Tuesday, October 26, 2010
Jump shake Djibouti
First, my apologies for the horribly offensive title of this blog post. I just really could not resist. Before I began reading obsessively about US counter-terrorism efforts in the Horn of Africa and working in the region, I, like most Americans in a middle school geography class, always found the city-nation-state’s moniker to be a bit giggle inducing. I mean how can you really resist a name like that. I think it goes without saying that I never thought I would find myself actually in Djibouti, with the opportunity to jump shake my….well you get it.
I used to work for a wonderful non-profit organization that works worldwide to support democracy’s institutions and advocates. It does some work with various actors in Somalia but because of the security situation has to fly them out to places like Djibouti to meet, train, and organize. I was brought on temporarily to help plan a conference and do some training on messaging and communication. We only had about 2 weeks to pull it all together, which when dealing with visas for Somali nationals, flights out of the war-torn country from two points, and an array of interests, is not very long. Regardless, it brought me to Djibouti for 3 interesting days.
Djibouti, though now thought of as a strategic base for western military (French, American, German…), was actually part of the original pre-colonial Somalia. If you look at a map of the horn of Africa, you’ll see that Somalia is basically the entire coastline of the Horn. The beaches are among the most beautiful in the world and include the coveted Gulf of Aden-the most important shipping route for Europe and the majority of the world (think pirates). As a result, a number of colonial occupiers were very interested in the land and eventually agreed to divvy it up. You have Italy, France, and England, and each country took its piece. For the most part, what we know as Somalia today was Italy’s share. What we call Djibouti, was France’s. As a result, Djiboutian people are Somali. They speak Somali, they are of Somali ethnic groups, and have close alliances with the indigenous Somalis found throughout Kenya, Somalia, Puntland, Somaliland, Djibouti, and formerly in Ethiopia. They also speak French and like their Baguettes. Many Somalia Somalis speak Italian and make some darn good coffee.
As one of my Somali colleagues explained to me, Djibouti (the city) feels just like Mogadishu. It was quite interesting to be there since Mogadishu is now so unsafe and bullet pocked that my chances of visiting are pretty low. The city center is marked by a number of low sitting ornate cement buildings, painted white, or pealing with grander days of color. The tops are carved with Arab designs typical in North Africa or the Swahili coast. The heat is pretty legendary, averaging between 97 and 105 degrees Fahrenheit. You’d expect the wave of hot to hit you as soon as you walk off the plane, but it surprisingly took about an hour for the constant sweat and frizzy hair to begin.
It is a very Muslim country, and I was reminded of this as soon as I passed through immigration. The call to worship from the multiple minarets rang out across the city, as I was greeted by some fellow staff and our cab driver Ahmed- A young Djibouti Muslim who preferred uncensored Tupac to traditional music and had Nike swooshes painted on his requisite green cab side mirrors.
As we were whisked through town it was explained to me that Djibouti is very safe. You can walk outside until 3am, leave things lying around without fear of it being stolen, and generally not feel like you are in Nairobi. I can vouch for this as we saw plenty of young foreign women running by the beach at 9 or 10 at night and no fewer than 5 police per street corner after dark….say it with me…police state.
The stranger dimension of Djibouti is the substantial foreign military presence. Our hotel serves as the temporary German consulate and as a result had German Military Police walking through it at all hours. My flight had about 7 French Servicemen and I saw countless American former-military, now contractors, wandering around the small city. It gave me a chance to play my favorite game: Guess the nationality and service. Camo without an American patch: French. Bald head, black polo shirt, khaki cargos, and an altimeter watch: some American you don’t want to know more about.
The French have had bases here since they “left” as colonial occupiers. The Germans helped train the early Somali police. The Americans came after 9-11 to chase Al Qaeda in North Africa and Yemen. Now the Americans run an entire command out of Camp Lemonnier (AFRICOM), and have expanded significantly to run its black ops and address pirating in the region.
This makes for a very strange place. In the middle of a street that looks and feels like Mogadishu you find a market place for Khat (the mild high-producing root chewed by many Somali men) and a few blocks later a brigade of armed American soldiers exercising outside the base. From what I can tell though, local Djiboutians have a very good relationship with their military guests.
As safe as the place is for foreigners, my last day I was exposed a bit to the hardship Djiboutians deal with in everyday life. The hotels do not allow taxis to enter their property without a passenger (or in some cases at all), so when I was heading out to the airport I walked out of the hotel gates to meet my pre-arranged ride with Ahmed. A bunch of the other cab drivers, sitting on cardboard boxes by the road were yelling at me, but as I’ve learned to do I just kept walking figuring they were catcalling me or trying to get me to choose them for a cab. When I got into Ahmed’s cab they became very angry and started yelling in Somali at Ahmed who of course had to respond (through my window). Though I kept encouraging him to say I was in a rush to catch my plane and drive away he said “just let me talk to them for a second.” He then proceeded to get out of the car and throw a punch. This started off a fight between him and about 5 other guys, one of whom picked up a large rock and was about to smash it into Ahmed’s head when luckily one of my colleagues came out of the hotel and broke it up. I had at this point debated running (bad idea since all my stuff was in the car), or driving away since he left the keys (might create a more tense situation with people chasing me), but instead chose to roll up the windows, manually lock the doors, and sit steaming the car wondering if my cab driver was about to be killed (no cell phone at this point). Luckily my colleague calmed things down and eventually we were off to the airport. The whole time, all Ahmed could mutter was….”there are very bad people here in Djibouti.”
I conclude instead, there are very strange groups of people here in Djibouti. As you can tell the place still fascinates me, but we’ll see if I can explore it another time. I am now pitched in exam mode, made a little worse by lost luggage on the way back from the trip, and a nice little bacterial infection to slow me down. Keep on truckin!