Paul Salopek is tracing humankind’s footsteps out of Africa, giving voice on the way to migrants who are part of history’s largest diaspora.
By Paul Salopek, Photographs by John Stanmeyer
This story appears in the August 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.
For nearly seven years I have been walking with migrants.
In the winter of 2013 I set out from an ancient Homo sapiens fossil site called Herto Bouri, in the north of Ethiopia, and began retracing, on foot, the defining journey of humankind: our first colonization of the Earth during the Stone Age.
My long walk is about storytelling. I report what I see at boot level along the pathways of our original discovery of the planet. From the start, I knew my route would be vague. Anthropologists suggest that our species first stepped out of Africa 600 centuries ago and eventually wandered, more or less aimlessly, to the tip of South America—the last unknown edge of the continents and my own journey’s finish line. We were roving hunters and foragers. We lacked writing, the wheel, domesticated animals, and agriculture. Advancing along empty beaches, we sampled shellfish. We took our bearings off the rippling arrows of migrating cranes. Destinations had yet to be invented. I have trailed these forgotten adventurers for more than 10,000 miles so far. Today I am traversing India.
Our modern lives, housebound as they are, have changed almost beyond recognition since that golden age of footloose exploration.
Or have they?
The United Nations estimates that more than a billion people—one in seven humans alive today—are voting with their feet, migrating within their countries or across international borders. Millions are fleeing violence: war, persecution, criminality, political chaos. Many more, suffocated by poverty, are seeking economic relief beyond their horizons. The roots of this colossal new exodus include a globalized market system that tears apart social safety nets, a pollutant-warped climate, and human yearnings supercharged by instant media. In sheer numbers, this is the largest diaspora in the long history of our species.
I pace off the world at 15 miles a day. I mingle often among the uprooted.
In Djibouti I have sipped chai with migrants in bleak truck stops. I have slept alongside them in dusty UN refugee tents in Jordan. I have accepted their stories of pain. I have repaid their laughter. I am not one of them, of course: I am a privileged walker. I carry inside my rucksack an ATM card and a passport. But I have shared the misery of dysentery with them and have been detained many times by their nemesis—police. (Eritrea, Sudan, Iran, and Turkmenistan have denied me visas; Pakistan ejected me, then allowed me back in.)
What can be said about these exiled brothers and sisters? About the immense shadowlands they inhabit, paradoxically, in plain sight?
Hunger, ambition, fear, political defiance—the reasons for movement are not truly the question. More important is knowing how the journey itself shapes a different class of human being: people whose ideas of “home” now incorporate an open road—a vast and risky tangent of possibility that begins somewhere far away and ends at your doorsill. How you accept this tiding, with open arms or crouched behind high walls, isn’t at issue either. Because however you react, with compassion or fear, humankind’s reawakened mobility has changed you already.
The first migrants I encountered were dead. They lay under small piles of stones in the Great Rift Valley of Africa.
Who were these unfortunates?
It was difficult to know. The world’s poorest people travel from many distant lands to perish in the Afar Triangle of Ethiopia, one of the hottest deserts on Earth. They walk into these terrible barrens in order to reach the Gulf of Aden. There the sea is the doorway to a new (though not always better) life beyond Africa: slave-wage jobs in the cities and date plantations of the Arabian Peninsula. Some of the migrants’ graves doubtless contained Somalis: war refugees. Others likely held deserters from Eritrea. Or drought-weakened Oromos from Ethiopia. All had hoped to sneak across the unmarked borders of Djibouti. They became lost. They collapsed under a molten sun. Sometimes they dropped from thirst within sight of the sea. The columns of exhausted travelers walking behind hastily buried the bodies.
How long have we been depositing our bones like this on the desolate trails of the African Horn? For a long time. From the very beginning. After all, this is the same corridor used by the first modern humans to exit Africa during the Pleistocene.
One day I stumbled across a group of scarecrows hiding in the scant shade of some boulders—15 lean Ethiopian men who seemed to pretend that if they didn’t move a muscle, they would be invisible. Some were manual laborers. Most were farmers from the Ethiopian highlands. The annual rains, the farmers said, had become impossibly erratic. Sticking it out on their sun-cracked fields meant slow starvation. Better to chance the ocean of white light that is the Afar Triangle, even if you never returned. They were pioneers of sorts, new climate change refugees.
A recent World Bank study calculates that by 2050 more than 140 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America could be tumbled into motion by the catastrophic effects of climate change. Ten million climate refugees could swell the trails of East Africa alone. In Ethiopia the tide may reach 1.5 million people—more than 15 times the emigrants now straggling annually through the Afar Triangle to reach the Middle East.
Inching north up the Rift, I was forced to consider the urge to leave a familiar world that was falling apart, a home where the sky itself was against you. All around me snaked the invisible battle lines of an intensifying range war between the Afar and Issa pastoralists—two competing herder groups whose shallow wells were drying up, whose pastures were thinning from a relentless cycle of droughts. They shot at each other over the ownership of a papery blade of grass, over a cup of sandy water. In other words, over survival. Here was the source of our oldest travel story. Drastic climate change and murderous famines, experts say, likely helped drive the first pulses of humans out of Africa.
How strong is the push to leave? To abandon what you love? To walk into the unknown with all your possessions stuffed into a pocket? It is more powerful than fear of death.
