Djibouti, Djibouti Report of what it's like to live there - 08/15/08
Personal Experiences from Djibouti, Djibouti
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
1st Foreign Service experience.
2. How long have you lived here?
3. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
4. Travel time and best routes to this city from Europe or the US:
Most common and most direct route is through Paris. Plan on at least an 11-hour layover in Paris for the once-weekly flight, so it's a two-day effort.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
The French are often housed in townhouses or nice appartments, but other expats go in more for villas. U.S. embassy housing was large, kitchens tended to be well below American standards though, and gardens, due to the extreme climate, were limited.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Plan for things to be expensive. That's what the COLA was for. But while things are expensive, I found most things I would need were available. You could eat pretty normally and equip your house pretty normally. There were five decent grocery stores, nothing like Safeway, but they had what you would need. If your favorite brand of boxed milk ran out of stock, it might be a few weeks before the next shipment came in. But there was always another brand or another option. One of the grocery stores even carried block cheddar cheese, and the best grocery store had an amazing selection of French cheese. One thing not available: really good bread. You could get small, expensive loaves of Pain Complet, and the ubiquitous, cheap, baguette. And very expensive commercial brioche. But not much else.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
More toilet paper and laundry soap. The brands of toilet paper available in Djiboutian stores just were not the same.... and the laundry soap was outrageously expensive. Also more American snack foods. Things like Cheezits and Wheat Thins were NOT available in the local grocery stores and the military NEX was so small, they did not usually have these. Other fun snack foods were available. You could get Japanese snack mix, for example, with sesame crackers and wasabi peas. Go figure. And French snack foods. But sometimes, I just wanted Cheezits.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
No fast food. There are many decent restauarants in Djibouti city. You can find gourmet French food, the
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
I heard from local expats that Djibouti's mail system was not dependable. I did subscribe to a French magazine that was delivered monthly via international post. I got 10 out of 12 issues.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Domestic help is very available, moderately priced (We paid $200/mo for all-day help three days a week) and of variable quality. We really loved our housekeeper and she did a great job without a lot of prodding. She would shop for us at the local market, wash the veggies and fruits, iron when needed, do the household laundry, and do the regular cleaning. She also took excellent care of our two dogs. It was also possible to find household help that would cook, but I did not know anyone whose cook did much more than basic dishes.
3. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
You cannot use credit cards. Two local banks put in ATM machines, but I never tried them -- it didn't seem like a good idea. If you are affiliated with the US Embassy or Miliatry, the NEX took credit cards. I believe the nicest grocery store took credit cards, but only at one register and there was a surcharge for the privilege, so....
4. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There were church services for Americans on the military base. Otherwise, I think the services tended to be in French. For Christians, there is a French Catholic Diocese as well as Ethiopian Protestent/ Orthodox services.
5. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
Ha ha ha. The cable/satellite television option packages had a few English language channels, I think, like CNN. The Embassy was provising AFN so I did not end up subscribing to local cable/satellite.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
I think you will really benefit from speaking French. It's a very French-based culture after many years as a colony. The education system is in French, and it is not very common to find people who speak English, though that is changing. You are also likely to run into people who speak neither French nor English, but usually someone will be around to translate if at least you speak French.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
As a developing country, this would NOT be a do-able place for someone with physical disabilities.
1. Do you drive on the right hand side of the road or the left?
Yes. As seems to be the case in many developing countrys, traffic laws are fluid. Drive on the right, but be prepared for anything. Luckily, the volume of traffic in Djibouti is low (but growing), so the craziness of local driving often has a cushion for error. There were, however, many accidents.
2. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Local taxis were affordable but neither terribly comfortable nor terribly safe. The use of local taxis is approved by the USEmb at the time of this writing with a few safety caveats. Often, people would cultivate a relationship with a particular taxi driver. Plan on $8-$18 for a fifteen-minute ride from the airport to the other end of town.
3. 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?
Bring something rugged. Many Asian dealerships (Hyundai, Kia, Toyota, Mitsubishi, and Nissan) are reprented in Djibouti. But you might find as we did that your American-model still has different parts than what the local retailers carry (we could not get parts for our American-model Toyota engine).An SUV is a good idea not only if you want to get out of town (the road to the beach required a 4x4), but also for the occasional flooding. A good rain shower will put many of the roads 2 feet or more under water for days. However, you will see some regular Toyota Corrolas or the equivalent driving around, so it's possible to get by in the city with a smaller car. Unleaded fuel is availabe in the city ONLY, so once you get out of town, you will only find diesel, and only VERY limited diesel at that. We carried gas cans whenever we ventured out of town and always traveled in groups of two cars or more. Not because of a security threat but because if you break down out there, it's tough. There are no tow trucks in Djibouti.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
As mentioned above, when DSL became available, unrestricted band-width was $600 per month. The price has since dropped to something like US$300 per month, plus there are cheaper (and slower) options available. Dial up was coasting people around $50-$100 per month (billed on usage).
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Cell phones are available, but the cell phone service is pretty bad. It was a government monopoly, so what are you going to do?For the first year I was there, you couldn't get a SIM card to save your life. We spent over $100 to buy a used SIM card for my husband. But that situation was eventually resolved and now you can buy a SIM card for a more reasonable amount: maybe $60?
3. What is the best way to make phone calls back home?
I relied on the Embassy's phone line. Djiboutian phone service was horrible while I lived there. Rates for direct-dial to the U.S. were extreme. There were call-back services but I never used one. Skype was blocked when I first arrived, and only dial-up existed for most of my tour. When DSL became available, unrestricted band-with DSL was US$600 a month. The price has since dropped to a bargain-basement price of US$300 per month. People now use Skype from home successfully.
1. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
There is a French vet who seems to have full capabilities.
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?
It's a growing economy, and it seems like someone could make a way for themselves doing consulting or working at the Port, but reality is: you need to speak French, and even then, there's not much available.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Dress code is casual. When it's 120F degrees, you dress to survive. Sandals are a must in all seasons. Very light weight linen and cotton clothing was key. It's a Muslim country, but the culture seemed very accepting and forgiving of Western immodesty. Still, I think it was best to cover your shoulders and thighs.
Health & Safety:
1. Pollution index (Good, Moderate, Unhealthy, or Very Unhealthy)?
Moderate pollution. Can be fairly dusty during khamseen season, but although the electricity source is a smoke-belching diesel-burning plant, and although unregulated diesel vehicles are common, the low-density of cars and the fact that Djibouti is literally surrounded by the ocean keep the pollution factor moderate to low.
2. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
While I was there, Djibouti felt very safe. There were some incidences of minor crimes of opportunity against Expats, but I could walk or jog alone at any time and not feel unsafe. Due to proximity to other national conflicts and terrorist interests, and due to rising levels of refugees from both political violence and famine, the security situation will probably slowly become more dangerous. Proximity also made for a regular terrorist threat but our lifestyle was not curtailed.
3. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Very limited medical care. There is a French hospital which I fortunately never needed to use. Their Emergency room had limited hours and we had to get
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
Clear and sunny all year round. Rain only a few times a year if that. But when it rains... oh la la.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There are no international schools in Djibouti. There are two French schools (pre-HS) that seemed to be of good quality. One officer sent his pre-schooler to the local Indian school so he could have a mainly English-education (school was in English with Hindi as a 2nd language).
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
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?
There seemed to be several preschool options, all of which were taught in French. I did not have children and did not know anyone from the Embassy who sent their children to any of the local preschools (other than the Hindi school), so I don't know the quality. Due to the prevalence of the French expat community, I assume these preschools/day cares, which catered to French expats, were adequate.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
There are many French expats in Djibouti, but other Expats are limited. The UN is present, WFP...There are not a lot of other Embassies from Western countries. The French. The Chinese. The rest were African, NEA.
2. Morale among expats:
Varies. The French have a good system of support, but you have to have an
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Djibouti is a hardship post. It's a small country-city. There is not much to do. Infrastructure is rough. As of this writing, the city offers a bowling alley and go-karts. There are several dance clubs and bars, and now with the fancy new Kempinski hotel, a casino as well. There are bars -- you can get a drink -- but it's a small world and for families, the options are limited. Especially in summer, it can be difficult for children because they cannot really play outside. That said, the beaches outside of the city, though hard to get to, were gorgeous, fairly clean, and usually mostly empty. The snorkeling right off the coast was wonderful year-round, and I'm told the SCUBA diving was great too. Hiring a boat (or connecting yourself to someone who has one) is a great idea -- deep-sea fishing was wonderful, the islands were beautiful. Getting out of the city and visiting the mountains or other features was also ALWAYS a great experience, but this was like camping: you have to be comfortable sleeping in a hut and using a rough toilet/shower.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
No. Djiboutians have their prejudices, but overall, theirs is a very open, friendly culture. They accepted Westerners and Western styles.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Visit the mountains. Monkies, baboons, camels... in forests filled with different varieties of acacia trees. Visit the lowest point in Africa, Lac Assal. See the flocks of flamingos and the funky hoodoo formations of Lac Abbe. Travel regionally to Yemen, Ethiopia, and Kenaya and Tanzania.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Djibouti is not known for local handicrafts. Woven palm baskets are about it locally. You can buy neato handicrafts from Ethiopia, Yemen, and Kenya, but nothing is low-priced.
9. Can you save money?
Yes. Don't eat out a lot. Don't visit the fancy Kempinski too often. Don't do too many weekends in Dubai.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Djibouti would not be at the top of my list, but it's not a terrible place either. If you can eat well and visit fabulous unspoiled beaches, then it's not so so bad. If you needed to get away (and if you could get the time off), you could easily do long weekends in Dubai, Addis, or Nairobi. The work in Djibouti was extremely tough, and the tiny Embassy made for some extra challenges. These were challenges probably common to many small Posts.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Warm clothes. Street bike.
3. But don't forget your:
Heavy duty surge protectors and UPS's for your household electronics or they may get fried by regular and extreme electrical spikes. Hats, sunglasses, sunscreen. Beach toys of all kinds. We wished we had a kayak. If you like to camp, Djibouti is good. As someone said: think of it as a two-year camping trip. That is a good attitude to take. You'll live in a nice house with a rough kitchen, and water might run down the stairs like a waterfall the two times a year when it rains. Don't forget mosquito repellent and mosquito netting -we were glad we had ours. Outdoor furniture like hammocks and sunshades was welcome on the beautiful roof-top terraces during the cooler winter months. Bring your mountain bike. Check to see if your housing will have closets -- bring Ikea-style shelving if not. And plan on a rough kitchen so Ikea-style rolling butcher carts and hanging pot racks might help.
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
6. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
7. Do you have any other comments?
Djiboutian people are friendly and open. Women in Djibouti often play an important role as breadwinners and many run their own businesses. Many Djiboutian males chew Khat every afternoon. Educational opportunities are limited, and unemployment is high, though there is heavy economic investment largely from UAE investors. It was not a terrible place to live, but not wonderful either. Litter, trash, open sewers, giant pot-holes in the few paved streets, crumbling Colonial architecture, crushing heat and endless dust are all realities. But because the people are friendly and accepting, not as patriarchial as in surrounding cultures, and the countryside was accessible and unspoiled, it was not a terrible experience either.