I am sitting on an old boat, observing women and men unload salt from the boats on the pink-hued lake. A man who has just finished his work for the day, walks over to “our” boat and begins changing from his wet, salty working clothes.
He looks like he could be in his late thirties, but it is hard to say. Men, who stand for 7 hours a day, 4 days a week in a lake that consists of nearly 50 % salt, age differently. His body is thin without a single gram of fat. His legs are the skinniest I have ever seen and quite out of proportion with his upper body which is full of muscles. Standing in salt all day apparently literally “eats” your legs, while lifting 25-kilo baskets of salt builds up your torso.
I observe him as he first washes himself with a small can, using water from a small plastic bucket, and then his modest “working clothes” with the remaining water. Unlike the majority of tourists who come here, snap some pics and quickly leave, I am just sitting here absorbing the scene. So we start talking.
The conversation opens with the usual questions I get from the locals: “Where do you come from? Do you live and work in Senegal? Or are you here just on holidays?” When he hears that I’m from Slovenia, the discussion inevitably turns to football, the most popular sport in Senegal. In this part of the world, Slovenia is known for its football players. Or maybe he is just talking about it to keep the conversation going.
I have so many questions about his life and work, but my limited French is a proving to be an obstacle. Luckily my new Senegalese friend Ibou shows up and interprets from Wolof.
The man has been working here for 4 years. He earns around 25 dollars a day. Working 4 days a week adds up to 100 dollars a week. But for that he needs to harvest a ton of salt in the 7-hour “working day”, which does not happen every day.
When men finish their work around 2 or 3 pm, they pay women to load the salt off the boats. Women get 25 Senegalese francs (around 4 eurocents) per bucket carried. As each bucket weighs 27 kilos, they can’t carry more than 20 buckets a day.
At some point one of the women with a child on her back sits down next to us and starts breastfeeding her baby. When she is done, she straps the baby back on her back and goes back to work, carrying some more salt… Maternity protection at work does not exist here.
When we are about to leave, one of the women gestures me – do I want to try and carry the salt bucket? I jump at the opportunity, thinking “They let me observe them for an hour, I should at least pay them back in entertainment.” I put the bucket on my head and try to walk. My new friends are laughing while I stumble under its weight. But I manage to safely carry over two of them! 🙂
We like to complain about how hard we work, but the story of the people on this beautiful lake, really puts things into perspective. I make a silent promise to myself to remember this conversation for the future. It will be my wake up call whenever I catch myself moaning about my work again.
For those curious about the origin of the name of the lake: many, many years ago, the lake was full of fish. But then the texture and salt content of the lake suddenly changed. Its pink colour is the result of the action of micro-algae. The depth of the lake is 3 metres, of which salt accounts for 1.5 metres. Read more about this fascinating lake.