Djibouti. Flexibility and tribal values
In the Horn of Africa, the idea of the home often takes the form of an open space; the house is a place of collective appropriation Text and photos by Ilaria Bollati
When you land, Djibouti hits you with a furnace of sand and gusts of hot wind. In these searing, gruelling temperatures, the land looks comatose. Tiny and arid, but strategically positioned at the mouth of the Red Sea, it appears to gravitate wearily around its harbour, commerce, the hallucinations of qat, arms trafficking, swarms of street children, glue-sniffing and the exponential growth of military bases. This is a complex, difficult country, juggling life with drought, dust, heat and the desert. Natural wonders, like Lake Assal, the lowest-lying depression in Africa, are as fascinating as they are subtle, paradisiac and deathly at the same time. The Republic of Djibouti is a scrap of land covering just 23,000 square kilometres, hemmed in between Ethiopia and Somalia. It is inhabited mainly by nomadic tribes, swarms of soldiers of different nationalities, a tiny urban population and a sparse network of small villages. Apart from the capital, there are few real towns. The people mainly lead adaptable, wandering lives, and this affects the architecture. If the home and the way of dwelling are deeply rooted in the culture of a people, a prominent role here is entrusted to “complex” or social buildings that, in monumental form, serve as places where they can congregate. By contrast, the African tradition, especially that of the Horn of Africa, is permeated by an evident “tribal” quality and a recurrent flexibility in response to the varying needs. Buildings reflect the necessities of the climate and materials, as well as respecting the human scale. For Africans and their families, the idea of a home often means an open space, whether it is a clearing or a courtyard. Houses are spaces appropriated collectively. In Djibouti this parallel is evident. On the one hand, the nomadic habits of the inhabitants prevail
and the villages are dotted with tukuls (hemispherical huts covered with colourful fabrics). On the other, the landscape is tamed into more stable structures, from raw earth dwellings to schools or a few masonry and concrete buildings in the centre of town. At Ali Sabieh, the cohabitation of these two souls is even more evident. The town lies in parched and hilly terrain. On the one hand, there are solid, clean, square edifices, often belonging to the missionary centres or colonial buildings. Their plans are rectangular, surrounded by walls enclosing courtyards and they have flat roofs. They contrast with other lightweight, temporary dwellings, that can easily be dismantled and transported, often combined with compounds for livestock. These structures consist of a framework supporting arched poles, covered with hides, fabric, woven mats or plant materials and, in bolder versions, with sheet metal or coloured plastic panels. An analysis of the different spatial configurations reveals what the inhabitants consider a home: a place that, without any rigid organisation, special hierarchy or separation between interior and exterior, serves to solve the problems and meet the needs of dwelling, satisfying both the spontaneous requirements of the local population and the demand for superfluities prompted or imported by its international inhabitants, in a delicately poised equilibrium. Ilaria Bollati, architect and PhD in Design and Economics of Culture, is a research fellow in the Department of Design at the Milan Polytechnic.
Above: Ali Sabieh — note the contrast between the tukuls and colonial-style buildings; below: view of the capital Djibouti Opposite page: primary school at Ribta
Clockwise, from top: detail of Dipta primary school; daily life in the communal outdoor spaces; detail of a wall at Tadjoura, the country’s oldest city, on the Gulf of Tadjoura; village in masonry at Ribta, north of Djibouti