. Wishing you continued safe journeys. Your following is growing exponentially.

  19. mezze
    March 12, 2013

    i just entered longi- and latitude as mentioned at the top in Google maps. That works allright, so no need to convert.

  20. zach ks
    March 27, 2013

    you are so cool I like how you stared in africa

  21. Robert Durkin
    April 5, 2013

    There is so often human fallout and it is so often unnecessary.

  22. DBD
    August 21, 2013

    The story of human history is one of change and movement. The whole story underlying the reason for this trip is testament to that. Why did the original people walk out of Eden? Was there population pressure? Environmental change? Something was the impulse to move, to risk. I’m sure there was pain, and suffering in that movement. I’m sure there was joy and opportunity, hard work and sacrifice. That is the never-ending story of our species. Change happens. It is good, it is bad, it brings improvement, it brings pain. It just is. The best we can do is try to minimize the pain, remember the best we can, and try to move towards a better place.

    I absolutely love this journey, and your writing is a joy to me. I look forward to following you through it all. Happy trails.

  23. Macie
    October 11, 2013

    This is really cool:)I really like this:)

  24. Kate
    October 11, 2013

    It is sad that her people were forced of the their land by the company.

  25. Sally Ann Wyeth Barr
    February 1, 2014

    I’ve heard the reason if our survival, as opposed to the Neanderthal, is our ‘better’ brains. We had, and have, imagination and empathy, hence our innate desire for exploration, answers and wonderment, which may all be answers to why our ancestors moved.

  26. Azucena
    February 8, 2014

    “The girl says police were sent into local nomad communities to chase out the diehards who refused to move. Shots were exchanged. People bled on both sides.”

    But if they’re nomads, whose land is it then?

  27. Azucena
    February 8, 2014

    “The girl says police were sent into local nomad communities to chase out the diehards who refused to move. Shots were exchanged. People bled on both sides.”

    But if they’re nomads, whose land is it then?

  28. Jill
    March 12, 2014

    This is the cutest photo of camels I’ve ever seen. 🙂

  29. Tom Stewart
    March 5, 2015

    I am slowly making my way through your posts, Paul, working my way to the present. These posts are their own present, for me anyhow – thank you. I find this post very troubling in the way unstoppable power – greed – continues to just sweep humanity out of its way. I feel a hug world wide anger building. Will the world blow up again in another immense war of social adjustment? So sad, and what will become of the Awash River? Will it be another body of precious water to vanish in the march for progress.

Add Your Comments

All fields required.

Related Posts

Song of a Scorching Badland

A Central Asian furnace greets a global walker at Milestone 38, the first hundred-mile marker in Uzbekistan.

We were following the old Soviet-built rail line across Central Asia. The stations held the ...