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Posts Tagged ‘Port of 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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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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