01 January 1970
#WeekendReads

Salty Tales: White Gold In A Pink Lake

A tale of salt and its impoverished minors from West Africa,

The pink lake
The pink lake Getty Images

I remember December 2016, when I was in Senegal during my Trans Africa Overland Expedition. Our caravan was on the shores of stunning Lake ‘Retba’. Ninth December. In front of me sprawled a pastel-red colored great lake, but they call it 'Lac Rose' or Pink Lake.

The sun was radiating its hues on the water.  I met Ousmane Diouf, he was pounding the water surface with a stick. He struck blow by blow, and the water slowly wavered with his thrusts creating circular ripples. Curious about it, I approached and greeted him with Salaam Alekum, -and asked in English, what is the reason for hitting the water like that? He smiled, ‘Alekum Salaam.’ now he answered in French, ' essayer de trouver un endroit approprie pour plonger dans l'eau'-.

‘Trying to find the right place to dive,’ said fellow Frenchman Gabriel, who was visiting the place with me. There seemed to be a crack in the viscous water surface where the cane was repeatedly blasted.  Ousmane deftly disappeared below through the fissure. After a while, he suddenly popped up to the surface. He stood in waist-deep water. His dark fleshy body glistened in the sun. His skin was adorned with white salt crystal pearls.

A salt trader, who knew English was standing on the shore.   As I inquired, he said, ‘he went under the water to the salt pan. The shallow water of the lake contains mineral salt in high concentration.’

Gabriel, an earth science student at the University of Paris, gave a brief description of the lake.  The unique waterbody is located on the edge of the Cape Verde Peninsula, twenty-two miles northeast of Dakar, the capital of Senegal. The space between the Atlantic Ocean and the lake is only a few thousand feet.  A narrow sand drift corridor separates them. The salt content of lake water is ten times higher than the salt level of the ocean. It is even denser than Lake Retba's cousin, the famous 'Dead Sea' located between Jordan and Israel.

I asked salt dealer Babacar Cisse, if he could narrate the intrinsic story of lake Retba. He did a little belly-laugh and said I don’t know the story yet, how the pink lake is created.

I purchase the crop from the miners and sale to the wholesaler.  Life is tough here. Tough times never last, but tough people do. It’s an African proverb. We are optimist. ‘la crise sera bientôt terminée’. Gabriel translated- The crisis will be over soon.

An ebony woman, named ‘Khadi Sow’ was selling some ethnic artifacts on the shore. She told me if you buy something from me then I will tell you the facts about the lake. Get a souvenir and save my children from starving for the day.

I bought a bead necklace; in the bargain, she unfolded her story.  Lake Retba was once a deep freshwater lake without any outlet. In the 1980s, the lake dried up like the Dead Sea due to a severe drought. Many people died out of hunger during that time. My mother told me I lost one of my siblings.  Then God did the miracle. Lake was replenished by the blood and sweat of the people who died.

Gabriel expanded the fact. Water from the Atlantic rushed through the coarse sand and refilled the dried pan, creating a briny lake. Evaporation increases the salt concentration in water. A type of small algae grows in saline water (Daniella salina). A type of cyanobacteria nests in those algae. A kind of pigment (red oxide) is released from the bacteria. which belongs to the beta carotene family. The dye absorbs the sunlight and converts the colors of the water, consequently creating a mesmerizing scene.

Purely magical. Such magic of nature is rare in the world. A type of small dwarf fish survives by shedding excess salt from its body to adapt to the salinity of the water.  It was at the end of the afternoon.  Under the brutal sun and the gentle breeze of the Atlantic, Lake Retba opened its beauty, and it was breathtaking. The entire lake looked like strawberry malted milk in its magenta hue. A few tourists were floating at ease in the highly brackish water. I also went floating with the team.  Water was so buoyant, that even non-swimmer could drift comfortably.  And it was completely safe. But swimming was difficult, only skilled swimmers could swim.  We all washed our salt-draped bodies in the water well on the shore.

The impoverished salt-miners of various West African countries are tangled in the lake. They excavate sea salt from the colliery on the lake floor, pour the mass in a boat and bring it to the shore. The country's economic catastrophe has forced people to look for new ways of earning without finding an alternative way. So, they harvest the salt throughout the year. A solid layer of salt is submerged in the Pink Lake, which is two and a half miles long, half a mile wide, and ten feet deep.  Half of the lake floor contains a solid layer of salt. Hundreds of thousands of workers dig salt by their own efforts. Government support is nonexistent.  Earning is little. Profits are so low that big traders are not interested. He-men are picking up about 60,000 tons of salt every year. Ousmane hails from the Wolf Community. Every morning, he floats his boat on the lake with his companions and searches for salt. To save the cuticle from the alkalinity of the salt in the water, he applies a paste on his skin. The paste is made from grinding shea nuts mixed with water. Sometimes the rubbing of salt causes skin lesions. The inhuman labor requires grim energy and resolute courage.

The soil was salt rich. The salt was separated by filtering in a sieve. Ousmane said he collects five boats full of salt every day. His earnings are so meager he can hardly maintain his family. He has no other source of income.

Numerous mariners were mining salt in the lake by driving boats like Venetian gondolas. Ousmane did not study. So, he could not take independent decisions to survive. He did not see any possibility of getting rid of this painful profession now.
 
Rows of salt mounds on the edge of the lake. Women wage slaves collected salt from boats, carrying a big salt-filled container on their heads, each one weighing at least fifty kilos.

Some clear salt crystals were as big as a fist. The collected salt mounds looked like hills. Lagoon beaches washed by sodium chloride are deadly for the trees, so, a blunt landscape without much greenery was noticeable. A regular threat comes from the Atlantic.  Giant sea-swell roll across the soft sand. Salt miners were fighting to keep the lake alive; otherwise, the lake would have disappeared due to constant salt sedimentation.
 
The demand for iodized salt is increasing worldwide due to physical reasons. Wage earners of salt mine are deprived of this type of supplemental salt in their diet. The fallacy is so many sick children with immature brains are born into their families.  
 
It reminded me of Mohandas Gandhi’s salt Satyagraha in India. Salt was considered something on which everybody had a basic right. That movement ushered in complete independence for India. I was anticipating someday impoverished Senegalese would achieve complete self-rule to get access to the iodized salt in their nourishment.
 
There are more pink lakes in the world such as the Great Salt Lake in Utah in the USA, and Spencer Lake in Australia. However, UNESCO is considering Lake Retba to be declared as a World Heritage Site. If the unique white-gold in a pink lake or Africa's Dead Sea gets the honor, more tourists will come to this land and put some wind in the sailboat of Senegal's weak economy.
 
(Pijush Roychowdhury is a Glob-trotter frequented in sixty-three countries. His travelogues have been published in renowned publications. He is an awardee of 'KALOM' as the best travelogue writer in the year 2020.

Boudhayan Mukherjee, a bilingual poet, author, and translator started as a student editor and literary secretary at Visva Bharati university. His first book of verse "Black Milk" (1990) is followed by five anthologies, a collection of short stories and books of translations.)