A Djiboutian Restaurant

Quick link: All Beans, No Tomatoes: a week in the life of a food vendor in Djibouti

Today I am excited to share an article published by The Smart Set. I have spent a long time on this particular piece and am happy to see it published. Its my first attempt at longform journalism.



All the years we’ve lived here I see women working tea stalls and restaurants on the side of the road and near construction sites. I’ve always wondered what their lives were like. Did they earn much money? How did they decide where to set up? How did people choose which stall to frequent? The women worked hard, desperately hard, but didn’t seem to make much progress in upward mobility.

I decided to find a restaurant that might welcome me for a while and be willing to let me write about them. I drove to the most upperclass neighborhood of the city and pulled up beside a stall, chosen at random. I climbed out of the car and approached the woman who had already clearly been working for hours and it was still early morning.

I told her my intentions and who I was. She said, “Sit. Take out your pencil and notebook.”

So I did. Every day for a week, starting at dawn. I watched and listened and asked questions and learned. I loved it. I highly respect these women and am thankful for how they opened their work and lives to me.

An excerpt:

Amina sits idle in the shade of her makeshift restaurant. A pot of boiling kidney beans near her toes and a cardboard case of fifteen brown eggs remind her of the work to be done, the work she can’t do yet. She counts the eggs again, tapping her henna-orange fingernail on the shit-and-feather encrusted shells, one by one. She arrived in the upper-class Hara Mus neighborhood of Djibouti City in the gray dawn haze before the construction workers appeared, before the first call to prayer, before the sun slinked through low clouds over the Gulf of Tadjourah.

She claimed a wooden plank stool. Emptied yellow oil jugs, turned on their sides and indented from hours of serving as chairs, are harder to balance on and Amina will work here until early afternoon. The stool sits lower to the ground than the jugs and provides easier access to her knives, pots, vegetables, and fire, and her back needs the sturdy support.

Little known outside the Horn of Africa, Djibouti is strategically positioned at the crux of shipping lanes linking the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea and is in the throes of rapid development. Amina has taken advantage of the masses of construction workers and used diligent entrepreneurialism to carve out a niche for herself. Thirty-five years of independence from France and a consistent peace, other than minor skirmishes with Somaliland to the east and Eritrea to the north and a brief civil war in Afar territory in the early 1990s, has allowed Djibouti a steady momentum, though opportunities for employment remain limited. The CIA World Factbook quotes, as of September 2014 but based on a static estimate from 2007, a 59% urban unemployment rate and an 83% rural unemployment rate. Amina, with her tea and eggs and beans, is one of these officially unemployed people and the nature of her work ensures that she will be, year after year. Scraping for franc and earning barely enough to cover daily expenses leave little room for paying down her debts and no room for advancement.

The 2014 Misery Index lists Djibouti as one of five countries with ‘extremely high estimated Misery Indices’ but is unable to give it an updated ranking due to Djibouti’s lack of updated statistics. For Amina, the only numbers that matter are how many men will she feed today? How many will pay? How much will her supplies cost? How many people in her family will she be able to feed tonight?

I would be honored if you’d visit The Smart Set to read: All Beans, No Tomatoes