Sunday, February 20, 2005


I promised my most loyal reader (she knows who she is) that I would write about my present location: Djibouti.

Djibouti's not really a country.

Ok. Let me qualify that some. Djibouti is a country in the sense that it has borders and a government and its citizens have passports that say Republique de Djibouti. What I really mean is that it shouldn't be a country. You see, there are no ethnic Djiboutians (pronounced Ji-boo-shuns). The people here are a mixture of Somalis (60%), Afars (35%), Ethiopians, Arabs and French (the remaining 5%).

The former French Territory of the Afars and the Issas became the independent country of Djibouti in 1977. There really is no reason for there to be a country here, though. Djibouti has no natural resources and no arable land. The only real reason for its existence is the French military presence. According to the CIA World Fact Book, "[t]he economy is based on service activities connected with the country's strategic location and status as a free trade zone in northeast Africa".

In fact, if it weren't for the French military presence one can only assume that Djibouti with its strategic location on the Gulf of Aden would have been a prime target for Ethiopia (who has no access to a port since Eritrean independence) or Somalia (for reasons of ethnic solidarity).

The French aren't the only ones here. Sitting astride the entrance to the Red Sea as it does (only 30 miles from Yemen at the narrowest part of the Bab al Mandab), Djibouti has attracted the attention of the U.S. (all four of whose services are represented here), Italian and German militaries. That's a lot of soldiers in a country that is slightly smaller than Massachussetts.

So, what is Djibouti like? Well, in a couple of e-mails to friends and family I've written (tongue-in-cheek) that it's "like Somalia without the warlords". Actually that's not far off. Physically, it's a very arid country (the CIA World Fact book describes it as "torrid"). Here in the capital (also named Djibouti) we are at sea level which means that it is quite hot year round. I'm told that this time of year is the "cooler" time of year; I can only imagine what July and August must be like. It's also quite dusty as the city is basically a desert port.

Djibouti is a small city. You could easily walk from one end of the city to the other in half a day. Unemployment is rife (around 50%) but that's true of most places in Africa. Djibouti has very poor infrastructure with only 364 km of paved roads. In the capital at least many of the paved roads are in extremely poor condition. There are an estimated 9,500 telephones and 23,000 cellphones among a population of 466,000. Life expectancy is a scant 43 years. Infant mortality an alarming 10%. Literacy is 67%, with only 58% of women able to read and write.

It's also extraordinarily dirty. This is where I will get into the more subjective portion of my assessment of DJibouti. You see, I don't judge a country's worth by how good the food is (not very). Or whether or not they have cute shops to buy souvenirs (they don't). Or how many museums they have (none that I've seen). Or whether or not there are sights to see (there are a few, but they are all natural attractions and outside of the city). No, I judge a place by how civil the people are. And I judge how civil they are by how they treat one another, how they treat visitors to their country and how they treat where they live.

So, by my standard, Djibouti isn't a very nice place. People here seem to have the dimmest awareness that others exist, but that doesn't stop them from refusing to queue or driving like they own the road. On several occasions I had people bump into me while I was walking on the street (sure sign of obliviousness) and on two occasions I wasn't sure if vehicles were going to let me get across an intersection. (Thanks, pal!)

They still seem to regard foreigners with more curiosity than I would have expected (given that the French have been here for at least a hundred years - of course, it could just be me walking around in a brightly tie-dyed Luigi's t-shirt and my "Eric Banas"*). They seem friendly enough, often shouting out greetings to me as I walk to the embassy on the weekend. However, often as not they are trying to hawk something (watches and sunglasses most commonly) and that may explain their gregariousness.

Of course, not every one is so welcoming. Yesterday afternoon as I was walking back to the hotel a young woman (incongruously dressed in a Muslim head scarf and - I'm not making this up - an Eminem t-shirt) began to berate me. I think because I was wearing shorts. Although that doesn't make a lot of sense because part of the French Foreign Legion's uniform are very short shorts (reminiscent of the old shorts they used to wear in the NBA) and those guys are all over everywhere. She wasn't yelling at me in French, that's for sure.

As for the trash, well, look, just because you're poor doesn't mean you have to live in squalor. It doesn't mean you can't put trash in a trash can. This just shows lack of empathy and foresight and just plain laziness.

I think some of this attitude - especially the laziness - can be attributed to khat. Khat is a plant (shrub, really) whose leaves and stems contain a mild stimulant. It produces a mild euphoria when chewed. I think tht national productivity is held back by the chewing of khat. Most economic activity takes place in the mornings. Then, after about 1:00 pm, things grind to a halt and the khat chewing begins. Economic activity doesn't resume until after the sun goes down. Khat chewing is endemic. Walking down the street in the afternoons, just about every male you see has a huge bulge in his cheek from khat. And it's not only the men who chew it; the women do, too, although to a lesser extent.

Last week there was a short crisis when Ethiopia suspended its normal khat shipment to Djibouti. Apparently the Ethiopians were trying to raise the price per kilo and the Djiboutians cried foul. Luckily, the Somalis and Yemenis came to the rescue with an emergency shipment. Still, for two days there were a lot of miserable young men. The local paper reported that restaurants reported an uptick in business. Khat reduces the chewers appetite. I guess it's the reverse of the "munchies".

Well, that's Djibouti for ya. Not much to tell. I can't wait to get to Brazil!

(* - i.e., the Oakley Penny sunglasses worn by Eric Bana in Black Hawk Down a.k.a. the COOLEST SUNGLASSES IN THE WORLD!)

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