10 Signs You’ve Been an Expat in Djibouti Too Long (or just long enough)

By: Rachel Pieh Jones

From how you experience weather to a new appreciation for hot water and the habit of adding “If God wills at the end of most sentences,” life in Djibouti changes expatriates. How does life in other nations affect expatriates? Do the changes linger when moving to another country or when repatriating? How have you been affected by life in your host nation?

Here are ten signs that you have been changed by life in Djibouti.

1. Climate Change Djibouti is the hottest inhabited country in the world with summer temperatures topping 120F. Add in humidity and the heat index passes 140. When the kids start pulling on sweaters in December, 95 degrees feels comfortable, and 90 feels cold, it means you have spent more than a few years of your expatriate life in Djibouti.

2. Driver’s Ed Everything you learned in official driver’s education courses needs to be forgotten. In Djibouti you can turn left from the right lane and should assume a blinker means the driver in front wants you to pass on that side of him, not that he is turning that direction. Or he might be turning that direction and you must be prepared. And when you find yourself not only prepared for this type of driving but performing it, you have spent many years as an expat in Djibouti.

3. Normalizing the Exotic Camel trains causing a traffic jam, hiking down into live volcanoes, a dip in Lac Assal at the lowest point in Africa, and the Grand Bara, one of the flattest desert expanses on earth all become places of which you hold family memories, inside jokes. The year you don’t go swimming with whale sharks because you ‘do that every year’ is another sign of the years passing in Djibouti.

4. Normalizing local customs, not all of which your mother or home culture might appreciate. Cheek kisses in place of shaking hands, napping in the middle of the day, lunch as the main meal of the day. Maybe you even pick your nose in public or blow your nose in your shirt or farmer blow into the dirt.

5. No shame You can’t remember the last time there was no dirt caked beneath your fingernails and you no longer find it embarrassing to pick up deworming medication at the pharmacy every six months, to tell visitors about the ‘itchy butt’ worms they need to take care of before leaving, or to write about it on the internet.

6. Simplicity You think seven choices of cereal in a single grocery store is a bit excessive and life becomes much more than consuming the latest iPhone or keeping up on the newest films. Instead value is put on relationships and community.

7. Expectations Djibouti changes your expectations. You think fresh baguettes are delivered door to door from wooden green carts pushed by bicycle-honking men in every country. You expect people to appreciate the Islamic call to prayer. You expect to celebrate Christian, Muslim, French government, and local government holidays.

8. Appreciation of Luxury Twenty-four hour electricity, temperature-controlled water, and consistent (speedy) internet feel like luxuries, only to be enjoyed while on vacation. And far more important things like being around family during the holidays, dear friends who speak your same language, and intrinsic cultural understanding also feel like precious, treasures to not take for granted.

9. Linguistic Confusion Your sentences become multi-lingual and are understood only by Djiboutians. For example Je suis your hooyo. I am your mother. French, English, Somali. And Afar, Arabic, or Amharic could be added as well. Remembering your native tongue idioms becomes impossible and people start to wonder why you speak English (or your native language) with an accent.

10. Faith Foundation Whether you are a Muslim or a Christian or an atheist or a follower of another religion, life in Djibouti is openly religious, governed by the Islamic calendar, the five times per day call to prayer, modest clothing, and regular references to God in conversation. Many expats find themselves adopting these customs whether it is in the structure to their days or by adding “Insha Allah” to statements of their future plans. If God wills.

As Djibouti will change you, you find yourself grateful for these experiences and the opportunity to grow, be challenged, and learn.

How have you been changed by life in your host country? Are there some habits you hope to lose when you move on? Others you hope to maintain?

About the author

Expat Blog ListingRachel Pieh Jones is an American expat living in Djibouti. Blog description: Writing at the crossroads of faith and culture. Raised in the Christian west, now I live in the Muslim east. I write, run, raise three children. I pray for peace.
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Contest Comments » There are 20 comments

Henry Jones wrote 10 years ago:

Really interesting things to say. I also live in Djibouti, I like it, and I've experienced some of these things too.

Olga@The EuropeanMama wrote 10 years ago:

I love your writings, Rachel! This is a great list and you are right about the many things- people can get used to pretty mmuch all conditions- and it's good to see that you have such a positive outlook on this!

Jim Bob Howard wrote 10 years ago:

Thanks, Rachel, for the special outside-insiders view of Djibouti. I'm sure some of your observations could be said of other locales, as well, but the collection is what makes them uniquely Djibouti! I'm linking to this in an upcoming ConnectorMan post.

Helen Holder wrote 10 years ago:

I enjoy your observations about your life. They are always interesting and help me broaden my world!

