By the Way With Joel Meeker

Back to the Salt Mines

The salt caravans of Mali remind me of the value of something I often take for granted. They help me understand Christ’s comment about the salt of the earth.

Passing through Mopti in the West African nation of Mali, I was reminded of the value of something I usually hold cheap. At the confluence of the Niger and Bani Rivers, just south of the Sahara, Mopti is an important trading center situated between historic Djenné (famous for its huge, mud-brick mosque) and Timbuktu.

To disembark in this part of Mali is to unmoor from time. Among some signs of modernity, most herders, farmers, fishermen and traders live much as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. Their skills and techniques have changed little, and in the evening they still bathe in the muddy rivers. 

Salt caravans

In Mopti’s market, I walked among huge slabs of salt that had made an amazing journey, one of the last in the world still completed by camel caravan. In the extreme north of Mali, at Taoudenni, lies an ancient seabed, now an open-air salt mine. Under 5 feet (1.5 meters) of clay, and several layers of poor quality salt, lie three layers of high-quality salt. 

In temperatures rising to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (50 Celsius), impoverished men use crude hand tools to uncover and cut the salt into slabs weighing 65 to 90 pounds (30 to 40 kilograms). These are packed onto camels (some trucks are now also used) and transported on the two- to three-week trek to Timbuktu. Once at the river, the slabs are loaded onto boats bound for Mopti, where they are broken into smaller amounts for retail sale.

These salt caravans are centuries old, and they underscore the historic value of salt and the extreme effort people expended to acquire it. Today salt is inexpensive for most people, but in the past its scarcity and its value as a preservative and flavor enhancer meant salt was sometimes literally worth its weight in gold. Roman soldiers were paid a salarium, part of their wages, either in salt or its equivalent value. (This is the origin of our word salary.)

Being the salt of the earth

Salt was important in the world of the Bible. It was included in every grain offering made to God (Leviticus 2:13). A “covenant of salt” was a very important, long-lasting covenant (Numbers 18:19; 2 Chronicles 13:5). Christian speech is to be gracious, which is compared to being “seasoned with salt” (Colossians 4:6).

Most importantly Jesus told His disciples they were “the salt of the earth” and warned them not to lose their savor (Matthew 5:13). 

Sodium chloride is quite stable; pure salt can’t lose its saltiness. But in the first century most salt came from salty marshes and the like, and therefore contained many impurities. Salt was more soluble than the impurities, so it could leach away, leaving only an insipid residue. 

To avoid losing their savor, Christians are to preserve virtue even in a world that rejects it. Contact with them should be stimulating and leave a pleasant “aftertaste.” And they must not allow what makes them truly disciples of Christ—the way of life He taught—to dissipate. They must not go from precious to profitless.

The mines and caravans of Mali reminded me of the value of something I often take for granted. And they underscored the importance of keeping Christianity true and pure. What a high charge it is to remain the salt of the earth!

Joel Meeker
@JoelMeeker
 

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