the likes of which I'd never felt and at first didn't think survivable, but my excitement about the mission was peaking. Only a few days before I had come through New York and Paris for orientation and training, and now everything I'd only read about or imagined was becoming very real. I wanted to experience all the sights, smells, and sounds of this journey as we passed through large towns, bustling markets, and small villages—each one filled with colorfully dressed, curious people.
As we descended into the northern reaches of the Great Rift Valley, the landscape changed constantly—from fertile, green fields around Addis; to mountainous, volcanic outcroppings and old lava fields; to the more arid but still cultivated region of Oromiya. The farther north we traveled, the more desert we saw—and the fewer people and more camels and goats (plus some cattle). A gang of 40 to 60 baboons greeted us as we neared Afar.
The road to Afar was well-maintained, paved for the most part. But for the last 45 minutes, by then under a full moon, we bounced along a dirt track across the desert—a vast, flat expanse of sand and rock, low scrub, and acacias. As we dipped into a broad depression, our driver, Tesfaye, said, "This is the Mille River." We headed straight for and through a foot or so of water, without mishap. (The crocodiles were not to feast that night!)
It is in this rocky, arid environment that the Afar eke out a subsistence living, relying heavily on milk from their livestock. Sparse grassy patches offer the only grazing ground for their herds. Yet not only had the grass been crowded out in recent years by thorny bushes, but some of the best remaining grazing areas would soon be inundated by the Awash dam project. A further problem was that a few miles to the south and east, the Issa tribe was competing for some historic Afar grazing areas, threatening to rekindle long-standing hostilities. Perhaps this explains the traditional sword, or gilé, that most of the young Afar men wear. And the ubiquitous AK-47 rifle that they often strap to their shoulder or carry like a yoke
Even everyday respiratory infections can be life-threatening to a people whose overall health status is so dismal. Two out of five infants don't survive to their fifth birthday, and Afar life expectancy is less than 50 years.
across the back of their neck as they head off with their herds.
The Afar live in domed huts called daboytas. Made of interlaced sticks covered with lightweight straw mats, daboytas can be easily disassembled and packed on the back of a camel as the Afar follow the rains to find grazing for their herds.
They rely principally on the Karma rains, from mid-July to mid-September, which in recent years have been unpredictable. Persistent drought is now threatening a way of life that has probably not changed significantly in thousands of years. Weakened by hunger and malnutrition, livestock and people alike are more prone to disease.
Arriving in Galaha, I was greeted by Dr. Nancy Tsai, an American doctor about to leave after a six-month stay. She introduced me to the other expatriate staff and some of the Ethiopian staff and then I was shown to