Review: A Rainbow in the Night

  This isn’t going to be an elaborate entry but I wanted to mention that I finished Dominique La Pierre’s A Rainbow in the Night: the Tumultuous Birth of South Africa. 

I found the first 150 pages gripping, but as the 20th Century dawned it seemed like a shift happened in La Pierre’s storytelling. I don’t think that is the case, but that is how my brain perceived it.

La Pierre tells his story by choosing significant figures in South African history and using their story to build a national story. The tale seems to build and reflect on apartheid, whereas the title seems broader than the interior content. 

My knowledge is somewhat limited on South Africa and I thought La Pierre’s easy style would give me a quick basic review of key items in South African history, and it did. I guess it brings up the question of how does an author or scholar deal with a topic that is heavily overshadowed by something distasteful or tragic? 

Now I’m on to a book about war in Somalia, the Sudan and Rwanda so I don’t expect anything uplifting soon…

Good surprise, bad surprise


This hardly getting any sleep and doing a lot of walking and traveling takes a toll. I was so exhausted on the RER into Paris.

Luckily M knows we’re not as young as we used to be so he booked us a hotel room at Mercure-Gare de Nord. We always stay in this neighborhood, but usually in little m0m-and-pop establishments deeper in the side streets. This hotel is across the street from Gare de Nord.

That was a great surprise. I flopped onto the bed and took a nap.

But… speaking of small establishments… the coffee shop where M and I have taken coffee for the five years we have been traveling together has changed hands and it’s now a STARBUCKS. Sigh. So sad.

But… more news… We are here during the January sales! France only has sales twice a year. And I managed to show up during the sales. Went shopping already.

And since I am interested in youth disenfranchisement, immigrant politics in France and French rap, I bought Diam’s two books.

Holiday Upheaval

The events of the last few months have rendered my life unrecognizable, even to me.I have a suspicion that 2016 may come together in ways I never imagined or be the year that leaves me bankrupt, homeless and destitute in more ways than one.

So far I’m leaning toward and working for the former, but the worrier in me can’t help but fear the latter.

Between my broken ankle and the medical bills I incurred (who knew physical therapy was THAT expensive?) and the fact that I paid for graduate school, car repairs and a euphonium on my American Express, I was forced to ponder refinancing the house. The appraiser comes Sunday, but, again, I’m nervous because the appraisers are never generous in my experience. Last time I did this, they wanted to loan me exactly what I need now. So we’ll see. This new mortgage would shorten the length of our current loan, pay off the car and the American Express AND not add to the cost of our monthly payments.

With this and winter and travel looming, I have decided to defer enrollment at West Chester until next semester. I won’t have to commute in the snow. I can get my finances in order and proceed responsibly and not worry about classes interfering with my travel schedule.

Speaking of travel: January 7 I leave for France; I believe it’s January 8 I leave for Djibouti and January 12 I arrive in Mogadishu. Plus a trip to Lebanon may be in the works for spring.

I’m also working on some book reviews in some World War II era memoirs for Hippocampus.

Now the good news…

My poem “This Paris” has been accepted by StepAway magazine. I don’t consider myself a poet, so it’s a tad funny that I’ve placed a poem.

I believe I got an A in my grad school history class and my professor would like to see me continue some of my work, specifically on the Horn of Africa. That’s the topic, not that she wants me to go far, far away.

Publication and acceptance

I got an email earlier this week that I was accepted into West Chester’s MA program in history.

Today I received an email with information on how to get temporary access to the article on poverty inDjibouti I co-authored with Annette Varcoe for the Sage Encyclopedia on World Poverty, volume 2.

And my husband and I are finally going to see the new James Bond movie Monday.

This post is short, but full of fun news.

Oops! I think I start grad school next week

As a former journalist, I have a passion for research, current events and packaging information. 

When I earned my second bachelors degree, I did it to show my daughter the value of education. I wanted to start grad school, but I didn’t know how feasible that would be with a job, a child, a household and several volunteer commitments. So I committed to a new undergraduate career instead. Cheaper & faster than grad school. A way to test the water. A way to increase my academic credentials to better match my professional experience.

But I do really want my Ph.D. I applied to a prestigious program last year and did not get in. The whole process taught me a lot and when I reviewed it this winter I talked more in depth with my former advisers.

Here’s the thing about advisers: you have to consider their advice within a framework of who they think you will be. I’ve discovered that my former professors have visions for me that don’t necessarily match my goals. Frankly, some of their plans are quite flattering and sometimes overwhelming.

