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Archive for the ‘Djibouti’ Category

Did you know there is a Trump Tower in Djibouti? It’s a well-kept secret, but pictures don’t lie. (Well, sometimes they do, but I don’t know how to photo-shop.) Not only do few people know about this feat of architecture, even fewer have been inside. I’m one of the lucky ones.

West side of the Lighthouse.

It is better known as the Balbala Lighthouse or the Ayabley Lighthouse, named for the colonial fort that once guarded the city. It stands catty-corner across the street from the Project House. The exterior is an invitation to graffiti, and someone spray painted in large letters:

After we finished our first session at the Project House we walked across the street to the lighthouse.

Town of Balbala from the lighthouse.

Three of the bead girls, including “Rose,” went with us.

Sisters and Bead Girls

When I visited Djibouti in 2004, we were not allowed to go inside, but that has changed.

Djibouti City

A family lives in the lighthouse. We asked for permission to go in and they granted it. The tower is in the corner of a gated wall around a dusty courtyard. We had to climb several stone “steps” to get to the gate, not an easy feat for little old ladies wearing long dresses. The man who said we could come in noticed us struggling to scramble up a two-foot high step and brought out a small stool to make it easier. This was one of the many examples of courtesy we were to experience in this Muslim country.

North view

Inside the building is a steep metal staircase/ladder with rickety railings that may have been there since the lighthouse was built 100 years ago. The staircase shook and swayed as though welds and bolts were ready to come apart. It seemed to be held together primarily by a fresh coat of paint. A reasonable person would have declined to set foot on such a structure, but we had already stepped outside our comfort zone many times on this trip. Faced with an adventure of a lifetime, we refused to let caution stop us. Fortunately, the ladder held together and we met with no mishaps.

This looks more solid than it felt.

The bottom story of the tower serves as the family’s kitchen. The floor is hard-packed dirt that seems to slope towards the door. There may have been a reason for that—drainage?—in this land of little rain? The floor may not have been leveled since Djibouti gained its independence from France over forty years ago. What clued me that this was a kitchen was the presence of two refrigerators. There was no stove, only a cooking area on the floor similar to a small fire circle at a campsite. The family did not want us to take pictures of their home, and we respected that, but I was allowed to photograph the staircase.

Northwest view

The windows were covered with boards, perhaps to protect from heat and dust, but there were gaps to let in a little light. Openings in the walls look like slits from which to fire guns. That suggests the lighthouse once served as a fortress.

East view

 

The second floor was bare except for a few pallets and a hammock with mosquito net, obviously the sleeping area. I never encountered any mosquitoes in Djibouti, but I’m told that they can be a problem at times.

Southeast view

In my experience, lighthouses are built near the ocean and I wondered why this one is so far inland. When I stepped out onto the roof, I found out why. The tower is built on the tallest hill in the area and you can see all around the city and countryside for many miles. Its light projects far out to sea.

The Port in the distance.

The lighthouse is, and has been, operational for over 100 years.

The light

The Project House can be seen from the roof, as can volcanoes in the distance.

Project House and gas station, volcano in distance

 

In the corner of the compound opposite from the tower is a covered area. This could have been housing for another family or additional living or work space for the family in the lighthouse. It would have been shady, if not rainproof, but the walls would have blocked any breeze. I didn’t think to ask what it was.

Courtyard

Local author Djibouti Jones wrote an article about her visit to the lighthouse at http://www.ethnotraveler.com/2013/12/light-upon-light/. Please read it. After their visit, she and her friend Sayiid disputed whether there were three floors or four. Sayiid was right. Trust me, there are three: the kitchen floor, the bedroom floor, and the roof. Climbing up in the lighthouse is such a unique experience, it’s easy to see how the imagination could be overwhelmed.

This building next door looks official but doesn’t appear to be in use. The khat stand on the left was probably put out of business by the khat store across the street.

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Saturday morning, Lorraine picked me and Jen up at the guest house and we all went to the Project House. The lobby was full of young girls, the Running Girls, who were there for their graduation.

The Running Girls

The Project house is a center for several programs sponsored by Local Initiatives for Education, or LIFE, the NGO the Nordmeyers work for. It’s housed in a four bedroom, two bath apartment above two storefronts in the nearby community of Balbala. When I visited in 2004, Balbala was outside the city, but by now the city has grown around it. Its name refers to the flashing light of the lighthouse which is located there.

