Djibouti is a meeting place of cultures with French, Somali, and Yemenese influences. It’s shaped by its geographical position between the desert and the sea, on the borders of Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea as well as the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. In this interview, Rachel Jones explains how she came to love the country she now calls home, some tips for traveling to Djibouti, and thoughts on being an expatriate as well as raising Third Culture Kids.
Rachel Pieh Jones is the author of Welcome to Djibouti: Arrive, Survive and Thrive in the Hottest Country on Earth, as well as Stronger Than Death, The Djiboutilicious Cookbook and Finding Home. She’s also a freelance writer, blogger and runner.
- How Rachel went from Minnesota to the Horn of Africa
- Djibouti’s French colonial history and the influence on food and architecture as well as religion
- How Djibouti’s capital city — also Djibouti — lies between the desert and the sea and how that shapes the fascinating landscape and things you can do there, like snorkeling with whale sharks over Christmas
- Some of the good things to eat locally
- Safety and health factors including the sun in the hottest country on earth
- Bringing up a family in Djibouti and Third Culture Kids (TCK), those who live between cultures
- The meaning of home and being an expatriate
- What travel means when you live somewhere ‘else’
- Recommended books for getting a sense of the culture
You can find Rachel at DjiboutiJones.com and her books on Amazon here.
Transcription of the interview
Joanna: Rachel Pieh Jones is the author of Welcome to Djibouti: Arrive, Survive and Thrive in the Hottest Country on Earth, as well as Stronger Than Death, The Djiboutilicious Cookbook and Finding Home. She’s also a freelance writer, blogger and runner. Welcome to the show, Rachel.
Rachel: Thanks, it’s great to be here.
Joanna: It’s so good to have you on the show and just such an unexpected place.
First of all, many people might not know anything about Djibouti.
Tell us where is it in the world and also how you came to be living there.
Rachel: Djibouti is in the Horn of Africa. It is bordered by Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia and it is on the Red Sea across the water from Yemen.
It’s a very small country and a hotspot in the world, but it’s peaceful and stable. It’s got about a million people, so it’s very small. And we came by accident. And then we stayed on purpose.
In 2003, my husband took a job teaching at a university in northern Somaliak which is Somaliland kind of a breakaway republic which also is peaceful. So in 2003, we left our home state of Minnesota moved to the Horn of Africa. But then after about a year the stability sort of crumbled and things got a little violent. And so we were forced to flee.
At that time we had two-year-old twins so we grabbed the kids, grabbed a suitcase and just ran to the airport. And then because Djibouti borders Somaliland and it’s also a Somali population, we had some connections there. So my husband was invited to teach there at a university.
In 2004, we moved to Djibouti and then we’ve just kept on staying.
Joanna: Which is so interesting because when people hear the words ‘flee’ and ‘violence’ they’re like, okay so you actually stayed in the area.
What keeps you there? What is so interesting and amazing about the place?
Rachel: A lot of it is our work. My husband was a professor at the university there for years and then he finished his teaching and education. As the country has developed – it’s a young country – it’s really growing quickly. And the English language was identified as one of the urgent things that they wanted to grow in. That was my husband’s specialty and so we were asked to start an English language school a few years ago, pre-school through 12th grade.
He transitioned out of being a professor and now we run our own school. And so that’s really an exciting opportunity to be part of this country that it’s one year older than me. We’re growing together and we get to participate in the growth of this country with English language and with the school. And so that work is really meaningful.
And then Djibouti itself, yes there was violence way back, 17 or 16 years ago. But Djibouti is very peaceful and stable and it’s been a great place to raise a family and to live. And so the work in the community that we’ve built there has just really helped us to stay with meaning and joy.
Joanna: You mentioned that the country is one year older than you.
What is the history? I guess it’s colonial?
Rachel: Yes. In 1977 they got independence from France. They are a former French colony, one of the youngest countries on the continent of Africa.
