Pronounced “as-ah-lie”, this is
the extraction, transport, and sale of salt from the mines
in the extreme north of Mali. The word itself means joined
or fitted together. It encompasses a set of arrangements
and actions, all perfectly orchestrated and organized that
makes up the trip to to Taoudenit, and the return with the
salt and finally its sale. This is no stroll in the dunes,
nor is it a random trip to here and there in hopes of trade
or greener pastures. This is an activity with a goal;
supplies, distances, directions must all be strictly
controlled ensure its success and prevent deaths along the
way. Hence the name of fitted or joined, every piece in its
This activity has been practised by the Berabish Tuareg for millennia. Today in the early morning or late afternoon you can often see caravans of camels loaded with slabs of salt arrive near the Jardin de la Paix (north of the Flame de la Paix monument). Though the size of the caravans and the value of the salt has drastically diminished since the days of grandeur, the people cling tenaciously to the tradition.
The mining of Taoudenit had only been going of since 1587, when it was discovered during the rout of the miners from Tagaza, the original mine, by Moroccan solders intent on capturing the valuable salt mine. Having discovered this huge deposit of salt three days south the miners of the Songaï empire, who had control of the area at that time, abandoned Tagaza to the Moroccans in favour of the closer and ultimately more extensive mine of Taoudenit. Of course the following year the Moroccans continued their conquest on down to Timbuktu and overthrew the Songaï, to control Timbuktu and the mines for the next several centuries. (For more on the Moroccan invasion see the section on the Moroccan wells in the desert.)
The Caravans start off from north of Timbuktu, or more commonly a camp outside Timbuktu where several people my combine their camels to form a single caravan for the duration of the trip and split off again on return. They then head north, travelling up to ten hours and 50 km a day. The two or four men with each caravan of 20 to 100 camels walk, one leading the string of camels another trailing along the side or near the rear of the line. They mount only when tired and rest for the few hours they ride, having perfected the art of sleeping while comfortably seated on a saddle-less moving camel. This is an important skill because once started, the caravan does not stop moving until the day’s trek is finished. A man must mount and dismount the moving camel, or at best the standing camel-- an impossible manoeuvre with a saddle.
The trip to Taoudenit, the current mine, takes fifteen days. No meals are prepared until camp is pitched at the end of the day's march. The men sustain themselves with a filling spiced drink made primarily of millet flour and heavily sweetened. Tea may also be prepared while walking; the stove and other material attached to a camel … At the end of the day the camels are unloaded and loosely hobbled so they can go find grazing. In the morning the men must track them down and reload, before starting out. Caravans may stop an extra day or two near Arawane, 230 km north of Timbuktu and a week into the trek. Here they collect fodder for the camels to see them through the next two weeks in the “real desert” where there is no vegetation to be found. Bundles of fodder are dropped off at staging points on the way north to be used on the return trip.
After reaching Taoudenit another day or two will be spent arranging for the salt. The salt is extracted by hand in shallow open pits. Great slabs or “bars” average 1.5 m long and 0.5 m wide and 3 to 4 cm thick, and can weigh up to 60 Kg. Camel hide cord is wrapped around each end of a bar. the loose ends are wrapped around an second bar with enough space in the middle to go over the camels back. Two rectangles of wadded straw or grass wrapped in burlap are attached in a special pad and set over the camel's hump. Two sets of salt bars are then added and hang down the sides. The pad protects the camel from chafing and distributes the weight. The ropes around the salt not only attach it to the camel but protect the bars from knocking together. More baggage may be strapped down to the top if need be, such as water skins, and the long trek back begins.
As with the northward trip the men must unload the camels every night and reload in the morning. The men must load all four bars of salt onto each camel at the beginning of the day and unload at the end of the days march. This means they must rise extremely early. With only two men in a 20 camel caravan each man would be lifting the equivalent of 2400 kg (almost two and a half tons!) twice a day. In the week after leaving as with the week before arriving the caravans must force long marches to be sure to reach the widely spaced wells before their water supply runs out. With 150 km between wells they must go 50km a day to reach the next well in three days.
Upon the triumphant return of the caravan the salt is unloaded at the home of one of the members of the caravan or a salt merchant on the outskirts of town, as the camels do not enter the city. Later it will be sold in the market, taken to the port where it will be loaded on pinnaces and shipped south, or loaded onto the backs of donkeys (two ½ bars to each side of the donkey) and taken on to Dogon country to be exchanged for millet.
For every camel two bars of salt go to the person who extracted it and two go to the transporter. A bar of salt is sold in Timbuktu for around 5000 f CFA. So after 1600km on foot lifting five tons everyday for two weeks a man gets 100.000 f CFA, about $200! One man explains, “We do it for the spirit of the thing more than the money. We do it because we don’t have anything else.”