Dead flashlight batteries.
Two discarded Ethiopian coins.
A green plastic comb.
We are three walking days from the Ethiopian border.
We traverse a sea of volcanic rock. It is hot, infernal, endless. A simmering plain of stones the color of charcoal. There is no sign of life—not even a plant. The view is sterile, alien, like those grainy photographs captured by robots on another world. And then . . . a woman’s shoe. Size 36, imitation leather, with rhinestones attached. Further on: a baseball cap bleached grey by the sun. Then, dozens—no hundreds—of cracked water bottles. (These are cooking oil jugs, many wrapped in burlap for cooling.)
After weeks of roaming on foot through the immaculate deserts of the poor—a nomad wilderness where every article of trash, every tin can, every plastic bottle is picked up, recycled for some secondary purpose—we have entered a new layer of Rift Valley archaeology, one that stretches 150 miles or more into Djibouti, all the way to the Red Sea. It is a debris field of 21st-century wanderers, exiles, penitents, orphans. Somewhere ahead the border crossing forms a funnel, a bottleneck, for migrant workers from all over the African Horn. They, too, are walkers. They walk to Yemen. To Saudi Arabia. To Dubai. Not to hunt oryx with stone-tipped projectiles, as did the early Homo sapiens who walked out of Africa. And not merely for a ludicrous idea, as we do today. But to rent out their muscles, their bodies, for a crust of bread.
They are Oromos from the south of Ethiopia and Tigreyans from the highlands. They are refugees fleeing the ruinscape of Somalia. A few are deserters from the Eritrean army. Young men. A few hardy women. They have to be strong. Because the desert crossing is harsh, pitiless. Some die here of thirst. At the Red Sea, scores drown every year taking passage in rickety open boats. Yet still they come. One hundred thousand people a year, at least, evacuate the continent this way. They trek mostly at night, guided by smugglers. This barren, godless plain crawls with an army of walkers after dark. Under starlight, the out-of-Africa migration continues.
Hahai, the Afar nomads call them. People of the wind.
They blow through the desert, leaving behind little but what gets dropped on the trails. A sandal. A cook pot. Worthless dregs of money. And their bones, laid out beneath loose piles of rock by survivors who cannot linger.
Glasses frame (lenses missing).
A tee shirt.
A can of Gillette shaving cream.
A sun-rotted backpack (stenciled with children’s cartoons).
We meet the hahai one morning at a remote Afar encampment.
They are 15 tired, men from the mountains of Ethiopia—a country ranked near the bottom of the UN’s poverty index, 174th out of 187 nations—trekking toward slightly less poor Djibouti (165th) to reach marginally less poor Yemen (154th). These numbers explain why, even in broad daylight, these men remain invisible.
They sit on the rocks after a night of hiking. They take sips from yoked jugs of water. One man uses his bare hand to stir besso, a barley gruel, in a dented tin pot. Their smuggler, an old Afar, sits apart, dapper in electric blue socks and hi-top tennis shoes, smoking.
“Yemen is hard,” one migrant says. “They kill us with knives and guns.”
He sees the look on my face: that I do not believe.
“It is true,” another man insists. He calls himself Daniel. He has been walking 13 days from Wollo province. A job picking dates in Saudi Arabia awaits him. It pays 4,000 Ethiopian birr—about $200—a month. This is a princely sum. Double what he earns as a laborer in Ethiopia. He tells this story:
Last year, in Yemen, his group of destitute wanderers was attacked by thieves. The Yemenis stabbed one migrant and dumped his body down a well. Daniel hid in the bushes for three days, without food, before slipping away to the Saudi border. He tells this story smiling. All the men are smiling. The besso is ready to eat. They say nothing more. They have the ocean in their eyes. The story is over.
Two address books with Dubai phone numbers (chamfered by mice).
A jam jar.
A 7.62 mm bullet casing.
Night on the plain of stones. Our little caravan is stalled.
My guide, Ahmed Alema Hessan, is sick with something like typhoid. I am sick. We are all hungry. We have walked 22 miles. Our supplies are reduced to a few packets of noodles, a few biscuits. We let the fire die early. We lie awake in our blankets. And I am thinking of a house filled with benign sun far away, a white house at a higher latitude, with green trees, a woman’s laughter in the kitchen, the caw-caw of the hadada ibis. My heart is dreaming.
“Paul?” Alema hisses urgently in the dark. “Hey, Paul.”
But I have heard it already: a disturbance in the night air. A faint rumbling, growing almost imperceptibly louder, like the approach of herd of wild animals. But can there be animals in this place? The nearest blade of grass, the nearest well, is miles away. I sit up.
And then they come, in the pale beam of Alema’ s flashlight, a column of figures.
They are men and women in a bas relief, as if carved in greys and blacks from the branches of the night. Five, six. A dozen. Then scores. They file past our camp in single file. I attempt to count them, but give up after reaching 90. Their shuffling feet raise a veil of dust. They don’t look up. They carry no lights. They leave little behind. We exchange not a single word. My tongue is immobilized.