The population majority is Somali and then there’s also Afar, which are a significant portion, and then a lot of Arabs from Yemen who have historically been there for generations. It’s really a mix of places; you have the French culture mixed on top of all those. And so it’s a lot of diversity which makes it a pretty open welcoming kind of place.
Joanna: What do you say in terms of in my mind a former French colony may well have a European style architecture but then you’ve obviously also mentioned Arabic culture.
What does the place look like?
Rachel: I’ve heard it compared to more Arab than European style. It’s kind of a sea town. It’s right on the ocean. The capital city anyway and the vast majority of the population is in the capital. And so you have a lot of ships and then there’s kind of a salty feel in the air. And the buildings have kind of a whitewash to look to them.
So there’s the sea on the one side and then on the backside of the capital you could say is the desert and so you have a lot of dust and camel trains coming and going with nomads from the desert. It’s a real mix of interesting cultures with the fishing and the nomadic populations all meeting together in this little town on the coast.
Joanna: It sounds quite romantic.
Has it got a big port or is it more relaxed than industrial?
Rachel: The major economic driver is the port. They don’t really produce anything. The land is really harsh but the port it’s such a significant location strategic location right at the bottom of the Red Sea.
And then going around the Horn of Africa, down towards Kenya or South Africa or over to India. So for ships, it’s a really strategic place to refuel. Ethiopia is landlocked and they are a massive country, and so almost everything that Ethiopia gets in or ships out, comes through the port of Djibouti. And so that’s a really significant part of the economy.
Joanna: What’s the capital city called and what are some of the things that people might do if they visit?
Rachel: It is called Djibouti. So it’s Djibouti, Djibouti, like New York, New York. It’s just really fun to say.
Mostly what the tourists do is leave the city, actually. There aren’t any museums or things like that in town but outside of the city is a really unusual and unique landscape and geography. People like us who live here, we go to the beach a lot. It’s pretty close within an hour and a half to really stunning beaches of for snorkeling and scuba diving.
That’s a big draw for tourists especially in the months of late November, early December through midwinter when whale sharks come through the Gulf of Jura. It’s a guarantee that if you go diving or even snorkeling you’ll see whale sharks. So that’s a big draw. And that’s what we do every year at Christmas. That’s what my kids do on Christmas is go swimming with whale sharks.
Joanna: Oh wow.
Rachel: And then other places outside the city; the lowest point in Africa is in Djibouti. It’s Lac Assal, which means the Salt Lake. It’s a salt lake that is actually more densely salivated than the Dead Sea.
It’s just this incredibly stark landscape. Nothing grows because of all the salt and the heat and the rocks but the salt lake itself, the edge of it is white from all the salt-crusted on the edge. The water is this green blue and then surrounding the area is these black volcanic hills that are just black.
Over the top of them, you can see the Gulf, which is this brilliant blue. And so you have this really unique setting of the salt and the colors are so incredible. The salt crust makes these or the lake itself makes these salt balls that can be pea sized up to maybe plum-sized balls of salt that are just naturally formed circles. It’s just incredible. It feels like a different world.
Joanna: Wow, to have the ocean on one side and the desert on the other, that’s pretty special.
Could you drive from one to the other and it’s not that long?
Rachel: Oh easily. It’s a very small country. So yeah.
Joanna: When you say a small country, if people are in the USA what would they compare the size of the country to in the US?
Rachel: I think it’s the land square mileage is around the size of Massachusetts. With less than a million people.
Joanna: Yes, it is tiny! That’s interesting.
What about the religious side? Because often in traveling some really interesting architecture or the culture is shaped by religion.
Is it Islamic, because of the Arabic influence?
Rachel: I think 95 percent Muslim is the statistic that I’ve heard and most of the non-Muslims are foreigners; Ethiopian or French or other foreigners. So it’s Somali, Afar and Arab. Definitely majority Muslim.
You do see a lot of mosques and there’s been a recent building of just these beautiful buildings, new mosques. You see minarets everywhere you can hear the call to prayer that echoes five times a day, so that kind of structures the day.
