Djibouti, Nov. 24 — Before the Europeans came and showed them how to do it, Africans did not have passports, or stamps to put in them, or visas. Like elsewhere around the continent, the Djiboutians have become masters at the bureaucratic hassle table.
Of course, the fact there is only one real flight in and out of the country per week, means they have a very small window of opportunity to practice the imported art of making people wait, feel uneasy and put up with being spoken to condescendingly.
Air France from Paris arrives Saturday morning and leaves Saturday night. The other near link to the outside world is a weekly Kenya Airways flight from Nairobi. Other than that, there are the occasional Eritrean or Yemeni flights.
So, when I flight comes in, I can see them in their French made blue uniforms, ringing their hands, for the chance to do something. Although, the Djiboutians have nothing to say about what goes on at the American or French Air Bases next door, they do get to control the weekly civilian flight.
When Air France arrives, the no-go zone between the aircraft and Passport control where only authorized Djiboutian border police are allowed is full of US GI’s picking up people straight out of a Blackwater recruitment brochure, French soldiers in those ridiculously short and tight shorts they are forced to wear and which makes them look more like candidates for the Love Parade than the Foreign Legion. There was even a German soldiers making a pick up (Djibouti is also a base for Àfghanistan, see previous entry).
The problem you want to avoid is putting your Djiboutian policeman in a position he is afraid to assume and that is what happened to me when they discovered I am a reporter. “Stand over there.”
“Over there” is just in the corner watching the supervisor worry about whether he was going to make a decision or not. “You need authorization to do journalism.”
“I have come to do training, not journalism.”
Such answers did not enter their book. So, the supervisor disappeared into another room where a higher up I suppose would worry about making a decision. Can you imagine the fun they were having dealing with a real ‘situation’, just like their former colonizers had taught them to do.
Fortunately I spotted somebody from the Embassy waiting for me and he told them who I was and what I was about. The words “US Embassy guest” did the trick.
In the back ground French Raphale Fighter aircraft rip the morning sky apart as they take off to patrol the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Persian gulf and perhaps even the skies of Afghanistan. The Americans do too but perhaps they don’t do it when the only European civilian plane of the week is unloading.
It is the same when you leave. The woman at check in was going to refuse my carry on for being 14 kilos rather than the 12 authorized. The policeman made me take a rock out of my packed back-pack. All over the terminal were signs saying No Khat with a drawing of branches and leaves and a big red bar through it. The funny thing is my passport was checked and rechecked, however at arrival in Paris, border police took more than thirty Djiboutians who were on the plane into custody.
I suspected there was something wrong when many of them did not know how to use the toilets or lock the toilet door. If you have lived in Europe, these are things you will have learned.
Speaking of the French, they made us stand in long lines for one and a half hours at passport. They could have put six cops on duty but preferred two. Perhaps they get bonuses for anxiety/anger/stress units they create. The Djiboutians can still learn from the French.