A Journey to Djibouti

“Ya Bashmohandes Gohar Did you sleep well last night?” He asked
“Hmm, yeah I believe I did” I answered
“Well, well, well…probably, it was your last night of good sleep in Djibouti”
He answered me back, with a smile while getting into his Nissan Pathfinder!!!

Downtown of the capital Djibouti
The author

Before starting the design process of any new commissioned project, architects need to visit and inspect the site and location of the proposed construction, in order to understand the project’s nature, its surroundings and environment. The more they analyze, observe and acquire information, the more they would be able to make better decisions and hereby produce a better design. Which would serve both client’s needs, users of the project, and above all; the environment, the city and the inhabitants. Few weeks before COVID-19 pandemic was defined as a global health crisis I needed to fly on a mission to Djibouti to meet our client and to prepare an onsite study of the project, since I was the architect who leads the design team.

Traveling to the capital Djibouti on board of the Ethiopian Airlines, I had to make two hours of transit through Addis Ababa Bole International Airport. Which is considered the hub of Africa. Flying over the harsh contrast of the green and yellow landscape of Ethiopia and landing in the 70s style airport of Djibouti, reminded me of the 2006 movie “The Last King of Scotland” Based on Giles Foden’s 1998 novel. The movie depicts Uganda in the 1970s and the country’s cruelest leader Idi Amin. This was just my feelings from the visuals around me, because I was about to discover one of the most peaceful places I have ever visited. During almost a week of site visits, meetings and talks I was able to draw a global image about our project. I was also lucky enough to be able to satisfy my passion for observing, understanding and reading cities. Through researches, walks, interactions and talks with locals and foreigners, I had a chance to discover the capital Djibouti and glimpse its culture.

According to The World Bank in 2011 Djibouti is one of the smallest countries in Africa in which more than 23% of the population lives in extreme poverty. It covers an area of 23,200 square kilometers and is home to a population of about 865,000. Djibouti also has less than 1,000 square kilometers of arable land. Due to its geographic location at the Gulf of Aden and Bab El-Mandeb strait, the country is serving as the gateway to the Suez canal, forming a bridge between Africa and the Middle East. Djibouti’s geopolitical importance made it one of the busiest shipping routes and the preferable location for diplomatic missions and many foreign military bases starting by France (as a former French colony), to the United States, Great Britain, Japan, China, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), as well as for Italy, Saudi Arabia and India.

Djibouti is believed to have been part of the area known to Egyptians as Punt. By the year 825 Somali and Afar ethnic groups became the first Africans to embrace Islam in the region due to the trade with the Arabs and especially from Yemen. Between 1862 and 1894 France gained a foothold in the region, acquiring the trading ports of Obock and Tadjoura, subsequently known as French Somaliland. In 1977 the country gained independence from France, renamed Republic of Djibouti. The republic of the presidential pluralist type is now headed by president Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, who has been in power since 1999. Djibouti is a member of African Union, the Arab League, the Francophonie, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

The airport is very small-scale, you walk directly from plane to the arrivals hall
The author
President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, this big poster catches the eyes once you exit the airport
The author
Djibouti detailed political and administrative map with relief, roads, railroads and major cities – 1991. Political and administrative map of Djibouti with relief, roads, railroads and major cities.
http://www.mapsland.com

The Republic of Djibouti is divided into five regional decentralized communities: regions of Ali Sabieh, Dikhil, Tadjourah, Obock and Arta endowed with legal personality, public law and financial autonomy. The city of Djibouti was created as a port in 1888 by Léonce Lagarde, the first governor of French Somaliland which became the capital in 1892. The city has a special status and is administered by a commune council made up of a deliberative assembly, a president and a vice-president. It comprises three communes: the communes of Ras – dika, Boulaos, and Balbala.

I arrived at the airport in the afternoon. It was organized, clean but very small and it gave me the impression that I moved back to the 70s. I would say because of the building itself, its exterior/interior design and the finishing materials as Djibouti is rich in resources of granite, limestone and marble. Once I finished the visa process, I was accompanied by Madih (مديح), a Djiboutian of Yemeni origins driver and facilitator who was speaking perfect Arabic, French and Somali. On the way from the airport to the downtown where I knew I will be staying, I saw a big poster of the president Ismaïl Omar Guelleh. I learned later that he is a strong man and loved among his people as he played a big role during the civil unrest. During the trip and since Madih knows I am Egyptian, he didn’t stop recalling quotes from several Egyptian movies especially those of Adel Imam the renowned Egyptian actor.

