Ian Mathie's memoir, Dust of the Danakil, is a heart-wrenching story of the Afar, a feared and invisible people passed over by progress and providence. After he was hand-picked for this challenging assignment, Mathie met bureaucratic resistance at nearly every turn, beginning with the Ethiopian insistence that he proceed with a small army to protect him--logical on their part considering no European outsider in remembered history had made it out alive. But this made no sense to Mathie, who had been sent to find a way to dam up dry wadis to impound water during the short run-off period following the rainy season in the mountains to the west and teaching the nomadic Afar to use this water to grow crops and thus alleviate starvation resulting from severe drought. He failed to see how arriving with an army would facilitate developing the trust and cooperation necessary to accomplish that objective.
Mathie and two intrepid colleagues convinced their terrified driver to leave town in the middle of the night and head down into the Danakil, correctly assuming the authorities would leave them to their fate rather than following. They did make contact with a small delegation of Afar and managed to gain their trust, respect and cooperation, but not without plenty of challenges, climate being among them. The average high temperature in the sere, below sea level Danakil Depression is around 145˚F, cooling to 100˚ at night. He faced hyena packs, sewed up his own thigh after wrenching a spear from it, and survived a bullet wound. He patched up limbs gnawed by hyenas, treated infected smallpox vaccinations, and occasionally drove tribe members up to Bati for proper medical treatment. He also shared the excitement of the first rain storm living Afar had ever experienced.
Readers of Mathie's earlier volumes know his inclination toward expediency. This practical bent was pushed to the limits on the Danakil project where his mastery of end runs was the only thing that got him through many situations. With one exception, Ethiopian officials were obstructive and British Embassy personnel bent out of shape by his unorthodox methods. In spite of all this, he got results and ultimately got to the play role of Santa on a return visit.
Even more than his previous memoirs, this book is a powerful political commentary, with the Afar and Danakil project serving as a sort of metaphor for aid projects in general. Mathie concludes the volume with some thoughts on ways to provide meaningful aid with sustainable results. Implementing his ideas would require substantial change in political perspectives. My hope and prayer is that world leaders will read and heed. Perhaps if enough "ordinary citizens" read them, we can cause that to happen.