LIFE sponsors a girls’ track team. Until recent years, girls in Djibouti did not participate in athletics. At first there was resistance to it, but it has become acceptable. More than acceptable—one of the graduates of the program participated in the Summer Olympics in Brazil in 2016.

The running girls range in age from 11 to 16. They train at the local stadium and come to the Project House only for special events. To participate in the Running Club they are required to stay in school. On this occasion, each girl received a backpack full of personal items and writing materials. The backpacks were made at the Project House by the Sewing Girls.

Three of the graduates

I’m always impressed by the colorful clothing of the women of Djibouti. Many of the Running Girls are very poor but they wore their best outfits that day. In the pictures, you’ll see that everyone is barefoot. It’s customary to take your shoes off at the door to avoid tracking in any disease-causing organisms you might pick up on the streets. Most people wear flip flops, which are cool and easy to slip on and off. The Running Girls are given athletic shoes for training, but some of them run on the track barefoot because, they say, the shoes are too heavy.

Girls with backpacks and coach

Lorraine called the girls into the work room two or three at a time, spoke with them, and gave them their backpacks. Most of the girls were quite shy. They also kept their heads covered even though they were inside, at a safe place with only women. Later during our stay we attended a track meet and saw some of the girls run.

The Project House has a sewing room, a bead room, a store, and a workroom.

Shopping opportunity

Lorraine and her friend Herut teach sewing to young women to prepare them to make an independent living. They make purses, aprons, pin cushions, rag rugs, and other things, including back packs. The girls receive two years of instruction, and when they graduate, each is given a pedal sewing machine. This is important because their homes have no electricity. They leave the program with marketable skills.

 

Sewing Room

Donations of these pedal sewing machines come in from all over the world. A few of the girls have a mechanical bent and have learned to repair the machines for the Project House.

Old pedal machine in good condition.i

The Bead Girls were trained to make beads from strips of paper rolled up and covered with resin. They now run their own business and rent their room from LIFE. I put in an order for a blue necklace and earrings. One girl looks so much like Jen’s daughter Rose that she and Jen “adopted” each other when Jen visited before.

Jen and “Rose”

On Sunday, we returned to the Project House. The Bead Girls were cutting strips of blue magazine pictures for my beads. The Sewing Girls were making pin cushions. These are very nice, but they stuff them with scraps of cloth. Lorraine has suggested they stuff them with hair, which would keep the pins from rusting, but they say no, the hair is dirty. She told them they could wash it, but they hadn’t followed this advice yet. If they’d had pin cushions stuffed with hair, I’d have bought some.

The Bead Girls at work

Jen knows how to reupholster furniture and was happy to teach the girls. A couple of chairs at the Project House needed to be recovered. Jen showed them how to take the seats apart, measure the fabric, cut it, and reassemble the chairs. They worked on a simple chair with a seat cushion and a desk chair. The girls caught on quickly. This was to be a two day job.

Working on a chair cushion

Monday morning, we returned to the Project House where Jen helped the girls finish upholstering the chairs. Now they have an additional skill which will help them earn a living. Sue showed the girls how to make a fabric flower to embellish a project.

Finished chairs

The storefronts downstairs house an auto parts store and a khat store. On the first day, I took a picture. We heard that the men at the khat store didn’t like it, so when we went back, we asked permission. Immediately, they became friendly. So friendly, that when Lorraine told them we were her sisters, they proposed marriage! She said we were already married, so that was that.

Khat and auto parts stores

We returned to the Project House the following Sunday. By now, my necklace and earrings were ready. Herut had made a fabric purse to which she affixed a cloth flower, the center of which was a button. That purse would bring a pretty penny at a fashionable boutique.

This time, Sue taught the girls how to sew a zipper into a throw pillow and we showed them how to make a lapped pillow cover. Covered pillows are yet another product the girls can make to sell.

This was our last visit to the Project House. Djiboutians are generous people who enjoy feeding visitors and giving gifts. The girls probably would have showered us with gifts, but we settled on one apiece. Deka gave me a bag she had sewn. I am proud to use it as a book bag, a crochet bag, and an all-round tote bag.

Deka’s bag and my beads

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Since I last visited Lorraine and John in Djibouti in 2004, they had downsized their living space. The boys had gone off to college and now live in the US. Sadie, the only child left at home, attends school at Rift Valley Academy in Kenya and wasn’t home when we visited. Although the family has a three bedroom house, John uses one bedroom as his office, which leaves only one for guests. And there were four of us.

