Welcomed with a Kiss
A bit larger than the US state of New Jersey and with a population just shy of 1 million, Djibouti is nestled on the Horn of Africa between Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia.
But don’t let its diminutive size fool you: Its location on the Red Sea has made it a transnational shipping powerhouse since basically the invention of shipping lanes.
French instructor Ali Houssein hails from this multi-ethnic country, so we asked him to share his insights into Djiboutian culture and communication styles. If traveling to Africa is on your to-do list, make sure you swing through Djibouti, and travel like a native armed with Ali’s tips.
What is the primary language spoken in Djibouti, and how important is it that a traveler be familiar with it before they visit?
French is important because it’s spoken by everyone and all administrative documents are in French.
Arabic can help you with business and Somali with interacting with the natives.
Knowing basic phrases are enough if you are a tourist.
What are some of the differences in communication style between Djibouti and the US?
- Handshakes are replaced with a hand kiss
- As a sign of respect, you don’t make eye contact when speaking with your elders
What are some similarities between Djiboutian and American cultures?
- Family values, particularly the number of children families generally have
- Freedom of religion
What should a traveler keep in mind when they're interacting with Djiboutians?
- Don’t engage in public displays of affection if you’re with your romantic partner; this kind of interaction is limited to private locations, at home, etc.
- Don’t talk about politics, as Djibouti doesn’t have freedom of speech protections
- Take off your shoes before entering anyone’s house, as it’s both a show of respect and also considered hygienic
Ali's must-try cuisine recommendation, Lahoh with Muqmad
What are some common practices around eating food or sharing meals?
Djiboutians often eat with their hands directly, so make sure your hands are clean before your meal!
What is one dish in Djiboutian cuisine that everyone must try?
Lahoh, which is a sourdough flatbread, with Muqmad — camel meat marinated in natural spiced butter.
You eat it for breakfast with a cup of sweet tea. It’s tasty, and it’s a signature dish of my native country.
What are some common misconceptions about Djibouti?
Because of their shared histories, many European countries saw Djiboutians as being proud and independent, even aggressive and hostile.
We’re actually quite welcoming!
When you first traveled to America, what surprised you the most about American culture or traditions? Why?
Hollywood is not America!
Movies and shows on TV project a very different image of the real American people: Not all Americans are tall and violent.
Also, I don’t know if it’s only in Seattle, but Americans drive slow — very slow. It can be a good thing, though.
What should no traveler to Djibouti miss?
- The Red Sea for scuba diving because of the diverse colorful marine animals (for corals to fish)
- The desert of Grand Barra for land sailing for the adrenaline of speed