Maybe it’s the qat that keeps the peace around here

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Djibouti City is a bizarre place indeed. On first impressions, it seems to exist for two reasons – firstly because every country needs a capital and a seat of government, so this might as well be it; secondly because the landlocked nations of East Africa need a seaport for trade. Under different circumstances this might have been the recipe for a thriving city of zeal and commerce. But, as I nose my way through the dusty sprawl, this is not what the place appears to be.

It reminds me of Khartoum; a low, whitewashed colony of fenced compounds and street-sellers and a few half-hearted attempts at ‘modern’ infrastructure and superficial gloss. What’s different is the number of people in the city’s streets. It feels populated, but by the aimless and wayward. As I draw closer to the port the impression intensifies. Young men, all dressed in grubby fluorescent safety vests, wander the pavements and roads of the docklands in small groups; waifs slowly drifting, like the distant ships in the placid waters beyond them. I later find out that they’re waiting for a container ship to arrive, hoping to score a few hours of casual labour in exchange for a few francs. This might not happen for many days. At night they will simply sleep on the ground, inert bodies lining the sidewalks along the roads around the immense port gates, possessing nothing but the clothes they wear and the company of those around them. They will not be allowed inside the port without a permit which identifies them as a genuine labourer with proof of employment. Security is hard-line; any man who tries to sneak into the port is ejected gently but firmly by the plentiful security guards, and I watch this happen a dozen times in my first afternoon, unaware that this will be my life for the next five days. I, too, have no permit. I wonder how the hell I’m supposed to find a boat without one.

The atmosphere is languid, hopeless and utterly depressing, and I feel guilty and uncomfortable, however bedraggled my appearance, because simply by being here I am flaunting the fact that I’ve done so out of choice, in the face of the massed crowds of young men who have no choice at all. I start reproaching those who stare too hard, as I’ve grown used to doing in self-defence, but find myself being met by offended looks. I realise that I’m not in Ethiopia any more. These are Somalis – Muslims – and, with a distinctly genteel aura pervading even these quietly desperate streets, any rowdiness is totally out of place. I must drop my prickly defences and dig out a bit of compassion and sensitivity once again, seeing suddenly how thick-skinned and detached I’d had to become in order to traverse Ethiopia with my sanity intact.

Maybe it’s the qat that keeps the peace around here. It seems ubiquitous enough. Bunches of these shiny, plump, lime-green leaves appear around midday from flimsy plastic bags and soon take up residence in the cheek pouches of the populace, unemployed or otherwise. Despite the lack of work, there still seems to be enough money around to bargain for an awful lot of qat. I think back to the Ethiopian border town where I’d met Mike, the schoolteacher on his way to Sudan. What had he said?

‘It makes everything in the world look OK … when really, it’s not!!!’

I can see him now, glassy eyes empty but with a slightly crazed twinkle to them, slumped in the shade with his back against the wall of the hotel block, mouth mechanically chewing, flecks of green and spittle, his teeth churning like a concrete mixer. His image is duplicated a thousand times on the streets of Djibouti. Spread across the concrete all over the port’s surrounding yards and inspection bays and quaysides, in little patches of shade, are the bulging cheeks and sprawled limbs of those who’ve decided that they want everything in the world to look OK (when really, it’s not). Whether it actually does look OK I don’t know, because I still take myself too seriously to accept one of the many offers to pack my own cheek with qat and see the world differently for an afternoon.

If only everyone in the region spent their days as pacified as this. I’m well aware that the stretch of water I want to cross is the most pirated on the planet. Somalia, with its two thousand miles of coastline directly to the east and south, is what politicians call a ‘failed state’. Its people apparently haven’t had an effective central government for nearly two decades; the cause – or, maybe, the effect – of it being statistically one of the poorest and most violent nations on Earth, the real-life implications of which I don’t wish to try to imagine.

I try to put preconceptions of Somalia to one side. Such thoughts have never yielded fruit, and I’ve no reason to believe that this time should be any different. But it’s been only one week since an empty oil tanker was captured by Somali pirates just ten miles offshore from the Yemeni port of Aden, which is precisely where I aim to go. Sixty-one pirate attacks were recorded in the Gulf of Aden in the first three months of this year; ten times more than last year.

On the other hand, I notice that business still seems to be running fairly normally in this languid yet bustling port. I sit and watch from my spot of concrete outside the port security office by the main gate, just opposite an enormous mosque which serves thousands of workers and thousands more destitute hopefuls. Despite a life which would, back home, be described by stern-faced TV presenters as ‘appalling’ and ‘desperate’, there is relief on hand for the soul, and not only in the form of mild narcotics. Intellectual, scientific, rational atheism is of little value to those whose earthly lives offer no respite from hopelessness, no relevant answers to existential conundrums. What use is there in telling the hungry men sleeping on the concrete outside the port of Djibouti that there is no reason for living other than to propagate their genetic material, or that they should forget their indoctrinated superstition in favour of the wonders of scientific empiricism, or that their five daily pilgrimages to the prayer hall are futile, worthless and insulting to human intelligence? Even the most militant atheist, shouting from his Western soapbox, could not stand in this dusty square, take in all he sees around him, and then harangue these men for whom hope and meaning comes from family and faith alone. Though holding no religious beliefs myself, I am faintly embarrassed to have once counted myself amongst those very vocal militants, so scathing of the priorities that still hold for the majority of people in the world. And I give thanks (to nobody in particular) that I’ve grown a little wiser since then.

