I enjoyed this essay, sent to me in an email by Sean T. Malis. I’ve never been here but these are the kinds of things about Djibouti that fascinate me. With his permission, I’ve reposted it here and hope you enjoy another perspective of this country.
Today my journey as a “Joint Civil Affairs Team Leader” leads me and my team of Soldiers, Airmen and a Marine to an old dilapidated town in Djibouti, reportedly the nation’s oldest town, the town of Das’asbiyo. Residing in the bottom of a dry river bed lay an old fortified well house built by the French during colonial times. Inside is a large open well and about 20 feet down there is a black murky soup of water, trash and unknown dead things illuminated only by a single streak of light shining through what to me looked like rifle firing ports. The smell was not very pleasant as the well house had become a public latrine of sorts.
Inside there was evidence of some footings and mountings for some long ago pilfered machinery. At some point in the ancient past an engine driven pump belched forth black smoke as the soot was still thick and black on the ceiling on the well house. Water from this old well was pumped to the town and filled three equally ancient rock built cisterns that the locals could fill their buckets and jugs from for their homes.
Water no longer flows to the town from this well. The town once had electricity as evidenced by broken, shattered and leaning power poles that litter the town with wires hanging and dangling disconnected and broken along the poles and on the ground. Rusted and empty street lights now only serve as perches for pigeons, doves and other various birds, reminiscent of their prior illumination of the town’s homes, train station and streets. One can almost imagine the train pulling into the town with smoke billowing from the engine on a hot summer evening lit up by these electric lights, but the train no longer runs through Das‘asbiyo or anywhere else in Djibouti.
The rough hand hewn rock exterior of the well house and austere desert landscape in background provoke thoughts of the old French Colonial era movie “Beau Geste.” I don’t think even Gary Cooper himself could rescue Das‘asbiyo today.
The well house has fallen on hard times; unused, abandoned and only thought of as place fit for one to defecate by the residents it once served. The plight of the well house is symbolic in many ways of Das‘asbiyo and most of Djibouti. Everywhere one sees the rusting and crumbling remains of public works engineered, maintained and managed by the French. Das‘asbiyo has been forgotten by its former colonial masters in Paris and by the new nation it created and that last month celebrated its 35th anniversary.
Djibouti was known as Obock and French Somaliland (Côte française des Somalis) in the 19th century and then in 1967 the name changed to the French Territory of Afars and Issas. Now the French managers, administrators and engineers are gone. The independent Djiboutian Republic has no system to manage the nation’s former French infrastructure. They’ve lost interest or they never wanted to inherit the old French institutions and colonial responsibilities or demand that anyone else do so. It’s singularly centralized government, run by one man; President Ismail Omar Guelleh is the supreme law, judge and businessman of the land. Guelleh doles out the nation’s largess to his friends and supporters, but the basic necessities of the country side and small towns have been forgotten, frozen in time like the 1939 movie of Beau Geste.
The Well House now stands as a lone sentinel in a dry river bed of what was once Das‘asbiyo. The towns golden era of modernity has faded. No more water, no more electricity, the antique train and rickety cars last rumbled through town ten years ago. A causality of the end of the French empire. Time has forgotten Das‘asbiyo just as its residents have forgotten their old well house that once served them their most valuable resource; water.
If you live in Djibouti or have lived in Djibouti, and are interested in providing a guest post story or a photo to Djibouti Jones, I would love to hear from you. Post a comment or send an email and let’s talk.