views updated


LOCATION: Djibouti (Horn of Africa)
POPULATION: approximately 833,000
LANGUAGE: Afar, Somali
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 1: Eritreans; Somalis


Djibouti (also Jibouti) is the name of both a small country and its seaport capital. This land's former name was the French Territory of the Afars and Issas and, before that, French Somaliland. Occupying an area roughly the size of New Jersey, tiny Djibouti, sandwiched between Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea on the east coast of Africa, was the last French colony in Africa.

The area that today is Djibouti was populated for centuries by two groups of once entirely nomadic herders, the Afar and a branch of the Somali people known as the Issa. The French opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and later British control of this strategic artery of global commerce resulted in intervention across the Horn of Africa by European powers, changing this area from a global backwater to a strategic point in world commercial and naval movements. The canal became the pivot for European domination of most of Asia, the eastern half of Africa, and the Indo-Pacific seas. As European powers competed for strategic advantage, coaling stations for merchant and war fleets became essential. In 1892 France abandoned its commercial center in the city of Obock and transferred it southward, across the Gulf of Tadjoura, to the city of Djibouti, which possessed a better harbor. By 1899 the newly prosperous port city had 10,000 inhabitants, as it drained trade from nearby older ports. Planning began for a French railroad to Addis Abeba, capital of Ethiopia, recently unified and expanded under the Amhara. Meanwhile, in 1894, France had merged its protectorates in the area into French Somaliland (present-day Djibouti). Djibouti's strategic global location remains its chief commercial and military importance.

Commerce grew in the city during the early part of the 20th century, while in the colony's hinterland, the Afars and Issas, the two main ethnic groups, engaged in continued fighting. By 1935 France had ended most open fighting between the two peoples and, occasionally, against French troops. France proclaimed its neutrality during the Italian conquest of Ethiopia in 1935–1936, but tilted toward the Ethiopians, eventually using its base in Djibouti to aid the Ethiopian resistance against their fascist occupiers. On 23 December 1942 Vichy forces in French Somaliland surrendered to British and Free French forces.

French Somaliland became an Overseas Territory of France in 1946. In part because of pressures from pan-Somali nationalists, President Charles de Gaulle of France in 1966 announced a referendum, held in 1967, to determine the future of the colony. This referendum reaffirmed the desire of the majority of the population to remain part of the French community. The colony was renamed the French Territory of the Afars and Issas. Movements for independence continued, nevertheless, and the territory became independent, as Djibouti, on 27 June 1977. The Issa control the government.

President Hassan Gouled Aptidon became and remains head of state. In 1981 Djibouti formally became a one-party state headed by a directly elected president. Aptidon was reelected in 1981 and 1987. The Afar minority felt excluded in this political process. In 1991 an Afar-based armed rebellion began with the Afar gaining control of much of the countryside. Accordingly, in 1992, President Aptidon presented a multiparty constitution that was ratified by the citizenry. However, Aptidon's dominant political party, the People's Rally for Progress, has no effective opposition. In 1993 Aptidon achieved a fourth term, in Djibouti's first “multiparty” presidential election. The Afar opposition largely boycotted the election, and unrest continues. Some fighting continued through 2000. Ismael Omar Guelleh won his first term as president in 1999 and his second term in 2005, with 100% of the vote. The legal code is based on French civil law, with local Islamic additions.

During the first Gulf War, the French military used Djibouti as its staging base of operations and continues a presence in that country, with ships, aircraft, and armored vehicles. In 2001 Djibouti leased a former French Foreign Legion base to the U.S. It is now shared with France and is part of the U.S. Central Command. Since 2002 a U.S. task force combining all of the armed services and the State Department provides, from the base, humanitarian and development aid to Djibouti. Besides the French military presence, which contributes to the Djibouti economy, the U.S. bases several hundred troops as part of its campaign against regional “terrorism.” Djibouti is America's sole base in Africa. From there the U.S. launched its attacks during 2007–2008 against fundamentalist Islamic forces in Somalia. The Djibouti economy centers mainly on the country's strategic location for transshipment of freight and refueling of ships. Ethiopian exports and imports comprise about 85% of port enterprise.


