Saturday, November 30, 2013


Ah, Djibouti. It’s long been the “butt” of many jokes for English speakers.  These jokes were usually placed at the  “bottom” of my joke list, though. However, I’m going to put this “behind” me, get it out of my system, and move on; I will do my best to look forward and not to the “rear.” 

Djibouti is one of four countries that make up the Horn of Africa, along with Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. The country itself is fairly small, slightly smaller than the US state of Massachusetts.  Djibouti lies on the Gulf of Aden and the southern entrance to the Red Sea. There are eight mountain ranges, the highest being Mousa Ali (which includes a volcano), and the entire country is covered by desert.  The climate is hot in the winter and hotter in the summer. The name “Djibouti” is named after the capital city of the same name. Although linguists aren’t exactly sure, but there is reason to believe Djibouti may be related to the Afar word gabouti, which is a doormat made of palm fibers, or possibly stemmed from “Land of Tehuti,” the Egyptian god of the moon.

Some historians believe Djibouti (and surrounding areas) is the place the ancient Egyptians called Punt (or Puntland), who was a major trading partner with Egypt at that time. (I wonder if people from Punt were called Punters. – Sorry, a little football joke.) This area was mostly inhabited with the Somali and Afar peoples.  The Ifat Sultinate is one of the major ancient kingdoms to reign in this region and of course there were several others afterwards.  In the mid-to-late 1800s, the French came in and set up their French administration in the capital city, later taking over and renaming the country French Somaliland (rather unoriginal, considering there was an Italian Somaliland and British Somaliland as well.) Several decades later in 1967, it was renamed again to French Territory of the Afars and Issas.  (Slightly wordy, it was at least more reflective of the original peoples). The people held a couple of referendums regarding their independence, but finally in 1977, Djibouti became its own country.  Although there was some political conflict that led to fighting starting in the early part of the 1990s, it had generally been resolved in the 2000s in an agreement of power.  Djibouti does hold the only US military base in sub-Saharan Africa, which is a key base in the assistance in the global watch on terrorism.    

The capital city of Djibouti City has about 600,000 people – roughly the size of Portland, Oregon.  This seaport is known for its sand beaches, which are major tourist spots.  The city is also known its many markets, many of which are open-air markets selling everything from fabrics, woven goods, and jewelry to fresh meats and vegetables and grains. Much of the culture and architecture is a mix of Somali, Arab, and French styles and traditions.  Soccer is pretty popular, and they have a stadium that holds many international sporting events. Djibouti City is also a financial hub for many up-and-coming businesses in all fields.

By far, Djibouti’s largest trade partners are neighboring Ethiopia and Somalia. Djibouti also refines about four million tons of salt from the Lake Assal region annually – which also happens to be the lowest point in the entire continent of Africa.  With the help of Chinese investment, they are looking to expand the salt industry.  They do have problems with high unemployment; some estimates put it around 50%.  Because of persistent problems with drought causing an unfavorable environment for growing, most of their food is imported from other countries.  This also causes the country to have a lot of long-term debt they have to deal with.

While Arabic and French are official languages, most people also speak Somali or Afar as a first language.  Different dialects of Arabic are also found spoken in Djibouti, mostly in immigrant populations, as well as other minority languages.

The vast majority of Djiboutians practice Islam – about 94% of the population. In fact, the Constitution of Djibouti specifically lists Islam as the state religion, with Sunni Muslims making up the largest group and non-denominational Muslims being the second.  The remaining 6% of the population are Christian – there is a small Catholic population overseen by the Diocese of Djibouti.

 I read that one of the common “pastimes” in Djibouti is qat chewing.  Qat (also spelled khat) is a medicinal plant, when chewed gives narcotic effects.  In fact, it’s banned in a lot of European countries (weirdly enough, not the UK).  It’s also banned in the US, but from what I could gather, it will be seized but not for the reasons you might think: it’s not seized as an illegal substance, but because “it’s labeling fails to bear adequate directions for use” according to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Sounds weird… So, while I may not be getting so local as to chew some qat, but I am looking forward to eating some Djiboutian food and learning more about a country that up until now has long just been relegated to geographical jokes.

 Up next: holidays and celebrations

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