Troops of burly and disinterested sailors march from the port and disappear in SUVs, arriving back hours later. They look so ridiculous, with their starched, spotless uniforms, sunglasses and purposeful swaggers, glancing stupidly about at us.

Their white skin looks so abnormal.



I meet Hassan, a young, unemployed Djiboutian, over a roadside lunch of the spaghetti Bolognese which appears to be the city’s staple meal. Fingers prove an interesting choice of eating utensil, but it somehow seems to work. Hassan’s English is about as bad as my French, but it’s enough to get chatting, and we quickly click. He’s interested in what drove me to undertake this journey, and I try my best to explain that in all honesty I’d simply wanted to throw myself at something massive, unknown and terrifying, just to see what happened, and that cycling alone through the Middle East and Africa without a map, guidebook, mobile phone, laptop, GPS or any real research was the most massive, unknown and terrifying thing I could think of to do at the time. And while I’m talking, I begin to laugh, because it seems so absurd now; the scale so pitifully small, the unknowns so benign, and the imagined terrors so illusory.

But Hassan seems to see where I’m coming from. I’m used to being gazed at like the whimsical, self-indulgent rich guy I undoubtedly am, so his curiosity and non-judgemental attitude are refreshing. He is younger than me and was obviously a keen school student, but his education and zeal have been undercut by an absence of opportunity to put them to use. I imagine that he’s far from alone. I offer him a sum which I think will help him without being insulting or propagating an image of rich white guys, and he agrees to help me find a ship. I don’t really believe that the odds are against me. What’s the worst that could happen? 

OK – being taken prisoner by a gang of swashbuckling Somalis would suck. And the lack of any discernible system to the chaos between here and the quaysides is going to be a tricky one to negotiate. But hell – I’ve got to give it a try.

Hassan tells me he’s found a ship leaving today, but I’m aware that it’s as likely to vanish into thin air as to depart on time. He says he needs another ten dollars’ worth of francs to put down a deposit with the captain for my passage. Goodness knows how he’s found this information, or how he’s got inside the port to talk to anyone. But he takes my money and disappears into the throng.

Waiting listlessly for Hassan’s return, I make friends with an Ethiopian shipping clerk who stopped to talk to me on his way into one of the nice air-conditioned offices hidden amongst the concrete shells of disused buildings outside the port gates, and we spend a few hours chatting; his English is excellent. But there’s no sign of Hassan by the end of the day. I sigh and decide to give him the benefit of the doubt, but it’s time I found another place to sleep. My new friend Salim says he’ll think of something and to come with him. So we walk the streets after another dead-end day, tired out – me by the endless string of false leads and non-existent boat-rides, him by the constant power-cuts and Internet disconnections that leave him unable to work for hours on end every day.

‘What you have to realise,’ says Salim as we walk the darkening pavements towards the city, ‘is that nothing works. And this is “the African way”.’

It’s a long walk and almost completely dark before I find out where he’s taking me: one of the big, whitewashed compounds turns out to contain a church and community centre to serve the tiny minority of Protestants in Muslim Djibouti. Fair enough, I think; in Muslim countries where I’m perceived as a Christian, I’ve often been handed over to the local Christian communities, regardless of their creed. I think back to Egypt, where I ended up sleeping in Coptic churches for three nights in a row. Well, I think, there’s no harm in trying. After all, I’m just looking for a six-by-two-foot patch of ground to lie on for a few hours.

The doorkeeper is unconvinced that we’re worth disturbing the pastor for, but eventually tells us to head round the back of the generous compound to the other entrance. He lets us in and we walk down a footpath between nicely tended gardens in the fading light of the evening, past the church itself and towards a concrete two-storey complex which I guess is the community centre. A wide flight of stairs sweeps up to a terrace, and a row of candles burns piously in an upstairs window.

‘He is from Germany,’ whispers the church watchman, while the doorkeeper ventures up to the penthouse to fetch the pastor, and I’m wondering whether I should compose my standard explanation of myself in German, French or English when the door opens with a loud muttering and the doorkeeper appears with another figure. The pastor stops silhouetted at the top of the steps, fifty yards from where I’m standing with my friend, folds his arms, and looks down upon us. My eyesight is too bad to make out the man’s face in the darkness. I make to introduce myself. But the pastor speaks first.

‘This is not a hotel,’ begins the decree. A mocking lilt, a slight exasperation underlies the words, and the pastor – a practiced speaker, no doubt – continues. ‘It is not a campsite. It is a church. Now, clear off. Go!’

The last word is accompanied by a flick of the arm, the sort you might use to dismiss a low-ranking servant. Without waiting for a response, he spins on his heels, slamming the door behind him. Through a small window, a silhouette resumes its candle-lit supplications.

The three of us turn and walk back through the well-ordered gardens, stopping outside the church. I look at the dignified, sharply dressed shipping clerk, feeling embarrassed even to have come from the same continent as the man we’ve just encountered. Salim just gazes at the ground in confusion.

‘Why … why is this man so rude?!?’ 

He’s genuinely confused. I just shake my head. The priest hadn’t even given us a chance to explain ourselves; he’d just shooed us away.

‘You can sleep in the church,’ chips in the church warden, breaking the silence. ‘Don’t listen to what he says. He is not a good man.’

He wrinkles his nose in the direction of the building down the yard.

‘If I say you can sleep here, you can sleep here. He will never know. Just – you must leave early.’