John Amos wrote 10 years ago:

So true! It made me realize all the little things that make up our life here, we become so accustomed to them that we forget that we are doing them.... Djibouti is a great and unique place and glad you wrote this article Rachel.

Ute Limacher-Riebold wrote 10 years ago:

Thank you for this very realistic insight into the life in Djibouti. Every host country we live in, changes us, our way to perceive the world and makes our journey unique. I must say that the things we adapt to, that are less common in our previous experiences, often end up being those we miss when we move on. Thanks a lot for this brilliant article!

Rita Rosenback wrote 10 years ago:

Brilliant - one thing I have learnt in England is to queue. In Finland there is no queuing culture to speak of ... unless quickly-sneaking-past-the-next-person can be called a culture. I am most fascinated with invisible queues in England: even in places where there is no physical space to form a queue, everyone knows in which order they arrived and move on accordingly.

Amy G wrote 10 years ago:

Hey Rachel, I think you deserve every award. You make me think, question and laugh. This one is no different. We've not been in East Africa long but I think I see how these realities are so normal that we no longer notice the strangeness we first perceived.

Cindy wrote 10 years ago:

Thank you so much Rachel, for this post and your blog in general! I am about to embark on an adventure along with my husband. We move, in three weeks to Dubai. Your blog has helped to prepare me for cross-cultural living! I expect and hope to start my list soon!

Christie wrote 10 years ago:

Hi Rachel, I enjoyed all of your points, but especially number eight. We haven't faced many privations living in Australia, but I do keenly feel the absence of family around this time of year with Thanksgiving and Christmas in quick succession and being so far from home. I hadn't really defined that as a 'luxury,' but I agree with you that it is. I wish you all the best with the contest--Australia has only two entrants, so we are unlikely to win as well, but it's been fun to participate.

Ann wrote 10 years ago:

I love this: Normalizing the exotic. What a great way to put it. I did not realize that Djibouti was so hot. (And to be perfectly honest, I didn't know much to begin with anyway.)

Bekah S. wrote 10 years ago:

yup... I found myself nodding to so many of these! They were true of my years in South Africa :) I especially cracked up at the "swimming with sharks!" In SA, it was going on safari, or walking to school passing giraffe's... totally normal :)

Anna wrote 10 years ago:

I'm currently spending a year in the US, and I can relate to every one of the ten things, although the exact details are different. And it's so cold! My kids adjusted to the temperature pretty quickly- we're in the Southern US. But I still have to bundle up & I'm still cold.

Jess wrote 10 years ago:

Thank you for your post! Your writing is very enjoyable to me as I have spend some time overseas. It makes me smile to remember how different it is to live overseas and to learn more about an expatriate life changes you.

Cindy Brislen wrote 10 years ago:

Yes, yes, and yes! Even though it's been a few years since leaving Djibouti, I still agree with everything on your list. I'm still trying to work on #6, and being able to choose from 17 kinds of mayonaise. It's easier having 2 choices. And my sentences still include several languages which does confuse things if you aren't in my family.

Nylsa wrote 10 years ago:

This is so very true! This is the first Christmas we have spent in our homeland in 4 years. My youngest daughter knows nothing of white Christmases, fireplaces, snowmen and snowball fights! It has been fun, but we secretly miss our dear, close knit expat "family" in spite of being able to spend this Christmas with our family this year. I found that in environments like Djibouti the expat community becomes your family, even if a bit dysfunctional at times!

Charity wrote 10 years ago:

I love the no shame, number five. How about letting go gas in the middle of a conversation. That normative is my all time favorite with neighbors here in India. Excellent yet again. Thankful for this light look into how cultures can change us. Thankful for your deeper insights on your blog as well.

Melissa wrote 10 years ago:

Thanks for the post Rachel -- I especially relate to the idea that expectations shift. While Switzerland is not East Africa, I don't think I'll ever live in a place again with such delicious bread (and cheese and cheap, delicious chocolate) and an appreciation for taking vacations. Seriously, I never knew until we lived in Europe that Americans do not know how to unplug!

Kaho wrote 10 years ago:

How interesting! My husband and I lived in Dakar, Senegal which is a former French colony and Muslim state. Your list reminded me a lot of our life in Senegal! Now we are in Mumbai, India. I heard Inshalla today!

Micki wrote 10 years ago:

I am hoping that a Registered nurse position will open up for US citizens that do not speak French, so that I can apply.I have been watching Djibouti for almost a year and I believe I can have a positive impact on the country. I also believe the country will have an impact on me. Thank you for sharing.

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