In the Afar Triangle I stumbled across seven unburied bodies. They were women and men clustered together. They lay faceup, mummified atop a dark lava field. The heat was devastating. The little wild dogs of the desert, the jackals, had taken these travelers’ hands and feet. My walking partner, Houssain Mohamed Houssain, shook his head in wonder, in disgust. He was an ethnic Afar, a descendant of camel herders, the old kings of the desert. His people called the recent waves of transients hahai—“people of the wind”—ghosts who blew across the land. He snapped a picture.
“You show them this,” Houssain said angrily, “and they say, ‘Oh, that won’t happen to me!’ ”
One of the unlucky migrants had squeezed under a ledge. Doubtless he was crazed for shade. He had placed his shoes next to his naked body, just so, with one sock rolled carefully inside each shoe. He knew: His walking days were over.
Walking the continents teaches you to look down. You appreciate the importance of feet. You take an interest in footwear. This is natural.
Human character, of course, is mirrored in the face. The eyes reveal sincerity, lying, curiosity, love, hate. But one’s choice of shoes (or even lack of it) speaks to personal geography: wealth or poverty, age, type of work, education, gender, urban versus rural. Among the world’s legions of migrants, a certain pedal taxonomy holds. Economic migrants—the destitute millions with time to plan ahead—seem to favor the shoe of the 21st century’s poor: the cheap, unisex, multipurpose Chinese sneaker. War refugees escaping violence, by contrast, must trudge their wretched roads in rubber flip-flops, dress loafers, dusty sandals, high-heeled pumps, booties improvised from rags, etc. They flee burning cities, abandon villages and farms. They pull on whatever shoes lie within reach at a moment’s notice. I first began to see such eclectic piles of footwear appearing outside refugee tents in the highlands of Jordan.
“I wake up to these mountains,” cried Zaeleh al Khaled al Hamdu, a Syrian grandmother shod in beaded house slippers. Tiny blue flowers were tattooed on her wrinkled chin and cheeks. She waved a bony hand at the alien peaks around her. “It feels like these mountains, I am carrying them on my back.”
Heaviness. Weight. The crush of despair. The mountainous burden of helplessness.
This is the badge of the war refugee. Or so our televisions, newspapers, and mobile phones would inform us. The stock media photo of the war-displaced: columns of traumatized souls marching with heavy steps, with slumped shoulders, along a burning road. Or families jammed into leaky boats on the Mediterranean, their gazes sagging with anguish, sunk in vulnerability. But these snapshots of refugee life—seen through the lens of the rich world—are limited, misleading, even self-serving.
For weeks I walked from tent to dusty tent in Jordan. At least half a million Syrians languished there—just one aching shard of some 12 million civilians scattered by the bloodiest civil war in the Middle East. War steals your past and future. The Syrians could not go back to the contested rubble of their homes—to Idlib, Hamah, or Damascus. Nobody else wanted them. They were stuck. All they owned was their miserable present.
Many toiled illegally on farms.
They eked out another breath of life by picking tomatoes for $11 a day. When I plodded past, they waved me over. They jauntily fed me their employers’ crops. (Residents of a poor nation, Jordanians spared little affection for their even poorer Syrian guests.) They poured gallons of tea with wild thyme down my throat. They shook out their filthy blankets and bade me sit and rest.
“Here, we only dream of chicken,” one man joked. He’d eaten grass to survive in Syria. In one tent a young woman stepped behind a hanging bedsheet and reemerged in her finest dress—pink with silver stripes. She was dazzlingly pregnant, and her beauty passed in a clean hush through my chest, into the moldering tent, before blowing unstoppably out into the desert.
What I’m trying to say is this: Whatever else refugees may be, they aren’t powerless.
They aren’t the infantilized victims usually featured in the political left’s suffering porn. They resemble even less the cartoon invaders feared by right-wing populists and bigots—the barbarian hordes coming to take jobs, housing, social services, racial identity, religion, sex partners, and everything else vital and good in wealthy host countries. (Since Neolithic times, the earliest populations of Europe have been overrun and utterly transformed by waves of immigrants from Central Asia and the eastern Mediterranean. Without such interbreeding, modern “Europeans” wouldn’t exist.)
No. The refugees I have walked among are bearded pharmacists and girl goatherds. Shopkeepers and intellectuals. That is, supremely ordinary beings grappling with meager options. Remembering their dead, they cup their hands to their faces and weep. But often they are incredibly strong. And generous.
“Please come, mister,” a Syrian teacher whispered in Turkey, guiding me from a refugee camp classroom out into the open air. Her students had been drawing decapitations and hangings as part of their art therapy. She noticed I had fallen silent. She was worried about my emotions.
A thousand walked miles to the east, in the Caucasus, a family of ethnic Armenian refugees from Syria hollered, “Don’t come in please!”—making me wait outside their dilapidated home while they hastily set a table they couldn’t afford. They recently moved into a house that once belonged to ethnic Azerbaijanis, a local population ejected during the decades-old Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. I found the Azerbaijanis 120 miles later. They refused my money in a refugee camp café.
“We have been waiting for peace so long,” Nemat Huseynov, the café owner, said. He had owned many sheep when the conflict began in 1988. It goes on, despite a cease-fire in 1994.
Huseynov stared at his big, work-swollen shepherd’s hands splayed palm down on the worn tablecloth.
You cannot always choose your shoes on a long walk.
The world’s refugees and migrants don’t demand our pity. They just ask for our attention. Me they pitied because I walked on.
But before you do, refer to the original document for more with lots of pictures and related texts.