The distinctive architectural style of the downtown buildings
The author

You do not need to have very trained eyes to realize how the location and strategies of this very small cosmopolis are impacting its social, cultural, political and economical life. The country’s location at a crossroads of trade and commerce is obviously reflected on its diverse culture. The local community is consisted of four main ethnic groups: the Afars, Issa Somali, Muslim Hamites Orientals and the Arab community of Yemeni origin. They communicate in four languages which are French and Arabic as the official languages in addition to the Somali and Afar.

Djibouti has various ethnic groups each has its own different folklore, traditions and styles of custom, cuisine and music. At every moment I used to hear some music whither at the hotel’s lobby, or from the shops I passed by or in any taxi or car. Even many people were singing the streets which is also something common in Egypt and the Arab communities. Most of the time the songs were in African languages and a few times I heard some French songs but I never heard Arabic music. By asking people I learnt that the Common musical instruments used there are the drum, tanbura and oud.

In a taxi from the downtown to the construction site close to the airport and the American base Camp Lemonnier
The author
The Toyota Crown taxi of Djibouti
The author
Taxi of Djibouti in front of Qat shop
The author

In Djibouti taxis are state owned. They have a very unique green and white color. Most of the taxis are 1990s Japanese sedan Crown or its replacement the Toyota Corona Mark II. No one I met knew why all taxis are only Toyota Crown. I guess the state purchased those cars because the Crown is comfort and big car and has been popular for governmental usage.

Djibouti is considered a very expensive country in terms of the cost of life including factors such as currency fluctuations, cost inflation for goods and services, instability of accommodation prices and rental accommodation costs. According to both studies of the World Bank’s cost of goods and services statistics 2017, and Mercer’s 26th annual Cost of Living Survey, the country ranges between 58th and 60th under the international comparison of expensive countries in the word in the years 2017,2018,2019 and 2020.

When I was there the cost of one liter of gasoline was 300 Djibouti Francs, the equivalent of 1.7 American Dollars. Whilst the gasoline liter costs 0.54 U.S. Dollars in Egypt, 0.75 U.S. Dollars in the United States and 1.76 U.S. Dollars in France. A short taxi ride would cost more than three times what I can pay in Egypt and almost the same price in France considering that France occupies the 14th rank of the most expensive countries.

One day I went with Madih (the owners’ representative) to the only professional print house in Djibouti, the capital. We needed to print a set of Autocad conceptual design drawings of A1 size (594 x 841mm). I was curious to know how much it would cost, so I asked him about the Pièce which is a French word meaning coin and Djiboutian people are using it when they talk about money. To my surprise, I discovered that the cost of just one A1 sheet is 4200 Djibouti Francs the equivalent of 23.5 U.S. Dollars, which in Egypt would cost 20 Egyptian pounds (1.2 U.S. Dollars).

In the Capital there were no exchange offices. The only way to exchange your currency is through ladies who control this business. They were all seated in the streets of the old downtown. Each of them holding a colorful African decorated sack full of thousands of currencies, U.S. Dollar, Djibouti Franc, Saudi Riyal, Emirates Dirham, etc, but I could not find the Egyptian Pound. The exchange rate is internally fixed among them which guarantees their commission. I have been told that it is totally safe for them as they stay all day out till 11 pm.

Taxis in the downtown, in this photo we can observe how the culture is impacted by the French colonization period
The author
Ladies dominating the currency exchange business in the capital Djibouti
The author
Some of the exchange ladies have more popularity according the offers they give to their customers
The author

The red soil in the region of Djibouti is considered very fertile. But the hot arid and harsh environment, the dry and humid climate with very low rainfall limits its ability to diversify the production and increases its reliance on foreign markets, principally her neighbour Ethiopia. Leaving the country very limited natural resources, industry and agricultural potential.

According to Kelsey Lilley in her report of 2018 Why Djibouti is the loser of the Horn of Africa’s new peace “Ethiopia and Djibouti have traditionally maintained a close political and economic relationship out of mutual necessity. When the Ethiopia-Eritrea border war broke out in 1998, Ethiopia lost access to Eritrea’s port, an existential crisis for a landlocked country. Since then, Ethiopia has overwhelmingly relied on Djibouti ports to process its imports and exports: some 95 percent of Ethiopian imports transit through Djibouti. Djibouti, too, relies on its larger neighbor, from which it imports freshwater and electricity.”

