One of my goals of interning here in Djibouti is to learn as much as I can about Djiboutians; their domestic issues, politics, way of life, and views on the world. As an intern in the Public Diplomacy section, of the U.S. Embassy, I have more opportunities than other Foreign Service sections to engage with the public. These opportunities are still only as often as deemed necessary by the Embassy’s mission. I know it is my responsibility to seek opportunities to engage with the Djiboutian public.
When I arrived in Djibouti, I asked my home stay family, my boss, and some other Foreign Service Officers where I could volunteer. I received mixed responses. It seems there are very little locations for me to give my time. The orphanage seemed to be the most common location and yet, everyone I asked seemed a little uneasy with sending me there. The few that have volunteered have stopped because it became too emotionally disturbing.
Djibouti’s poverty rate vacillates between 50-60%. According to the World Bank, about half of Djiboutians live below the extreme poverty line. It would not surprise you with the number of children that comes up to your car begging for something to eat at every stoplight. It is quite heartbreaking. We try to give them Cliff bars, but there are only so many Cliff bars I can buy on my meager budget.
One of the U.S. Embassy’s goals is to support Djibouti’s government in increasing education and its economy. Basic economics suggest an increase in education and economy will increase the job market and therefore, decrease those living in poverty. One my PD roles is to monitor English Language and educational programs, I was ecstatic to do my first visit to a local school. Our objective is to make sure the school has electricity in each room so the number of laptops, Ipads, and projectors we provide will be used. (Although I am living in Djibouti, it does not quite mean I am living “in Djibouti”. Most expats in Djibouti live near their embassies, which is in the nicest part of the country. One of the local hires told me, “You live in the South Hamptons of Djibouti.”) You could say I am (was) ready to see the real Djibouti.
Come to find out, I was not ready for what I encountered. My security vehicle took me out to the slums of Djibouti. We pulled up onto this dark, sewer and trash-infested street. I walk into a room the size of two desks, where an older man is sitting with his laptop, and one man sitting on the bench lining one side of the room. After a couple of minutes, I am surprised to find this tiny room is the schoolmaster’s office. A few young men take us to the school. We begin walking. It looks as though most little kids are running around with their parents watching. It looks more like tight-living quarters than a school. I ask, “How far away is the school?” One of the teachers responded, “This is the school, Madame.” The classrooms are shoved between walls of other’s houses to conserve space and construction materials.
We enter the teacher’s office. It is two tables with dusty books on them. No computer, no paper, no printer, no writing utensils. We check to see if there is electricity and move on. We continue to a classroom where some students are learning. The cardboard built room has one white board and pieces of wood positioned upright where children can sit. No books, no paper, no pens, no laptops. We check for electricity. I continue onto four other identical classrooms.
I conclude that besides a white board, these teachers have nothing to teach with. These teachers are taking their evenings out to volunteer to teach English and they have nothing to teach with. I suddenly start asking a bazillion questions. Why don’t they have paper? Does their electricity work? Can we put more plug-ins in these classrooms? If we found you small white boards for the children to write on, would those be sufficient? It dawned on me, these questions have been asked and the Embassy is doing its best to find resources for this school.
I cannot quite articulate the emotions that filled me. I had this odd taste in my mouth; the feeling you get when you gargled with salt water, but simultaneously ate a bit of chocolate. I felt entitled standing there with my dress, shoes, and bag while my security man waited for me at the front office. I was aghast at these students’ capabilities to learn. I had a nice room filled with globes, maps, photos, and a full library. I had folders, I had recess, and I had a lunchroom- where I knew I would have lunch every day. In some odd cosmic deja vu, I felt obligated. I felt obligated to do something- whatever it is. In some fashion, it is my fault for being there, intruding on their space, in their politics, in their way of life, in their humanity by expecting each of them to learn English and conform to my western way of life. Why is English going to lead them to a perfect life? I continue to grapple with these issues every day.
However, it was an experience that led me to believe in hope and faith. Even though these teachers and children may not know where their next meal will come from, they are spending their evenings in school trying to learn English. They are trying to make themselves better in hopes they will not live a life below the poverty line. One day they hope to literally rise above it and create a bountiful future for Djibouti. At that moment, I knew coming to Djibouti would never be a regretful decision. I am experiencing something greater than myself. And that is the sweetest experience I could have a taste of as an Iowan, an American, and as a human.