Languages: French and Arabic (official), Afar, Somali
Djibouti is a desert wasteland where Afar and Issa nomadic tribes graze goats and sheep on the sparse vegetation. They speak two different but related Cushitic languages. The Afar have traditionally occupied the Denakil depression which extends into Ethiopia from northern Djibouti while Issa territories in the south extend into Somalia.
The French obtained the right to settle into this area from the Afar Sultans of Obock and Tadjoura (north shore of the bay) in 1862 to defend their interests following Britain's occupation of southern Yemen on the other side of the Bab Mandab strait in 1839 (Aden protectorate). Then, they built Djibouti on the south shore of the bay in Issa territory. Djibouti is also of strategic importance as Ethiopia's only access to the sea linked by a railway which the French built in 1888.
Djibouti has been run by the Issa president Hassan Gouled Aptidon since its independence in 1977 in spite of strong Afar opposition which flared into armed rebellion in 1991. A truce was signed in 1994 but peace remains fragile.
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Djibouti is only a short hop from San'a. I got here in the afternoon, found a room at the Dar es Salaam Hotel where I met three other travellers with whom I went for dinner in the center of town, on the other side of Place Mahmoud Harbi shown here.
Diner with Steve, Michel and Tamzen in rue de Bir Hakeim. Meeting other adventurers like this is not uncommon. Michel Louis with the blue T shirt was a retired professional from Grenoble France, (I forgot which profession and it does not matter), who was discovering the world as I am. He was on his way home after a two month tour of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Yemen. Steve was an Californian on a two year world tour with the British Tamzen. We had similar interests so we got on beautifully. I wish they would see this someday!
Ferry by crowded "boutre" from Djibouti on the south shore to Tadjoura on the north shore of the bay.
I found Djibouti dirty, primitive and very expensive. Djibouti is independent but the French still maintain a several thousand military personnel who provide a demand for the active red light district on Bir Hakeim street. The port's throughput is essentially for Ethiopia for there is little development here. Fifty four percent of the population cannot read or write and only 23 % of children 12 to 17 go to school.
The Presidential Palace is closely watched and difficult to approach.
I found Djibouti interesting as a perfect example of an artificial country created by a European power to suit its strategic aims with no regard to the demographic realities of the territory used for that purpose, playing the Issa against the Afar and vice versa according to circumstances.
Afar huts in the desert.
I had planned to take the train to Addis Abeba but decided to join Steve and Tam, who were going to Assab on the Red Sea, and enter Ethiopia by the road border crossing at Galafi. There is no regular transport to Galafi but a mini van goes as far as Yoboki when enough passengers can be found. We went to the "cité Arhiba" (a Soweto like slum) early in the morning, searched for a van, waited, negotiated, changed from one van to another and waited some more until about 2 PM when everything finally came together and 19 of us left stuffed into a 12 seat mini van. I was lucky to get a window seat for I had some air in the sweltering heat.
We got to Yoboki village around 7 PM in the white and red van with the overhead load of empty plastic containers. Yes, there were 19 of us in that van including the driver and his helper. Yoboki is a very small place, you can see more than half of it on this photo. The place with the blue front is the local restaurant and "hotel" (people sleep on the floor and on the tables of the restaurant). It was primitive but I must say that the goat meat stew dinner was excellent.
The children of Yoboki lost no time to come and look when the word got around that three westerners had arrived. They were curious but wary. Some were a bit frightened and on the defensive.
I spoke to them in French. The small one with the red shorts asked me point blank. "Are you the enemy?" I told him I was a friend and asked him who the enemy was. "The Issa are the enemy, they want to take our territory" said the boy who could not have been more than 10 years old! No wonder tribal conflicts are hard to resolve, they are passed on from generation to generation with mother's milk!
Finally the kids warmed up to me and brought me to see the nearby camel caravan loading contraband merchandise from India bound for Ethiopia. It was really bizarre, the goods, mostly cheap textiles, travel from the port of Djibouti to Yoboki by truck then they go by camel to Desiocho inside Ethiopia where they are loaded on trucks again for the trip to Addis Abeba.
Steve, Tam and I managed to sleep not badly at all, we had our own private corner in this room where a dozen other persons also slept. Breakfast of tomato sandwiches in the five star Yoboki Mansions Hotel.
After breakfast we got on another van for the 40 km drive to Galafi on border with Ethiopia. This salt lake was about half way there. I sat next to Mektum Mellas, the owner of the merchandise crossing the border by camel caravan. He explained to me that everyone knew about his contraband operation and that he had paid off the border guards but that he had to use camels for the actual border crossing because trucks would be too visible in Galafi!