One adviser had suggested the MA program in history at West Chester University. At first I didn’t take him seriously because they don’t have a Ph.D. program.

They sent me an email, coincidentally, advertising a grad school open house. Here’s the kicker… If you attended, they waived your application fee. 

 And then I reviewed their faculty. I noted at least five professors whose interests intersect with mine. The program was flexible, part-time or full-time, affordable and has some scholarship/graduate assistantship available.

At the same time, I was trying to contact another prestigious school about taking a class in their African studies department this fall. They had a professor who might have an interest in East Africa that might suit me.

It took two weeks to get an email that told me to call them or come to one of their “walk-in” events. The email merely asked if the class I wanted to take could be enrolled in as a non-matriculated student. 

Frustrated by the prestigious school, I emailed West Chester. I received a delightful response the next day that encouraged me to contact anyone in the department. I also got an email from the person who would be hosting for the history department at the open house.

And then the open house happened. Wednesday August 12. The graduate coordinator was enthusiastic and portrayed the strengths and weaknesses of her department. She thought I might like a class they were offering this fall, suggesting the professor would be a good fit, and indeed it was one of the people who intrigued me originally.

I came home. Thought. Chatted with friends. Worked. On Monday I entered my name into the system as a potential non-degree student in the history graduate department.

Monday night I received a student number. I also received an invitation to the history meet-and-greet today. I declined. It’s a 90-minute drive one way.

Tuesday morning I initiated my account and went into the registration system to see what I needed to do to gain approval for the class.

Nothing. Just click. So I did.

Turns out classes start next week.

I have gone from floundering to enrolled in a graduate level class in less than a week. Provided this works out, and I suppose paying tuition is the main next step, I will go from undecided about my next step to sitting in class in less than two weeks.

What have I done? Grad school sneaked up and bit me! Gulp.

To Siberia for Pizza

My traveling companion and I started planning our next adventure. Mauritania was on the table, as was a brief discussion of Egypt. We wanted to combine where ever we went with a unorthodox trip to France. (This was before the Charlie Hebdo debacle, not that terrorism influences our decisions.)

Our version of France would include a bad suburb and potentially some immigrant heavy areas… And the military medicine museum at Val-de-Grâce. And the sewers.

My friend prefers to use Moscow as his transport hub. Long story. Involves displeasure with Air France. So I went to his apartment in D.C. to fill out a Russian multi entry visa application. A year or so ago, I discovered a pizza place in Russia that has the most amazing looking pizza, PizzasInIzza. I asked if we could visit it. Turns out it’s in Siberia. That doesn’t deter my friend. When my application was accepted my the Russian embassy, we started serious planning.

Paris for two days. Then Moscow. But we’d land in Moscow on May 1. So we’d have to stay in Russia if it was May Day. History of communism and all that. We opted to stay in Russia instead of heading to Africa. The visa came in, and my traveling companion booked plane tickets. He included an evening in Siberia so I can get my pizza.

He had his doubts. I have an outstanding application for a Ph.D. program in history and he wondered if we should head to Africa in case we couldn’t go in the future because of my schooling. I reminded him that my interest lies in 20th Century French history, African colonialism, and Muslim Africa. In all likelihood, I wouldn’t have another opportunity to visit Russia any time soon.

Of course, neither of use speak Russian. I’m trying to teach myself basic Russian in four months.

Should I not be accepted into my first choice Ph.D. program, this trip could help demonstrate my breadth as a future European history. Let’s face it, the history of Communism and the Russian influence made not only modern Europe but the United States as well.

The Russians are letting me in!

The Russians are letting me in!

Reviving an old abstract…

I noticed that the link to my abstract on the NCUR 2013 web site no longer worked so I went on a search…

I found the abstract on the NCUR web site and opted to copy it so it survives.

I presented at NCUR my final year at Lafayette. The introduction to my thesis is listed under academic writing on this site.

The Abstract:

Angel Ackerman, (Angelika von Wahl) International Affairs, Lafayette College, Easton, PA

France today struggles with the presence of a highly visible and growing Muslim population in a society that considers public secularism a founding institution. Many Muslims in France today have roots in colonial Algeria. Without the rise of Algerian nationalism and the subsequent war that led to Algerian decolonization in 1962, the Fifth Republic would not exist as it does today.

