Warning: I wrote this years ago and it has been just sitting in a draft folder. Decided to hit ‘publish’ just for fun though the information is old, the story kind of irrelevant now days. Here’s a view into daily life which could provide insight into the photo below. This is a picture of my street during school pick-up. It is a 2-lane road. Many of these cars, including the ones right in the middle going both directions, have no drivers inside them.)
In 2010 Djibouti built cement bus stops, evenly spaced, along the most popular bus routes. Within a month passengers refused to sit on the benches or in the shade the stops provided. They ran too high a risk of being hit by a bus and preferred to stand on the side of the road where they had the space to jump out of the way. Plus, Djiboutians don’t get on or off buses at designated bus stops. They get on and off when they want. One person will get off, the bus will drive ten feet, another will get off, the bus will drive ten feet and another gets off.
Driving laws are a bit confusing. One American expatriate had been ticketed for not stopping at the hole in the ground where a stop sign used to be. Once my husband was pulled over because the policeman wanted to ask him an English grammar question – he was a former student. Some roundabouts give the right-of-way to cars in the roundabout, others give the right-of-way to cars entering the roundabout. Signs do not designate this, drivers are supposed to find the rules and memorize them. No one I asked knew how to find the rules.
We needed Djiboutian drivers licenses and began the indefinitely long process of gathering information and papers with a visit to an obscure government office where my husband and I were told what was required.
We needed to obtain six pieces of paper from six different offices, an eye exam, and then had to bring the papers and eye exam results back to the government licensing office. Each paper cost between 500-900 Djibouti franc and had to be acquired in the proper order. The secretary didn’t have a list of the order, we would have to guess. Depending on how long it took at each office, whether or not the person we needed to see was in that day, and our accuracy in guessing the order, the prospect of having a license any time soon looked grim.
Paper number two was the report of the eye exam. Our American licenses gave evidence of our ability to see, as did our current eye prescriptions from the United States, but we needed to be examined by a Djiboutian doctor at the government hospital, Peltier.
We parked in the dirt spaces in front of the whitewashed building, between women who sold hard-boiled eggs, candy, and samosas from metal trays, shaah vendors, and people in wheelchairs. There were no signs to direct our way so we approached the first window. The glass didn’t have a hole for talking through. We couldn’t hear the man and he couldn’t hear us so we tried to read lips. In three different languages; French, Somali, and English. Eventually we discerned that we were in the wrong line. We turned to go but he knocked on the glass and mouthed that he would help us anyway.
We gave our names, ages, and mother’s names, shouting to be heard through the thick pane of glass and over the din of the other five people shouting through other thick panes of glass. He printed off papers, stamped our order for the eye exam, and ordered us to the next line to pay.
Joining the line involved elbowing, insulting, stepping on feet, and thrusting one’s paper ahead of the others from over shoulders or under armpits. We’ve acclimated and elbowed, shoved, and bumped our way to the front to pay the equivalent of sixty dollars for the eye exam.
In the second waiting room, we handed the secretary a paper which said we had paid. She directed us to a third waiting room. Cement benches had been built into the walls and were lined with blind patients, patients with bandages on their eyes, and relatives.
A doctor, speaking broken English, broken French, and perfect Somali saw us and shouted, “Driver’s license?”
“Yes!” we shouted back and followed him.
The doctor directed me to sit on a tippy stool and look at the wall. A crooked line of four numbers, ten inches tall appeared.
“Four, six, eight, one.”
“Good,” he said.
A second line appeared, these numbers even larger than the first ones. I read them off first in French, then Somali, then English and that was the end of my eye exam.
Tom went next. We passed.
The doctor gave us the passing slip. The secretary signed it, we went back to the payment office for further papers stating that we had paid and passed, and were free to go.
The third paper was slightly easier to obtain. We spoke to the secretary who was so thrilled with our Somali that she gave us the paper without accepting payment.
The office for paper number four was closed, but the employee agreed to talk with us.
“You have to create this document yourself,” he said. “Describe what you want and why you want it. In French. You turn in your American license and I’ll give you the paper (number five) that says you handed them in.”
Tom pulled our expired licenses from his pocket.
“Not today, we’re closed.”
It was ten o’clock in the morning in the middle of the week.
“When are you open?”
“Ten o’clock every day, but not today. Would you like some tea?”
The quest continued.
**Eventually we obtained our Djiboutian licenses and are driving legally. Anyone trying to get one now should totally disregard this blog post, I wrote it in 2010 and the information is most likely irrelevant.