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Posts Tagged ‘Djibouti’

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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It was like a scene out of a movie and had the aura of cloak and dagger. Friday night in the capital city of Djibouti, although it was the Sabbath, the town was lively. Khat dealers, mostly women, sat at their street-side booths, plying their business. Khat is the recreational drug of choice in Djibouti. It’s imported from Ethiopia daily, because it must be fresh. Users, mostly men, chew the leaves for the euphoria it gives them. It’s addictive and, like many addictive drugs, takes a social and financial toll on the family. One would wonder why it was sold so openly—because it’s legal. Not only legal, it’s a lucrative income for those who import and distribute it. The wife of the President of Djibouti is one of the chief importers.

Khat Dealers. These are all men. I didn’t get any pictures of the women.

In 2004, when I visited Djibouti, the airport prominently posted signs saying “No Khat.” While I was waiting for my flight home, a plane landed. I went to the window to see if it was mine. No. It was a cargo plane with a rear-loading ramp. Before it had completely come to a halt, a crowd of people rushed onto the runway toward it. When the back opened and the men began to unload large bales wrapped in burlap, I realized this was the daily khat shipment. (I guess nobody read the signs.)

But we certainly didn’t go downtown for khat. We went to exchange currency.

This was our first day in Djibouti. My sister Lorraine and her husband John had picked us up at the airport and took us to their house, which is just down the street. They served us supper of bean soup and homemade bread. Delicious. Spices are inexpensive in Djibouti and the food is always flavorful. After supper, we unpacked items we’d brought them, things hard to buy in Djibouti, such as vitamins and sewing scissors.

Djibouti Art

Two of us would be staying in the guest house a few blocks away. We took our luggage there, then set out to find the money changers.

 

Djibouti Street

The last time I was in Djibouti, the money changer was a man with an official-looking kiosk, and we had gone in broad daylight to cash my Travelers Checks.

 

This time we carried cash and by now it was dark. John drove us to a less than prosperous part of town where women sat on street corners with bags of currency. We pulled into a side street. A woman came up to us and dealt with us through the car windows.

She didn’t speak English, so Lorraine, who is fluent in Somali, translated for us. The rate of exchange was $200 for 35,000 Djibouti Francs, and of course she charged a fee. One of my sisters had a $50 bill with a tiny rip in it. The woman refused to exchange it. She said the bank wouldn’t take it. We did change some money with her, then went elsewhere. We parked this time and walked to where a pair of women sat on another street corner. They were more personable but still wouldn’t take the “damaged” bill. Yet some of the bills we received from them had tears in them.

Lorraine told them that we were her sisters. Five sisters? People in Djibouti appreciate large families. They thought so many sisters in one family was wonderful and they wanted to know more about our family. When Lorraine told them how many children Jen and Nita have, they were even more impressed. If it weren’t for the language barrier, our conversation might have extended further into the night.

You’d think it would be risky for a woman to be on the street with so much money without an armed guard, but Lorraine said there’s an unwritten understanding that the money changers are not to be molested.

After we finished changing money, we rode around town to look at some of the sights.

Playground

I don’t have any pictures of the money changers. For one thing, the people of Djibouti are sometimes reluctant to have their pictures taken. For another thing, I was taking pictures with my phone and it doesn’t take good night photos.

Mosque

 

Stay tuned for more adventures. I have lots of beautiful daytime pictures of this amazing country.

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Four sisters traveling to Djibouti—just getting there was an adventure! Sue, Nita, and I and converged on Jen’s house to spend the night. We packed her son Johnny’s car with our seven suitcases and several carry-ons. By some miracle there was still room for us. No, we’re not teenagers who need that much luggage. We were taking things to Lorraine and John that can’t be bought in Djibouti.

Jen’s and Nita’s kids came by to see us off. We were flying Emirates Airlines and had reserved seats together. My nephew Teddy looked at the four of us and said he felt sorry for the flight attendants. Someone else said they’d pray for us, then Teddy said, “I’m going to pray for Africa!”

We went to bed at 9:30, got up at 2:30 am, and Johnny drove us to the Orlando Airport, arriving about 4:30. This was during the government shutdown and TSA staff were working without pay. Still, they were courteous. We went through security without a hitch and the two hour flight to JFK was unremarkable.

Airlines care about physical fitness. You fly into one terminal and have to walk to the opposite end of the airport, hauling luggage, for your connecting flight. On the way, we saw Manhattan from the windows.

Grainy picture, but taken through the window.

Security was tighter at JFK and the staff not as friendly. Since we’d already gone through security, I thought we were good for the entire trip. Not so. Apparently we’d passed through a public area and had to go through again. This time we had to take off our shoes and be x-rayed. I left my laptop in its case, as I had in Orlando, and because of that they searched my stuff, and not just the laptop case. They also searched Nita’s luggage because she had a large tube of toothpaste, which they confiscated. She was mad. She’d bought it just for the trip. (Have little old ladies been blowing up airplanes with laptops and toothpaste?)

