Djibouti, North Eastern Africa — The atmosphere was electric Thursday morning. Friday is their day off and Thursday is Khat day, the day everybody indulges heavily in the chewing of the narcotic plant. I had seen them buying Khat from women on the street feverishly every afternoon but Thursday was the mother of all euphoria.The taxi driver had a bunch of stems in the hand holding the steering wheel while the other was picking the leaves and shoving them into the inside of his cheek; he hummed and sang to himself. In the streets, and I mean in the streets, in which cars do not drive slowly, people were walking, just standing there talking and even kids playing kick the plastic bottle. Earlier in the day an old man who was sitting on the sidewalk with two friends chewing Khat, broke a bottle on the pavement. Another man who was walking by smiled at me and pointed to the wad in his mouth, his eyes blurred by the narcotic, as an explanation for the other’s erratic behavior.
Numbers and people
With unemployment at 60% and illiteracy around 50%, there is not much more to do than chew Khat and have kids (4.2 per woman) in a polygamous society. Around 13% of those children die before they reach puberty. Of course, those figures are estimations as there are no viable statistics about Djibouti. The last census was either in 1990 or 1992, depending on who you talk to. The small country of 23 000 square kilometers (slightly smaller than Massachusetts) has anywhere from 600 to 700 thousand people with more 500 thousand of them in the capital. It is a small country with a big interest to the West. It sits at the narrow straights on the Southern end of the Red Sea which receives all Suez Canal traffic and looks out to the Gulf of Aden which controls the entrance to the Persian Gulf. It is no small wonder the French maintain a garrison in their former colony of 2000 soldiers and high end fighter aircraft. The Americans have recently come with just as many GIs and have free unhindered use of their part of the air port and the base they have built. Djibouti has become a pivot in the war on terrorism, the war in Afghanistan (I have seen German air crews too) and a rear base for Iraq/Iran. If the US should attack Iran, Djibouti’s Importance could grow more. It may be out of range of the 12 000 missiles the Iranians say they have and would have to use in the first five minutes of a conflict or see them destroyed on the ground. Although you can see French soldiers roaming the center of the old colonial town with its two story square buildings and arch-covered sidewalks, I have only seen a few GIs and only at the swimming pool of the five-star Djibouti Palace Kempinski hotel where I am staying and which is owned by some Prince in Dubai. I am told the GIs are ‘discouraged‘ from leaving base.
What about Osama then?
Osama Ben Laden has a few friends here. Students tore into me the other night at their small university where I spoke about journalism. The more veils the girls wore, the harder they ripped into me as an American. But all applauded when I said I would interview Osama if given the chance. After all, I am a reporter. Did they understand I would also like to see him dead? The US is (understandably in my opinion) disliked by many people here but the Djiboutians don’t seem motivated enough to express it any other way than through peaceful conversation and their president has expressed great pleasure with the American presence and has even said he would like to see Djibouti become an English speaking country. (see interview in Jeune Afrique, July 2007)
Nothing is domestic
Everything in Djibouti is imported. Fruit and Vegetables come from Ethiopia. Everything else comes through the Port. The Port is very active and also run by a Dubai company. Ships stretch out into the Gulf of Aden waiting to unload their containers, often ten to twenty deep. Everything going to Ethiopia comes through this port and then is trucked or carried by train to Addis Abeba. Everything Ethiopia exports (coffee, fruit, vegetables), comes to this port. The European Union has just agreed to finance the modernization of the 540 kilometer small-guage Djibouti to Addis rail way which the French built in the beginning of the 1900s and which has not been really fixed since. This should reduce the heavy truck traffic which has proved to be dangerous for the environment. One trainee spoke of fuel trucks falling over a mountainous part of the road and polluting the water table, which is Djibouti’s only source of fresh water. As Djibouti produces electricity with imported fuel, it is expensive and power cuts are common. D. tells me that keeping your house cool in the summer when temperatures soar to 45 and 50 degrees Celsius can run you electric bills of $2000 and more. Ibrahim is a driver and cannot understand that the cost of living is so high. “The economy is so good now,” he says. How do you explain to Ibrahim that when money comes in, prices go up. Salaries for Djiboutians who work in the Public Sector can be from $300 to $500 a month but half the country lives below the poverty line. There is money coming in, it just does not go to Djiboutians. Most people on the power grid are not paid customers any how and worry even less about air conditioning. But it is fun to see how people in the slums manage to steal power with illegal wiring. Shops, bars and whore houses (prostitution is legal according to my journalist trainees) are all equipped with generators.
Speaking of prostitution, the official statistic for HIV/AIDS is a very low 2.9%. G. who worked for the UN here, says the statistic was released only after a serious row between the government and UNICEF. “Nurses at the hospital,” G. says “speak of over 20% of pregnant women tested having the virus.” There is cholera in the city. The government spoke of 50 cases. “But it’s got to be more serious,” says one of the journalist trainees, “other wise they would not mention it.” So how much cholera is there? Enough that when I was at the US embassy I saw a sign giving the name of a local employee not allowed to work because “He’s got cholera.” If better paid US employees have it, how much is there in the slums with no sewage treatment, no running water and an illiterate population? Djibouti is booming and the port is constantly being made bigger. A lot of the labor is Ethiopian. The Djiboutians, with their nomadic tribal traditions “don’t like to work, are lazy, prefer to chew Khat,” is what I hear other Africans say. My trainees all work for the state media because that is all there is in Djibouti. Out of twenty, only seven have shown seriousness. The others come late, leave early, get up and go out during lectures, come back, talk on their cell phones (of course I told them to turn off the cell phones), read their newspaper or don’t bother coming at all, except for the coffee break with cakes the embassy paid for. Whether the Djiboutians work seriously or not, whether they go to school or not, die or not, has little importance just as long as they don’t fall into Islamic fundamentalism. Ethiopia and the West don’t need the Djiboutians. They just need Djibouti.