Both by what you see and also by the structure of life is definitely formed by Islam. Our weekend days are Friday and Saturday instead of Saturday and Sunday because Friday is the day of worship for Muslims.
And we follow the holidays. So we have Eid, which is a couple times a year, our high Islamic holy days. But one thing that I really appreciate and I think has enabled us to live so long here is that there’s this one place which captures for me what it looks like to live here in terms of religion. Right near the port, along the Corniche there – you can walk along the port – and you look away from the port and you can see there are several mosques that are just piercing the sky with their minarets and their really beautiful buildings.
And you can also see the rooftop of this Ethiopian Orthodox Church. And you can see the cross of the French Protestant church. And you can also see the very tip-top of the Cathedral the Catholic Church.
So all these religions are able to coexist peacefully. Islam is the majority religion, but it’s a welcoming, open place where we are free, and people are free, to follow what they choose to. I think that’s really beautiful and contributes to the peacefulness of the country and the welcoming nature of it.
Joanna: That’s fantastic. Obviously part of a culture is always the food. And you’ve got this fantastically named Djiboutilicious cookbook, which I just love. It’s just the best title.
What are some of the things that people might eat there?
Rachel: One of our favorite things to go out to eat is called Luc passa. And it’s this Yemeni fish dish that you go to these little tiny restaurants or you might sit on the long wooden bench and you go to the back and you can choose your fish. It could be grouper or red snapper or whatever was the fresh catch of the day.
So you pick it out and then they’ll cut it in half and just basically throw it on top of charcoal with some paprika and some spices and then they’ll bring it to your table and it’s the whole fish opened up there. You score some lime juice on the top and then you eat it with your fingers and it’s just delicious.
It comes with these big flatbreads and it also comes with mashed up bananas with fried bread kind of mashed together so you get the sweet and the salty with chocolate drizzle on top. I mean it’s just a feast. It’s so good.
A basic staple that our family just loves so much about Djibouti are baguettes, which are definitely from the French influence, but it’s not just that you get this baguette which is delicious.
When we first moved there I would hear every day several times a day this kind of honking, squawking sound and I always said it was a strange bird that I couldn’t see. And then finally we realized it was actually what’s called the bread man. He honks a bicycle horn and he walks up and down. There are several these guys they walk up and down the neighborhoods, every neighborhood several times a day pushing a wooden cart just heaping full of fresh baguettes. Compared to U.S. dollars they cost about 13 cents for a baguette. My kids would just run out and grab one and they just melt in your mouth.
So that’s one of our favorite things. You can get those every day.
Joanna: It sounds like there’s a lot of fresh seafood.
Rachel: If it’s not seafood the rest of the fresh stuff comes in by train or by plane because nothing really grows locally, but we get stuff from Ethiopia from Kenya pretty easily.
Joanna: And what about alcohol? Is it a dry country?
Rachel: It is not, which is interesting because of the majority Muslims you kind of expect that but also because of the French influence. So it’s not dry.
There are a few Halal stores. Halal means that they don’t have pork or alcohol products. Or an Islamicly clean store. But there are other ones that will sell those things and so if you want that you have to know where to go.
Do they bring in French wine?
Rachel: Oh, yes.
Joanna: That sounds good.
These are some of the incredible things, snorkeling with whale sharks on Christmas Day and it just sounds wonderful. But, of course, Africa has challenges.
What are some of the challenges? I see a picture of you and you’re fair-skinned and you are in the hottest country on earth.
What do people need to do in order to be safe and well?
Rachel: First I just want to say I really appreciate you asking about those positive things. I think a lot of times the assumption is it must be so hard to live in Africa. It must be so scary. I really am thankful that you asked about the good and the beautiful as a first assumption.
It is a foreign place and I am a foreigner there and we stick out both by appearance and also we’re from a Christian background and so by religion and by language. I’ve had to learn French in Somali. So, there are different challenges.