With a territory of some 23,200 sq km (8,950 sq mi), Djibouti has a population, in 2007, estimated by the UN at 833,000 but the real number could be nearer half as many. About two-thirds of Djiboutians live in Djibouti city, the capital. The country of Djibouti extends inland about 88 km (55 mi), from the north and south shores of the Gulf of Tadjoura, a narrow inlet of the Gulf of Aden. It lies on the western shore of the Bab el-Mandeb (Arabic for “gate of tears”), a strategic strait 27-km (17-mi) wide joining the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea, and thus, via Suez, Atlantic to Indo-Pacific commerce. Besides the sea, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea border Djibouti. The country's Red Sea coast stretches some 800 km (500 mi).

The land of Djibouti comprises arid, rugged highlands often 900 m (3,000 ft) or more in elevation, with peaks at 1,620 m (5,400 ft) and 1,980 m (6,600 ft), and basaltic steppe and desert plains having salt lakes and normally dry streams. Lake Assal is the lowest point in Africa, at 155 m (508 ft) below sea level. Once called by Europeans “the valley of hell,” Djibouti is a land of permanent intense heat and drought. The Somalis call the terrain guban (burnt land). In its northeastern third, the land is tropical desert; the remainder is tropical steppe with a coastal desert fringe. Grass and herbaceous plants, such as thornbush, grow singly and in patches, awaiting seasonal rainfall, about 50 cm (20 in) in the mountain heights and 13 cm (5 in) in the deserts. Only a few mountain peaks sport continuous vegetative cover. When the briefly seasonal flow in water-courses ends, herds of livestock depend on permanent wells. No surface streams from the Ethiopian highlands penetrate as far as Djibouti.

Djibouti contains two indigenous ethno-linguistic groups, the Afar (sometimes also called the Danakil) and the Somali. (Djibouti Somalis primarily belong to the Issa clan of the Dir clan-family, which covers two-thirds of Djibouti and extends into adjacent Somalia and Ethiopia.) Each group's links of language, culture, patrilineal kinship, and Islam provides internal unity. Such multiple bonds do not prevent intra-ethnic strife, especially among the Somalis. Besides the Afar, who make up perhaps 35% of the population, and Somalis, who account for as much as 65%, there are also small Arab, French, Ethiopian, and Italian minorities. Periodically, large numbers of refugees displaced by warfare have crossed the border into Djibouti from Ethiopia and Somalia.


The official languages of Djibouti are French and Arabic, but the everyday languages of most of the people are the Eastern Cushitic languages, Afar and Somali, of the two main ethnic groups. Educated Afars and Somalis speak French. The Somali tongue of Djibouti belongs to the “common dialect” group, found in much of Somalia and used in broadcasts.


The Somali Issa have a myth of origin that portrays their common ancestor—named 'Aqiil Abuu Taalib—as a holy man from Arabia. They have hymns (qasiidas) in his honor, and his shrine (maqaam) is in Djibouti, where he is said to have appeared miraculously. The Somali's oral tradition also includes storytelling and poetry. Poetry traditionally recited in the villages by special readers called gabaye was a way of recording the community's history and customs, as well as current events. The Somali tradition of oral poetry may be in danger as nomadic Somalis have begun learning to read and write.

The Afar maintain some lore that dates back to their original, pre-Islam religion, including a belief in the powers retained by the spirits of the dead, and a belief in the existence of groves and trees with sacred powers. One traditional practice part of this belief system is anointing one's body with butter or ghee (a clarified butter commonly used for food and other purposes). Another is the annual celebration of a feast 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 SufiMuslims, with the former people more devout than the latter. As elsewhere in the world, Islam accommodates local practices. For the orthodox, religious and community activities are governed by the shari'a, the canon law of Islam. The greater the orthodoxy, the more the control of women by men. Pilgrimage and scheduled prayer and fasting, such as during Ramadan, are expected. Islam does not transcend ethnicity and thus does not impose a unity on different Muslim peoples, such as the Afars and Somalis. Among the Afars, survivals from the pre-Islamic cosmology of their sky-father deity, Wak, are evident, including days for animal sacrifice and rainmaking ceremonies. (For more about religion in the Horn of Africa, see Eritreans section 5.)


Local Muslim saints' days associated with the Afar and the Issa are popular among their respective groups. Among the Somalis, various devout dervish orders have their own particular and universal observances, such as the Prophet Muhammad's birthday. Many Afars and Somalis are uninformed about the symbolic, mystical content of their own holidays. In Djibouti most urbanites and town residents attend Friday prayer at their mosque.


As among most of the peoples of the Horn, adult status for the Afars and Somalis requires a genital operation, with or without ceremony, usually in childhood. For Afars and Somalis, boys are circumcised and girls undergo clitoridectomy, a practice intended to ensure their chastity. See section 20.


