At Large

Letter From Djibouti

It isn't paradise, but it could be worse.

By 10.26.07

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DJIBOUTI, Djibouti -- If there were to be a contest for the world's most beautiful topography, it would take a formidable challenge to knock Djibouti out of last place. From the air, the country calls to mind nothing so much as a vast, sprawling junkyard, with the gutted remains of single-engine planes, taxicabs, and roofless hovels rusting in an unforgiving, humidity-thick heat.

Things improve little from the ground up. The first thought that springs to mind when arriving in Djibouti is puzzlement at how such an economically ailing nation, nearly half of whose 650,000 population lives in poverty, has nevertheless managed to dispose of so much stuff. Indeed, driving through the rocky dirt roads that lead from the capital, one might be forgiven for thinking that refuse is the local equivalent of natural vegetation. There are, of course, countless other troubled regions in Africa; traveling around Tunisia recently, I saw no shortage of villages untouched by the trappings of modernity. But few wore their misfortune as openly as Djibouti.

THE EXPLANATION for some of this disrepair can be summed up in one word: khat. A green, leafy shoot common to East Africa and Yemen, the plant is supposed to act as a kind of African Viagra, speeding up blood pressure and generally boosting one's energy reserves. If so, it seems that Djibouti has acquired a particularly bad batch, because khat's effect on the locals, particularly the men, is anything but energizing. "After 12 o'clock the men are completely useless," one civil-affairs worker in Djibouti told me. She meant 12 o'clock in the afternoon.

Casual observation bears this out. Look around the capital city any time after midday, and you will see whole packs of men collapsed in restful torpor on roadsides and street corners. It's no surprise that many of the maintenance workers at the American military base in Djibouti, Camp Lemonier, hail from neighboring Ethiopia and Somalia. The locals are just not up to the job.

All of which prompts an uncomfortable conclusion. Because crushing poverty is such a famous fact of African life, it's sometimes assumed that Africans bear little to no responsibility for their plight. It's sobering to realize that, in Djibouti at least, one of the chief obstacles to progress and development is Djiboutians.

Consider the central government. Djiboutian president Ismail Omar Guelleh's smiling, avuncular face appears on scores of billboards throughout the capital, but his presence throughout the remainder of the country seems decidedly more limited. Colonel Robert Adamson, a trained veterinarian who travels across Djibouti as part of a military-led initiative to inoculate local livestock, notes that he and his colleagues are doing a job that the government won't do. "It's not like we're competing with local projects" Adamson says. "We're doing things that no one is providing for the people."

IN FAIRNESS, Djibouti is not the only country on the horn of Africa with problems. Indeed, the neighboring nations succeed in the unlikely task of making Djibouti look downright impressive, if only by comparison. Somalia, home to al Qaeda throughout the 1990s, was notoriously the inspiration for Black Hawk Down. To Djibouti's west, the demented regime of Marxist despot Mengistu Haile Mariam slaughtered thousands of political opponents in the seventies and eighties before precipitating a nationwide famine that became one of the biggest human-rights tragedies of the late 20th century. Today, Ethiopia is locked in an ongoing feud with Eritrea, a country that earlier this month had the dubious distinction of being rated worst in the world in overall press freedom by Reporters Without Borders. "It could be worse," is admittedly a far from perfect pitch to potential tourists, but it's accurate enough as a description of Djibouti's place in this chaotic corner of the continent.

But things may be looking up for Djibouti. The United States made a large down payment on the success of the country in 2003, when it chose Djibouti as the site of its military-led development programs -- part of a broader campaign to stamp out future extremism by promoting stability in East Africa. Djibouti's international port remains one of the busiest on the continent, and has continued to attract foreign investment, especially from the Gulf States. Dubai Ports, the United Arab Emirates company that touched off a storm of controversy in the U.S. when it tried to take over the management of prominent American seaports, has been welcomed with open arms in Djibouti; in 2000 it won the right to administer and invest in Djibouti's port for 20 years. There is even excited talk of Djibouti becoming the next Dubai, a modern, business-friendly oasis rising from the empty desert.

It's a lovely notion. But the ubiquitous garbage deposits, crumbling buildings and mildly narcotized natives are all reminders that, whatever the future holds, it has not arrived yet. Christy Stoner, an assistant to the U.S. ambassador to Djibouti, puts it diplomatically. "Djibouti is like Djibouti. It's like no other place." Best, perhaps, to leave it at that.

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About the Author

Jacob Laksin is a writer in New York City.