‘Land of Gods’ is a catchphrase used often in promoting Djibouti as a tourist destination. The Land of Gods referred to is the Land of Punt, a mysterious kingdom of untold wealth located to the south of ancient Egypt. Queen Hatshepsut referred to it as her “place of delight”. The exact location of Punt is disputed but historians have offered the possibilities of Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and Yemen. Djibouti seems convinced it was their land. Wherever it lay, it was tremendously important. Queen Hatshepsut undertook an expedition to Punt, known as Ta netjeru in the ancient Egyptian tongue. Punt was a sacred place to the ancient Egyptians; they believed it to be the birthplace of both gods and men. It had commercial value as well: Egyptian fleets regularly crossed the Red Sea to trade in incense, ebony, gold, wild animals and more.
Djibouti’s crossroads location brings a different sort of visitor these days. “We are the gateway to the Middle East. That is why the Americans are here,” said Zaki as he sat with me in Djibouti Ville back in 2010.
Relief of Queen Hatshepsut’s expedition to the Land of Punt; Temple of Deir el Bahri, Upper Egypt. Photo: Wikipedia.
We were in Sept Frères, a restaurant in the African Quarter famed for its moukbassa, a whole fish fresh from the Red Sea grilled in the Yemeni style and served with the Djiboutian flatbread lahoh and a sweet viscous purée of bananas and honey called houlba. Zaki was a tall, gaunt and solemn man in his early thirties. We had exchanged emails while I was still in my hometown of Nairobi in which I told him of my impending trip. I was coming to conduct a research project in Djibouti, on democracy. Funded, naturally, by the Americans.
My superiors at work had chosen me for this project because I spoke French. The client was an American NGO whose mission, we were told, was to educate the citizens of “undemocratic” lands about the virtues of democracy. They had written to my boss enquiring whether he had a field team in Djibouti and he had fired back a quick reply saying, rather disingenuously, that he had experienced men on the ground all over the country. Those men were imaginary; perhaps he believed that a man’s reach ought to exceed his grasp. Encouraged by his responsiveness and resourcefulness, the Americans wrote back saying they wanted to carry out a survey of Djiboutian citizenry’s attitudes towards democracy. The boss, seeing the possibility of a long and lucrative relationship with the Americans, agreed to take on the project. He drew up a timeline and a budget and emailed them to the Americans. Then he summoned me to his office and presented me with the job.
The American clients were scheduled to land in Djibouti on Sunday afternoon and wanted to meet the (still imaginary) field team for a briefing session upon arrival. The boss instructed me to depart immediately in order to set everything up before the American landing. This seemed impossible. It was Wednesday. It would take three working days to obtain a visa. He advised me not to bother going to the embassy. Instead, he said, I should travel on Thursday night to Addis Ababa in neighboring Ethiopia and then onward to Djibouti where I would arrive on Friday morning. He assured me that Friday was a slow and sleepy weekend day in the predominantly Muslim country and therefore immigration officials would be forgiving, allowing me to slip easily into the country sans visa. This clandestine suggestion gave me pause. Even if I managed to enter the country without a visa, where would I begin? I did not know anybody over there. Could he not stall the clients for a few more days while I tested the waters? He alternated between threatening and cajoling, saying time was a luxury that I did not have. I accepted the job.
Whatever you do, do not mention politics
The next morning I went to the embassy and waited nervously for my visa to be expedited. I had chosen to err on the side of caution and to enter the country legally. An older colleague at the office—a seasoned veteran of travel to “undemocratic” lands—had given me some welcome advice: “Whatever you do, do not mention politics. Say you are doing a comparative study on the eating habits of the wider Eastern African region instead.” It worked brilliantly. The bored embassy official was unprepared for my charm offensive. In my finest French and flashing my most dazzling smile, I expressed my deep and sincere interest in the food of Djibouti—its flatbread lahoh, its sweet halwo desserts, its baasto pasta. I even said I wanted to try camel meat. I left the embassy not only with a visa stamped in my passport but with a long and varied list of culinary delights that he insisted I try upon arrival in Djibouti. This seemed to augur well for the project.
At 2 am on Thursday morning, I presented myself at the Ethiopian Airlines check-in desk at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi. The two-hour flight to Addis Ababa was uneventful. I spent it familiarizing myself with the client’s very particular areas of inquiry.
I continued with these preparations during the four-hour layover at Bole Airport in Addis, pausing only for people-watching breaks. I was particularly fascinated by a large group of young women in loose floor-length dresses and shawls draped around their heads. A middle-aged Ethiopian seated beside me whispered to me that the contingent was Riyadh-bound, possibly victims of human traffickers masquerading as “foreign employment agencies” which lure unsuspecting young Ethiopian women with the promise of domestic work in the Middle East, where many fall into the hands of cruel employers and lead lives of servitude and suffering. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that many of the dresses were indeed new, and that many of the shawls were adjusted with a frequency that indicated either unfamiliarity or discomfort, and I wondered what lay in store for this seemingly upbeat and optimistic group.