Djiboutians show great respect to their elders and, in general, for the dignity of others. With their nomadic tradition, Djiboutians historically have not had the chance to forge strong relationships with neighbors, and clan membership plays a prominent role in an individual's social relationships and social standing, which 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.” (In recent decades, the Somali clans of Djibouti and neighboring Somaliland have been dormant from time to time. However, Somali clan solidarity is important in warfare, both against other clans and against the U.S.)

Among the pastoral Afar, accepting a drink of milk signifies the formation of a bond between a guest and host that includes a responsibility to protect the guest should trouble arise and to avenge his death if he is killed.

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


Living conditions vary greatly, from affluent upper-class Arab businessmen and the educated Afars and Somalis of the country's elite, to undernourished herders with scant possessions and scrawny livestock. Government and Catholic organizations provide some humanitarian aid to the impoverished. Life for women is arduous, as it is generally among nomadic peoples across Africa. Major health threats include severe malnutrition, malaria, and tuberculosis. In 2003 the estimated number of people having an HIV infection was 9,100. Estimated in 2007 as having one of the world's lowest average life expectancies, of 55 years, and an infant mortality rate of 100 per 1,000 live births, Djibouti has a health crisis.

A paved road links Djibouti to the heavy-duty Aseb-Addis Abeba highway, but the road into Northern Somalia is barely usable. A meter-gauge railroad operates to Addis Abeba. Djibouti city has international airline and ship services to the outside world. The city has contained a free port, since 1949. The harbor is enclosed by land, dredged to depths of 12–20 m (40– 65 ft). Modern fueling facilities and a floating dry dock round out the facilities of this strategic port.


The Djiboutian family averages six or seven children. A marriage is considered as much a union of two families as of two individuals. Divorce is an accepted and common part of the culture. Practicing polygyny, Muslim men traditionally can marry as many as four women. Each wife raises her own children, and her household is in charge of a specific task, such as agricultural work or tending to livestock. Although polygyny is common among the Somali people, Afar men usually have only one wife. Among the Afar, girls were traditionally eligible for marriage when they turned ten; boys when they had killed their first man (a feat often attested to by the castration of the victim).


Unlike women in many other Muslim countries, women in Djibouti do not wear veils, although married Afar women wear a black head scarf. City dwellers wear Western-style clothing, while those in rural areas wear the loose clothing typical 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 Afar wear another piece of cloth, the harayto, slung over their shoulders. Afar men are known for the long, sharp, double-edged dagger, called a jile, which they wear at their waists. Among the nomadic Somali in rural areas, the men wear a garment similar to the sanafil of the Afar, while the women wear a long, brightly colored cloth called a guntina, wound around their torsos and knotted at the right shoulder.


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 through barter. Sheep and goats provide common fare, while beef is reserved for special occasions. Grain is typically roasted and 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.

Most Djiboutians observe Islamic dietary laws, which include a ban on eating pork and consuming alcohol. Smoking hashish and chewing chat leaves, both narcotics, are as moral as alcohol is immoral.


Until after World War II, Catholic missions provided the infrequent formal education, outside of Koranic schools. A French-style curriculum is used in the growing number of government schools. Practical training of a limited kind is given to many pastoralists, who frequently must round out earning a livelihood with seasonal work in the city or on the railroad. The estimated literacy rate in 2003 for those 15 and older was 68%.


The Afar have a traditional type of dance, called jenile, which is associated with their ancient pre-Islamic religion.

The Somali have a venerable tradition of oral poetry and song. Their poetry makes heavy use of alliteration.

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


Labor other than the traditional herding of the nomads in rural areas is concentrated in the city of Djibouti. Major employers include the food and beverage industry, shipping, construction, and shipbuilding, as well as the national railway. High rates of unemployment and underemployment exist.


Few Djiboutians engage in games or sports activities in the Western sense. Some enjoy playing and watching soccer games.


In rural areas, Djiboutian women enjoy spending their free time visiting with each other. Often, they engage in crafts such as weaving or needlework during these social sessions. Men enjoy congregating and drinking coffee. In villages, towns, and cities, the market serves as an important place for people to socialize. City dwellers enjoy movies and other urban pursuits. Television and radio broadcasts are in French, Afar, Somali, and Arabic. The government owns the television station and the principal newspaper. Voice of America and BBC transmitters supplement the state controlled radio.