What’s interesting to me, as I think about this, is that the challenges have changed over the years. In the beginning, it was a lot of loneliness and total overwhelm because things were so different from my suburban Minnesota upbringing. I loved the opportunity to learn and explore but it also got easily overwhelming.
I was often just exhausted from language study or humiliated by making some ridiculous cultural faux pas. At the beginning, that was the challenge and always overriding everything is the heat. It is a very hot country so in the summer temperatures can get up to 120 which would be I think about 47. I’m not exactly sure with Celsius but very hot. Up to 50 it can be past 50 even. So that’s always a factor.
But we’ve learned to adjust to that. And I feel like now as we’ve been there so long, I have learned when you’re a foreigner in a different country you learn which boundaries you’re comfortable crossing and which ones you’re not.
In the beginning, you don’t even know what those boundaries are. But then as you’ve been there a long time you learn how to be yourself in this place.
I will never be local. I think there can be an idealism about that when you move abroad. I’m going to just really fit in and become indiscernible from a local person. Well, that’s never going to happen. I’ve learned to just own that and live in that space, which comes with a lot of having to learn myself and then needing to be both humble and courageous at the same time.
For an example of a boundary, I’ve learned to be comfortable pushing up against or even crossing over sometimes with running. You mentioned I’m a runner. I just love it. It helps me clear my mind. I love to experience a place by running through a new city or a new country and just seeing what I can smell or see or hear on the run. So that’s been really important to me.
But, in the beginning, I didn’t think that it that women could run in Djibouti. There aren’t very many who do. There certainly aren’t very many local women who do. And I was taking my cues from the local population more than from the foreigners just so I could learn what was appropriate locally.
I spent a couple of years watching and asking questions, which are two keys for people moving to a new place. You’ve just got to watch and then to ask questions. And I saw that, OK, I think that it would be OK. It would be a little strange for a white woman to run but I think it would be safe.
So I just slowly started doing it. I learned which sections of town I could do it and I learned what to wear instead of bringing my American assumptions to all of that. I just let the local realities influence my decisions.
Now I’ve done it for so long I feel pretty comfortable doing it. And then along with that, I’ve had the privilege of participating with local women who do run. In 2008, I and another woman started the only all-girls running club in Djibouti.
Rachel: It was our goal was to help these girls run and to keep them in school. They came mostly from very low-income families and some of them had never been in school in their life. Some of them had never held a pencil or they didn’t know how to spell their name. So our goal was to get them and keep them in school. And then to have them run to build community.
Doing it alongside them also really helped me see that I would be comfortable with what they feel comfortable with and I would take my cues from them.
In our second year, we had a young woman join the team. So 2009 or ’10 she joined. Her name is Nazareth. And then two years ago she actually started coaching the team. And this year in the fall, she’ll be starting university for the first time. That feels like an incredible opportunity to be part of that in this culture and to watch someone like her really grow and take running on for herself.
All that kind of comes back to learning with and from the community, which I think is essential for anyone living abroad.
Joanna: I think at the end of the day a lot of it is about respect and, like you said, that you didn’t arrive on day one and go running it in a new city, which of course could be very dangerous in many places, even in Britain or America. You don’t go do that.
They probably thought you were mad going running in that heat, even in the dark, I presume in the early morning or something, which is incredible.
Back on what you initially said about the beauty of the place. I went to school in Malawi, which is a country in Central Africa, further south and slightly west from where you are. And for me, it was always a positive experience. There are no negative memories for me from going to school there at eight and nine. And then we went back when I was in my early teens so that to me is a default position with Africa.
I do have to say on that, there are two questions I have around practical things if people are traveling to Africa. Vaccinations and malaria are two things to consider.
Are there any specific health requirements for Djibouti?
Rachel: There are not any specific requirements, no. We do have malaria. It’s been very small but in recent years it’s increased a little bit.
Dengue fever is more something that we deal with there. But there’s no vaccination for dengue. You just have to suffer through it.
