Majd Bani-Odeh : Djibouti

Reflection 1

Here I am in the continent of Africa for the first time in my life. My introduction to Africa begins here in the Republic of Djibouti, a very small country on the east coast of continent. Despite its small dimensions, sparse population, and conspicuous name, The Republic of Djibouti ,formerly known as French Somaliland, provides the continent of Africa with an enriching history, innate culture, significant resources, and unique people. Situated on the east coast of Africa along the Bab al-Mandab( the strait that links the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden) Djibouti is bordered by Eritrea, Somalia, and Ethiopia and by the Bab al-Mandab, Gulf of Tadjoura, and Gulf of Aden on the East. Djibouti has a population of about 750,000 people, where approximately two thirds of the country’s inhabitants are concentrated in the capitol, Djibouti. The country occupies a strategic geographic location at the mouth of the Red Sea and serves as an important transshipment location for goods entering and leaving the east African highlands. Roughly 60% of all commercial ships in the world use its waters from the Red Sea through the Bab-el-Mandeb strait and into the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. This very fact contributes to the significant role that Djibouti plays in the international political economy of the world, particularly the middle east and East Africa.  

I have been here for almost two weeks, and I’m absolutely in love with it. Though I have seen little of the country so far, I fell in love with it particularly because of the authenticity of its people, the warmth of its air, the safety of its environment, and of course the tastiness of its food.   

We are in the winter time here now, and by winter I mean 95 degrees! Djiboutians are offering their gratefulness to Allah for the few drops of water they have had in the past few days, despite the blasting heat. “ We are so happy its finally cooling down, and we are finally seeing clouds”, they say. I never thought I would say this, but I was also happy to see clouds this morning. It gets up to 140 degrees here in the summer time, so we can safely say that it is rather chilly these days.  

Recently, I have been mistaken for a Djiboutian, Ethiopian,  Arab/African mix, or even ITALIAN! This has worked for my advantage so far, as I get special treatment for being somewhat part of their community. People here are in love with Palestine, and are very supportive of the Palestinian cause, so they get especially excited when I say that I am Palestinian. I very often hear the phrase: Vive la Palestine!  

Despite the fairly increased economic growth that Djibouti enjoyed since its independence in 1977, poverty and underdevelopment persist to be one of the most critical issues in the country. Prices here are beyond expensive. There is absolutely no way anyone can live here unless they get paid $10,000 a month! Yet there is so much poverty, so I wondered how people make it here? Well it turns out that a notable feature of the Djiboutian diet is the consumption of the light narcotic leaf qat, which is mostly imported from Ethiopia. Qat is consumed recreationally by men, especially after lunch, when government offices and work come to a standstill in the blasting heat. Qat enhances concentration, delays sleep, and mutes the appetite. So you don’t have to deal with buying food or worry about feeding others so much. All you have to worry about is paying your electricity bill(which can easily add up to $600) and rent.  It seems that the government manipulates its people, and sucks all the money its citizens make, fostering corruption and dependency.  

Well you might be wondering what I’m doing here! I work with Project AIDE, which stands for Assistance Internationale pour le Développement de l’Education. It is a USAID funded program but AED run project. The project’s mission is to Assist MENESUP (the Ministry of Education of Djibouti) to reach their objectives towards the improvement of education in primary schools as stated in the GORD 10-year plan. There are four foci of project AIDE activities: Education Management  Information System (EMIS) and Fundamental Quality of Education Levels (FQEL) , Social Mobilization and Out-of-School Youth, Gender Office, and Teacher Training. To give you a clearer idea, I will explain what each element of the project does.  

First, EMIS which is responsible for the modernization of the information system and management education to improve the quality of primary school education and ensure the equity in school enrollment, especially for girls.  

Second, social mobilization activities to reduce the disparities of education and training, stimulate the partnership between families and the association of parents and schools, and develop mobilization activities and education for inclusive education. On the other hand the out-of-school youth activities provide training opportunities for Out-of-School Youth (ages 17-25), especially for young women, that lead to employment, increase training opportunities for Out-of-School Youth in the regions outside of Djiboutiville, and coordinate with local employers and GORD ministries to organize on-site internships for Out-of-School Youth. 

Third, the gender office increases access and participation in primary school education for young girls, and Assists the on-going monitoring and inclusion of gender factors in MENESUP education management information system. 

Finally, teacher training by advising on activities for the National Training Plan 2009-2011, and following up with the finalization of the national policy for in-service training.  

I work with all four elements of the project. So I far I have been doing lots of translation from French to English or Arabic to French. The official language here is French, however, the indigenous population speaks mostly Somali and Arabic. We’ve been doing lots of tours all over the country for surveys and checkups, and the staff  has been really thankful to have me on board to translate messages to the local people.  

Last week we went to the district f Dikhil, about three hours south of the capitol, where poverty exists the most in the country. People mostly live in the desert in small tents/shacks, and go to local schools all the way at the end of the desert. It’s quiet a walk for them, especially in the blasting heat! It was interesting interviewing the local school directors as they are not used to having “foreigners” come to town, let alone a woman! Getting the necessary information was a bit frustrating, but all worth it at the end.  

Though it has only been two weeks, I have learned so much about the country’s history, habits, culture, and norms. The people I work with are extremely educated and are very dedicated to the betterment of the education system in the country.  

The expat community here is huge, mostly French, and American. Djibouti has the only American military base in Africa, and since it is a francophone country, it has a remarkably big French community. It’s been nice to spend time with the expats (mostly older in age) and share our experiences, impressions and advices regarding the country.   

I am very much enjoying my time here and feel like I’m learning tremendously.  I like this field a lot and I think I will continue my grad school with international development. Though there are lots of obstacles with progress, people's willingness, and effort, I think that it is a fascinating field and I'd love to further explore it.  