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


Three of the five points of the single star of nationalism on the flag of Somalia symbolize the Somali-inhabited territories in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. This star signifies that all Somalis should be unified under one flag. Such reunification may never be realized in the Horn of Africa, but the view continues to cause strife. Pan-Somaliism has been especially curtailed following the protracted civil wars in Somalia, and the breaking away of (formerly British) Somaliland in the north from the warring south. At the base of broad social problems are almost no cultivable land and scant freshwater resources.

The Afars were almost continuously in arms against the government of President Aptidon, and have sought greater autonomy. This so-called Afar problem crosses state boundaries into Eritrea. If the Afars of Djibouti succeed in their quest for greater autonomy, some observers speculate that the next step would be a drive for unification with the Afars of Eritrea. So long as the French military remains in Djibouti, the partitioning of the country along ethnic lines remains unlikely.


Throughout the Horn of Africa and across a wider span of the continent, male and female “circumcision” is part of gender socialization and reinforced in the core aspects of a cosmology. The “circumcision” operation on females does a permanent anatomical and physiological damage and a psychological limiting of natural human development. Regarding the female circumcision only, from their own socialization, Westerners report mutilation and barbarous treatment. However, a relativistic native view also exists. (For more about cosmologies of the Horn, see Eritreans, sections 5 and 20.)

In the Horn—as among the Somalis, Afar, Tigrayans, Amhara, Kunama, Nara, Beja, and variably among the Oromo, etc.—values and norms regarding women include that their sensuality must be controlled and diminished, permanently. To this end, the clitoris of a female infant or child is unsanitarily excised (amputated), thus insuring, it is said, that she will not be overly active sexually. Among the Afar, this rite is marked with song. No men are present during or may in any way observe the operation, performed by an old, experienced woman. By the operation, which a few do not survive, the female will make a good and true wife for one of god's chosen, a male. No male would marry a female not having undergone this clitoridectomy. For that matter, no woman desires to marry a man “uncircumcised like a dog.” Female “circumcision” is not a communal rite of intensification but an individual rite of passage in society. For a male, circumcision can be either, depending on the particular culture.

Among the Somali, Afar, and other peoples of northeastern Africa, especially Muslims, the surgery for clitoridectomy is extended to include excision of part or all of the labia majora and labia minora of the vulva and, then, infibulation. Infibulation has the paired wounds from the surgery fastened for healing together as one unbroken line of flesh. A slender reed or stick is placed in the wound to allow a small opening for urination and menses. Upon the happy day of marriage, the young bride is “unfibulated” by an experienced woman but the inexperienced groom could do so. Some reports of “reinfibulation” of a wife given particular circumstances exist. The practice of infibulation goes back at least to Pharaonic Egypt.

Infibulation controls that a female is a virgin before marriage to her husband, preventing consensual and forced coitus. In the Horn, both female clitoridectomy (and any infibulation) and ordinary male circumcision are marks of gender membership, and usually eligibility for marriage, in a particular society.


Ahmed, Ali Jimale. Daybreak Is Near: Literature, Clans, and the Nation-State in Somalia. Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1996.

Cassenelli, Lee V. The Shap Eritrea: A Country Handbook. Asmara: Ministry of Information, 2002.

Country Profile. Djibouti. London: Economist Intelligence Unit, 2004.

Dubois, Collette and Frederick C. Gamst. “Djibouti, City.” Encyclopaedia Aethiopica 2 (D-Ha):183-185. Ed. by Siegbert Uhlig. Wiesbaden: Harrssowitz Verlag, 2005.

Gamst, Frederick C. “Conflict in the Horn of Africa.” In Peace and War: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Ed. By Mary L. Foster and Robert A. Rubenstein. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1986.

Houstin, Nicole, ed. Atlas de Djibouti. Paris: Editions Jeune Afrique, 2007.

Lewis, Joan M. Blood and Bone: The Call of Kinship in Somali Society. Lawrenceville, NJ: Red Sea Press, 1994.

Morrow, James. Djibouti. Philadelphia: Mason Crest Publishers, 2004.

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

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

The Shaping of Somali Society: Reconstructing the History of a Pastoral People, 1600-1900. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

Thompson, Virginia, and Richard Adloff. Djibouti and the Horn of Africa. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1968.

Uhlig, Siegbert, ed. Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, 4 vols. Wies-baden: Harrssowitz Verlag, 2003–2008.

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, DC: Government Printing Office, 1993.

—by F. C. Gamst