LOCATION: Djibouti (Horn of Africa)


LANGUAGE: Afar; Somali; French; Arabic



Djibouti (also spelled Jibouti) is the name of both a small country and its seaport capital. About the size of New Jersey and sandwiched between Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea on the east coast of Africa, tiny Djibouti was the last French colony on the African continent.

Djibouti was populated for centuries by two groups of nomadic herders, the Afar and the Issa (a branch of the Somali people). When the French opened the nearby Suez Canal in 1869 the world suddenly became very much interested in this tiny section of Africa. By 1894, France had merged its African colonies in the area into French Somaliland (present-day Djibouti).

Movements for independence began after World War II (after 1945) and the territory became independent, as Djibouti, on June 27, 1977. President Hassan Gouled Aptidon, a member of the Issa, became, and remains, the country's leader.


With an area of some 8,500 square miles (22,100 square kilometers), Djibouti has a population of about 510,000. It extends inland about 55 miles (88 kilometers), from the north and south shores of the Gulf of Tadjoura, a narrow inlet of the Gulf of Aden. Djibouti lies on the western shore of the Bab-el-Mandeb (Arabic for "gate of tears"), a strategic strait 17 miles (27 kilometers) wide, joining the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea. Besides the sea, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea border Djibouti. The country's Red Sea coast stretches some 500 miles (800 kilometers).

Djibouti is made up of arid, rugged highlands often 3,000 feet (900 meters) or more in height, with major peaks at 5,400 feet (1,620 meters) and 6,600 feet (1,989 meters). There are also treeless plains and desert plains. Once called "the valley of hell" by Europeans, Djibouti is a land of intense heat and drought.

There are two major ethnic groups in Djibouti, the Afars (sometimes also called the Danakil ) and the Somalis. Besides the Afars (35 percent of the population) and Somalis (about 65 percent), there are also Arab, French, Ethiopian, and Italian minorities. Large numbers of refugees from Ethiopia and Somalia have crossed the border into Djibouti.


The official languages of Djibouti are French and Arabic. Most people, however, speak Afar and Somali in everyday use. Educated Afars and Somalis speak French. The Somali tongue of Djibouti belongs to the "common dialect" group found in much of Somalia, and is used in radio and television broadcasts.


The Somali Issa have a creation myth that portrays their common ancestor—named Aqiil Abuu Taalib—as a holy man from Arabia. They have hymns ( qasiidas ) in his honor. His shrine ( maqaam ) is in Djibouti, where it is believed that he appeared miraculously.

The Somalis' oral tradition also includes storytelling and poetry. Poetry recited in the villages by special readers called gabaye is a way of recording the community's history and customs, as well as current events. The Somali tradition of oral poetry may become less important as nomadic Somalis have begun learning to read and write.

The Afars maintain some beliefs that date back to their original religion. It existed before the coming of Islam. These beliefs include a respect for the powers kept by the spirits of the dead. There is also a belief in the existence of groves and trees with sacred powers.

One traditional practice that is part of this belief system is anointing one's body with butter or ghee , a clarified butter used for cooking and other purposes. There is also the annual celebration of a day of the dead called Rabena.


Whether among the Afars, Somalis, or Arabs, the religion of Djibouti is Islam. Somalis generally follow the Sunni sect, while Afars are Sufi Muslims. For many, religious and community activities are governed by the sharia, the religious law of Islam as spelled out in that religion's holy book, the Koran. Among the Afars, there are pre-Islamic beliefs in beings such as the sky-father god, Wak. There are also special days for sacrificing animals and for rain-making ceremonies.


Local Muslim saints' days associated with the Afar and the Issa are popular. Among the Somalis, various groups have their own observances, such as the Prophet Muhammad's birthday. In Djibouti, most city and town residents attend Friday prayer at their mosque.


As among most of the peoples of the Horn of Africa, adult status for the Afars and Somalis requires a genital operation, usually inflicted in childhood. Boys are circumcised and girls undergo clitoridectomy , a practice believed to ensure virginity. Both these practices, especially clitoridectomy, have been criticized in recent years by groups outside the culture. Still, most women in Djibouti have undergone this practice.


Djiboutians show great respect for their elders and for the dignity of others. With their nomadic (traveling) tradition, Djiboutians have not had the chance to make strong relationships with neighbors, so family relationships are very important. Clan membership plays an important role in an individual person's relationships and social standing. This is also determined for men by courage in combat. Clan solidarity is reflected in the following Somali saying: "I against my brother; I and my brother against my cousin; I, my brother, and my cousin against the world."

Among the nomadic Afar, accepting a drink of milk signifies the formation of a bond between a guest and a host. This bond includes the responsibility for protecting the guest if trouble arises and for avenging his death if he is killed.

Djiboutis, Eritreans, and most Ethiopians share a strong taboo (common among Muslims) involving the left side of the body. The left hand is regarded as unclean and is supposed to be used only for personal hygiene. It is never to be used for eating, accepting a present, or shaking another person's hand (this would be considered an unforgivable insult).


