24 Hours in Djibouti

Yemini cuisine, table tennis and Afar music come together in the Horn of Africa


Rachel Pieh Jones


Sami Alramyan & Aaron Van Luven


At the crux of the Red Sea, nestled between the Gulf of Aden and the Gulf of Tadjoura, sits Djibouti. Sandwiched between Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia in the Horn of Africa, the country’s proximity to Yemen, too, has allowed for a long merchant relationship with the Middle East via the Arabian Gulf. Today, Djibouti – smaller than Jordan, but larger than Lebanon – contains many cultural and social contrasts and influences that have long been brought in by its many neighbours.With an ambition to transform into the ‘Dubai of East Africa’ (to quote Ilyas Dawaleh, minister of economy and finance), Djibouti has a strategic position that often captures the imagination of travellers passing through the two-runway Ambouli International Airport. Its geographic advantage is further supported by a new railroad track that connects Djibouti to Ethiopia, shipping ports that run at full capacity and a growing number of tourists attracted to its coral reefs and whale sharks.Today, there are a number of Djiboutians currently pioneering different industries. From humanitarian and social work to supporting the local music scene, there are countless efforts happening across the country. And while a new Djibouti seems to be in the making, the country keeps a firm grasp on its traditional culture.



9:00am – Ambouli International Airport

A zigzagging form marks the exterior façade of the Ambouli International Airport, located just six kilometres from Djibouti’s city centre. Intersecting the airport’s pointed rooftop are long, narrow columns that add to its cool, geometric form. Palm trees, staircases and large windows break up the white, accordion-like exterior.

A key component for the country’s development, the airport was first built in 1937, when the French army built a landing strip to support its air force. In 1948, extension work increased terminal space, allowing it to support other airlines. Over the decades, major international carriers from Turkey, Qatar, Ethiopia and Kenya have increased flights to Djibouti. Runways were lengthened for long haul flights to Europe, and a diplomatic arrival and departure lounge added.

Civilian and military planes share the runways, with over half of the roughly 30,000 landings and take offs throughout the year being US military aircraft. But Djibouti’s own national airline, Air Djibouti, hopes to become a major player in both cargo and civilian transport.

Though it went bankrupt in 2002, Air Djibouti was bought out by British rock star and accomplished pilot Bruce Dickinson, lead singer of Iron Maiden, who signed an agreement with the Djiboutian government to restart the airline. Its inaugural flight was in August of this year, with a cargo flight to Hargeisa, Somaliland.



11:00am – The Sage Foundation

Sagal Abdi prefers it if you call her ‘Sage’. The Somali founder of the eponymous Sage Foundation, she’s determined to enhance the quality of Djiboutian life and promote gender equality within her country’s society.

‘Women have value – this is clear in Islam,’ says Abdi, whose foundation aims to empower disabled women, pregnant teenagers and those with little education. ‘I want to encourage women to claim that value.’

Working in Djibouti has its advantages, explains Abdi. For the social worker, the country is ‘one of the few places where a Somali woman can be herself. Here, you can really enjoy Somali culture.’

For Abdi, empowerment comes through health education. By ‘building women’, her foundation makes room for them to play a larger social role. The Sage Foundation also provides the necessary equipment to improve the comfort of those in need.

Today, the Sage Foundation has more than 60 volunteers, with interest quickly growing among university students (43 of the volunteers are currently students). Though a head office is yet to be established, Abdi is developing a workspace for the foundation next to her home in Guelleh Batal. In the meantime, the foundation’s presence continues to expand, and Abdi recently held an event at the city’s municipal library.

When she’s not working, Abdi is usually online – blogging or researching. It’s hard for her to take a break from work. ‘It’s bad, but it’s true,’ she admits about being a slight workaholic. ‘But if I’m not researching or blogging, then I’m usually having conversations with the elderly women in the neighbourhood. They’re my grandmother’s friends.’



1:00pm – Janateyn

Mukbasa, a Yemini seafood staple, is served fresh to order at Janateyn, a favoured spot among Djiboutian officials.

A specialty that made its way to Djibouti via Yemeni fishermen and traders, mukbasa consists of fresh grouper or red snapper caught daily off the shore of Djibouti. It’s a common dish enjoyed across the country, and its ingredients are relatively the same from restaurant to restaurant.

