Djibouti, Djibouti Report of what it's like to live there - 06/14/16

Personal Experiences from Djibouti, Djibouti

Djibouti, Djibouti 06/14/16


1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No, I have lived in Mexico and South Korea. This is my second assignment in the FS. My first was Bridgetown, Barbados.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

I'm from New Jersey by way of Virginia. There are a few connections that we use most often: Djibouti -> Addis Ababa -> DC or Djibouti -> Paris -> DC. There is also a connection through Doha.

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3. How long have you lived here?

I have lived in Djibouti for almost two years.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Diplomatic mission.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

The housing is quite comfortable. Most houses are 3BR/2.5 BA with generators, gates/yard area, and covered parking. Some houses have rooftop areas, which are great for BBQ's, sundowners, wine & cheese soirees, and watching July 4th fireworks. There are a few clusters of Embassy housing. The closest area is Haramous, located in the same neighborhood as the Embassy, so the commute is a few minutes. Some people choose to bike to work during the cooler season. The other two housing areas are no more than a 10-15 minute drive. Everything is close in Djibouti City.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Djibouti has a handful of supermarkets, including Casino (a French-owned chain) which is expensive. A basket of goods (e.g., cheese, bread, pasta, lunch meat, milk, eggs) can run more than $30 or $40USD. It is easy to leave Casino having spent $200 with only 3-4 shopping bags. Luckily, there is an Ethiopian supermarket called Bambi's, which sells some fresh meats, dry goods, household supplies, beer/wine/liquor and it's more reasonable. Nougaprix is a local supermarket downtown with a broader selection of fruits/veggies and household goods.

Cash Centre, located near the Kempinski hotel, has a decent (and expensive) selection of household supplies/decorative items, dry goods, and some frozen products. They now have a bakery on site, so don't go hungry!

Djibouti also has Camp Lemonnier, the U.S. military base. They have a small Navy Exchange (NEX) and many mission personnel shop there for American snack brands, household items (cleaning supplies, toothpaste, beauty products, etc), DVDs, work out clothes, and electronics - all tax-free. The NEX is a nice supplement to the local market.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Nothing in particular. Djibouti is a consumables post, though, so take advantage of that.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

There are several really enjoyable and delicious restaurants. One of the oldest restaurants is Cafe de la Gare, which recently underwent stunning renovations to its dining area and they built a second-floor bar/lounge. The food is pricey ($50/pp with cocktails) but delicious, and the service is the best in town. Definitely an expat watering hole. La Gazelle is another great French restaurant located in Gabode (near some Embassy housing). The friendly owner is from Senegal (and used to be a chef at Cafe de la Gare). It's BYOB and open late. La Mer Rouge and The Melting Pot are favorites among expats for their seafood, sushi, and camel meat (!). Hotel Palace Kempinski has an outdoor restaurant named Bankouale, known for seafood, and an Italian restaurant indoors. Both are expensive but okay when you're feeling like a fancier night out.

Following a terrorist bombing at a local restaurant in 2014, Embassy personnel were restricted from visiting downtown. Now however, that restriction has been lifted and we can experience some of the nightlife. La Chaumiere is a hodgepodge of Asian/French cuisine and the site of the aforementioned bombing. They rebuilt and are better than ever (with better security, too). Time Out Cafe has a restaurant downstairs and a sports bar/lounge upstairs. Color Cafe is a hole-in-the-wall local restaurant with good fish sandwiches and fries. Beverly Cafe's top floor restaurant has great views of the city and port. L'Historil is a clear relic of French colonial times, a bit rundown and overrun with cigarette-smoking French expats, but the food is decent. There's an Ethiopian spot called La Terasse down the street.

You can find the open-flame Yemeni fish specialties at Jenatyn (pronounced Janna-TAIN) and Saba. For Indian, there are two restaurants - Singh's and Kurry (located near the Embassy). Near the Port of Djibouti, there's a Lebanese restaurant called Mont Liban with very inexpensive large plates, fresh juices, and hookah. Pizzaiolo is also near the Embassy and expensive -$20 for fish and chips! Allo Pizza serves, yes, pizza. A new restaurant named Urban Kitchen just opened near the airport and for now, they serve an array of coffee/desserts, hamburgers, fries, and chicken/beef sandwiches. At Camp Lemonnier, there's Pizza Hut, Subway, and the galley (Taco Tuesday, Steak Saturday, and other specialty food nights to feed the 3,000+ military personnel).

So, in short, there's something for everyone!