Living conditions vary widely. Wealthy upper-class Arab businessmen and the educated Afars and Somalis live comfortably in Western-style cities. In rural areas, under-nourished herders have few possessions and scrawny livestock. Government and Catholic relief organizations provide some humanitarian aid to impoverished people. Life for women is hard, as it is generally among nomadic peoples across Africa. In 1992, the average life expectancy in Djibouti was only forty-nine years. Major health threats include severe malnutrition, widespread malaria, and tuberculosis.


The Djiboutian family averages six or seven children. A marriage is considered a union of two families as well as two individuals. Divorce is an accepted and common part of the culture.

Muslim men traditionally can marry as many as four women. Each wife raises her own children, and her household has a specific task, such as farming or tending livestock. Polygyny (husband having more than one wife) is common among the Somali people, but Afar men usually have only one wife. Among the Afar, girls were traditionally eligible for marriage when they turned ten.


Unlike women in many other Muslim countries, women in Djibouti do not wear veils, although married Afar women wear a black headscarf. City dwellers wear Western-style clothing, while those in rural areas wear the loose clothing of desert dwellers. The traditional outfit of the Afar is a garment called a sanafil, consisting of a cloth tied around the waist and reaching to the calves, with a knot at the right hip for men and at the left for women.

The wealthier Afars wear another piece of cloth, the harayto , slung over the shoulder. Afar men are known for the long, sharp, double-edged dagger, called a jile , that they wear at the waist. Among the nomadic Somali in rural areas, the men wear a garment similar to the sanafil of the Afars, while the women wear a long, brightly colored cloth called a guntina , wound around the torso and knotted at the right shoulder.

12 • FOOD

Among the nomadic herders of Djibouti, their livestock (goats, sheep, camels, and cattle) provides the main dietary staples—milk and meat. They also may obtain grain or vegetables by bartering. Sheep and goats provide common meals, while beef is reserved for special occasions. Grain is usually roasted and is eaten one grain at a time. A favorite delicacy is a thick flatbread made from wheat and eaten with a sauce made from ghee (clarified butter) and red pepper. A papyrus root called burri , which grows in some areas, is combined with milk to make porridge.

Many Djiboutians observe Islamic dietary laws, which include a ban on eating pork and drinking alcohol.


Before the end of World War II (1939–45), Catholic missions provided the little formal education that was available. Koranic (Muslim) schools have also been very important. A French-style curriculum is used in the growing number of government schools.


The Afar have a traditional type of dance, called jenile , that is associated with their ancient religion.

The Somali have a respected tradition of oral poetry and song. Their poetry makes heavy use of alliteration, the repetition of various sounds.

The visual arts of the Somalis have been strongly influenced by Islam, which does not allow humans or animals to be represented in artwork. Popular art images are flowers and imaginary creatures.

15 • WORK

Apart from the traditional herding done by the nomads in rural areas, work is concentrated in the city of Djibouti. Major employers there include the food and beverage industry, shipping, construction, and shipbuilding, as well as the national railway. There are high rates of unemployment and underemployment throughout the nation.


Few Djiboutians engage in games or sports activities in the Western sense. A small number of people among the educated classes enjoy playing and watching soccer games.


In rural areas, Djiboutian women enjoy spending their free time visiting with each other. They often engage in crafts such as weaving or needlework during these social hours. Men enjoy drinking coffee in groups. In villages, towns, and cities, the market serves as an important place for people to socialize. City dwellers enjoy movies and other urban activities. There are television and radio broadcasts in the French, Afar, Somali, and Arabic languages.


Somali women use natural fibers to weave rugs, mats, and other objects. Ornamental jewelry, popular with both men and women, is made from silver, glass, stone, or wooden beads. People make pottery without a wheel by hollowing out a ball of clay and molding it into the desired shape. Other popular crafts include decorative wooden cups and spoons.


The Somali people live today in Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Djibouti. This is because the European colonizers drew national boundaries without considering ethnic groups. Because of this, there are political problems in the area, as some people have taken up arms in the hopes of creating an all-Somali country. The Afars, too, seek political freedom. So long as the French military remains in Djibouti, however, the partitioning of the country along ethnic lines is unlikely.

With one of the world's lowest average life expectancies (the average number of years a person lives) and an infant mortality (death) rate of 113 per 1,000 live births, Djibouti has a serious health crisis.


Saint Veran, Robert. Djibouti: Pawn of Africa. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1981.

Schraeder, Peter J. Djibouti. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Clio Press, 1991.

U.S. Department of the Army. Federal Research Division, Library of Congress. Ethiopia: A Country Study. 4th ed. Edited by Harold D. Ofcansky and LaVerle Berry. Area Handbook Series. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1993.


ArabNet. Djibouti. [Online] Available , 1998.

World Travel Guide. Djibouti. [Online] Available , 1998.

User Contributions:

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