The fish is cut open and cooked over wood burning stoves until the edges blacken – seasoning includes a splash of lime juice. At Janateyn, diners can select their own fish and watch the slow cooking process.

‘People say that the mukbasa in Djibouti is even better than the mukbasa in Yemen,’ says Aboubaker Mohamed Abdul Kader, the owner of Janateyn. ‘The key is that we use natural wood – never gas.’

Kader relies on wood cut from acacia trees that grow in Djibouti City’s main cemetery. In Yemen, he says, many mukbasa chefs use gas to cook, but natural smoke is essential to the flavour.

Kader opened his first restaurant Sept Frères, (‘seven brothers’), two weeks after finishing school in 2001. In 2007 he opened Janateyn. Its interior is quite minimal, with soft pink wallpaper and plenty of natural sunlight. ‘Djiboutians love mukbasa,’ he says. ‘They are becoming more concerned about health issues and are learning that fish is an excellent choice.’

Though mukbasa is traditionally served with wide flat bread dipped in tomato sauce or hummus, Kader created an accompanying specialty that was initially unique to Janateyn: cheesy flat bread. Other traditional dishes at Janateyn include tomato and mint salad, dates, flat bread diced and mixed with honey, and bananas rolled in bread and drizzled with chocolate syrup.

When asked about the popularity of Janateyn, Kader beams, pointing out the photo he has of two-time Olympic gold medalist Mo Farah digging into a plate of mukbasa. ‘It’s the ambiance,’ he explains. ‘And of course, the fish.’



3:00pm – Dil Tourab Entertainment

As Djibouti’s first record label, Dil Tourab Entertainment is on a mission to bolster the country’s music industry. ‘We had to revive it. I’m happy we’re making progress,’ says founder Dileyta Tourab.

With very few original CDs produced in the country and a small market for music, today, Tourab is the proud owner of a legal copyright that protects the work of the local artists that his label produces.

‘I need to make everything solid and legal, not just sell my own CDs,’ he says. ‘I’m making a path that anyone can follow tomorrow.’

Over the past 10 years, Tourab worked with a number of artists to produce over 120 albums, but he hesitated to sell them until he secured the copyright protection. ‘I could sell 10 at the store, but the shopkeepers in the market would copy them and sell 100.’

Dil Tourab’s artists are an eclectic mix, which is quite reflective of Djibouti itself. Often coming together on the weekends, the artists include Sudanese saxophone players, Afar singers, as well as keyboardists, guitar players and drummers. Popular artists include Abdi Nour Alaleh, Said Helaf, Arhotabba Band and Yanna Momina.

Djibouti’s artists could handle a little more competition too, Tourab says. ‘They only compete for more likes on Facebook. There isn’t a chance to compete in reality, with their music.’

Despite the challenges, Tourab is still hopeful. ‘We’re an oral society,’ he says. ‘We like music – we know music.’



6:00pm – Yasmin Hassan Farah and the Djibouti Table Tennis Team

Since 2012, Yasmin Hassan Farah has firmly held on to her position as Djibouti’s number one table tennis player. She performed in the 2012 London Olympics where she competed against Brazilian player Caroline Kumahara. Though Farah didn’t take home the gold medal, she was proud to represent her country.

Farah isn’t the only one to dedicate her time to the sport. Others too, are beginning to grow fond of the game. Table tennis’ continuing popularity is spreading across the country – a trend that’s evident in its thriving national table tennis federation. According to Mahamoud Omar Omir, head of Djibouti’s Table Tennis Federation, there are currently 200 athletes who regularly practice and 50 who are licensed to compete.

Impromptu table tennis games are common around town. Across the street from Djibouti’s national high school, down narrow alleyways and on corners between khat stands, competing players are seen picking up paddles and dueling away. The official team practices at the federation’s stadium.

‘Table tennis is growing in popularity and kids want to belong to the federation because we welcome people,’ Omir says. ‘We have a beautiful, air conditioned room that’s used for practice. And we have paddles, balls and good quality tables. We are open for anyone who wants to play.’

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