Many scholars have criticized and studied whether or not France should integrate Islam into its society better, but fewer people have studied how French colonial-based stereotypes proclaiming the inferiority of Muslim Arabs linger in the treatment of Muslims in France today. The treatment of colonial Algerians, particularly the denial of equal citizenship because of their religion, provides an interesting case study that can be compared to a contemporary case, the attempt to strip Muslim women of their right to wear the veil.

French efforts to legislate whether or not women can wear traditional Muslim veils serve as a continuation of the “civilizing mission” undertaken in the Algerian colony. Using a variety of French language and English language primary and secondary sources, this project looks at the intersection of citizenship and religion from the 18th through 21st centuries.

Chapter One establishes the roots of laicite and the persecution of the Catholic Church after the 1789 revolution. Chapter two explores the role of religion in the colonization of Algeria, the creation of stereotypes of the inferior Arab, and how religion led to the denial of citizenship to the indigenous Muslims. Chapter three chronicles the rise of Algerian nationalism, the war of “liberation” and how the various French populations interacted with the Algerians. The fourth chapter takes the stereotypes of the colonial era and shows how Fifth Republic France has perpetuated these ideas of the Arab Muslim as an inferior that still needs to be civilized. The final chapter offers political theory covers what it means to wear the veil in France.

Nerd news: Poverty in Djibouti/France vs. Islam

July has brought much excitement into my nerd camp. It started with a call for proposals on H-net Africa for the second edition of Sage Publications’ Encyclopedia of World Poverty. They needed someone to write an updated entry on the Republic of Djibouti, only 900-1000 words so I thought I’d take a go. I emailed the editor. It bounced. Twice.

I quickly went into journalism stalker mode and found another email address. I apologized for not using the listed email, but she didn’t mind and thanked me for my persistence. The Djibouti entry was indeed available, but as I have no Ph.D. I could not write the article without a friend, with the appropriate academic credentials to co-author.

I reached out to my beloved friend, former college peer and in some ways my role model, Annette Varcoe. She’s interested in 19th century American history, I believe areas like temperance, suffrage, and other stuff I can’t even remember. She has no interest in Africa, or the postcolonial age, or the colonial influence of France on exotic locales. Yet, she speaks some French, has an interest in women’s/gender issues and shares my type of nerdiness. Poverty, and perhaps even more so in the developing world, has a great impact on women so there we found our overlap.

The beauty of this proposed project rested in the fact that I had researched the basic statistics on poverty in Djibouti during my capstone project for my international affairs seminar at Lafayette College. I merely needed to update the facts, condense relevant info into the required format, send it to Annette, accept her feedback, and add her name.

We had three weeks to submit. I think we polished seven drafts in five days. We haven’t heard from the copy editors yet, but it was a great collaboration and we worked well together. We also pulled ridiculous amounts of scholarly info on Djibouti not quite connected to our project but stuff that crossed our mutual interests. You know a friend is special when you’re emailing PDFs on female circumcision to each other…

From that experience, I reflected on my need for my own Ph.D. It’s on my list of things to do, but hey, so is “de-clutter the house.” I think the Ph.D. is more likely to happen. I figured I’d bold send an email to _the one person I would most like to study under_ because really, what did I have to lose? I will refrain from naming the person or the school, both are amazing, because I don’t want to find myself embarrassed if when he meets me and thinks I’m an idiot.

Yes, I said “when he meets me.” He not only responded to my email but said to contact him again in September so we could arrange for a visit to campus. At that point, we could discuss my previous work and my future plans.

Finally, today, after taking a week to focus on my health (short version: gained weight and lost some physical strength/balance after breaking my dominant hand this winter) and with that on the right path (talked to my doctor! lost five pounds! feel less achy and clumsy!), I received even more “Good News for Nerds.”

The apparently unstoppable Ally Bishop asked me to drop by her class “Topics in Multiculturalism” to present France as a case study in “Multiculturalism and Religion.” I will be talking about “French vs. Islam” as an avoidance of multiculturalism in favor of unyielding universalism and the roots of the what I would term Muslim discomfort in the colonial empire. This is the backdrop for the laws of 2004 and 2010 which outlaw, respectively, headscarves in schools and face coverings in public.

Exciting stuff for a nerd, right?

Excerpt: Orphans and French Masculinity in the Interwar Era

This is an excerpt/introduction from a paper written for a seminar at Lafayette College, taught by Joshua Sanborn, inspired by a class taken at Moravian College, taught by Jean-Pierre Lalande.


