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Djibouti - Culture Overview



Djibouti is a tiny desert nation set at the crossroads of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Its location on the Horn of Africa is strategic because of the huge inlet that provides safe harbors for shipping and other vessels. For centuries, coastal cities on the northern shore of this inlet were important destinations for camel caravans emerging from the desert. Ancient patterns shifted abruptly when the French colonial government created the port of Djibouti on the south shore as the terminal for a new railroad coming out of Ethiopia. France's last African colony, Djibouti became independent in 1977. Agreements to balance political power between the country's major ethnic groups have not lasted, and continuing tension limits the cultural developments of this mini-state.

Two principal ethnic groups play important roles in Djibouti. In the northern areas, the predominant group is the Afar, also known as the Danakil, who share many cultural traits with the Afar in Ethiopia and make up 35% of the population of Djibouti. In the south, the Issas, comprise over 60% of the nation's population. The remainder is composed of resident Somalis, Arabs, and Yemenis from neighboring regions, as well as many French and other Europeans. Refugees from neighboring countries are increasingly numerous. Djibouti, unlike many African countries, has nearly 75% of its population in the cities. Somali and Afar peoples were among the first on the African continent to convert to Islam, and Sufism has been particularly important among the Issa. There is also a small Roman Catholic presence. Somali and Afar are the maternal languages of most people, while French and Arabic are the official languages.

The oral traditions of the Somali peoples are very rich and are shared by the Issa of Djibouti. Devoted to verbal messages, proverbs, and the lives of the Sufi saints, this literature has been recorded in Somali, Arabic, and European languages during the 20th century even as writers produce new and innovative literatures. One such innovation is the "miniature" poetry developed by a truck driver named Abdi Deeqsi who founded a popular genre of short poems called balwo that usually deal with love, separation, and passion. The Afar also have a sophisticated oral literature, much of which is preserved in song form. Developed for particular settings, there are songs to be sung by men in a circle around a woman oracle, songs for weddings and markets, boasting songs, war shouts, praise songs, and challenging songs. 

Djibouti's oldest landmarks are found in the ancient port cities like Tadjourah. Once the center of a prosperous sultanate, Tadjourah has seven mosques. Their white domes were a welcome site to the caravans coming out of the desert, though they are also impressive viewed from the sea. Beginning in the 1890s, the city of Djibouti arose in traditional structures of coral blocks, now weathered to beige. French influence shows in the art deco plasterwork around doors and windows. This alternates with plaster worked in the delicate motifs of Islamic design, featuring calligraphy and vegetable motifs. Because there was no traditional city here, Djibouti is a landmark to the colonial period, blending the heritage of Africa, Islam, and the West.

Sources: African Architecture: Evolution and Transformation; Arab Net Online (www.arab.net); Djibouti Embassy; Djibouti Embassy Web Site; World Bibliographical Series/Djibouti