We do a lot of preventative stuff. Some people use mosquito nets. I hate mosquito nets. I just cannot sleep under one. Also, the heat is a factor. But mosquito spray and making sure your house is screened off, things like that. But definitely in other places, malaria is an issue. There is no Ebola where we are. People ask about that sometimes but it’s not even close to us.
Joanna: Oh no, that’s a long way away. Again, it’s such a big continent and people assume Africa is all the same thing. But of course, it’s not.
Rachel: We do recommend that if people are coming to Djibouti they get a yellow fever vaccination, not because you need one for Djibouti but if you want to travel to Ethiopia or to Kenya or other places around it’s just good to have one before you come.
Joanna: Yes, so definitely if people are thinking of traveling check these things out.
The other thing is the Internet. Often now we are relying on the Internet for things like google maps and things like that.
What’s the internet like?
Rachel: It’s mostly good but sometimes it can be terrible. That’s just how things are there.
I’d say 80 percent of the time it’s good, which to a westerner is definitely insufficient but it’s sufficient enough. You can watch movies, but sometimes you have to let it buffer for a while before you can get stuff.
There’s no Google Maps, there are no addresses. I shouldn’t say that there are none. You can definitely Google map. You can find my house on the map but it doesn’t have an address where I could tell a taxi driver or a mail delivery person how to get to my house. You just have to go by landmarks and direct people or just go get them. Or say meet me at the corner and I’ll come down and pick you up and take you to my house. So things like google maps aren’t super reliable.
But for Djibouti, if you’re going out of the city there’s one road. That’s it. It’s not that hard to find things.
Joanna: And, of course, you’ve got the book Welcome to Djibouti. I’ve had a look at that and there’s lots of information. Even things like getting a coffee, which you recommend some places.
But it sounds like that is a slight challenge.
Rachel: It’s getting a lot better, a lot easier. When we first went there, there were very few places that especially a woman could go and just sit and work or be out and about in a cafe.
But now, there are so many options and I need to update the book for 2020 because we actually have a shopping mall that has even a movie theater. We have actually a movie theater in Djibouti so there are great cafes around. It’s just growing so rapidly now.
Joanna: The whole of Africa is changing so fast, it’s really interesting.
I want to talk about your book Finding Home: Third Culture Kids in the World. I’ve never heard that phrase before.
Explain what third culture kids are and maybe some of the good and bad things about raising a family somewhere so different.
Rachel: So you had not heard the term before. That’s interesting because you are a third culture kid.
I’m not sure how you feel about hearing that but actually, people would call you an ATCK, an adult third culture kid, because you’re not a kid.
But a TSK or a third culture kid is any person who has spent significant years of their childhood growing up outside their passport country. So I am not a third culture kid even though I’ve spent 17 of my adult years living abroad. Those formative early years were all for me in the United States.
I have three kids and they’re all TCKs. Because of that word ‘third’ sometimes people assume it means that three countries have been a part of the kid’s upbringing, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the number of countries or cultures that you’ve been a part of. It just has to do with the way that a kid who’s grown up in that kind of environment creates a third culture or third way of being. They’re not quite local and they’re not quite foreign.
My kids are kind of American, kind of Djiboutian but they have this other way of being. That forms a third culture or is referred to as a third culture. A lot of times kids like that connect really well with other kids who have grown up abroad.
For example, I have 19-year-old twins and so last year was their first year of university in the United States. And they both were naturally drawn to international students or other kids who have grown up in other places not necessarily the same place as them.
My daughter has a good friend who is Australian, though was actually raised in Malawi. They met in Kenya. They connected because they understand this feeling of being between worlds or being part of many worlds.
I’ve done a lot of reading about third culture kids and research. I’ve talked to other third culture kids because I want to be able to understand my kids better. I think it’s important as a parent to be able to articulate what some of the things are that they’re experiencing that are unique.
So TCKs, there are some really positive, incredible experiences about it, like you said, growing up and having such a positive experience in Malawi. My kids have this open-mindedness to the world. They’re open to new experiences. They’re brave. They’re not afraid to try new things. They speak fluent French because they were raised in a French educational system.
