On the subject of traveling, scholar Mary Witter once wrote, “Certainly travel is more than seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” I believe this change Witter refers to can only occur if one is open to reality while he/she is traveling. In this era, where social media seems to conquer every moment of our lives, the difficulty in being open is real, and more than ever, it requires an education.
I had the opportunity to receive this education from a young age. My father was a diplomat; therefore, my family followed him wherever his job brought him. Using my big, brown eyes, and pushing my ideas aside, I learned to be open. Whether it was drinking tea with the Tuareg people in the Nigerian desert, or attending mass in one of the oldest churches in Congo, I was always immersed in the cultures that surrounded me. Thankfully this desire never died out, as I got older.
When I graduated from Mount Holyoke College in December 2014, I was proud of my accomplishments. However, I found myself in an emotional and spiritual crisis. I wanted something new in my life that would transform me, and give me the energy to walk on this arduous path of life. When the opportunity to volunteer and teach in Djibouti presented itself, I thanked the Master of the universe for listening to my prayers. This was going to be my second time in Djibouti. Last summer, I had the opportunity to intern with Caritas Internationalis, a non-profit organization that provided food, education, and medical services to Djiboutian street children.
It was about 6 a.m. when the plane landed at Djibouti-Ambouli Airport. The instant my feet touched the Djiboutian ground, the ninety degrees Fahrenheit sun caressed my dark skin, almost as a way of saying, “Salaam, Marie.”
I was happy to be back in the small multi-ethnic, East African country. Its oceans were so serene; it served as a maritime for neighboring countries. The streets and government buildings were proof of the French colonial history, and the mosques represented the Islamic influence that remained in the country for over 1000 years.
My daily life in Djibouti consisted of waking up at 7:30 a.m., and taking cool showers. I could have worn my Brooklyn summer attire: t-shirts and cut off shorts, but out of respect for Djiboutian traditions, I wore seven-inch inseam Bermuda shorts. By 7:50 a.m., I was outside waiting for the bus to arrive. I loved Djiboutian buses! They were old Toyota Hiace buses with no doors and pretty sturdy seats. My love for these buses was not solely based on their inexpensiveness (fifty cents), but for the lack of doors. This allowed the wind to enter, no matter how humid it was outside.
Whenever I entered the bus, colorful boubous and shawls worn by the Djiboutian women always greeted me. The driver of the bus was either always yapping or chewing his qat. Qat is a light narcotic that resembles leaves, and is chewed on by most of the population. The consequence of the drug was conspicuous in the dental area. The colors ranged from light yellow to dark yellow/ black.
Getting off the bus, I would yell, “Djodji!” and hand the driver’s fare. The organization was just across the street from the bus stop, and when the Caritas kids would see me walking towards the organization, they would come up to me, and say, “Bonjour, Madame!” Their faces were always painted with huge smiles, and their eyes reflected an unspeakable goodness and innocence belonging only to children. An example of this occurred when I was supervising the kids while they were having their meals. A young boy came up to me, and asked if I wanted to share the meal with him. The gratuitous act surprised me, and I thought, “Why does this boy care so much about me, when he has so little?” This question became persistent daily when I was with the kids.
Most of the kids in Caritas were either Ethiopian or Somali immigrants. Many of them lost their parents and relatives to famine and disease, or were abandoned by their parents.
The shameful part about their situation was the indifference the government showed in their wellbeing because they were immigrants. For example, the government authorized the police to arrest the kids and either jail them or drive them back to their countries. According to the government, this procedure would reduce the amount of immigrants coming into the country. The procedure did not solve the solution because the kids always returned to Djibouti by foot since the borders of Ethiopia and Somalia were not very far.
In Djibouti we worked everyday except Fridays. Fridays were considered Sabbath, and the mosques were always filled that day. I spent my Thursday nights in the various clubs that populated Place Menelik with my two Italian co-workers. They had been in Djibouti for a year, and when I returned to Djibouti, they introduced me to their circle of friends. We celebrated birthdays on the beach, ate at local Djiboutian restaurants in Centre Ville, and sipped mango smoothies on the Rue de Venice. My fun weekends were short lived when my two friends finished their contract with Caritas, and left for Italy. The invites suddenly stopped, and I did not bother asking why. Interestingly enough, around that time I had gotten to know a Djiboutian coworker by the name of Samatar, and his friend, Abdallah. Samatar was witty, caring, and hardworking. He was also very protecting of me. Spending my time with them, I got to see the slums of Djibouti, also known as Quartiers. These Quartiers were filled with dilapidated shacks, and few decent houses. Since Samatar and Abdallah lived in these neighborhoods, I had the opportunity to meet their families and friends. One particular person Samatar introduced to me was his friend, Ibado. Ibado was a tall, dark skinned Djiboutian woman with Chadian descent. Her facial expression was very stern, but when I introduced myself, a big smile appeared on her face. Her Chadian blood could be seen in her determination and strong will. I spent my time with her talking about my life in America and she would tell me about Djibouti. I enjoyed being with Ibado and the inhabitants of the Quartiers. They were poor, but hardworking and humble.
Hanging out in these Quartiers also exposed me to the flagrant injustice in Djibouti: only the foreigners and elites could afford the basic necessities because of how costly the country was. This was the result of the strong Djiboutian currency. Since the 1970s the French revalued the Djiboutian franc against the U.S. dollar, so that whatever occurred to the economy, the Djiboutian franc would never fall. While this might be a good concept, in reality, it actually hurt the population. Since Djibouti’s wealth lies in its port, tourism, and limited natural resources, the job market was shrinking, thus poverty was inevitable. Listening to young mothers speak about their inability to provide milk for their babies was the cruel reality I had to face. I was powerless in front of a system designed to crush and oppress the poor. I found console in the divine and asked for help to carry my daily crosses. I started attending mass regularly, and when Lent rolled in, for the first time in twenty-two years, I fasted. My decision to fast was based on the fact that I wanted to put myself in the shoes of the Caritas children, and experience eating one meal per day. When Lent ended, my faith was strengthened, and I felt renewed. I realized, I could not save Djibouti, but I could help those who were in need. So, whether it was serving water to the mothers that waited patiently in front of the clinic, or playing with the Caritas children at the beach, I felt like my presence was needed.
Spending three months in Djibouti was an out-of-this-world experience. My ideas were challenged at every moment, my experiences with the people I encountered, the places I visited, and volunteering with the Caritas kids forced me to grow mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Once a Djiboutian woman walked up to me, and said, “May Allah bless you and may you be rewarded in heaven.” Hearing those words, I could not help but look at the sky, and realize that Allah had already blessed me here in the French Territory of the Afars and the Issas.
Marie-Ange Guiraud is originally from the Ivory Coast. She spent her childhood traveling around West Africa, but grew up in Togo and Niger. When she was twelve years old, she moved to the New York City, and has lived there ever since. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College with a major in Global Health, and hopes to pursue a Master’s Degree in Public Health. She loves traveling, and believes it’s the best education one can ever receive.