Stories from the Horn #137

a runner's view of Djibouti

This week includes all the regular links to new articles (if you are here for those, simply scroll down) but I thought I’d also share with you an essay I wrote years ago when I started running (edited to make it not terrible, and more current), to help you experience Djibouti. And don’t forget, if you’re looking for more of my essays and book recommendations, you’ll find them here.


To fully experience running in Djibouti crank up the thermostat to 110 degrees. Add a healthy dose of humidity. Picture a camel, an acacia tree, a few abandoned bath tubs, and blowing dust. Imagine the scent of frankincense, the warmth of steaming shaah, and the brilliantly colored dresses of Somali women – orange and purple, yellow and pink, vibrant against the dusty background. You’re halfway here already. Lace up your tennis shoes and come for a run with me through the Gabode neighborhood of Djibouti City, Djibouti.

“Allah Akbar! Allah Akbar!” God is great! From the neighborhood mosque, the muezzin sings the call to prayer at five a.m., stirring faithful Muslims from slumber and reminding them that prayer is better than sleep. My neighbors fumble through the darkness for prayer rugs and headscarves. I stumble through the darkness, eyes half-shut, and pull on my running pants.

The sun hasn’t yet risen with all her blazing fury to bake the streets so it is comparatively cool, but that is essentially meaningless. It is only, ever, hot.

I crank open our gate. Sometimes I see one of our neighbors come out at the same time as me for his morning run. We’ve never spoken more than a few words of greeting but have passed each other and waved on our runs for years. This morning, it is just me.

My feet fall into rhythm, sending little puffs of dust up around my ankles. The bread man approaches, pushing a green wagon and honking his bicycle horn to announce the arrival of fresh baguettes. He grins at me and jogs along for a few yards before waving me on. I dodge sleeping goats and a camel chewing on a plastic bag. Groups of young men walking to work at construction sites stop to ogle and women prepare breakfast from roadside stands.

Crows caw from a goob tree towering over the broken-down gas station, fighting over the cauliflower-like fruit. A bus zooms around the corner with earsplitting American rap music booming. The crows burst into flight and I jump over the curb to avoid an accident with the bus. The passengers wave, flash thumbs-up signs and nudge each other in the ribs. “Eega, naagta cad!” Look at the white woman.

At The 5th, a French grocery store, I wave to Ali as he turns the spit loaded with rotisserie chickens. He also has twins, a boy and a girl, like mine but younger. Ali lectured me recently about the danger of running.

“You’ll be too skinny,” he said.

“You’ll sweat.”

“Your legs will be tired.”

“It can’t be good for your heart.”

I thank him for the concern, and ignore it.

I could have caught a few more minutes of sleep. I could avoid the stares, the heat and the dust. But then I would never smell the perfumed incense wafting from the neighbor’s house or watch the wild parrots settle into the neem tree in the rose glow of the rising sun. I wouldn’t know our quarter’s bread man or greet Ali and my neighbor.

I can sense the changing of the seasons in my body, in how much I sweat and what my quads feel and in how long it takes to recover from a hard run. I can sense the seasons in the various flowers or dust levels and in the flight patterns of birds. I will carry those sensations with me no matter where we live and sometimes, on a long run in Minnesota or in Kenya or in Paris, I experience a flash of parrot, baguette, heat, a memory of the call to prayer. God is great.

News from the Horn

New book, The Last Nomad, follows a Somali woman’s life from being a nomad in Somalia to a nurse in California. I’m excited to read this book soon in our Horn of Africa bookclub here in Djibouti.

US press secretary Jen Psaki claims there are no troops on the ground in Somalia and Yemen. Local reports differ.

An Almost-Country in the Desert that Doesn’t Care about Your Understanding of Politics. Looking at Somaliland’s election.

“Djibouti was made for the big screen” Indian film director talks about filming in Djibouti during Covid.

Why do so many countries have military bases in Djibouti? This article veers away from the headline quite a bit and gets pretty negative. Some might find it interesting. Some will surely dispute the claims.

Somalia’s Minister of the Interior urges journalists and photographers to highlight the positive and beautiful things in Somalia.

Somaliland’s Deaf National Football Team Flies to Nairobi to participate in a tournament. I wonder if some of them learned from the school Annalena Tonelli started?

Sheraton Djibouti aims to…ahem…improve? I gotta say they have a ways to go.

A Somali feminist says Facebook is being used to silence her

Somalia’s case of a missing spy

See you in two weeks!