They really understand and are able to navigate different kinds of cross-cultural relationships or cross-religious relationships. Some of their best friends over the years and some of their favorite teachers have been Muslims. That’s unusual for Americans.
When we come back and we see our favorite teacher is this Somali Muslim woman and some Americans are nervous about that or uncomfortable. I just haven’t experienced that because they haven’t had the opportunity to have authentic relationships with people like that.
So those things, I think, are really a gift for third culture kids. There are definitely challenges. There are some statistics that say TCKs have often experienced more major life events by the age of 18 than people who stay in their passport country experience over a lifetime. And so, a lot of those experiences or events can be traumatic.
There can be war, political instability. Those are refugee kids or TCKs or immigrants. They might deal with diseases like malaria or Ebola, without access to medicine. There are natural disasters. My kids, even though they were young, they did experience that evacuation.
There’s a lot of coming and going of people around a third culture kid. Diplomat kids or military kids move a lot. So there’s a lot of goodbyes and a lot of hellos and that can add and compound a lot of grief, but sometimes it’s the kind of grief that you can’t see. Nobody has died and so there’s no closure, there’s no sort of burial spot to kind of put things on but maybe they’ve left behind a country or maybe they’ve left behind a pet that was their favorite in a place they lived.
So there’s a lot of these sort of ambiguous losses that you see kids experience that can be hard to process unless they’re able to talk about it, which is why I’ve tried to learn as much as I can so I can help my kids process.
Joanna: It’s so interesting. I had a very minor experience, I guess, compared to a lot of the types of people you were talking about there. But I do feel that me and my brother have got an attitude, which, as you mentioned, of not being afraid. And both of us have lived in lots of different places around the world.
To me, it’s more a practical thing. If I want to go to Djibouti, what are the things I need to do? There’s no, “Oh I’d be scared of going somewhere new.” It’s more okay, so how do I get there?
I think in Europe, we travel a lot more because everything is so close. But when I was in America, people would say to me, ‘oh wow, you’re going to San Francisco or New Orleans. That’s amazing.’ And I’m like ‘you can just get on a plane or drive there.’
It’s interesting to me how people find it such a big thing to go out of their state or their country and it might not be that expensive either. It’s not money that stops people most of the time.
Rachel: Yes, I think it’s just that nervousness of, I don’t know somebody there or I don’t know how to get there. Whereas our kids, and you and your brother, you just figure it out.
Joanna: You just get on a plane, which is so often all it is.
Rachel: Exactly. They’ve just had such an interesting time transitioning to the United States over the last year. And they’ll just do things, they’ll go out to by themselves to a cafe or something and their friends think, “Oh that’s so brave.”
Joanna: I bet they find it expensive!
Rachel: That’s true.
Joanna: ‘Oh my goodness, my baguette has gotten a lot more expensive.’
Rachel: That’s true. And they are not as good here. They just can’t make it as good.
Joanna: Exactly. This is something I’m fascinated with and exploring on this show, which is the idea of home. It’s funny because you saying this, I think I’m going to have to read about TCK kids because I struggle with the idea of home very much. Having lived in so many places around the world and even back in England living in so many different cities or wherever. So searching for home feels like something I should do. Or finding roots.
You said you’ve spent 17 years abroad.
What is home for you and how is being an expatriate part of your own self-definition?
Rachel: Home is one of the major things third culture kids talk about as something they struggle with, so I can identify with what you’re saying, even though it is a little bit different for me.
The home is tricky. I can now feel at home in two places. I can feel at home in Djibouti. And I can feel at home in Minnesota. And yet I’m at the same time I’ll be missing something about the other place.
I am literally right now talking to you from my parents’ basement, which you think when you’re 41 you’re not going to be living in your parents’ basement anymore. But when we come back this is where we stay. I’m here for just a few weeks and it feels like home.
I have history here and I have an ability to instinctively respond to, whether it’s something I experienced driving or something that may happen out and about in a grocery store, I know the culture innately, in my bones almost. And so that’s the sense of home. That just makes a lot of sense to me.
