The Shepherdess at Lac Abbe

The Shepherdess at Lac Abbe by Olivier Bezombes

Behind each photograph, there is a story. The one of the photographer and the one coming from your imagination. Most of the time when I look at a photograph, I try to imagine the story. Where is it? Who are the people? What are they doing?

I had the idea to ask to a creative writer to write a story about a photo by  Fine art photographer Olivier Bezombes which I really like.

And this is the result. I give the floor to Alice Wayte.

Mariam, The Shepherdess at Lac Abbe

Mariam has a French name and an accent that makes me think she would be a native speaker, but she only knows a few words of Djibouti’s colonial tongue. Instead, she speaks Afar, like everyone in her tribe. We chat in broken French about small matters like the warm weather and the hungry goats as I wait for my interpreter to arrive. Mariam is visibly nervous. She looks very young, hardly twenty, and I may be the first Brit she has ever met. She stares out over the salt lake during the moments of silence. When I ask something she doesn’t understand she laughs nervously and looks back over the goats. Soon I find myself doing the same when her French fails to convey her thoughts.

Great towers of limestone spike upwards from the lake, stabbing the sky. And beneath them is more sediment, salts and minerals from the river Awash left behind as the river is drained by irrigation and drought. A lake you can walk on, you can graze your goats on. Goats like Mariam’s are the only things that feed here. Mariam lightly joked that everyone could starve, men, women, children, dogs cats and rats… and the goats would still be there, chewing bushes and licking salt. But then her face fell stern. For all the joking, I knew there was a recent minor famine for her tribe and the idea of starving away, of leaving nothing but goats behind, must have given her reason to pause.

Their way of life is a difficult one to imagine anyway. They live out in the desert and salt flats in little makeshift houses made of branches and woven mats. They channel boiling water from fumaroles to their villages for something to drink and water the grass, as the river hardly reaches them. And they send children and teenagers, and young women like Mariam, out to graze goats in the sparse plants, to give them some milk and meat for dinner.

Once our interpreter arrives we can talk better. Mariam seems more relaxed now she can understand me, smiling widely and speaking with her mouth wide open. Her accent still sounds French and makes me listen for French words in her chatter. But every word is Afar and only my interpreter understands.

I learn that Mariam is already twenty-four, despite her youthful looks, and that one of the loud boys back in the village is her son. She insists she wants more children, but they aren’t having much luck. I ask her how she and her family did in the recent famine. She shakes her head and looks to the goats. “We used to have forty,” the interpreter translates, “but then we ate five and gave five for grain. We had plenty to eat, but we were glad when the food came back.” I ask her what she means. “They bring food down. And when there isn’t food, they bring none. You can’t bring food when there is none.” Mariam looks up slightly at the horizon, supposedly the direction that the camels come from, carrying any food that won’t grow out there. She pulls her hijab around her face against the sun and the slight breeze.

“Are there many famines?” I ask.

“Not many,” the interpreter replies for her, drawing my attention briefly away from the dark face, “but when they come, they are serious.” When I look back toward her she has turned away again and is walking over to where one of the goats has gone a bit far. She shouts at it a bit and claps her hands and soon it runs to a space nearer the rest of the herd. Satisfied, she tugs her hijab back down again and wanders over to where the interpreter and I wait.

“How long have you been herding goats?” I ask.

“Since I was eight years old.” Mariam smiles as the interpreter translates for us. “I stopped for a year when I got married. My husband didn’t like it. He said the goats weren’t his and he wanted me to care for his hens. But then my father gave us some goats and he said ‘Now you have goats, now you can herd them all.’” Mariam waits for the interpreter to finish and laughs. I smile back.

Life is definitely hard for her, but she doesn’t seem bothered by it. She’s taking it in her stride. The wind picks up a little more, making a few goats look up and shoving the wispy white clouds through the sky. The heat bears down on our heads and shoulders, leaving us parched and tired. Yet Mariam smiles and walks on with her herd.

And you what would you have written ?

Photopgraphs credit: Olivier Bezombes –  Parlamer Photography



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