The Things They Leave Behind

The Things They Leave Behind

Paul Salopek finds many items dropped on the trail by migrating travelers making their way from Africa to the Middle East. Content warning: The following text contains references to violence.


5 - 12


English Language Arts, Social Studies, Geography, Anthropology, Storytelling

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In celebration of the ten-year anniversary of Paul Salopek's first steps on his Out of Eden Walk journey, this dispatch is now available for educational use in fifth- and eighth-grade reading levels. The original text is available as the default reading level, as well as on the Out of Eden Walk website.

By Paul Salopek


Dead flashlight batteries. Two discarded Ethiopian coins. A green plastic comb. Underwear.

We are three walking days from the Ethiopian border.

We travel across a sea of volcanic rock that is hot and endless. It’s a simmering plain of stones the color of charcoal. There is no sign of life—not even a plant. The view is barren and strange, like those grainy photographs taken by robots on another planet. And then … a woman’s shoe. Size 36, fake leather, with rhinestones attached. Further on, we find a baseball cap bleached gray by the sun. Then, dozens—no, hundreds—of cracked water bottles. (These are cooking oil jugs, many wrapped in burlap for cooling.)

After weeks of roaming on foot through the deserts of the poor—where every piece of trash, every tin can, every plastic bottle is picked up, recycled for another purpose—we have entered a new layer of Rift Valley archaeology. It stretches 150 miles or more into Djibouti, all the way to the Red Sea. It is a debris field of 21st-century wanderers. Somewhere ahead the border crossing forms a bottleneck for migrant workers from all over the African Horn. They are walkers, too. They walk to Yemen. To Saudi Arabia. To Dubai. Not to hunt oryx with stone-tipped spears, like the early Homo sapiens who walked out of Africa did. And not merely for a silly idea, as we do today. But to find work so they can afford a crust of bread.

They are Oromos from the south of Ethiopia and Tigreyans from the highlands. They are refugees fleeing the ruined landscape of Somalia. A few deserted the Eritrean army. Young men. A few women. They have to be strong because the desert crossing is harsh and dangerous. Some die of thirst. They risk drowning as they cross the Red Sea in rickety open boats. Still, they come. One hundred thousand people a year, at least, leave the continent this way. They trek mostly at night, guided by smugglers. This barren plain crawls with an army of walkers after dark. Under starlight, the migration out of Africa continues.

The Afar nomads call the travelers hahai. Hahai means “people of the wind.”

They pass through the desert, leaving little behind except what they drop on the trails. A sandal. A cooking pot. Worthless money.

Glasses frames (lenses missing). A tee shirt. A can of Gillette shaving cream. A sun-rotted backpack (stenciled with children’s cartoons).

We meet the hahai one morning at a remote Afar encampment.

They are 15 tired men from the mountains of Ethiopia—a country ranked near the bottom of the UN’s poverty index, 174th out of 187 nations. They are traveling toward the slightly less poor Djibouti (165th) to reach even less poor Yemen (154th). These numbers explain why, even in broad daylight, these men remain invisible.

They sit on the rocks after a night of hiking. They take sips from jugs of water. One man uses his bare hand to stir besso, a barley gruel, in a dented tin pot. Their smuggler is an old Afar. He sits apart, smoking, looking well-dressed in electric blue socks and high-top tennis shoes.

“Yemen is hard,” one migrant says. “They kill us with knives and guns.”

He sees by the look on my face that I do not believe him.

“It is true,” another man insists. He calls himself Daniel. He has been walking for 13 days since leaving Wollo Province. A job picking dates in Saudi Arabia waits for him. It pays 4,000 Ethiopian birr—about $200—a month. This is a large sum. It’s double what he earns as a laborer in Ethiopia. He tells this story:

Last year, in Yemen, his group of penniless wanderers was attacked by thieves. The Yemenis stabbed and killed one migrant. Daniel hid in the bushes for three days, without food, before slipping away to the Saudi border. He tells this story smiling. All the men are smiling. The besso is ready to eat. They say nothing more. They have the ocean in their eyes. The story is over.

Two address books with Dubai phone numbers (chewed by mice). Pants. A jam jar. A 7.62 mm bullet casing.

At night, on the plain of stones, our little walking group is stalled.

My guide, Ahmed Alema Hessan, is sick with something like typhoid. I am sick. We are all hungry. We have walked 22 miles. Our supplies are reduced to a few packets of noodles and a few biscuits. We let the fire die early. We lie awake in our blankets. And I am thinking of a house far away, filled with sun. It’s a white house at a higher latitude, with green trees. A woman’s laughter fills the kitchen, along with the caw-caw of the hadada ibis. My heart is dreaming.

“Paul?” Alema hisses urgently in the dark. “Hey, Paul.”

But I have heard it already: a sound in the night air. It’s a faint rumbling, growing a little louder, like the approach of a herd of wild animals. But can there be animals in this place? The nearest blade of grass, the nearest well, is miles away. I sit up.

And then they appear in the pale beam of Alema’s flashlight.

It’s a group of men and women. They look as if they’re carved in grays and blacks from the branches of the night. There are five or six. A dozen. Then, many. They march past our camp in a single line. I try to count them but give up after reaching 90. Their shuffling feet raise dust. They don’t look up. They carry no lights. They leave little behind. We don’t exchange a single word. My tongue is frozen.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Oliver Payne
Text Levels
Web Producer
Bayan Atari, National Geographic Society
Instructional Designer
Dan Byerly, National Geographic Society
With help froms
Claudia Hernandez-Halper
Kate Gallery, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

January 22, 2024

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