Mine de Sel (8/17/2011)

Somewhere between Telouet and Animeter, sits a sign that reads, “Mine de Sel: 300 meters,” with an arrow pointing down a dirt path laced with trails of salt. Because the path meanders between steep hills, the salt mine seems impossible to find until it’s just about in front of you.

Upon arrival at the locked metal door of the mine, we saw a small stone and earth house in the distance, which is where the directors of the salt mine live. Two men, one in a traditional white robe and hat and the other in jeans and a long-sleeve tee shirt, were standing outside the house when Ahmed called out to them. A few moments later, the men greeted us as we went inside the cool of the mountain and escaped the intense heat of the midday sun. Immediately on the other side of the door stood a large pile of rock salt crystals held back by 10-kilogram bags of salt. On the left, was a lonely wheelbarrow and another two massive piles of rock salt crystals. The only light in the mine came from sunlight streaming through the open door and one small flame, that was attached to a tank of gas. Besides that, the mine was a cool, dark cave, complete with stalactites and a bat.

Ahmed took the light and led us to three different work areas, all of which looked about the same. Each area had been carefully blasted in using small sticks of dynamite. Once workers bomb a section, they clear away the fallen crystals and then begin chiseling out more salt. One particular section was on level ground, while the other three sections were blasted on a downhill slope, causing us to have to descend to see the base of the crystal-covered hill. Two of the downward sections had shallow pools of water, which from a distance resembled white foam. However, upon moving closer, we noticed clear water with large deposits of ground salt sunk to the bottom.

From the mine, the workers either ship the salt to major cities such as Casablanca and Marrakech to be processed and turned into table salt, or workers sell the salt in crystals to locals to be given to their animals for good health.

One can usually find 16 workers in the mine, the number including the four mine directors. For now, the worked has stopped because “it has been a dead year,” said Salah Ait Bafas, 65, director of the mine (the one dressed in the traditional robe and hat). Workers make 60 dirhams per day (about $7.50), while the directors make 1,500 dirhams per month. However, when the salt doesn’t sell (.5 dirhams per kilogram), no one gets paid.

This is especially difficult for both Salah and Ibrahim Bador (the worker dressed in jeans and a tee shirt) because each has a wife and children to support, five and six children respectively. Salah (from Marrakech) and Ibrahim (from Telouet) spend much of their time working — for days or weeks consecutively — and then spend a few days at home. Both men agreed that the work in the mine is difficult, tedious and often lonely, but they are willing to sacrifice if that means making ends meet for their families.