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Rags despite riches

[Djibouti] Arhiba slum in Djibouti City where 20,000 people live.
Arhiba slum in Djibouti City where 20,000 people live. (IRIN)

Dikina Mohamed and her three children live in a tiny shack made of cardboard, wood and metal junk in Arhiba, a shockingly dirty slum in Djibouti City.

Their home has neither windows nor a door. Through gaping holes in the walls enter dust, blood-sucking insects and Djibouti's unrelenting desert heat.

"Our biggest problems are the mosquitoes, the filth and always, food," Dikina says. All she owns are a collapsing metal bed, a kerosene lamp, two cups and a plastic bucket.

Dikina and her three children belong to the poorest of the poor, cramped together with 20,000 others in Arhiba, just a km away from Djibouti’s presidential palace.

According to the World Bank, people in Djibouti - a tiny state in the Horn of Africa - earn an average of just over $ US900 a year each, more than most in many African countries. As a result, few donors or aid agencies set foot in Djibouti.

In reality though, poverty-stricken Dikina is no exception. She and her husband were Ethiopian pastoralists whose livestock died from drought, and who came to Djibouti believing the country was rich.


There used to be jobs for the asking at its deep-water port, which handles practically all landlocked Ethiopia’s exports and imports – this year, among other things, 500,000 tonnes of food aid.

"But the port has been modernized for container shipments and many [dockers] have lost their jobs," Omar Harbi from the UN Development Programme (UNDP), told IRIN. "The irony is that Djibouti itself is suffering from a never-ending rural exodus and an ever-increasing jobless rate."

According to government estimates, 60 percent of Djiboutians are without work - and often without food. Slum dwellers make up nearly half of Djibouti city’s population of about 350,000.

Dirt, disease and malnutrition


Robert Thiel, a volunteer from the Red Sea Mission, in his clinic in Arhiba, a slum in Djibouti city.
[Djibouti] Dr Robert Thiel, an American volunteer from the Red Sea Mission, in his clinic in Arhiba, a slum in Djibouti city.
Tuesday, July 5, 2005
Dirt, disease and malnutrition
[Djibouti] Dr Robert Thiel, an American volunteer from the Red Sea Mission, in his clinic in Arhiba, a slum in Djibouti city.

Doctor Robert Thiel, an American volunteer from the Red Sea Mission, runs a government-owned clinic in Arhiba, a filthy slum in the port city of Djibouti. [Click here for more...]

"In this country very few people starve to death, but many people don’t have enough to eat. In the slums almost the entire population is hungry," says Thomas Davin, Programme Coordinator for the UN Children’s Fund. "The jobless survive only thanks to the help of relatives and a strong tribal and family support system."

Two years ago Dikina's husband died - "from balls in the stomach," she says. With few relatives here, she now survives on handouts from neighbours.


"The per capita income is purely fictitious," Guedda Mohamed Ahmed at Djibouti’s Interior Ministry explains. "It includes the French troops that are based here and earn hundred times more than the average Djiboutian."

Aside from the French Army, Djibouti also hosts a German navy contingent and an American military base.

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), French Army contributions alone amount to more than 50 percent of Djibouti's Gross Domestic Product.

France pays Djibouti about 30 million euros in rent a year while the rent for the new American base is $25 million, according to Djibouti government sources.

It has little impact on a poor citizen living in the slums. Government and UN officials estimate that Djibouti’s average per capita annual income without the French is around $420, about the same as Bangladesh and lower than that of Sudan.


Ironically, Djibouti capital city is one of the most expensive places in Africa. Everything is imported, from foodstuff to clothing and construction materials.

Substance abuse a major problem


A khat seller in Djibouti City.
[Djibouti] A khat seller in Djibouti City.
Wednesday, July 6, 2005
Substance abuse a major problem
[Djibouti] A khat seller in Djibouti City.

One of Djibouti's big problems is khat, a narcotic stimulant that is consumed by an estimated 95 percent of the male population, according to government estimates.
[Click here for more...]

"On paper, it looks as if Djibouti is as developed as Singapore, with 80 percent of GDP coming from services, and only 3 percent from agriculture", says Emmanuel Kumah, the IMF’s representative in Djibouti.

A hard day’s labour at the port - heaving 50 kg bags of food aid in sweltering heat - earns a labourer around 500 Djiboutian francs, about $2.80. A bed in room shared with 10 other people in Arhiba costs 10 times that each month.

Dikina remembers her husband used to make up to DF 300 a day, but hardly ever enough to fill the stomach. Kerosene is relatively expensive, and the cheapest meat costs more than half a day’s salary. Most vegetables and fruit are imported.

Only a loaf of French bread is relatively cheap, costing DF 20.

Djibouti’s French colonisers built Arhiba 30 years ago for dock workers from the Afar ethnic group, providing them then with free electricity and water.

Nowadays, an open sewer runs through the middle of Arhiba. Residents have built small dykes from soil and rubbish to prevent the greenish-black sludge in the sewer from overflowing into the huts nearby.

Women discard dirty water and children's waste into the canal. Many of Arhiba’s residents relieve themselves in the open. "We have no toilet," Dikina says. She lives two meters away from the sewer, constantly exposed to its nauseating smell.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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