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

We had a beehive that grew on our patio door while we were away for R&R. That was wild. But by African standards (or any standards), there are surprisingly few vermin here. I was very pleasantly surprised. Ants and the occasional dead cockroach is all I've seen.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Between FPO and the pouch, we can get just about anything. Never shipped anything locally.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Household help is available, but the really good people get snatched up quickly. Many houses seem to rotate the same nannies/cleaning ladies/cooks. We have an Ethiopian woman who cooks/cleans once per week for $140/mo. Americans tend to pay their household staff much more than French expats. Many Embassy personnel also employ day guards to sweep up outside/wash cars/keep an eye out. I do not know the costs for day guards or nannies.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

I use the Embassy's gym. We also have a pool on compound, and the Marines just got a basketball court. Camp Lemonnier has a wide array of aerobic and sporting activities (CrossFit, salsa dancing, soccer, flag football, softball, basketball, beach volleyball, table tennis, foosball, swimming, and monthly 5K's) and they are building a massive gym to replace their current one, which is under a huge tent. All these activities are free. I haven't seen any local gyms, but I heard about one located near the Port/Corniche.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

Credit cards are NOT widely used here. They are fine at Kempinski, Sheraton, Casino, and BiBi Modi's (a local alcohol vendor). There are ATMs at the Embassy, Casino, Kempinski, Sheraton, and nearby Cafe de la Gare. They are safe to use. USAA's Mastercard debit cards do not work here - you must have Visa.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Camp has weekly religious services. The local Catholic services might be in French or English, too.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

People are speaking English more frequently, especially at the more popular expat restaurants and grocers. You can take French classes at the French Institute of Djibouti and the Embassy offers French tutoring. If you can learn some Somali, now THAT would go a long way.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

Yes, Djibouti would be challenging for those with physical disabilities. There are virtually no sidewalks and those you find are uneven and treacherous. The Embassy is the only building with an elevator (that I've seen).

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1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Embassy personnel are not permitted to take local transportation.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

We bought a 2009 silver 4Runner and it's been fantastic. I probably would have brought something even older, like a 2004 because Djibouti is rough on vehicles. SUV's are needed when driving out to the regions especially. The terrain is quite rugged. I wouldn't bring anything that you're afraid to get beat up. There's a local Toyota dealership that also does servicing, but personally I am not convinced of their quality of work. We started using Roberto Garage and they are well-run, organized, and fast.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Hi-speed internet is available at a hefty price. For the largest package - 6MB Unlimited - it costs more than $2,000/year. It took about 2 weeks to set up. I recommend getting extenders so it's available throughout the house. Right now we only get strong connections upstairs, nothing downstairs.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

I bought an unlocked Samsung from the NEX at Camp Lemonnier and installed a local SIM card. Then I buy local credit as needed. I haven't had any issues. Some Embassy personnel do use their unlocked iPhones.

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1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

This is a really great post for spousal employment - and all full-time. Several spouses work at the Embassy in jobs such as the Housing Assistant, Facilities Assistant, Political/Econ Assistant, CLO, and Consular Associate. At Camp Lemonnier, several spouses are employed as contractors and in banking. I do not know of any spouses working on the local market.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

If you want to help out, there's plenty to do. Local orphanages are popular, and English conversation practice groups are on the rise.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Day-to-day, the Embassy dress code is business casual (slacks, button down, dresses) and on Camp, it's more casual but there is a dress code for entering the Galley, for example. Close-toed shoes, no hats or sleeveless tops, etc. Most local women choose to cover their hair, but those that do not are not mistreated or maligned. Formal dress is required if you attend events such as the Marine Ball, Lions Club or Rotary Club galas.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Based on informal conversations with colleagues, we all feel pretty safe here. I think the Camp presence (and other foreign militaries) helps with that sense of security. But common sense and intuition should prevail wherever you are, and Djibouti's no different. You can read the latest security message on our Embassy website.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Stomach bugs and respiratory ailments go around regularly. I developed allergies to the dust and dryness. Local medical care is mediocre, at best. We use the Embassy Health Unit and, if needed, Camp can assist with limited services. There is a new clinic that opened and seems promising, but otherwise, preventive care is king. Get lots of rest, drink lots of fluids, stay active, and keep your Imodium handy.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Air quality is generally good. During the very hot months (May - August), the sandstorms and humidity can irritate allergies and respiratory issues. Staying hydrated is very important, too.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

Definitely bring whatever meds you normally need, and I'd recommend that you reach out to the Embassy Health Unit before arriving to find out what is available locally.

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5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

Nothing stands out, but I will note that you have to juggle different workweek schedules and that can feel disorienting. For example, the Embassy workweek is Sunday-Thursday; Camp Lemonnier is Monday-Friday; and I understand the French schools (for those with kids attending) is Saturday-Wednesday. And of course, Washington is Monday-Friday. It takes getting used to, but we all adjust.

