– visited December 2014 –
I start with a confession. I do not like Djibouti. I arrived to the country from Somaliland and whereas the Somalilander have played a decent game with bad cards, Djibouti is playing a bad game with good cards. What do I mean? Djibouti has been favoured by geography. Landlocked Ethiopia has to conduct all its trade through Djibouti as the only other ways to the ocean are through chaotic Somalia, unrecognized Somaliland and Eritrea, with which it is in a state of war. Djibouti, with its 920,000 inhabitants, should make a handy profit from the trade of its poor but much bigger neighbour (109 million inhabitants). The horn of Africa has a piracy problem that has led to numerous ship hijackings in the years preceding my visit. Fishermen from Somalia took up that trade as foreign fishing fleets had essentially raided the defenceless waters of Somalia and destroyed their livelihood. The response was tightened security on the ships with armed guards and a strong presence of international navies in the area. These navies need support bases and these bases are not established in war-torn Somalia, unrecognized Somaliland, closed-off Eritrea or unstable Yemen but in Djibouti. France has its biggest military installation outside France in Djibouti, the US has a base, China has one, Germany is present as are Italy and Japan. All of them pay money to the government of Djibouti. If Djibouti would use these headwinds wisely, they could turn into a regional beacon of development, seriously bringing the country forward. None of that happens, in the Human Development Index for 2014, Djibouti is ranked on place 170 (out of 187) only three places ahead of Ethiopia and behind Afghanistan, Haiti or Sudan. A wasted opportunity.
I have also hardly ever encountered a country that hostile to the idea of journalism or of taking pictures in general. In basically all African countries I had travelled so far (southern and eastern Africa) people are very positive of having their picture taken, some even approaching me than the other way round. I took so many portraits in Somaliland. Djibouti is a mixed bag; some people are open but others complain if you take a picture of a house from the distance where they are a tiny part of the frame that you didn’t even notice as you were taking the picture.
I learned about Djibouti’s dislike of journalists and journalism even before I arrived to the country. A photographer friend of mine was visiting the country a few days before me. We stayed in touch to share travel advice. He travels with a backpack containing a holy trinity set of lenses (a wide angle, a standard zoom and a tele zoom, all with a maximum aperture of 2.8). He stumbled upon a group of people protesting the visit of the minister of the interior to their area of town. They started banging on the minister’s car and my friend, brave as he is, shot pictures instead of retreating to safer grounds. He was arrested and accused of a serious crime: being a journalist. His passport was taken, he was interrogated, his camera was confiscated, he was released in the evening but told to come back to the police station the next morning. This pattern repeated itself for three days. In the evening, in his hotel he could use the internet and wrote me about his ordeal.
As I arrive at the border, they want to have a look at my bags. As they see my camera, one of them murmurs “journaliste”. I show no reaction at all, pretending not to have heard or not to wonder what that means.
I stay in a different, but nearby hotel than my photographer friend. I am looking forward to meet him but I also do not want to get too closely associated and to come under suspicion myself. The incident at the border has told me that suspicion comes easily in these lands. In the evening, I walk over to the other hotel and speak with the receptionist. My friend has left an hour ago, being escorted by police to the border and kicked out. Thankfully, they gave back his camera equipment.
The next day, I walk around town as a young man approaches. He asks if I am a journalist. No, I say, but why is he concerned? What is bad about journalists? I get out my best French to explain to him that journalists perform an important duty. He just says, journalists and the CIA, they are all the same.
Walking around town, I spot a giant portrait of the man who misrules Djibouti since 1999. In the far background is a police station with a few officers sitting outside. The expected happens and they want to talk to me. You were taking a picture. I proudly show it to them and ask with all the emphasize I can afford: “Is it forbidden to take a picture of the president?” They don’t dare to say yes. So why are you wasting my time you lazy idiots? This is not what I say, but what I think.
By the way, it is hot. I travel in December and I am thinking to myself if this is the coldest season of the year, I really do not want to visit in any other season. I buy plenty of drinks which causes a problem as there is never any dustbin around. No problem for most locals as all of Djibouti is essentially treated like a dustbin but a problem for me. Once, after walking around for an hour with an empty can in my hand, I neatly place it with some other rubbish on the ground.
Djibouti has a few natural treasures like the Goda Mountains or Lake Assal. I would love to see the lake but you cannot go there on your own and a tour is expensive. I am also the only person interested and that makes the price totally prohibitive. I go snorkelling with whale sharks instead, beautiful animals. The tour is pricey but I have some days to kill. I am waiting for a visa. Ethiopia is giving out visas freely when you fly in, but I was told that no Ethiopian embassy in all of Africa would be ready to issue any visa to me. I tried in Nairobi and they did not. I had to fly from Kenya instead of going overland. From Djibouti, I want to return to Ethiopia and I am glad that the embassy accepted my application but now I have to wait.
I walk into the Kempinski hotel. I am white, so I am allowed inside even not wearing nice clothes but my usual travelling attire. I am appalled, I just don’t want to be in an environment of luxury in a poor country. Djibouti Ville has a Cathedral with a stunning portal but unfortunately, and rare for a catholic church, it is closed. Some nice houses, beautiful sunsets and compared with what I have seen in Somaliland, a stunning harbour infrastructure.
I take the ferry to Tadjoura. A small town on the other side of the gulf with an old mosque. I am ready to leave Djibouti.
I want to take a secondary crossing to Ethiopia which will allow me a more direct path to the stunning rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. There is only one bus a day heading to this crossing, it leaves in the evening at 8 PM. I wait for the bus and have something to eat at a small restaurant. Two men approach and ask if they can sit at my table. They implore me to tell the world about Djibouti, to tell everybody that they are not free, that the government is doing what it wants, that the government is taking their houses to get land for some real estate development. They want the world to know, and they want the world to take action. I am hereby fulfilling this duty. But now as then, I also have a dispiriting message for them, the governments of this world know. They have embassies on the ground, they are informed but it is immensely difficult to interfere in the affairs of another country. Skilled politicians can usually easily rally the masses against perceived meddling from the outside.
We have reached our final destination, the border with Ethiopia in the village of Galafi. It is the middle of the night shortly after 3 AM, the worst time to arrive anywhere. The only sense I can see in that, is allowing people on both ways not to travel during the heat of the day. I am tired, there is a small bench where I sit down and try to sleep until the sun rises. As it does, I see that there is plenty of rubbish all around. There is one bus into Ethiopia but it leaves around noon only. I do not want to wait that long; the border post is just around the corner. I start to walk.