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Posts Tagged ‘Djibouti’

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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djibouti-map

Djibouti is a tiny country in the Horn of Africa, sandwiched between Eritrea and Somalia, where the Red Sea flows into the Gulf of Aden. If you look at a map, the southeast corner of the Arabian Peninsula points right to it. The capital city is also named Djibouti. My sister Lorraine and her family live there.

I visited them in 2004.  At the time, they lived in a two story house surrounded by a gated wall, a typical residence for well-to-do Djiboutians and middle-class expatriates. Next door, in a similar house, was the Saudi Arabian Embassy. Although Djibouti enjoys peace and good relations with the Western world and has not been a victim of the unrest that plagues the nations around it, I found it a little unsettling, at first, to stay next door to the Saudi Embassy. Not to worry, Lorraine and John assured me. They got along quite well with their neighbors. Indeed they did. When I wanted a sample of my name in Arabic, Lorraine sent their watchman next door and someone at the embassy wrote it on a piece of paper for me.

However, I hadn’t been there more than a few days, when one night I was jarred from sleep by explosions and lights flashing in the sky. I jumped out of bed and ran to my window, certain that we were under attack, that the wars raging throughout the Middle East had invaded peaceful little Djibouti, or the embassy next door was being bombed, but I couldn’t see anything except flashes of light. I knew it was no thunderstorm. So I ran to another window.

I’m not sure whether John’s sleep was disturbed by the explosions or by my running through the house. He accosted me on my way to a third window and said, “It’s all right! It’s all right. It’s only fireworks.” And so it was. We couldn’t get a clear view of them, only enough to know we weren’t about to die. Afterwards, we had a good laugh.

This is what it sounded like that night.

This is what it sounded like that night.

At home, I can hear the Fourth of July celebration eleven miles away in Lake Butler. My neighbors shoot off fireworks every July 4th, New Year’s Eve, or whenever they have a party. Those don’t alarm me. But we Americans can hardly wait until dark for the pyrotechnics to begin, and that night in Djibouti, not only was it well after dark, it was late enough that we were in bed asleep. There’d been no notice of a fireworks display and we never did learn what the occasion was. Someone in the city was celebrating something and fireworks was part of the entertainment. I wonder how many other people woke in alarm that night thinking the city was being bombed.

But it wasn’t. Did my expectations that this part of the world was dangerous cause my reaction? Or was my alarm reasonable? I’ll never forget the terror of the moment, yet I was safe. When I think about people who live in actual war zones, whose days and nights are disturbed, not by festive fireworks, but by actual bombs, my heart goes out to them. If the unexpected sounds of that night remain etched in my mind twelve years later, I can’t begin to imagine what effect it has on those who are exposed to violence on a continuous basis. Here in the USA, we have so much to be grateful for.

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