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6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

From October to April, the weather is gorgeous. Mid-high 80s, mid-low 70s at night. Low humidity at that time, too. That's also whale-shark season. But from April to September, it is super hot and humid, more than 100 degrees. By June-July, you are just moving from one air-conditioned place to another.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

In August 2016, QSI will open its first American-style school in Djibouti - QSI International School of Djibouti. It's going to be K-8, all English, and located near the Embassy. There are a few other English schools that will open this year, too, offering many options for those who want an alternative to the French schools, Dolto and Kessel.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

Many Embassy toddlers go to Minimoys, but since I do not have kids, I can't speak to the experience.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

The expat community is growing. With the foreign militaries alone, there are Italians, French, Americans, Germans, and Japanese. The diplomatic community feels insular - except for the occasional reception, there's not much overlap or interaction with other Missions despite the small size of the community. The French air base has started an exchange with the Embassy (i.e. pairs us with a sponsor) that allows us access to their facilities. It's a good chance to practice French/English, too. The French base also offers a lot of activities for individuals, kids, and families such as photography club, dance classes, soccer, tennis, arts and crafts, sailing, etc.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

A popular activity among Embassy staff and expats is Dolphin Excursions. They have the Djibouti Divers Club, snorkeling, and beach excursions available year round (except August). Many French families take their boats out to Moucha and Maskali Islands on the weekends. There are also trips to Lac Assal, Lac Abbe, and White Sands beach.

The French Institute has great cultural programs and the Embassy sponsors a monthly American film (subtitled in French) -çais-de-Djibouti-483613261744341/

Most people socialize over one another's homes for dinners and parties. Downtown Djibouti-ville has restaurants and nightclubs that are popular among expats and some younger Djiboutians.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

It seems to work well for everyone. The Embassy has a mix of singles, families with kids, and couples without children, and we all get along very well. The CLO has worked really hard to identify people's needs and organize events for everyone across the mission. So there have been ladies' nights dinners, wine and cheese events (for adults only), kids' birthday parties, pool days, "Scotch & Stogies" (for the guys), karaoke, tea time, and of course, Christmas and Thanksgiving parties. Camp Lemonnier also features family activities for kids, like soccer and firefighter/safety demonstrations. Many Embassy staff participate in the monthly 5K races/3K walks. Salsa dancing and CrossFit are also very popular. The singles that I know at post seem to have a good mix of friends and hobbies inside and outside of the mission.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

The majority of gays and lesbians in Djibouti remain closeted because it's a highly taboo subject. It would be a challenging environment in which to live openly.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

In Djibouti, the prejudices are mostly clan-based and unless you've really done your homework, you won't be able to differentiate people from the dominant and minority clans and sub-clans. But any Djiboutian will tell you that clan politics dominate everything. Djibouti is 95% Muslim and the other 5% is a smattering of Christianity. There is a Catholic church in town, a Catholic-run orphanage called Caritas, a Catholic organization in Tadjourah, and Lutheran World Federation all providing services to the local community. To my knowledge, they are well-respected and operate without interference.

Gender equality has a long way to go, but Djibouti's First Lady is quite powerful and uses some of her vast resources to support women-focused initiatives. She runs an organization called The Union of Djiboutian Women, an orphanage and a training center. She has close ties to the Ministry of Women and Families and keeps tabs on many programs related to women's empowerment. At the grassroots level, ordinary Djiboutian women shoulder most of the responsibility for child rearing - with many families having 5,6,7 kids - and they sometimes work multiple jobs to overcome the high costs of living and/or high unemployment in their families. An overwhelming majority of Djiboutian men spend their afternoons and evenings chewing hypnotic khat leaves, which can drain the family's resources, create friction among families, and stunt national productivity.

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

The best part of Djibouti is the marine life/excursions. Most of the year, you can hop on a boat and spend a day snorkeling and diving, lounging on the beach, and soaking up the sun. The Lac Assal tour was worthwhile, visiting the lowest point in Africa. I also have really enjoyed the Ramadan season because of the fantastic and opulent iftars. The food is iso delicious.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

East Africa is beautiful so trips to Kenya, Ethiopia, and Tanzania are must-do's. You can also travel easily to Seychelles, Mauritius, and Dubai.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

You won't find a ton of great artwork and handicrafts in Djibouti. Other countries in the region do this much, much better. There are some local baskets, keychains, purses, etc but many of the Djiboutian "souvenirs" are imported. My husband bought a goat skull encrusted in salt from Lac Assal (impulse buy!) and that will be staying here...

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Djibouti is pretty low-key despite all of the activity happening around it. There's not the crazy hustle-bustle nor traffic congestion you'd find at other African posts. Everything is close by, maybe 20-30 minutes to get from one side of town to the other. Camp Lemonnier is a definite plus, not only for our safety and security but sometimes you just want American products and Camp provides that fix.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

I would have shipped an older car. Djibouti's desert climate and rough terrain is hard on cars so I would've brought something older that could get knocked around more.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Yes! But I would arrive in November instead of August (when temps are over 110 degrees).

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Fancy clothes and shoes (they will get dusty, faded, and worn).

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4. But don't forget your:

Snorkel, sunblock, and hats.

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

"Djibouti" by Leonard Elmore (which I still haven't finished)
Fleur de Desert (film)
Plenty of great articles about Djibouti are circulating in the Financial Times, WSJ, Foreign Affairs, The Economist and so on.

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