By Wale Okediran
“WHERE the heck is Djibouti?” was the first question on the lips of some members of the Pan African Writers Association (PAWA) when I informed them about the venue of the International African Writers Day Celebration 2022. In response, I explained that the small country in the Horn of Africa is located on the western coast of the southern outlet of the Red Sea bordering Somalia to the southeast, Ethiopia to the south and west and Eritrea to the north. Unfortunately, the fact that Djibouti shared borders with Somalia and Ethiopia, two countries in the middle of sectional wars, further raised security concerns about our destination. Matters were not helped by recent news of the activities of terrorist groups such as Al Shabaab and the Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD) in the region. However, I debunked the security concerns, citing assurances of a safe and peaceful state as given by officials of our host country.
Despite all my efforts to adequately market the venue of the conference, the next question was an unusual one: “How do we get there?” Since I didn’t know whether or not the question was a joke, I answered cheekily: “We can go by bus through the Grand Bara desert or sail by boat via the Red Sea!”
However, by the time writers from 25 African countries arrived Djibouti by air after an overnight stop-over at the Addis Ababa Bole International airport in Ethiopia, all the anxieties about the writers’ destination had vanished into the warm, windy and winsome tropical climate. As we stepped on the hot airport tarmac, we were hit by a dry gusty wind that plastered our clothes to our bodies.
“This is our cool season with temperatures ranging between 22 to 30 degree Celsius,” explained one of our guides. ‘’Our hot and dry season is May to October with temperatures range between 30 and 40 degrees with occasional hot and dry sand wind called khamsin. This is a good time to visit Djibouti.”
Apart from the warm camaraderie with fellow writers who had flown into Addis Ababa the previous night from their various destinations, the VIP reception from Djibouti government officials at the Djibouti Airport had set a delightful tone for what would later become an excellent convergence of African writers. Obviously impressed by the beautiful airport, some of the writers brought out their mobile phones to take pictures, an action which drew the angst of Djibouti security officials. Unknown to us, photo and video shootings of infrastructure facilities in Djibouti were strictly prohibited.
From the airport, it was a 15-minute drive to our hotel, the Les Acacias located by the Red Sea at the residential district of Heron. From the comfort of our air-conditioned vehicle, we watched Djiboutians going about their daily tasks in the dry, tropical climate. Most of the people wore western clothes including the women who did not wear veils. This was a refreshing sight to some of the lady writers who were already in jean trousers. We were also informed that alcohol was available as long as its consumption was done decently. This was another cheering news for some of the writers, the ones who needed a daily dose of spirit to lubricate their throats and whet their inspiration.
Djibouti, which secured her independence from France in 1977, is one of the smallest countries in Africa, with an area of 23,200 square kilometers and a population estimated at about 1,000,000. The country is mainly composed of two ethnic groups, the Somali and the Afar.
Although a largely import dependent country, Djibouti’s strength lies in its strategic location at the southern entrance to the Red Sea, marking a bridge between Africa and the Middle East. Adjacent to some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes (between Asia and Europe), it hosts military bases for France, the United States, Japan, China, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), as well as other countries with forces supporting global anti-piracy efforts. These military bases provide significant revenue to the country in the form of rents earning it about $125 million a year in rents from the US, China, France, Japan and Italy combined.
The first event of the 4-day African Writers Day Conference was a welcome cocktail at the poolside of our new abode, the cozy and homely Acacias hotel.
As I awaited the arrival of more writers to the event, I went on a walking tour of the hotel’s outdoor facilities. Next to the poolside was a well-stocked bar where some guests were busy enjoying their drinks while beautiful music boomed out of a wall-sized screen that displayed the musician and a horde of dancers. In a secluded, dimly lit section of the premises, I chanced upon two hooded figures puffing away at a big cistern of Shisha. From there, a wooden jetty that extended into the sea took me away from the poolside into a starry night with a twilight view of the Red sea and some distant boats and ships.
After savouring the seaside beauty for a while, I turned round to discover another jetty-like promontory where some guests could be seen enjoying candle-lit dinners in private cubicles that had been built into the sea side projection. From the seductive, lacy curtained interiors, beautiful music and the aroma of well-spiced Arabian cuisines wafted into the rarefied night.
In addition to a literary offering of poetry readings and music, the welcome cocktail also offered writers the opportunity to celebrate the cultural and culinary diversities of the African continent. For example, our Somalian colleagues informed us that in Somalia the camel is celebrated in songs and folklore as a symbol of status and prosperity, and exchanged in marriages or to settle feuds. We were also regaled with the culinary beauty of camel meat and milk. As they put it: “For many Somalis, a taste of home means eating camel meat.”
