The Hard Work of Unemployment

Putting a face on Djibout's jobless numbers

By / April 2013

The CIA World Factbook quotes, as of February 2013, a 59% urban unemployment rate for Djibouti and an 83% rural unemployment rate. This means nearly seven out of ten Djiboutian adults are without work. But the figures are somewhat misleading. Case in point: Amina, an independent restaurateur in Djibouti City, who rises each morning to chop eight kilos of onions and stir pots of beans, pasta, and tea, her shalmad shellacked to her back with sweat, her feet growing ever more elephantine and calloused.

Because her restaurant is unregistered, Amina is officially numbered among Djibouti’s unemployed. Hundreds of restaurants like Amina’s, nameless and hastily constructed and managed by women unable to secure government-sanctioned jobs, spring up near new building sites in Djibouti City. Teachers, soldiers, port employees, these are the employed. Women cooking over an open fire in front of a ramshackle hut, men cutting hair with razor blades and overturned tin cans for chairs, or  children sorting trash, these are the jobless. These are the creative, the desperate, sometimes the illegal aliens, who occupy the lower rungs of this rapidly developing nation.

But to be jobless, Amina works awfully hard. On this morning in March, as on every other morning except for Fridays, the one day of rest per week, she sits in the sliver of shade cast by her wooden restaurant, a three-walled structure with a rippled aluminum sheet roof and an assortment of cans, flattened plastic jugs, and low wooden stools that all serve as chairs. There is no table, no running water, no electricity. Her feet touch at the heels and wrap around the pot of onions. One hand cups the purple bulbs and the other slices a knife through white flesh in quick, steady strokes.

One slip and her thumb would land in the pot but Amina has sliced onions like this for decades. Sometimes she wraps a yellow plastic bag around her thumb to protect from blisters but she never slips. She never cries either. Eight kilos of onions, every morning, and not a single tear dampens her cheeks. There is no time for tears, or to wipe away one of the thousands of swarming flies.

Amina’s coworker, Deeqa, arrives while she is stirring hot peppers into mashed orange lentils. Deeqa says she might be twenty-five years old or she might be thirty-seven. Her face is smooth, her skin darkened from the sun, and she is probably an age in between the two. She lugs sacks of non-perishable food for the day and plops them in front of the restaurant.

Amina lifts her chin in acknowledgement and greeting. Spaghetti noodles, a 10-liter yellow jug of oil, blackened charcoal pellets, potatoes. Deeqa tosses her red shalmad over a wooden pole that juts, totem-like, out of the ground at a slight angle. Amina wears her scarf tight and the rare times that she stands, she holds the extra material of her dress in a pinch between her armpit and her side. Deeqa tucks her extra dress material under the elastic band of her polyester slip at her bellybutton. The bulge gives her the droopy appearance of a woman five-months pregnant.

A man with his arms hooked over a walking stick lodged across his shoulders approaches and demands tea. He wears a green UMP shirt, the President’s political party, and a macwiis (wraparound sarong), which he has rolled up and folded over to expose his knees.

“You never pay,” Amina says and turns away.

“I am the chief of this neighborhood,” the man says and stands in the smoke curling from beneath her pot of simmering beans. “Give me tea.”

“No,” Amina replies.

One by one, she rips open eight bags of spaghetti with her teeth and dumps the noodles into boiling water along with a handful of course salt. The man watches, spits over his shoulder, then nudges a sack of bread with his sandaled foot.

“Give me tea.” He raises his voice this time and waves a hand over his head.

“You never pay,” Amina shouts back, then adds: “You don’t wear underwear.” Her words call attention to his macwiis, rolled too high over his bare knees, and reveal her disdain for the customer.

In response to the underwear comment, Deeqa laughs — a scratchy, cavernous laugh — and repeats the insult, adding waryaa (hey man!). Deeqa promises to serve him tea when he pays for his other breakfasts and lunches and cups of tea. He watches a moment, then wanders to another makeshift restaurant on the next corner. Amina can hear his shouts but the distance blurs the words.

“I owe 80,000 franc to the shopkeeper who sold me these supplies,” Amina says, “and the men think they can come eat for free.” She has already peeled all the potatoes Deeqa brought and now, without a word, a man wearing a Muslim prayer cap stoops to gather the peelings into a plastic bag for his goats. By the time breakfast (beans and baguettes and tea) and lunch (spaghetti with a potato-filled white sauce) have been served, little actual money has changed hands.

The bread man delivered baguettes in the morning, an elderly woman brought whole pepper and coriander seeds and poured them from a cut-off clear plastic water bottle into a scrap of magazine paper Amina cupped in her palm. Amina filled yellow jugs with water from a nearby home. Construction crews drank and ordered and shoveled in as much food as they could during their fifteen-minute meal breaks. And no money appeared, only the exchange of goods for services.

The first hard currency came from a group of street-cleaning women. They wore matching faded peach cloaks. They wore scarves over their faces, some with sunglasses perched in the narrow slit left open for their eyes. Black gloves and thick socks protected them from the garbage they picked up and stuffed into heavy-duty plastic bags. “The President will pray at the mosque at the end of this street today,” one of the women explained to Amina when she bought, and paid for, a glass of chilled red Vimto-flavored water.

Later, Deeqa would sweep all the non-edible scraps, emptied pasta bags, pieces of newspaper used as napkins and torn plastic bags, into a pile with a stick broom and burn it to discourage swarms of crows and flies and out of respect for the women who cleaned the road for the President. Amina would bring ground sorghum flour to the house that supplied her water. The next day, the spice woman would receive a free lunch. Next week Amina would pay the bread man for the entire month’s orders of baguettes. At the end of the month, she would cajole the construction crews and plead with Allah and hope the men paid off their debts so she could pay down her own.

In Djibouti, unemployment can look like a variety of things including a dauntingly large number on a list of a statistics. In Amina’s case, unemployment looks like entrepreneurship and relationships, community and networking and, quite simply, like hard work.


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