Angel Ackerman
History 353 Gender and Sexuality in Modern Europe
May 12, 2009

When researching French masculinity, it quickly becomes apparent that on some level every stereotype—the seducer, the adulterer, the drinker, the connoisseur, the philosopher, the artist, the swordsman, the braggart—bears truth.  (1) In fact, various scholars have agreed that Cyrano de Bergerac, “…swashbuckler, poet, unsophisticated lover and universal character; the most accomplished expression of gallantry for Frenchwomen,” serves as an icon of nineteenth century
French maleness on the cusp of modern martial masculinity. (2)

But manhood, and many social institutions, would undergo great change throughout Europe as science—beacon of hope at the end of the 1800s, a great force to improve the quality of life— created weapons that would decimate many parts of France and inflict upon all European nations a brutal loss of life previously unimaginable.  The devastation permanently altered the social, political and economic landscape in Europe.  The battles of World War I slaughtered nine million
men, with one-third of them leaving a widow and average of two children.  In France, the Great War robbed 700,000 children of their fathers and more than a million “wards of the state,” a term that could mean either orphan, child without father or child of a permanently disabled man.  With about 1.5 million men dead, an entire generation in France grew up without a father (3)(which would make them orphans as the French orphelin means simply “child without father” unlike its
English equivalent).

In the midst of this fatherless phenomenon, French masculinity shifted shying farther from traditional martial masculinity even as the country sought to restore its former paternalistic glory. Literary themes of the early twentieth century and interwar era discuss the societal struggles caused by absent father figures, floundering government and the threat posed by neighboring Germany, but how does the generation of fatherless boys contribute to France’s changing expectations for men?  Did French war orphans fit the traditional male gender roles or did they become “a pampered bunch of wimps” from single-parent households led by women? (4)

With this in mind, one potential answer to whether or not single mothers reared a generation of wimps is this:  It was neither the absence of paternal role models nor the actions of French mothers that created a generation of men who would not subscribe to martial masculinity of the previous age.  A societal backlash against the sufferings of the Great War caused this shift, potentially exaggerated in war orphans because of their familial loss.  The orphan’s experience
served as an allegory for France as a whole as it dealt with altered masculine roles; fatherless orphans did not cause the change.

To examine this idea, one must establish a selection of men who lost their fathers in World War I.  This seems simple enough.  Search some prominent historical figures and politicians, seeking those born between 1905 to 1910.  I skimmed hundreds of biographies in encyclopedias, academic databases and even, in quasi-desperation, Wikipédia (French Wikipedia).  Articles in French yielded the best results, as could be expected, especially when searching terms like
“pupilles de la nation” (wards of the state) and “mères de deuil” (mothers in mourning).  But, with a limited time frame for this particular project, I could only locate two orphans to use as my case studies:  author Albert Camus and playwright/ actor Jean-Louis Barrault.

For Camus and Barrault, their status as orphans altered their interior attitudes regarding masculinity, not the behaviors that would define them.  War orphans cannot be blamed for the wimpish state of French manhood after the Great War, because the war had changed French maleness for the entire nation.  War orphans were one voice among many reacting to the loss of traditional masculine honor codes.  Barrault and Camus, like their artistic peers, lamented this
lack of masculine definition.

Of course, the experiences of two men do not lead to firm conclusions.  But these two men, thanks to their creative sensibilities, have contemplated these questions of what it means to have a father and what makes someone a man.  Raised in different family environments on different continents, these two men came to many of the same conclusions.  If coupled with the observations of significant playwrights of the Interwar era, the experiences of Camus and Barrault verify the cultural context of the 1920s and 1930s.  Orphans articulated the dilemma of shifting masculinity which continued into World War II with the French surrender.

(1) My title plays tribute to one of the World War I postcards featured in Marie-Monique Huss’ book, Histoires de Famille 1914-1918. (Paris: Noesis, 2000) Le petit poussin is the little chick on one postcard expressing his hope that he will one day become a great rooster of Gaul. (213)  Why the rooster?  According to the French president’s official web site ( The rooster is one of the symbols of the French republic because of its appearance on the coins of the Gauls. It is often used by foreigners today to represent the French in sporting events.  “Le coq apparaît dès l’Antiquité sur des monnaies gauloises…Il est surtout utilisé à l’étranger pour évoquer la France, notamment comme emblème sportif.”

