To Find a House, To Make a Home

In Djibouti, the work of dilals, or house finders, is unheralded yet profound

By / December 2015

Ajuuro wandered miles of dirt roads, rocky paths, and narrow alleyways. He knocked on the doors of strangers, pestered the guards sitting outside the houses they protected, and fumbled his way through conversations using Amharic, Somali, English, and French, some languages flowing more fluently from his tongue than others. He demanded phone numbers, house keys, landlords’ names and addresses; he insisted on access to locked rooms. Then he called up the people who had employed him to schedule a day of house hunting.

Ajuuro was a dilal, a house finder. He was Ethiopian, living in Djibouti, trying to support a new wife and earn enough money to care for his weakening body as chronic sickness took an ever stronger hold on him. His job was an unofficial one. He had no website or business card. He was paid in cash. The only way to contact him was on a phone he sometimes answered and that sometimes had enough credit on it to return the call. The only way to find out about him was to know someone who knew someone who knew him and that is the way most independent expatriates – not employed by government, military, or high-end businesses – find housing in Djibouti.

Though largely unknown outside of the country, the job of dilal is a well-known one to locals in Djibouti. Some dilals advertise on hand-painted signs at strategic corners or on the sides of newly constructed buildings. Others, like Ajuuro, rely on word of mouth. Once they have proven themselves effective and useful, a dilal can have a somewhat steady flow of people who need to find housing, especially in September.

Payment is arranged on an individual basis, usually paid by the day, with an agreed-upon bonus at the time of signing a rental contract, a percentage of the overall rent on the house or apartment. Ajuuro’s clients explained to him what they were looking for: number of rooms, neighborhood preferences, price ranges, and then Ajuuro began the hunt. Once he located four or five options, he would spend a morning showing them to the client. If nothing was a good match, he would spend another week or two hunting again.

Guards were generally happy to show a house to a dilal and his clients. Sometimes they had a copy of the house key and sometimes they said to return tomorrow; they would find the landlord and get the key. Sometimes they knew the rent, sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes they had phone numbers for landlords and sometimes they didn’t. Even if Ajuuro was able to find a house that fit the specifications of the client, there were no guarantees. Maybe the landlord was in France for six months and hadn’t left a phone number or key. Maybe the landlord had already agreed to let his son’s family move in soon and hadn’t informed the guard.

There is a rental office in Djibouti, Agence Immobelière, but not many properties that are actually available are listed with them. So it can be more efficient to hire a dilal. If, that is, the person looking for housing is already in the country and has the ability to spend mornings wandering the city with someone like Ajuuro. And, if they are willing to see more houses than necessary. Some dilals charge per house shown and start off showing houses far outside the price ranges the clients specified, dreaming of that larger cut as a bonus.

Choosing the right home is no small task, especially in a foreign country where, initially, everything overwhelms and confuses. What sounds like an ice cream delivery truck is the garbage man, and ice cream comes delivered on a bicycle instead. What sounds like a dying bird honk turns out to be the bicycle horn of a man delivering fresh baguettes from wooden carts. The guttural sounds of a new language sound aggressive and feel alien in our own throats as we struggle to communicate. We learn to turn left from the right-hand lane or to use our blinker not to signal that we will turn but that the car behind us should pass. We learn to dodge donkeys and snap photos of camels at stoplights. The workplace runs on a different schedule, coworkers have different values: relationship over efficiency or saving face over blunt directness.

The cacophony, in the first few months, feels like a sensory assault and what we want, as expatriates, at the end of the day is a home to return to that is a refuge from this onslaught. A place to breathe and to gather strength so that tomorrow we can reenter this new world and engage again. Slowly, the process becomes easier and eventually we even feel at home in this new place. But the home remains our refuge.

At home we serve burgers and fries one day, injera and dora wat the next. At home we listen to English music and wear shorts and decorate with family photos from that place we left. And we also decorate with local handicrafts, baskets woven by women in the market, a bilaawey, the knife that’s a gift from an Islamic religious leader. Home becomes our place of melding the old and the new, the familiar and the foreign, to the shape of our own liking.

Ajuuro found my family’s second house three years ago. Now, we are moving again and the house hunt began this fall in earnest. This time, we decided to be our own dilals. We know the area, we know the languages, and we know the method, after trailing Ajuuro several times. It felt like being on a treasure hunt without a map and, when we finally discovered the house we wanted, there was a satisfying sense of accomplishment.

A few months ago, Ajuuro’s sickness caught up with him and he passed away. Several expatriate families still living in Djibouti had found their housing thanks to Ajuuro’s tenacity. Though the job of a dilal is uncelebrated, what Ajuuro accomplished for people new to Djibouti is profound. He found them places to call home. For the uprooted, for people attempting to establish work and family in a foreign country, the ability to come home, to rest, at the end of the day is no small feat. May Ajuuro, also, rest in peace.


Rachel Pieh Jones lives and writes in Djibouti City.