We were equally informed that the camel is considered a gift from the gods because of its economic and nutritional importance for pastoral Somalis who live in a harsh and arid climate. In addition to providing a source of meat and dairy, the animals are employed as vehicles, labourers, and even as a type of currency.
The literary cocktail also revealed that ewedu (jute leaves), a favorite soup among the Yoruba in Nigeria, is actually a common vegetable in parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. While the vegetable is known in Ghana as eyoyo, it is referred to as delele in Zambia, and ‘green soup’ in Egypt. It was equally revealed on that starry evenings in Djibouti, the vegetable which is alleged to have some medicinal properties, could also act as thickeners in soups, stews and sauces.
The main conference later took place at the 300-capacity People’s Palace, a monument which is said to be a symbol of struggle for freedom for the people of Djibouti. According to information, the building which is a national symbol, is made up of representative elements linked to the ideals of Djiboutian liberators and the same symbolism that contains the shield of the nomad. Built in 1984 as a gift from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the building contains the Monument of Martyrs who died for the freedom of Djiboutians from their French colonialists.
The keynote lecture, which dwelt on the theme of the conference ‘African Literature in the New Normal: Technology and Creative Writing,’ paved the way for a robust discussion on the need for African writers to take advantage of the numerous available technological opportunities to propagate African literature without losing their relevance as notable ambassadors of African culture.
Another highlight of the conference was the presentation of the Grand Patron of The Arts award to the Special Guest of Honor to the conference, President of the Republic of Djibouti, H.E. Ismail Omar Guelleh, who was physically present at the event. In his remarks, President Guelleh, who is himself a writer, affirmed the readiness of his government to support PAWA. As he put it, “We will like to encourage you and support you in your commitment to eradicate illiteracy to the promotion of literature in African languages.”
As expected, the African writers took time off their conference to do a sight-seeing of the hitherto unknown country. One of the places visited was Djibouti’s state-of-the-art port complex reputed to be among the most sophisticated in the world. The port serves as a key refueling and transshipment centre, and is the principal maritime outlet for imports to and exports from neighbouring Ethiopia. An estimated 2,500 ships are said to pass through and call through the port every day. It is strategically located at the crossroads of one of the busiest shipping routes in the world, linking Europe, the far East, the Horn of Africa and the Persian Gulf. The economy of Djibouti relies heavily on the strategic location of its port since about a third of all daily shipping in the world passes the north-east edge of Africa.
Also visited was the Djibouti International Free Trade Zone (DIFTZ), which is currently under construction by China. Free trade zones are special economic areas, usually based around major ports, which allow for goods to be landed, stored, handled and manufactured under specific customs regulations and generally without customs duty. Judging from the tele-prompted designs, the writers were impressed by the futuristic nature, which is said to become Africa’s largest free trade zone when completed. The project, which will span 4,800 hectares and offers dedicated logistics, retail, business support and processing, is expected to generate an estimated 350,000 new jobs over the next 10 years.
It will also host the Djibouti Business District, a slick rendering facility that will jut out towards the sea, with cruise ships docked on the waterfront and buildings grouped around a series of concentric tree-lined boulevards. It will be reminiscent of nearby cities of the Arabian peninsula or in the words of Mr. Yemi Edun, a UK-based property expert and guest of honor to the conference, ’the Hong Kong or Singapore of Africa’.
As writers, it was expected that we should also visit the National Library where the Director General of the National Agency for the Promotion of Culture, Dr. Mohamed Houssein Doualeh, was on hand to show us the artefacts, photographs and sculptors in the facility. The affable DG also sought the assistance of PAWA members to relate with the national libraries of their respective countries.
The very important historic tie between the history of Djibouti and France came to light during our visit to the Memorial Barracks of Djibouti. The facility which was commissioned by President Guelleh on June 26, 2022, had many memorabilia of the Djibouti’s uprising of September 14, 1966 against France.
From the Memorial Barracks, we all trooped to the University of Djibouti for an interactive session with some of the 7,000-strong student population university. Even though some of the students could understand English, our literary engagement with the very enthusiastic and excited students was conducted mainly in French.
At the end of the participation, PAWA officials reached an agreement with the University of Djibouti to facilitate the formation of a Writing and Reading Club in the 16-year old institution. Our interaction with the students was followed by a courtesy visit to the University’s President, Djama Mohammed Hassan where we presented some books to the University Library.