(2) The quotes comes from Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac (Paris: Bookking International, 1993). This quote comes from the back cover of an edition purchased in Paris in 1995: “Cyrano de Bergerac, héros au grand nez et coeur d’enfant, bretteur et poète, amoureux ingénu, est un personnage universel; c’est l’expression la plus accomplie du panache à la française.” Scholars who have cited him include Robert A. Nye, Masculinity and Male Codes of Honor in Modern France (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) labeling Cyrano de Bergerac as an example of French panache, modesty, and swordsmanship (226) and Huss in Histoires de Famille calls him moral, elegant and displaying the appropriate war scars to be a proper French male (117).

(3) Olivier Faron, Les enfants du deuil: orphelins et pupilles de la nation de la Première Guerre mondiale, 1914-1941 (Paris: Éditions la Découverte, 2001), 13.

(4) The idea for this paper came from Jean-Pierre Lalande’s Twentieth Century French Theatre class at Moravian College in fall 2008. From my notes on Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, 22 October 2008: “Hémon- represente les hommes pragmatiques… ‘je ne vive pas sans elle [sic]’ ‘that’s totally stupid.’ stereotype of a spoiled young man. a né [sic] après la première guerre. 1920- pampered bunch of wimps- Hémon. No 45-year-olds in 1942. lost generation, les jeunes ne sont pas capable.”

Academic: Djibouti, still a ‘colony’? (2012)

The Republic of Djibouti: 35 Years of Nation-Building Yields International Pseudo-Colony

A nation the physical size of Massachusetts on the horn of East Africa, the Republic of Djibouti gained its independence from France on June 27, 1977. Its history and ethnic roots suggest that without European colonial conquest, Djibouti might be a part of Somalia or Ethiopia. In the thirty-five years since independence, Djibouti has struggled with political hegemony, civil war and lack of basic infrastructure or civic institutions— a poor educational system, little agriculture or readily available water, practically nonexistent healthcare and no sustainable economy.
Yet the Republic of Djibouti has one significant advantage, its geography. Although it’s barely visible on a world map, the country rests along the Bab el Mandeb, which translates from the Arabic as “the Gate of Grief,” between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. Its only other potential resource is salt, primarily from Lake Assal, but salt exports are limited because of low iodine content. (1) The barren land is a brutal desert, often referred to as Hell on Earth (2), with average temperatures between 85 and 107 degrees Fahrenheit. In the Hanle plain, temperatures exceed 130 degrees, making it one of the of the hottest inhabited areas of the planet. (3)
Under French colonial control in the late 1800s, what is now the Republic of Djibouti became “French Somaliland” and offered a place to restock provisions for ships headed to far off locales like Réunion, New Caledonia or Polynesia. This is also the time of the Industrial Revolution, creating a need for Middle Eastern oil which drove the French to guard these pivotal waterways. By the dawn of the millennium, Djibouti’s location would attract not only the French, but also Americans, Germans, Japanese and European Union. Counterterrorism operations monitor the entire region from this spot—Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somaliland, Somali, and Kenya.
This is possible in part because the Republic of Djibouti has displayed much political stability since its independence. Despite this, the protests that affected Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria also hit the Republic of Djibouti where citizens called their government a puppet regime of the French and Americans. The government quickly broke up the movement and arrested opposition leaders and not much reached the American or European media. I stumbled upon short news articles about these protests and it made me question: how has the presence of American and French military forces influenced nation-building in Djibouti? In reading about people who have traveled there, studying the infrastructure and institutions, and following the political situation via the media, election results and foreign policy from the French and Americans, I conclude that this developing nation-state has not changed since 1977.
At the time of Independence, citizens of Djibouti recognized potential in their nation, expressed by Djiboutian treasury functionnaire Luc Aden:
“Think of our country as a baby born with a big head– the city of Djibouti–on a frail body…we must cure this. Then the baby takes its first steps, sometimes grabbing a hand to hold. But the child will walk on its own one day.” (4)

So far, those hopes have not materialized. Despite some of the highest foreign aid figures in Africa, the existence of basic infrastructure built by the French, a thriving port and trade hub, and the presence of a multitude of international entities, whether military or political, the Republic of Djibouti has made no real strides in nation-building and exists as a neglected pseudo-colony.
To explore this idea, I will provide a brief summary of the composition of the Republic of Djibouti’s population. I will then discuss the French historical and current interests in Djibouti, and then look at the American presence in the former colony. Both nations give tremendous amounts of aid, and my final section of this paper will show how despite Western financial support providing 12 percent of the government budget (5), nothing has improved for the bulk of the population. Between France, the United States and Saudi Arabia, Djibouti receives between $100 and $300 million in aid each year, which amounts to between $130 and $700 per person. (6)

