The View from Djibouti

Rachel Pieh Jones on what the hottest country on earth looks like around lunchtime.

By / May 2012

The waves of the Gulf of Tadjourah don’t crash, white-capped, against the gray stones lining the Corniche. They roll and heave and slap, lackadaisically, on the shore, almost as if they are weary from heat exhaustion. It makes sense; everyone in Djibouti is tired from the sweltering days in the hottest country on earth.

Despite the listlessness of the waves, the winds off the ocean where the Red Sea bleeds into the Gulf of Aden provide a soothing breeze and I stroll along Rue de Venice, sweat streaming between my shoulder blades, in search of relief.

My pathway lies between the fishing docks and the shipping port. In the latter, blue gantry cranes tower over a container ship. Djibouti’s location makes up for her small size, comparable to Massachusetts, and enables the country to influence vital shipping lanes connecting Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

Stevedores in faded orange bodysuits load and unload in the shadows of these massive cranes, which bear protesting camels toward a ship headed for Dubai. Cloths wrapped around them like diapers, the terrified camels bellow and flail as they soar across the water, their knobby-kneed legs dangling. This transfer of livestock and goods keeps the port in constant motion and provides a significant number of jobs for Djibouti’s 800,000 citizens.

Inland, dust coats Djibouti with a brown haze but at the seaside is the beauty of a colorful, developing nation in the slow, laboring, throes of progress. A myriad of green, blue, red, and white containers are stacked like building blocks in the port storage area. A narrow minaret, decorated in yellow and green patchwork paint, peeks over the stacks. Crackling static fills the air, then the nasalized Arabic words of the muezzin, “Allahu Abkar! God is great!” rise and swell.

At this call to prayer, all work halts so the men can eat a quick lunch and pray. Women emerge from slivers of shade cast by the billboard of Djibouti’s president and set up shop; orange jugs of tea sweetened with condensed milk, aluminum platters of hardboiled eggs and crispy baguettes.

The men cross the roundabout and squat on the curb, perched like crows, with turbans shading their heads and their hands cupped around plastic glasses of steaming shaah. They face the water to catch the same wafts of thick, salty air that barely sways my peasant skirt.

Between the container/camel ship and the fishing docks bobs a Somali dhow. The boat, like Djibouti, is in progress. Portions of the thirty-foot dhow are painted green, blue, red, and white, the same colors as the Djiboutian flag, which flaps against a crooked wooden pole in the center of the boat. But most of the vessel’s curved planks are bare. A man clings to a ladder hanging over the edge, pounding nails. Now that the camels have quieted, the sound of his hammer echoes, hollow, across the water.

The dhow is a perfect image of a Somali pirate mother ship, but these men aren’t pirates, they are fishermen. They stretch out on tarps and smoke cigarettes, sip Cokes, and chew khat, a leafy mild narcotic. They wave at those of us on shore.

Wide wooden fishing docks jut out parallel to the shipping port. The boats here are smaller than the container ships, their cargo destined for Djibouti Town rather than Dubai. Tuna, red snapper, barracuda, black tip reef shark. Nets and strings are filled with fish caught during a long night at sea, the prospect of a solid meal swinging from hooks. Either the fishermen will sell their catch in the market or to expatriates like me, or they will take it home for dinner.

Pale pink flamingos balance on scrawny legs in the shallows at the far side of the docks. Some bend, their beaks immersed in the water, and others stand straight. They look like unorganized letters of the alphabet.

A low row of mangroves creates a border between land and sea. The trees hold back the desert from encroaching on the flamingos and the port. Or maybe the mangroves hold back the ocean from encroaching upon the desert, that soft, dry wadi where athletes run and nomads herd camel trains, where refugees set up temporary housing, and students take a shortcut from Balbala shanty town to the junior high school.

To the south, where the road to Ethiopia meets the sea, and barely visible over the flatness of the moonscape-like wadi, are the tops of the gantry cranes of Djibouti’s new shipping port, the Port of Doraleh. Here, there are more ships, new jobs for stevedores, larger huddles of women selling tea. Their bright scarves and new port uniforms are brilliant, are signs of hope-filled development against the backdrop of the dusty desert.

I feel comfortably hedged in by these borders of water and sand, flamingoes and fishermen. I wipe sweat from my eyes, wave back at the men on the dhow, and ask the young boys waggling fish at me how much they want for the basket of fresh shrimp at their feet.


Rachel Pieh Jones has written for the New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and Running Times. She lives in Djibouti with her husband and three children and blogs at