But in Djibouti, I feel really at home. It’s such a small place. We’ve been there so long and as foreigners and so we because we stick out people know us and recognize us. And I feel known there in a different way than I feel known here. Because here I can go about my business and not talk to anybody all day. You could slide your credit card and do everything self-checkout or whatever. But in Djibouti, I know the names of the cashiers at the store and I know the guy who pumps my gas and is very relational.
And so that I feel known in a way that feels like home. One thing that one of my kids at one time a few years ago that was really fascinating to me about this she said home is the place you miss the most when you’re not there. Meaning to her home was where you weren’t, instead of where you were. Which is sort of the opposite way that someone might think about it who’s lived in one place their whole life or one country.
And I think it also communicated that sense of longing or maybe almost missing, like there’s a little piece that can’t quite be everything.
My kids will never have Djibouti and Minnesota all at the same time anymore, so there’s always a sense of missing when it comes to home. But then as a parent and for myself just my own health, I think, my husband and I have tried to really create a home and it has to be transportable. It has to be something we can take with us. Which means it can’t be a building or an actual house but it’s traditions that we can do no matter where we are.
Even if we’re in transit on Christmas, we can still do a certain tradition. Or it’s our family; we’ve become the consistent thing to each other. So the kids, their sibling relationship or the five of us together. That has to be home for us and it has to be a safe place, which is what home is. A safe place, a refuge, where you can just really be yourself. And so that’s what we try to create relational instead of structurally.
Joanna: It’s funny because I think almost that we are meant to struggle with this question. It becomes an issue as well because it’s like why should we have to define home? I always feel like I have to ask the question because I feel like I’m meant to know where my home is. And the more I think about it the more I think it’s like you’re saying about safety.
I feel that it’s the place where I can do my work in a comfortable manner. Whenever I travel, wherever I go somewhere new, I have to figure out all this practical stuff. Where to buy your food or the toilet system or money or the Internet.
And so home can be anywhere where I can have great internet, plug in my laptop, feel safe and get good coffee. That’s probably all I need. And being comfortable temperature-wise. These things that make up your daily life almost.
Maybe home is where you’re happy having a daily life that fits who you are.
Rachel: And a place where you feel like you belong. I should be here. Whether it’s a foreign country or your place of upbringing.
Joanna: Exactly. The question is interesting because you’re an expatriate and you’re traveling, you’re actually getting on planes and things going between your two homes America and Africa.
For me also my husband’s New Zealander and we go back to New Zealand. And to me, that’s not travel. That is going to visit the family.
What is travel for you when you live in what many people would call an ‘exotic’ place?
Rachel: That’s an interesting question because it’s the same as what you say, that it feels like going home and kind of leaving home at the same time, on the same flight.
It feels like I travel to see my parents or I travel to get medical care. And yet we do experience all these kinds of travel or touristy things as part of our daily life. Really we don’t, we just go to the grocery store, we work at school and I write. It feels like regular life things that I would also do in the US. But it is different. There are the travel aspects to our life.
I see travel as necessary. Also, it’s a gift. Being an expat comes with those two things; a lot of the necessary travels and the gifts of it.
You asked about what it feels like to be an expat too and I just want to go back to that for a second if it’s OK. There’s been some recent discussion on that term. Have you heard of this at all?
Rachel: Some people feel like it’s a term that’s elitist or privileged compared to maybe immigrant or refugee, which definitely, at least in the U.S., have some racial overtones to those terms. And so I’ve had some pushback in some of the things that I’ve written about whether or not I am an expat.
I’m a word person. So I go back to dictionary definitions. An expat is a person who is temporarily residing in a foreign country with no intention to stay forever. And so we are not immigrating to Djibouti, we are not trying to become Djiboutian. We’re working there for work. And I feel like that’s a really important point to make, especially at least in the U.S. with some of the recent events.