Before French colonialism, two main tribes lived in the region that is present-day Republic of Djibouti. In the north, the Afar followed their herds into parts of what is now Ethiopia and Eritrea. To the south, the Issa grazed into Somalia. The lack of water and arable land drove both tribes to nomadic existences, following their herds of primarily goats and a few donkey and camels. Their proximately to the Middle East led to trading in the area of what is now Djibouti City, where Arabs, for centuries, had been peddling wares and spreading Islam. The indigenous population is predominately Sunni Muslim.

By 1967, 10,255 Europeans lived in Djibouti. Of those, 7,655 were French. Of the French, less than 1,000 had lived in the colony for more than three years. The French population has always been highly dependent on the amount of soldiers stationed there, which at its height, was 10,000 men. (7)  In 1978, one year after independence, 250,000 people lived in the Republic of Djibouti, 49 percent of them Issa and other Somali, 39 percent Afar, six percent Arab and four percent European. (8) Today, of the 818,000 residents in the country, 60 percent of the population is Issa or other Somali and 35 percent are Afar. (9) Djibouti’s urban population has always included a myriad of citizens: French, Arab, Ethiopian, Greeks, Indians, Armenians, and Yemeni. (10) Understanding this population base helps explain the dominance of the Issas. In 35 years, Djibouti has only seen two presidents from the same political party, both Issa. This has plunged the country into civil war. Fighting escalated in the early 1990s, but the conflicts have never been resolved. In this environment, foreign actors build their bases and send aid.

For France, the dollar tally came to approximately 60 million dollars a year on Djibouti during its tenure as a colony, developing infrastructure like the train that transports most of land-locked Ethiopia’s goods and a water system that tripled the available water supply. Today France spends about $160 million, between foreign aid money, military aid and rent on its military presence, base hosting fees alone costing at least 30 million Euros per year. The presence of the Americans has forced France to increase payments by one-third. (11) France trains Djiboutian military officers and more or less founded Djibouti’s small military. The navy traces its origins to a cast-off French patrol boat and the Air Force began with an old French troop transport. (12) As for actual French soldiers on the ground today, in April 2011, the French had about 3,000 troops, the FFDj (Forces françaises Djibouti).

French objectives have not changed much in the last 125-plus years. The French have five main strategic interests in Djibouti: to protect oil tankers and navy ships entering the Red Sea, as a staging post between France and its Indian Ocean territories, intelligence gathering, as a forward base for multilateral military operations in the region, and a low-cost venue for desert warfare training.(13) Before the arrival of large scale American operations in 2003, Djibouti maintained its dependence on the French, “the country is propped up by French money, French soldiers and French cuisine” with 10,000 French citizens advising the government and influencing what the locals call “the fictional economy.”(14) The French never truly left:

“In Djibouti, one sees the last decaying remnants of the French in East Africa — the crumbling colonnades, the pitted grey walls, the street-signs in that peculiarly French shade of blue — and one hears it too, in that lovely flattened out African French.” (15)

The French may no longer be colonial masters, but their imperialistic influence and their presence still stands, and now it faces competition from the Americans.

The United States rents the former French Foreign Legion base Camp Lemonnier for at least $30 million a year. The rent has grown as the United States has expanded the facility. As the only official American military base in Africa, Djibouti hosts a variety of American entities: army, air force, navy, marines, Central Command’s Joint Task Force Horn of Africa, Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation among them, plus a rotating American force of about 2,000 people with additional intelligence officers from foreign countries helping in counter-terrorism. (16) Other nations also have a military presence. American, French, African and cooperative non-military entities are based in Djibouti. (17)
The elevated population of foreigners make Djibouti a garrison town with a dual economy. Prices for goods and housing in the urban setting rival what one would expect from modern cities, yet the average Djiboutian cannot afford these things.

