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Posts Tagged ‘Watchmen’

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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