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Posts Tagged ‘Camels’

In January, three of my sisters and I traveled to Djibouti where our sister Lorraine and her husband John live. If you got past the title (What’s a Djibouti?) you know it is a place. The next question, “Where in the world is Djibouti?”

Djibouti is a tiny country of fewer than one million people in the horn of Africa. The horn is that part of East Africa that juts out into the Arabian Sea and looks like a rhinoceros horn. Djibouti is about the size of New Jersey in area and is sandwiched among Eritrea on the north, Ethiopia on the west, and Somalia on the south. To the east is the Gulf of Aden and to the northeast is the Red Sea. Across the Bal el Mandeb (Strait of Aden), Yemen, on the Arabian Peninsula, points right at Djibouti.

See the “horn” just south of Djibouti?

Why would anyone go to Djibouti? A good reason is to visit family, if you’re lucky enough to have relatives there. Another reason is that Djibouti is an amazing place. In 2004, I spent three weeks there and fell in love with the country. However, my first impression, coming from a land of green forests, was that Djibouti is drab, ugly. The landscape was predominately brown and black, very little color and almost no vegetation. After all, it’s a desert.

Not a good first impression, it it?

It didn’t take long, however, for the dust to clear from my eyes and I could see the beauty of the desert, the blue seas, the volcanoes, and the breathtaking mountains. I looked forward to another visit.

This is much better..

Back then, Lorraine had three boys in school and a baby daughter, so she didn’t work outside the home. Most days were centered around domestic life, which in Djibouti is an adventure in itself. I accompanied Lorraine to the market and we visited her friends. Somali ladies invited us to a dinner of ethnic food and an Ethiopian friend showed us how she made injera, flatbread baked on a griddle like a pancake. Days that John didn’t have to work, we went sightseeing.

This time, with the boys grown and out of the house and Sadie at Rift Valley Academy in Kenya, we got out and mingled more with the populace. I learned to appreciate the people of Djibouti. Getting to know its people is the best way to explore a country. It’s not easy when you don’t understand the language and few people speak English. Fortunately, Lorraine is fluent in several languages, including two of Djibouti’s official languages, French and Somali. (The other two are Afar and Arabian.)

Modern Djibouti

Djibouti is as old as Africa, but in modern terms it’s a very young country, having gained independence in 1977. In the distant past, the area we call Djibouti was part of ancient empires and sultanates. In the 1800’s, Europeans invaded most of the Middle East and Africa and carved out colonies without regard to cultures or tribal territories. I suspect that most of the unrest in this part of the world today could have been avoided if the Europeans had respected these boundaries and not split up ethnic groups into different political entities. But they didn’t ask me.

Djibouti is fortunate to have peace among its peoples. The southern part of the country is mostly Somali and speaks that language. The northern part is Afar, and there are also many Ethiopians who call Djibouti home. Because of the troubles in the surrounding countries, Djibouti is a haven for refugees. The civil war in Yemen has driven thousands to tiny Djibouti. Many of these live in a refugee camp in the northern part of the country, but others have settled in the city.

In a country that is mostly desert, what do people do for a living? Djibouti has a port, which is the major employer. Landlocked Ethiopia depends on this port for most of its imports and exports.

The Port

The next largest source of jobs is the military. Not Djibouti’s, although they have one. France, Italy, China, Japan, and the US all have military bases. I have no pictures of these bases. We were cautioned not to try to photograph them. The Chinese have more than a military presence here. They built a railway from the Djibouti city to Addis Abba, Ethiopia. At their railway station, we asked at the gate if we could take pictures and the guard said no. I don’t understand the reason for this. Do they think that little old ladies from America are in cahoots with terrorists?

We had a little excitement when John took us around town and drove by the American Embassy. Nita took a picture of it. Why not? It’s our embassy. Before we’d circled half the block, we were surrounded by police cars! It was forbidden to photograph the embassy. One officer demanded our cameras and deleted the offending pictures from Nita’s. I hadn’t taken a picture, but I let him see my camera anyway. The last photo I’d taken was of a garbage truck. I’ll never forget the puzzled look on his face.

American Embassy in Djibouti.

We didn’t take this picture. I found it on the internet. Go Figure!

Djibouti has another, very ancient industry, probably the only natural resource—salt. Lac Assal, the salt lake, is some 500 feet below sea level, the lowest point in Africa. The lake was formed by volcanic eruptions which cut off its outlet to the sea. The salinity is ten times that of the ocean and the salt is up to 200 feet deep. For centuries, the Afar people have mined this salt and exported it by caravans.

In 2004, when we visited Lac Assal, we innocently began to harvest salt. Several Afar men approached us. We didn’t speak Afar, but they spoke enough French for Lorraine to figure out why they were upset. They had the concession on the salt and wanted us to pay for what we were taking. Their price was negligible, so to keep the peace, we paid. Today, the Chinese have an arrangement with the Djibouti government to mine and export salt. For my part, I’d rather see the profit go to the Afars.

Chinese salt works

I’ve been amazed at the number of people who live in the desert. In the middle of nowhere, you’ll come across a herd of goats, and camels have free range. What do these animals eat? Thorn trees and other desert flora. Little else grows here.

Camel eating leaves of a thorn tree,

Stay tuned. In the following weeks, I’ll chronicle our adventures and misadventures in this fascinating country.

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