The statistics on the Republic of Djibouti summarize the economy nicely. Inflation rises between 3.8% and 7% per year. (18) Government expenditure accounts for almost 37 percent of the Djiboutian GDP. (19)”Spartan apartments” in Djibouti City average $1,000 a month, when the average annual income for a Djiboutian is $890 and real GDP per capita is $450. (20)
Opportunities for employment in Djibouti are few. Port traffic, especially for Ethiopian trade, feeds a large segment of the economy. Eighty-three percent of the shipments received in Djibouti City’s port heads to Ethiopia (21) which yields about $150 million in port fees each year. Going back to 1978, one year after the French ended colonial rule, trade with Ethiopia made $500,000 a month for Djiboutian customs, and that merely covered the goods carried by train (60 percent of Ethiopian foreign trade). (22)

In 1978, unemployment in the capital was 85 percent.(23) In 2007, that figure was 59 percent overall and 83 percent in rural areas. (24) In 1978, one main employer was Coca Cola, who still maintains a bottling facility in Djibouti today. The main economic activities post-independence stemmed from (in the order of importance) the port, the railroad, camels, cattle, goats and sheep. Current industry, other than Coca Cola, includes three other factories in Djibouti City, one for desalinating, one for ice making, and a plant that manufactures Popsicles and flavored drinks. The government is the primary employer, with the United States’ government as the second largest employer.

Black market activities have historically included the trafficking of obsolete European arms, drugs, slaves, and prostitutes. In 1997, an estimated 20,000 young Ethiopian prostitutes worked in the bars of Djibouti City alone. (25) For young men, piracy is a key activity.

The economic base cannot improve without changes in infrastructure, to increase water supply and the reliability of electricity. Much of the water system and the transportation system has not been maintained or improved since the French originally built it. The government owns and controls the only Internet service provider, phone company and cell phone provider. Electricity is unreliable and business owners who cater to foreigners usually have back-up generators if only to maintain their air conditioners for the comfort of their clients. Most of the indigenous population do not have or cannot afford electricity, while foreigners and elites spend an average of $500-$1,000 per month to cool their homes against the torrid climate. (26)

Even with improvements to these systems, Djibouti lacks a basic investment in its people. Medical care is practically non-existent, for people and for the animals that many Djiboutians rely on for their livelihood. The life expectancy for its residents is about forty-five. (27) Nearly three percent of the population has HIV/AIDS, though it could be higher because of the road between Addis Ababa and Djibouti, a major route for HIV/AIDS, drugs, currency and illegal aliens.(28)
In 1978, 90 percent of the population was illiterate (29) which is a statistic frighteningly akin to the percentage of the population that was African, versus Arab or European. It is important to remember that the traditional languages of the nomadic Afar and Issa do not have written versions. The cultural idea of a written language was imported by the French.

Today about 73 percent of the adult population is illiterate, with not much hope of improving since only 43 percent of primary school aged children are enrolled and attending school. (30) Even for children in school, some have lost teachers because of problems with the delivery of salary. Until very recently, Djibouti had no universities. One recently opened. The skill level among Djiboutians is so low that even manual laborers must be imported. (31)

Lack of employment opportunities coupled with lack of education will make it impossible for Djibouti to end poverty under the current system. Abdourahmane Boreh, an opposition politician who used to work for Guelleh as head of the Djiboutian ports declares that it is time for a new political system in Djibouti, that the poor don’t have to get poorer, everyone can have water and electricity and that the economy can grow. (32) Guelleh has publicly renounced Boreh. (33) Yet, looking at the statistics, it’s hard to deny the merit of Boreh’s claims.

As of 2008, 75 percent of Djiboutians lived in poverty, 42 percent didn’t have enough food. (34 )There is another reason for elevated living costs, an artificially high Djiboutian Franc that has been pegged to the United States’ dollar since independence. (35) President Guelleh and his predecessor have invested in sectors that will return revenue to the state instead of devoting resources to education or economic diversification. (36)

Not much has changed for the population of Djibouti. Is this a case where colonialism could be seen as “good”? Or is it colonialism that stymied the growth of this land? Without colonialism, Djibouti probably would have been part of Ethiopia, since Ethiopia has the most power in the region, and surrounds most of the Djiboutian borders. They already have a reason to want Djibouti, and that’s the port. Life as an independent state has provided no improvements in access to water, electricity or education. It has allowed one ethnic group, the Issas, to dominate the other and to manipulate the political structure into a pseudo-republic. The so-called Republic of Djibouti has failed to develop even the most basic institutions of a nation. In the contemporary era, it has traded its French colonial masters to pit the French and the Americans against each other for financial gain. The ruling elite ignore the poverty and starvation among the masses.