Djibouti is dependent on Ethiopia not only for supplying water and electricity, but for supplying almost every commodity they use in the Djiboutian market. Even the daily dosage of qat/Khat (قاط). Overland from Ethiopia cars and the 1894–1917 Ethio-Djibouti old railway (metre-gauge) which in 2017 by the support of the China’s ExIm Bank loan was superseded by the Addis Ababa–Djibouti Railway (standard gauge) , Djibouti is legally importing tonnes of the daily fresh amount of Ethiopian qat’s green leaves. Chewing or storing qat is an old rooted tradition in the culture of Djibouti people, the horn of Africa and Yemen. They call it in Arabic (تخزين) which means storing, as they store leaves of qat plant in the side of their mouths and keep sucking the juice. It became more like a social gathering where men meet, talk and share their daily life updates. Usually the qat gatherings could last for 5 or six hours per day. Locals in Djibouti believe the president Ismaïl Omar was able to restrain the “Issas and Afars” dispute during Qat gatherings. The price of a good bundle of qat starts from 2 or 5 U.S. Dollars and could reach to 100 Dollars according to the quality and freshness of the plant.

Qat is not considered by the World Health Organization (WHO) to be a “seriously addictive drug”. According to (WHO) the chewing of Qat leaves releases chemicals structurally related to amphetamines, which give the chewer a mild high that some say is comparable to drinking strong coffee. The chewing of qat increases heart rate and blood pressure. It can also affect sleep, leading to rebound effects such as late awakening, decreased productivity and day-time sleepiness.

Usually the qat chewing gatherings have some rituals. The men buy some good quality and fresh green leaves. They gather in one room furnished as Arabic Majlis sofa (traditional oriental floor seating) with a table in the middle. To make sure they are totally relaxed they wear colorful African and light sarongs in Arabic (المعوز).

A man wearing sarongs (المعوز) walking in the early morning in downtown
The author
In the background stands the metre gauge Ethio-Djibouti Railway
The author
A wrecking yard: the red soil of Djibouti
The author
View of the coastline of the capital Djibouti on the southern shore of the Gulf of Tadjoura, which is an inlet of the Gulf of Aden
The author

Djibouti’s limited natural resources and the lack of national production since the early beginning of forming communities there, have made it dependent on the others. But on the other hand this limitation, and in addition to the geographical location have enriched the country’s cultural diversity. The unique location not only made Djibouti the gate to both the Red and Mediterranean seas, but also being very close to Yemen has connected the two continents Asia and Africa. People of Djibouti started to absorb and melt cultures of the Arabs from Arabian peninsula, the inhabitants of north and middle Africa, and even part of the European culture. This cultural diversity is directly reflected in the spoken languages, habits and traditions, costumes, cuisine, music, art and colors, religions and architecture.

The only local handcraft I have seen during my short stay
The author
Boulangerie, the French model of bakery shop
The author
Baguette seller (furinleh – bread man) in the early mornings. Locals here call it Forum. It doesn’t taste like the French baguettes but but rather more like the Egyptian Fino bread. It costs twenty-five Djiboutian franc
The author
Kiosk selling traditional Egyptian food: Ful, Kushari and Kebab
The author
Ethiopian goats
The author
Fast food restaurants
The author
The last day before I travel back to Egypt I was lunching with the client at this Yemeni restaurant where we met the son president Ismaïl
The author
Ethiopian restaurants
The author

Art, architecture and urban life in the city

I was lucky to stay in a hotel in the heart of the downtown, which is considered one of Djibouti’s 10 sites on the tentative list of world heritage map of UNESCO (Le paysage urbain historique de la ville de Djibouti et ses bâtiments spécifiques). The historic city center of Djibouti was constructed during the French colonisation with madrépore, a relatively friable limestone. The load-bearing walls are very thick and the facades are roughly masonry with lime mortar. Most of the buildings were designed and built in the distinctive colonial architecture style. Which combines simplified European architectural elements with the Moorish revival style that was introduced to the city through the Arab and Indian trade.

Since electricity in Djibouti is very expensive, people tend to rely more on natural ventilation ways and the traditional vernacular architecture rather than using air-conditioners.

Few days were not enough or fair to judge the city but it looked more like a big village. The lack of clear urban planning, infrastructure, building regulations and code, to architect’s eye were absent. I have seen a lot of slums inside and outside the city, especially the slums of Balbala. Even the new compounds where the foreign expats live were messy and the finishing materials and conditions were done badly as they lacked professionals and workshops.


The capital Djibouti Photo Gallery by the author

  • Aerial view of downtown Djibouti
  • Private compounds and slums
  • The remarkable streets names
  • Architecture and urban details

Disclaimer:

  • Ideas, texts and photos presented in this article are only reflection of my observations and are acquired in a short period of time. They don’t represent at all any voice of locals nor institutions.
  • Any mentioned facts and quotes are attributed to their authors mention in the text.

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