A few blocks away is an apartment leased by a non-governmental organization. The Nordmeyers rent a room there when they need a “guest house.” We decided that Sue and Nita, who were new to Djibouti, would stay at the Nordmeyers, and Jen and I, who had visited before, would sleep at the guest house.

The apartment is on the second floor in a building with three other units. There is an office used by the NGO staff and three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a tiny kitchen. The dining area in the hallway outside the kitchen has a table that seats no more than four people. Lorraine had furnished us with breakfast items, but we ate most meals at her house.

View from the back window of the guest house. Note the contrast between opulence and poverty.

Behind the guest house are empty lots surrounded by walls with gates. There may have been buildings here at one time that have been taken down. Two or three men have shelters in the lots. I don’t know whether they live there by permission or are squatting. One morning I watched a man get up, fold his bedding, and prepare to go to work.

Besides use of the kitchen, we had the master bedroom and bathroom. The bedroom has a double bed and a single. The double is so tall one almost needs a stepstool to climb on it. The single bed is a wooden frame with ropes to support a foam mattress. Jen didn’t want to climb, so she chose the single bed and assured me it was quite comfortable.

The frame of the single bed.

Closeup detail.

The master bathroom has a built-in tub with sides two feet high. Why so high, we never learned. The other bathroom has a shower. Few people in Djibouti, other than VIPs from other countries, have water heaters. The city water doesn’t run all the time. When it does, the household fills a large tank out in the yard. While the water sits in the tank, it warms to the ambient temperature. Since it was winter, the water wasn’t very warm. For this reason, neither of us cared to soak in that deep tub.

The water tank is shaded by bougainvillea to keep the water “cool” in the summer.

To take a shower with cold water is akin to immersing oneself in a Florida spring (72 degrees year round). Either ease into the water and wait for your nerve endings to go numb one by one, or take the plunge and get it over with. I prefer the slow option. Turn the water on, slowly let one part of your body adjust to the temperature, then expose another, until you can stand it well enough to get clean.

The water is also brackish, so everyone buys drinking water. I used tap water to brush my teeth as well as for washing, with no ill effects. But the salt is hard on plumbing. When we first arrived, a dish had been set under the toilet connection to catch water dripping from a small leak. I’d empty the dish when it got full. A few days later, the dish was no longer adequate to hold the leaking water, so I replaced it with a cooking pot and asked John to notify the landlord. Before he replaced the connection, the pot became inadequate and we’d come home to a wet bathroom floor. The floor in the other bathroom was frequently wet as well. At first we didn’t understand why. It turned out to be another leak.

I must mention the toilet. Because of the inadequacy of the plumbing, one did not put toilet paper in the commode. There was a waste basket beside it for the used toilet paper. It was the maid’s responsibility to empty it. I felt sorry for her but was glad I didn’t have to do it.

Air-conditioning was available, for an extra fee, so we didn’t use it. We opened windows for a cross breeze. Since it seldom rains in Djibouti, I didn’t worry about rain coming through the windows, but sometimes we’d come back to find the windows closed and the apartment stuffy.

Only a few times did we have contact with the people who used the office. We were usually out and about during the day when they were there. Although the cleaning girl came in sporadically, I saw her only once. The place didn’t get very dirty. Sometimes she did laundry and dried it on racks in a vacant room. People who came in during the day often left dirty dishes that seldom got washed unless we did them.

The maid came in one morning before we left, with a baguette and an orange soda. She said something about “Coke,” but she knew little more English than we did Somali. Finally, I figured out that she wanted to eat her breakfast before working, which she did. Bread and soda. I hope she had more nourishing meals later in the day.

We had little contact with other inhabitants of the apartment building, other than the watchman. Every gated compound has a watchman who lives on the property in a roofed shelter. His job, besides keeping an eye on things, is to open and close the gates. When residents get ready to leave in their car, he’ll open and close the gate for them. When they drive home, they toot the horn and he’ll open the gate. There is a small gate for pedestrians, which we generally used since Lorraine’s house was within walking distance. A few times the latch got messed up, and the watchman came to our rescue.

“Johnny’s” shoes

Someone who lives in the building has a pair of flip-flops he kept leaving in the hallway or on the stairs, not always in the same place. Jen said her son Johnny leaves his shoes in the middle of the floor, so we began calling them “Johnny’s shoes.” One day, the flip-flops were nowhere to be seen. We wondered what had happened to “Johnny.” To our relief, his flip-flops were back in the hallway the next day.

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