Djibouti has the only American military base on the African continent
On the forty-minute flight from Addis to Ambouli, my eyes met those of an American soldier in seat 23C. He winked; I looked away. Djibouti is home to the only American military base on the African continent. Camp Lemonnier in the Djibouti Ville suburb of Ambouli is the American hub for the war on terror in the Horn of Africa, and no doubt at least a contributor to my clients’ interest in this tiny country. The soldier helped me with my luggage when we landed—muscular arms, many tattoos. He stood next to me on the bus ride to the terminal but we did not exchange a word. I bent into my purse to rummage for a pen with which to fill in the immigration form. When I raised my eyes to look for him, he was gone. I sighed, and moved along with the rest of the queue.
Surely the red-light district could not be in the center of the city?
Upon stepping outside into the sweltering heat I was promptly accosted by a sprightly old porter who forcibly steered me towards a taxi while carrying my luggage with surprising ease. He stuck out his palm and barked, “Trois dollars.” Three dollars. I obliged and entered the ramshackle vehicle. The elderly taxi driver greeted me cheerfully and introduced himself as Issa. He stroked his orange beard somewhat nefariously and asked where I would be staying. Tufts of matching curly orange hair peeked out of his white skullcap. I wanted to interrogate him on his henna dye job but felt it would be inappropriate.
“Hotel Ali Sabieh,” I replied.
He eyed me suspiciously. “Don’t you have any family?”
“None here,” I replied. I had obtained the hotel name from a hasty Google search for cheap hotels in close proximity to the university where I was planning to recruit my field team of bright, eager, cash-strapped students. Had I accidentally picked a seedy ‘love hotel’ in a disreputable part of town? Surely the red-light district could not be smack in the center of the city?
He frowned disapprovingly. “That is not good. Once a woman stops having her period, it is over for her. Women must get married and have children quickly, when they are young.” He looked at me closely in the rear view mirror, no doubt trying to establish why I had failed to ensnare a husband by my advanced age of 25. “It is not good for a woman to travel alone and stay in hotels. People will talk. Also, your hotel is too expensive. I will take you to another one.”
And so Issa commandeered me to Hotel Banadir. It was a clean and utilitarian place, and once I ensured that there was a fan in the room, I paid cash upfront for two nights. Djibouti is said to be the world’s hottest country and already I had been wilting in the 40°C heat. Kadra, the pleasant and rotund cleaning lady, plied me with sugary coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice and a warm crispy baguette. She quickly took to lamenting the lack of good men in Djibouti as she straightened out my room. “All they do is chew khat,” she says angrily slapping a pillow into shape. It turns out that she, like me, was also unmarried. This left her extremely bitter about having to eke an honest living when all her four older (and significantly less attractive, according to her) sisters were all happily married with children. I commiserated.
After a refreshing shower, I slipped into a loose flowing dress I had packed with foresight for the hot weather. I went to the reception to call Zaki, my sole contact in the country who had been recommended by the seasoned veteran in the office. He knew someone in Nairobi’s predominantly Somali suburb of Eastleigh who knew someone in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu who knew someone in Djibouti. To my delight, I discovered that the hotel manager was an Omani Arab who wanted to practise his Arabized Swahili with me. After a labored conversation and several cups of sugary coffee, I finally managed to extricate myself and ventured out into the streets of Djibouti Ville, deserted on this hot and humid Friday afternoon, to meet up with him.
“We are the smallest country in the region,” Zaki had said as he tore apart his fish with his hands. “We are a desert nation with few natural resources. Those who say we have sold ourselves to the Americans do not understand our situation.” America might indeed be a good friend to have when one is surrounded by volatile and belligerent neighbors such as Somalia and Eritrea. While Djibouti has been committed to the Somali peace process, American military presence in Djibouti is a thorn in the side of Somali terror group al-Shabaab. The group reminded Djibouti that Somalia had sacrificed people and resources to aid them in their struggle for independence from the French. Signing a deal with U.S. President Obama on May 5, 2014 to let the US keep a military base in Djibouti for 30 more years was not the way to return the favor. The presence of foreign soldiers, both American and French, has been blamed for the increase in “un-Islamic behavior” among local women. On May 24, 2014, al-Shabaab carried out first suicide bombing in Djibouti’s history at La Chaumière, a restaurant popular with Westerners in Djibouti Ville. In a statement claiming responsibility for attack, al-Shabaab said that Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh had signed a “deal with the devil” by allowing access of its land and facilities to the “Crusaders”. In June, both Britain and the US issued travel advisories against Djibouti, citing credible threats by al-Shabaab to Western interests there.