While still tied up at security, they announced our plane was being boarded. Sue rushed to the gate, put her hands on her hips, and said, “I’m not leaving without my sisters!” They held the plane for us. (Actually, many passengers were delayed at security.)

After the ticket desk, we followed a long hallway to a boarding bridge. However, the entrance was closed off—that was the bridge for first class. It was an Airbus A380, a double-decker, the world’s largest passenger plane. We had to go downstairs for our bridge.

Our plane, with a boarding bridge.

The plane was too big for one photo.

First class bridge is at left.

I swear, every time I fly, they’ve moved the seats closer together. Once you’re tucked in, you can’t move. Men stick their legs out into the aisle because they won’t fit under the seat in front. To get to the restroom, you have to step over their legs. Whoever advises getting up and walking on long flights has never tried it. Inevitably, when you go toward the back of the plane, someone is trying to walk to the front. In order to pass each other, one of you nearly sits on an aisle passenger’s lap to make room for the other to get by.

On the positive side, everyone was polite, especially considering the crowded conditions and the variety of cultures and nationalities on the plane. Several families had children who did remarkably well on the long flight. I got a good impression of Emirates Airlines. Staff was courteous, and I like their uniforms.

Emirates staff. (From Pinterest.)

In the rear, near the bathrooms, was a flight of stairs winding up to first class. I so wanted to go up and just take a peek, but that was forbidden to us peons. Instead, I put one foot on the bottom step to do leg stretches, easier than walking and probably more beneficial. Here’s a video that shows first class: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0P9a0KfONrU

Lunch was good. I chose the ethnic option: bean salad, palak paneer (curried spinach and cottage cheese), coriander rice, dal Bukhara (black lentils with tomato sauce), and custard mousse with strawberries for dessert. To my surprise, despite the UAE being a Muslim country, they serve alcohol on their planes.

We had the middle four seats in row 73. No windows, but each seat had a screen with several features. Cameras gave us views ahead, behind, and below the plane, as long as there was visibility. I watched a movie but fell asleep and missed much of it.

The map was also in English, but I like the writing.

I enjoyed the map. About 4 pm EST we were over Ireland, 4:39 Britain, 5:20 Germany, 5:53 Czech Republic, 6:45 Hungary, 7:30 Black Sea, 7:48 Turkey, 8:55 Iraq, 9:50 Kuwait, and 10 pm EST the Arabian Gulf. We arrived in Dubai about 8 am local time (midnight EST).

Dubai as seen thought the plane’s camera.

World’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa in the distance.

The Dubai airport is huge and spread out. It seemed bigger than JFK, and they’re still building. A guy with a cart picked us up and took us to Departures. He drove fast, tooting his horn when people didn’t get out of his way. It’s a wonder he didn’t run over someone. We had to go through security again, but it was a piece of cake compared to JFK. Then another long walk took us to a bus to our next terminal. I swear the bus circled the airport more than once. It took so long, fellow riders were worried they’d miss their connecting flight. When we finally got there, we had to go through security, again (4th time!). Then another long walk to our gate.

Dubai is a global crossroad: Arabs, Indians, Sikhs, Africans, and Europeans were waiting for planes. Some Muslim women were fully covered. I was impressed by the tolerance of other cultures people exhibited.

On the plane to Djibouti, Sue struck up a conversation with a blonde, blue-eyed young man from Utah, one of a group of students from NY University who were studying refugee issues. They were headed to a Yemini refugee camp in Djibouti. Here was another culturally mixed group, including a Pakistani girl who spoke perfect English and wore a hajib.

First view of Djibouti. (I don’t know where the water came from.)

We arrived in Djibouti about 3 pm local time (7 am EST). I still wore winter clothes and couldn’t wait to get out of them. Visas cost $150 (cash). The police spoke just enough English to confuse us. We waited in line, then spoke to an officer who took our pictures and directed us across the lobby to another line. The girl behind me was from Beijing. She’d come here to work as an accountant. Finally, another officer took our money, photographed us again, and issued Visas.

Then the baggage claim. A group of guys had all our luggage together and demanded to be paid. A French woman said we shouldn’t pay them up front and suggested we give them 12 Djibouti Francs for the four of us. The bags had to go through security again, and a woman opened and rifled through some of them. What did she think we were smuggling into Djibouti? I bet she just wanted to see our stuff.

Once through Immigration, we paid our porters. One accepted the money, then the others held their hands out. Lorraine to the rescue. She told them in Somali they needed to share the money.

At last, we loaded our luggage on a truck John had borrowed and went to their house where supper was awaited.

Stay tuned.

 

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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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