Nation-building takes time, and building democracy presents even more challenges. The Republic of Djibouti modeled their political system after that of the French, but the Djiboutian system chose a first-past-the-post system that ended up reinforcing the hegemony of the ethnic majority. Clauses in the constitution had been designed to prevent this, asking the president to appoint a prime minister of the opposite ethnic group, but that never happened. The legislature does not have the power to oppose the president if they should suddenly disagree with his policies. In Djibouti, an attempt at opposition may never happen because:

The RPP [the president’s political party]… and its allies have been in control of the government since independence, winning not only every presidential election but also every seat in the 65-member National Assembly in every legislative election to date.  (37)

With one single political party representing one ethnic group controlling the government, Djibouti must focus on building a real democracy and not merely strengthening its elite. Sadly, the presence of the French and the Americans have provided funding and political legitimacy for a regime that may never push Djibouti far enough forward to build a sustainable economy and better quality of life for its citizens, but considering its harsh climate and low population, Djibouti’s borders appear an artificial construct and a remnant of the division of Africa by Europeans and not a naturally occurring community.

1 Enhanced Integrated Framework, United Nations Development Programme et al., in Djibouti: Integrated Framework Diagnostic Study of Integration Through Trade, p. ix

2 Virginia Thompson and Richard Adloff in Djibouti and the Horn of Africa, page 3, and Charles Nicholl in Somebody Else: Arthur Rimbaud in Africa 1880-91, chapter 18. Although Nicholl’s book focuses on recreating the travels of 19th Century French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s in Africa, Nicholls visited Djibouti in the mid-1990s. He captures late 20th Century Djibouti through the lens of 19th Century colonialism and Rimbaud’s letters.

3 Jennifer N. Brass in “Djibouti’s Unusual Resouce Curse,” p. 525.

4 Marion Kaplan in “Djibouti, Tiny New Nation on Africa’s Horn,” p 533.

5 Interview of President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh by journalist François Soudan, “Ismaïl Omar Guelleh : “En 2016, je m’en irai. Cette fois, je peux vous le jurer”

6 Brass 525

7 Thompson 35

8 Kaplan 520.

9 Berouk Mesfin, in “Elections, politics and external involvement for Djibouti,” p. 10 and Lange Schermerhorn in
“Djibouti: A Special Role in the War on Terrorism” p 50.

10 Thompson 34 and Nicholl 192

11 Brass 526

12 Kaplan 523

13 Mesfin 15

14 Nicholl 191

15 ibid 189

16 Mesfin 8 and Robert I. Rotberg in “The Horn of Africa and Yemen: Diminishing the Threat of Terrorism” p. 2

17  These include the American and French funded de-mining training center, the East Africa Counterterrorism Initiative (Rotberg 12) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a seven member regional organization composed of Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, and Uganda. (Rotberg 11, 49) The Japanese, Germans, and European Union have military presence in the country, according to opposition politicians ( USAID closed its mission in Djibouti in 1994, but reopened an office there in 2003 to administer specific projects (Schermerhorn 63). Voice of America has an Arabic-language radio station based in Djibouti (Schermerhorn 54). The United States reestablished an embassy in Djibouti in 2011 (

18 Mesfin 10, also Central Intelligence Agency. http://www.ciagov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/dj.html

19  Brass 535

20 ibid 535-536

21 Mesfin 13

22 Kaplan 525

23  ibid

24 Central Intelligence Agency.

25 As a transportation hub, Djibouti City attracts young people from Ethiopia hoping to escape poverty. For many young girls, prostitution becomes their livelihood. (Nicholl 177).

26 Brass 537

27 The most recent figure I found regarding life expectancy was 43  (Schermerhorn 51), though Brass cited 46 (p. 525) compared to the low (42) and high (51) of the Horn region (Rotberg 6)

28  Schermerhorn 51

29 Kaplan 519

30 Brass 538

31 ibid

32 Abdourahmane Boreh in “A letter from Abdourahmane Boreh,” This web site of RPP opposition politicians is available in English and French. English is not an official language of Djibouti. Those are Somali, Afar, French and Arabic. Use of English, in my opinion, is directed at the international community and not the indigenous population. Use of the web as a political tool could also be seen as directed at outsiders with Djibouti’s low literacy rates and the sporadic availability of electricity.

33 Guelleh said he’s sorry he ever made that appointment: “Et je Le regrette ! Son problème, c’est le business.” (Soudan)

34 Brass 525

35 ibid 535

36 ibid 528

37 ibid 531


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