It’s an important topic to talk about these things and I feel like there can be some misunderstanding of where those things overlap. Expats and immigrants and refugees and where they are different.
Joanna: I find that odd but I don’t know the people who are questioning this. But from being a kid as well in Malawi I would say that that was a very normal term for people who were there working. And as you say, you weren’t there as a refugee.
To me someone a refugee is someone who needs some help and someone who has not necessarily by choice left their country.
Joanna: That’s a really big deal. I would say there are some massive differences. Maybe the word has some ex-colonial overtones, that maybe why people have an issue but as you say language develops and you’re not on holiday there.
Joanna: So you’re not a tourist. And you’re on presumably more than a working visa because you’ve been there so long. It’s interesting that people have an issue with that. But also I know a lot of expats who then end up having to leave the country where they are staying a long time.
When we left Malawi there was some political stuff going on where many people were less welcome. I remember my Mum’s friends talking about the loss of their country, even though that wasn’t their country by birth. So I think it is an intricate relationship when you live in a country so long.
Rachel: I definitely see ourselves as guests there. They can revoke our visas at their discretion and that is up to the Djibouti government. As long as they’re happy with our work and we’re happy to say it’s a great relationship, but it’s not our right to demand to stay.
It’s not my country. I am a guest. And so I feel like that is what’s important for me to point out.
Joanna: Some fascinating topics and we could talk for ages.
Apart from your own books, what are some others that you might recommend people read about that area of Africa?
Rachel: This is so interesting because there is not a lot written about Djibouti in English. There’s a lot of historical stuff in French. But for Djibouti specificly it’s tough to find things.
I focused more on books that are by Somalis or about the Somali region because that’s the culture that I know more deeply than the offer. The Arab part of Djibouti and also Somalis, in particular, are very oral. So a lot of their stories and poetry – they’re really talented poets – has been passed down orally and there’s not a ton written down yet, although it’s becoming more and more.
One great poetry book is by Warsan Shire. And she’s a Somali British poet. She wrote a book called Teaching My Mother to Give Birth. Some of her poems are actually part of Beyonce’s special called Lemonade. She used some of Warsan Shire’s poetry.
There’s one in particular that just really resonates again with what’s happening in the United States right now with refugees. It’s called Home and I’m just going to read the first two lines of it.
No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.
You only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well.
And then the poem just goes on to talk about how parents just don’t just put their kids on boats for fun. There is something happening that causes that to happen. So she has a really powerful voice I think with her poetry.
Another book that’s just really beautiful is called Keeping Hope Alive by Hawa Abdi. One Woman. Ninety Thousand Lives Saved.
I can’t remember when but Hawa was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. And she and her daughters during some of the most violent years in Somalia sheltered, educated, and fed thousands of Somalis. It’s the story of her standing up to warlords and caring for her people. And it’s really inspirational.
And then there’s one I just love called Somali Sideways by Mohammed Mohamud. It’s got photos and it started as an Instagram series or Instagram account, where Somalis all over the world in the diaspora would have a picture of themselves facing sideways to kind of show that there are multiple perspectives and changing perspectives about Somalis around the world. And then they would write an Instagram post.
So Mohammed gathered all those up and produced this really beautiful book. That just shows the diversity and of what Somalis are doing and how they’re engaging in the world and just who they are.
Joanna: That’s fantastic. I’m like, “Tell me more!”
I had a look and you’re right, it was actually very hard to find out information about Djibouti. As you say it’s a very small country.
This has been so fascinating to learn more about the culture and your perspective. Thank you so much.
You’re a writer and you have written lots of things and you have a newsletter.
Where can people find you and everything you do online?
Rachel: DjiboutiJones.com is my Web site and I do think it’s one of the easiest places anyway to find English stuff about Djibouti. On there you’ll find a subscription to my newsletter, which always includes an essay and news stories from the Horn of Africa. That’s just the best way to go. You can find all the links to follow me there so DjiboutiJones.com.
Joanna: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time Rachel. That was great.
Rachel: Thanks. It’s been great.