Reflection 2

Au Revoir Djibouti, et a moi l’Avenir ! 

I can hardly believe that my time here in Djibouti is reaching its end. To say that the last couple of months have been eye opening, life changing, and inspiring would certainly be an understatement. Thinking about the woman who landed in the Djibouti-Ambouli Airport of Djibouti on January 9th, and comparing her to the one sitting in front of the red sea and writing about the fascinating time she had spent and the long lasting lessons she had learned, I see two different people. And by different, I don’t mean that I have become an entirely changed woman, but rather one that is aware of the world’s injustices , motivated to devote my time to the betterment of humans’ lives , passionate about making a difference, and dedicated to being a world’s citizen.  

Living in Djibouti had showed me that the world is far beyond my experiences in the West Bank and the United States. It has taught me that suffering, pain, love, happiness, diseases, poverty, corruption and violence exist everywhere in the world, despite our geographical locations. No matter how much we differ, somehow we are all connected.  

Now that we are about to graduate university, I have come to realize that experiencing East Africa and the development arena is far more valuable and rewarding than four years of theorizing and analyzing.  Seeing events, creating plans, and being part of the development process has taught me tremendously and will always stay deeply rooted in my heart.  

During my stay here, I have witnessed a lot of events that marked the world’s history but at the same time events that marked my own personal experience here. First, the resignation of the Tunisian president after a series of protests and uprising. Then, the liberation of the people of Egypt from their long-term dedicator, Housni Mubarak. Followed by protests in Bahrain, Yemen, Morocco, and even here in Djibouti. Today, Libya is fighting to overthrow its inhumane, cruel, and bipolar leader who promised to kill his entire nation but yet is convinced not to leave because his people love him. We can only hope that the people of Libya will get their freedom and that an international intervention will take place to eliminate Qadafi’s power. 

On a more personal level, I have had lots of events that marked my own personal history. I have met long lasting friends who stood by me in the good and bad times. We spent endless hours discussing politics, cultures, economics, etc. We danced, sang, laughed, cried, and loved each other. I witnessed progress happen with our own project. I have learned lots about what the workforce is like. I have had the honor to meet the Palestinian ambassador to Djibouti. I’ve had the opportunity to strengthen my French. I proved to myself that I can be dedicated to a mission and be part of a bigger team and not be afraid to contribute and speak up. I even witnessed my coworkers welcome a new member to their family!  

One might wonder what were some challenges, if any, that one might face in Djibouti? Well to be completely honest, there are MANY! Especially for a woman…or to rephrase that: especially for a woman who does not look western, per se, but acts like one. Their assumption that I am African or perhaps Arab leads them to the assumption that I am Muslim. This put a tremendous amount of pressure on me to look, act dress, eat, talk in a certain way that is “acceptable” to my origins. Though I am very proud of my Palestinian origins, my experience both in Palestine and in the U.S had shaped who I am which is a lot different than what they expect me to be. This was a bit of challenge, though I continued to be as respectful and courteous to the Djiboutian people. 

 Living here could be very stressful and overwhelming. I have yet to figure out why, but here are some thoughts.  

The Djiboutian culture is not very welcoming to foreigners, especially the ones coming from the west. They are very cold and protective, which could very much be the result of all the military bases that are established in and around Djiboutiville. There is a high demand for prostitution which increased the overall numbers of brothels, bars, and nightclubs. Djiboutians are not happy about that. But also, the hatred directed towards the foreigners is a result of the class divide between the French military, and the Djiboutian people. . 

Another challenge is people’s willingness to make change. The lack of motivation and inspiration continues to be a huge impediment to the change making process in the country. It is very challenging to make things happen here. It takes a while to realize that things just do not move like we want them to. A big part of that problem is people’s addiction to Qat, the tropical leaf that I wrote about in my earlier reflection. I mentioned that it mutes the appétit but more importantly it delays the brain. It is a daily routine that people practice and have been doing so for as long as they have lived. This contributes tremendously to how fast they respond to change. The simplest act such as taking the bus and asking the driver to stop somewhere could be very difficult especially after 1pm when they all start chewing it. You have to ask the driver to literally stop a block ahead from where you want him to so you can ensure getting off at the right stop. At this point, you can only imagine how slow things move here. Yet, my coworkers, who are mostly educated Djiboutians, continue to amaze me with their dedication to the betterment of the system and their commitment to making life better. This is what kept me going at the worst times.  

What will I miss? Lots and lots of memories. I will miss the sambousa’s  that my colleagues and I bought every morning before getting to work. I will miss the music we played in the office while sipping on our morning coffee and discussing all sorts of topics. I will miss my boss’s odd yet entertaining sense of humor. I will miss singing “good morning to you” to the staff every morning. I will miss my random conversations with the chief of party, the crazy bus drivers, times at the beach, snorkeling in the red sea, discussions with coworkers, trips to the desert, and  Djibouti’s night life. I will simply miss the community and love that I have surrounded myself with ever since I have arrived. 

This past Thursday, my coworkers surprised me with a goodbye party that was filled with love, laughter, tears, jokes, and gifts. I was given so many souvenirs and was told that they wanted me to have every possible souvenir that could remind me of them and my time in their country. It was then that I have realized how much they have touched me and affected my life. How much they have loved me, appreciate me and how sad they are to see me leave. They even asked to adopt me!  

I feel incredibly fortunate and blessed to have had the opportunity to be part of this fascinating experience. I will miss every bit of it and Djibouti will always have a special place in my heart. I hope to come back but at the same time I’m looking forward to many opportunities like this…Life is just opening up for me and I am embracing every minute of it.