Where the Bread Is Hot as Hell

A dispatch from Avenue Vingt-Six, home of Djibouti City's busiest muufo oven

By / April 2015

The March afternoon in Djibouti is still relatively cool at 90 degrees, but Fathia is drenched in sweat. She stands over an open wood-burning stove made from clay. She never stops moving. Hers is an aerobic effort of bending, standing, rolling dough, tossing bread into a bucket. Fathia works on Avenue Vingt-Six (26th Street), across from the “Big Mosque,” where the road curves slightly toward the stoplights. I drove all over Djibouti Town to find Fathia and the beehive-shaped oven where she bakes muufo bread (pronounced mofo). But I should have known I would find muufo here. Avenue Vingt-Six is a vibrant four blocks of Djiboutian culture unlike any other street in town.

On one corner pillows are stacked ten and twelve high, balanced on top of hand-carved bed frames. The opposite corner has stacks of car tires, equally precariously balanced. In narrow alleyways women labor with tib iyo mooye, mortars and pestles, the mortars as tall as small children, the pestles like thick oars. They are pounding grain, two women to a single mortar, alternating with a steady rhythm and deep echoing thuds. Other women sit on the cement steps of hardware stores or food stalls and weave dried grasses into short-handled brooms, mafiiq.

Men walk behind donkeys hauling yellow water barrels. Others ride in wagons pulled by donkeys, the wagons filled with burlap sacks of long grasses or open-mouthed bags of charcoal. They pass women balancing sacks of grass or charcoal on their heads or women who carry up to twenty empty oil jugs or empty cardboard boxes on their backs, the load all tied together with strips of cloth. There are khat stands, wooden green stalls where young women sell the leafy drug, every few meters, many of them shaded by fading blue and red umbrellas.

Crows flock to Avenue Vingt-Six to peck at the discarded grains, the splotches of spilled tomato sauce, the road kill. They perch on electricity wires the swoop streetward, adding their grating caws to the bustling sounds of daily work. The mosque on the corner adds the essential backdrop to the street, sometimes by nature of the five-times-daily call to prayer or the Friday sermons, but always by nature of its tall white minaret.

Fathia’s muufo oven, known as a tinaar or tandoor oven in Somali, is smaller than I anticipated, knee-high and bumpy, rough-hewn, with an opening on top. Fathia says a man built it for her using clay from Yemen but she maintains it herself by patching cracks that appear on the outside and along the bottom. Inside, charcoal burns down to white ash. The inside of the oven is black. Fathia shoves the charcoal into the oven through an opening at the base and then seals it to keep the heat inside.

A neighbor boy about ten years old works with Fathia and her mother. His job is to remove and replace the metal cover. The handle is broken off and a wire that might have come from a hanger has been fitted into the holes. This is what the boy grabs with his bare hand to remove the cover. He says it isn’t hot at all. When he gets distracted by customers or passing kids or a nearby soccer ball, Fathia calls him back to his work and they both laugh.

Fathia’s mother sits on a black bench removed from the backseat of a van. The lining is torn and foam stuffing oozes out but the bench still looks comfortable. Her job is to manage the sales and money, though math eludes her and she has to ask Fathia how much change to give customers. A tarp hangs behind Fathia, offering shade from Djibouti’s relentless sun. They work in the yard of her house, painted a Pepto-Bismol pink, and the yard is littered with broken television sets, scraps of cardboard, planks of wood, and plastic buckets.

Fathia uses three buckets. A white one filled with the dough she mixed this morning, a yellow one with water, and another white one into which she tosses the finished bread. She scoops up a handful of dough, pats it into a flattened circle with her palms, bends over the yellow bucket to splash water on both sides of the bread and then reaches deep inside the oven to slap it against the walls. The water makes it stick. It doesn’t take long to cook and in less than a minute the bread falls off the wall. Fathia covers her hand with a purple towel and reaches in to pick up the muufo. It looks like brown pita bread. She can no sooner toss it like a Frisbee into her mother’s bucket than a customer steps up to buy it.

In some parts of Somalia muufo is made from a base of cornmeal but Fathia uses ground wheat and sorghum. She blends hot red peppers, coriander seeds, garlic, onions, chili powder, and cilantro and mixes it all with water to form the hearty dough. People eat it plain or with shaah – tea with sweetened condensed milk – or with sour yogurt.

There aren’t many muufo ovens in Djibouti, there may only be Fathia’s, she isn’t sure. Later I find out there are more in the Balbala slum area but they are only operational in the mornings. I have also seen a single-family sized one in the village of Randa in the northern mountains, which means there are a few more than Fathia thought. But she isn’t worried about competition. Her bread is cheap and fresh and there is a steady stream of customers. Her mother wraps the warm bread in newspaper or plastic bags and hands it to little boys and grown men who carry it back to their homes, passing it between their hands to keep the heat from burning their fingers.

To keep her own arms from burning, a blue towel is wrapped around Fathia’s arm from her wrist to the middle of her upper arm, like a cast. A single strip of a medical bandage winds around the towel and is knotted at the top to keep the towel in place.

Inside, the oven is blisteringly hot. Hot as hell, Fathia’s mother tells me. She asks if I want to go there, to hell.

“No,” I say.

“Do you pray the salat?” she asks, referring to the Islamic ritual prayer.

“I don’t,” I say.

“Do you have any religion?” She sounds worried.

“I follow the religion of Jesus.”

“Well then you are going to hell,” she says. “It will be hotter than the muufo oven. I don’t think you can handle that.”

“I’m sure I can’t handle it,” I say.

Fathia laughs at our conversation and instructs her mother on how much change to give me for the muufo I bought. Her sister joins the discussion. She asks for my phone number when I turn to leave.

The next day Fathia’s sister calls just to say hello. I don’t tell her that I didn’t like the muufo, that it tasted strange, like spaghetti-flavored bread. But it doesn’t matter, not to me anyway, whether or not I like the bread. What I liked was watching Fathia work with an easy expertise, that and also the warmth of how her family and neighbors welcomed me, the curious outsider, with their laughter, with their taunts of hell. I’ll be back for more. Maybe I will even learn to enjoy the surprising combination of garlic, onions, cilantro, and chili pepper in my bread.


Rachel Pieh Jones, a regular contributor to EthnoTraveler, is a writer living in Djibouti City. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Brain Child, the Big Roundtable, Running Times, and Best American Travel Writing.