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Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda.

Just outside the park at Queen Elizabeth lie salt lakes where the locals extract salt from the water using one of two methods. Either they evaporate the water, or dig the rock salt up from the bottom of the lake. There are some rather interesting aspects to the "uniform," shall we call it, the workers must wear each day. It had never once occurred to me to wonder about the hazards of working in salty water. I have been inside the ancient and astounding Wieliczka salt mine in Poland, impressive beyond my already-high expectations in both its sheer size and its artistic interior, carved by workers who seldom ever surfaced from the mine. Supposedly, the air in the mine is actually a health benefit.

On the other side of the world, though, the impoverished villagers working the salt lakes in Uganda are plagued by numerous health problems. But let’s begin with a brief description of the lake. Villagers purchase plots of the lake to "harvest" (extraction by evaporation), just as one would purchase a plot of land for agriculture or livestock pasture. So different villagers have different-sized plots depending on their investment. They let several feet of water into their plot via a channel and let it sit stagnant. In the hot sun of the dry season, as the water evaporates, a film of salt soon evolves on the top. The villager then steps into the pond, waist-high in water, and skims the salt film off the top, collecting it in a sack. Easy as pie, really.

Plots on the salt lake.

Harvesting plots in a salt lake outside Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda.

Woman (in red) working on her salt plot outside Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda.

Water channeling into salt plots in lake outside Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda.

In the rainy season, however, the villagers wane into destitution as the lake becomes too diluted with fresh rain water to be able to form a layer of salt. Kasim, my guide, tells me, “The only remedy is prayer. Pray for the rains to stop. Salt is their only source of income.”

The handful of structures on the lakeshore suffer constant corrosion, as do the bodies of the workers. Their skin becomes like crocodile skin and they suffer from dehydration. In recent years, as the government finally paid attention to the health issues, and they have started a campaign to educate the workers on the measures they need to take to stay healthy. A tourist cannot visit the salt lakes unaccompanied by a local guide. You stop at the tourist building, find the nearest adult or responsible-looking kid to go look for the guide on duty that day, wait in the sun for him to show up, and then he takes you around. The money you pay for this service provides the education and supplies the workers need to safeguard their health.

Waiting for a guide to show up.

Waiting for a guide to the salt lake outside Queen Elizabeth national Park, Uganda.


So … #1: drink lots and lots of water to combat dehydration, and do not drink alcohol before or during work.

#2: if you are a woman, wear a tampon. Salt water consistently entering a woman’s nether-regions causes her serious health problems. Of this, I had no idea! So “they must pack cotton into themselves,” Kasim tells me. Part of tourist-generated money buys this material.

#3: if you are a man, first, if you are not already, you are highly advised to get circumcised. Salt water consistently hanging out in the folds of this nether-region causes unfortunate problems as well. But even so, the man’s treasures remain endangered by consistent exposure to salt water. So, the natural course of action became to fit themselves with a condom each morning, and part of tourist money buys the condoms. “But the condom was invented for another type of activity,” Kasim reminds me. So how to put on this part of the worker’s uniform each day? At first, the recommendation was to pleasure one’s self sufficiently to ensure a proper fit. But when this is actually part of your daily job, apparently the novelty wears off and the men looked for an alternative. Kasim then performed for me a reenactment of how the men stuff their entire package, balls and all, into a condom and seal the top with a rubber band. This charade was completely hilarious. I would love the opportunity some day to be playing charades game and to draw the card, “salt lake worker,” and perform Kasim’s rendition of stuffing my goodies into a teeny tiny bag.

The level of extra-marital promiscuity/sexual relations is quite high in Uganda. It’s been phrased to me as “the side dish.” You have your spouse – the main course – and then you sample the occasional side dish. One man told me that it can be a real problem when a Ugandan man dies, as suddenly two or three women besides the "formal" wife come out of the woodwork displaying their children they had with the man and staking a claim to his estate. One thing I thought about at the salt lake was that there would be no side dish activity going on during the work day!

Kasim shows me a bottle of the salt obtained by evaporation. And below that, slabs of rock salt dug up from the lake bed.

Kasim holding a bottle of evaporated salt from the lake outside Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda.

Slabs of salt dug up from the bottom of a salt lake outside Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda.

After this surprisingly entertaining tour of the local salt production, we went to another lake where the migrating flamingos were just arriving. Literally only the day before, the first ones fluttered in. Apparently, in a few more days, the lake would be completely covered by the flamingos’ annual Occupy The Lake movement – wall to wall feathers. What I saw were the first ranks filing in, reminding me of the March of the Penguins, where the emperor penguins walk single file across the snows of Antarctica. There was one line moving in from the right side of the lake, and one line moving in from the left. In the middle of the lake they met, and turned to walk toward the back of the lake. I don’t know if there was any sense to this choreography, or if they were just milling about in a coincidentally organized way. I would love to have seen the full mass of birds, but it was still cool to watch the frontrunners arrive.

Flamingos on a lake in Uganda. Near Queen Elizabeth National Park.

Flamingos on a lake in Uganda. Near Queen Elizabeth National Park.

Flamingos on a lake in Uganda. Near Queen Elizabeth National Park.

*

I'd like to add a little postscript here ... Kasim asked to exchange email addresses and asked me to send him the photo I took of him, above. After I returned home, I did so. I never heard back, but wasn't surprised or disappointed ... I imagined his use of email was extraordinarily limited. About 6 months later, I got an email with the subject "from Kasim." I almost disregarded it as junk, and am so glad I didn't because it was Kasim writing me: "I just wanted to let you know that the flamingos have returned to the lake. Hope you are fine." I couldn't believe he'd remembered me and wrote to tell me of the flamingos! Was a bit touched.

 

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