In over 34 years of life I have never been pickpocketed, not even in London. Well, that changed yesterday as I was strolling through the central market of Djibouti City. I would say that I’m a very savvy traveller on the whole and I thought pickpocketing was something that happened to naïve tourists in the likes of the medinas of Morocco or the New York subway.
I was well aware that there was a man close behind me as I wandered past fruit stalls and yelling knick-knack peddlers so I stopped abruptly to throw him off and that’s when he made his move. It was a pathetic attempt, to be honest, and all he got was a receipt for a can of coke and a list of a few shops I had to visit (after all, a savvy traveller would never walk through a market with anything valuable in an easy to reach pocket!). In the heat of the moment I grabbed him by the arm whilst spewing a barrage of four letter expletives at him. After seeing his face I demanded he give me the bits back and proceeded to lecture him on the virtues of being a moral citizen. He then became all meek and apologetic and it was clear from his eyes that he was stoned.
The reason I reacted as I did is because I knew that the people of Djibouti are not a violent lot and no one carries weapons on them. So I don’t suggest for a minute that I would’ve done the same in, say, Nigeria or the Congo, but then I wouldn’t walk through a local market in those places. I also knew that a favourite pastime of many Djiboutian men is the chewing of qat, which can bring on fantasies of personal supremacy to users. It was clear that my antagonist was high on this stuff and after his apology, we parted ways.
I’d come across qat before, during a visit to Yemen a few years back, and I even tried it under playful coercion from a taxi driver in Sana’a, the capital. It was foul. It is a leafy plant which is chewed and gives a mild feeling of euphoria, similar to that of strong coffee, apparently. I sensed nothing when I tried it and instead ended up feeling like a hamster with a load of chewy, disgusting leaves bulging out of one cheek.
It is a social custom in many parts of East Africa and Arabia, and it’s even popular amongst the Somali immigrants living in London (which has led to the UK government weighing up whether to ban it in the UK). Still, it is part of everyday life here in Djibouti and the hours after lunch see many a group of men sprawled across the pavements not really doing much. In fact, all of the shops here close at midday and re-open at four o’clock, perhaps because everyone is ‘high’. This was a tad annoying whilst collecting my data as I had to go all the way back to my hotel for four hours, just to head back out again to the same place later. And what made these four hours worse was that there was no kettle in my room! Typical! After bringing tea bags, milk and sugar from home I wind up in a hotel where these are all useless without a kettle. Grrrr!!!
So, where is Djibouti? It’s a tiny nation nestled between Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia just to the north of the Horn of Africa, and less than 20 miles across the Red Sea from the coast of Yemen. Considering some of the problems in these neighbouring countries, life in Djibouti is, on the whole, a trouble-free existence these days. It gained independence from France in 1977 and only has a population of three quarters of a million.
The climate here can be punishing, with May through to September regularly seeing highs in excess of 45 degrees centigrade. As such, there is very little agriculture and the economy of the country relies instead on its strategic location on the Red Sea. The Red Sea is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and tiny Djibouti serves as a key international refuelling centre for ships. The country also acts as the main seaport for neighbouring, and land-locked, Ethiopia and accounts for all Ethiopian foreign trade movements by sea. Djibouti is also home to the only US military base in Africa as well as housing troops from the EU and other nations. The presence of these foreign troops is of huge importance to the country, generating hundreds of millions of dollars a year for the government. They also provide security and the naval facilities provide a defence against piracy which threatens Djibouti’s port based economy. In fact, the hotel I’m staying at is swarming with various army fatigue wearing troops with German, Finnish and American badges on their arms.
So there are many reasons for Djibouti to be optimistic for the future. And good luck to them I say.