Our last official evening engagement was a literary and cultural event tagged ‘African Night’. The rich and well organized event took place at the high brow Sheraton Hotel located on Plateau du Serpent within the Gulf of Tadjourah which was a walking distance from downtown Djibouti. It was indeed an evening to be remembered as different cultural groups treated us to traditional dances and music from several African countries such as Congo, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Senegal, among other countries. To spice up these iconic presentations, writers also gave poetry recitals, and in some cases musical renditions and impromptu dances. The event was concluded with a delicious buffet dinner that celebrated the culinary diversity of the Arab and African worlds.
Another surprising discovery about Djibouti was its enchanting landscape. As our hosts put it, “Djibouti is home to some of Africa’s most incredible and otherworldly landscapes – the original Planet of the Apes was filmed here! The two lakes – Assal and Abbé – are the best of this, with amazing rock structures, limestone chimneys and gas belching from the ground.”
We were also informed that the country is internationally renowned as a geologic treasure trove. Located at a triple juncture of the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and East African Rift (Valley) systems, the country hosts significant seismic and geothermal activity. It is for the above reasons that tourism in Djibouti is one of the growing economic sectors of the country which attracts tourists year round with its convenient beaches and climate. The main tourist activities are scuba diving, boat cruise on the Red Sea, fishing, trekking and hiking, bird watching, sun, sea and sand. Out of these lot, we settled for a boat cruise on the Red Sea courtesy of Mr. Houssein, the owner of our hotel, the Acacias Hotel.
As we disembarked from the vehicle that had brought us to the Marina end of the Red Sea to begin our cruise, some writers, after looking at the frighteningly endless and massive sea, changed their minds about the cruise. The rest of us thereafter filed into Mr. Houssein’s personal boat, and after putting on our life vests, began the approximately two-hour trip on the ancient sea.
The Red Sea is a seawater inlet of the Indian Ocean, lying between Africa and Asia. Its connection to the ocean is in the south, through the Bab el Mandeb strait and the Gulf of Aden. It has a surface area of roughly 438,000 km2 (169,100 mi). It is about 2,250 km (1,398 mi) long, and — at its widest point — 355 km (220.6 mi) wide. It has an average depth of 490 m (1,608 ft). It is the world’s northernmost tropical sea, and has been designated a Global 200 ecoregion.
As we cruised on the large mass of blue water, the boat driver accelerated the speed of the boat, making it to rise and fall with succeeding sea waves in a breath-taking manner much to the delight of the passengers.
As we continued sailing in this exhilarating way, the waves sprayed some of the warm and salty water on our faces to confirm the fact that the Red Sea is one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world. Its saltiness is due to high evaporation and low precipitation since no significant rivers or streams drain into the sea while its southern connection to the Gulf of Aden, an arm of the Indian Ocean, is said to be very narrow.
“Are there sharks in the sea?” I asked Ibrahim, our very affable guide who had been pointing out various landmarks on the sea to us.
Some of the landmarks were some islands as well as some security posts on the waterway.
“Yes, but the sharks are very friendly. They don’t attack tourists,” he said.
We also passed large stationary ships flying the flags of countries such as France, Germany, Italy, among others. Many of the ships were fitted with large guns and sophisticated telecommunication masts. “The ships are carrying security personnel against terrorists and sea pirates,” Ibrahim informed us.
Although blue in colour, it is believed that the name Red Sea may signify the seasonal blooms of the red-coloured Trichodesmium erythraeum near the water’s surface. A theory favoured by some modern scholars is that the name red refers to its direction south, just as the Black Sea’s may refer to its direction north. The basis of this theory is that some Asiatic languages used colour words to refer to the cardinal directions. The Red Sea is one of four seas named in English after common colour terms – the others being the Black Sea, the White Sea and the Yellow Sea.
After four exhilarating days of good food, pleasant sceneries and wonderful people, it was time to go home.
The question now on the lips of many of the writers was no longer, “Where the heck is Djibouti?”, but “Why the heck are we leaving Djibouti?” I assured my colleagues that His Excellency, President Ismail Omar Guelleh, had promised to make our visit an annual event. Next time, we shall have more fun.
Hopefully, camel meat will be on the menu, and we can go scuba-diving to the warm embrace of the friendly sharks!
* Okediran is the General Secretary-General of Pan African Writers Association