Late nights and French legionnaires in the Horn of Africa

Words by Olufemi Terry | 06 Jun, 2011

In 2000, I saw Claire Denis’ Beau Travail, I think it was at Angelika in New York, and I wanted to go to Djibouti. The 1999 film, a loose retelling of Herman Melville’s unfinished novella, Billy Budd (1888), depicts repetitive sequences of French Foreign Legion troops training in the desert, interleaved with scenes of Djibouti city after nightfall. Galoup, the unsmiling protagonist, visits lurid nightclubs full of stumbling legionnaires; on other evenings he makes love to his black mistress, whom, there are hints, is a prostitute.

By the time I reached Djibouti in 2005, George W. Bush’s War on Terror had begun and, in addition to France’s Legion base, there was also a NATO contingent monitoring activity in the Gulf of Aden.

A country of fewer than a million citizens teemed with foreign soldiers. I saw mostly the legionnaires. In the Djibouti Sheraton ($140 per night; leaky rooms) there were brawny French and German officers in battle dress, their boots on the furniture. Their presence had been paid for and they knew it well. The Americans kept to themselves on their own base, which I imagined was well stocked with Doritos, Budweiser and other goods Yanks will not go without.

Nothing happens in south-central Somalia without involvement by its tycoons, many of whom are warlords, and who, on the face of it, were unlikely underwriters of an attempt to re-establish government

I was in the capital city, Djibouti, to offer communications support for an international meeting aimed at drawing Somali businessmen into their country’s political rehabilitation. Nothing happens in south-central Somalia without involvement by its tycoons, many of whom are warlords, and who, on the face of it, were unlikely underwriters of an attempt to re-establish government. But, for a moment, the world—or at least the UN, the EU, and the Americans—was attentive, fearing instability in the Horn and its ostensible twin, Al-Qaeda. And the businessmen seemed enthusiastic so I kept my doubts to myself.

I encountered in the streets the languor one finds in coastal towns and the openness of port cities. France’s influence was everywhere to be felt: Islam’s hard edges had been smoothed, as in Mogadishu before Siad Barre’s fall. There were a great many bareheaded women, women in western clothing. And social congress between the sexes was less constrained than in Hargeisa, in neighbouring Somaliland.

Djibouti is home to clusters of deeply rooted expatriates: a small community of Greeks, importers and middlemen, with its own church; and Yemenis and other Arabs from across the Gulf. Curiously, a number of trades had been monopolised along ethnic lines. Djibouti’s barbers were Indians; Hindus likely take up other occupations and yet all the barbershops I passed seemed to be operated by Indians. Senegalese are jewellers and sellers of jewellery, as they are across West Africa. And a great many nightclub prostitutes were young Ethiopian women.

The Somalis that had travelled with me, Puntlanders and Somalilanders, were also new to Djibouti and didn’t know what to make of it: the extortionate cost of food and drink, the permissiveness that allowed women to go about uncovered; the crowds of legionnaires in their topi hats, like characters from Biggles or Tintin.

My colleagues were not so much disgusted as fascinated, perhaps faintly titillated by bared flesh. Teasingly, I threatened to drag one of them, Moktar, into a nightclub. He laughed. His wife would kill him, he said, but in his laughter was an acknowledgement of temptation.

During working hours I sat with foreign ministry staffers, performing translations in uneven French. By the end of the second day I longed to escape the jargon and platitudes. Zamzam, a young aide, told me her sister, Anisa, would take me out. She, Zamzam said with a whiff of disapproval, had an active social life.

Anisa fetched me in a taxi the next night from my damp and airless $100 hotel room in the centre of town.

We arrived at an apartment in a quiet, expensive suburb that was full of young affluent Djiboutians, a mix of residents and visiting expatriates. It was not difficult to pick out the ones that had not yet left: they appeared, in dress and behaviour, stranded between home and abroad, between the known and the alien. They would soon depart the tiny country.

The night was hot, 40 degrees, and I stood on the apartment balcony feeling giddy. It was the vodka, but also the sensation of being among people very different from those I’d met in Somaliland or Mogadishu. There was no overt sexual charge in the air and little certainty of what was possible or permissible, of what might be occurring beneath the surface.

Djibouti, in fact, seemed timeless and inert. Its elites lived lives that approximated a Western existence; their affluence tempered the heat, the bureaucracy and the insularity of life. The country had achieved a sort of stasis; the transformation had occurred during the colonial handover, when the government agreed to the continuation, perhaps permanent, of a foreign military presence.

Tu es Antillais, non?” Anisa asked. I swayed in the heat. You’re from the Caribbean aren’t you? I’d become used to being taken for an American. How did she know?

“You look like one,” she told me.

As the night wore on, Anisa’s perceptiveness did not seem so remarkable; the legion draws recruits from every part of France’s empire. There was another man present, a Martiniquan, with an appearance I thought more Antillean than mine. He had a yellowish face, and his hair was slightly wavy. He was, he told me, with the foreign legion, but I do not think he was a soldier.

“I’m actually Sierra Leonean,” I explained to Anisa. It was startling for me that there, in the horn of Africa, my African lineage might be the exotic one.

I pressed her to take me to a nightclub, but her crowd preferred intimate get-togethers, drinking and socialising in their parents’ houses. Their universe did not intersect with the seedy one at the heart of the city, the world of moneychangers, prostitutes, and shoddy goods shipped from Dubai and China. That world was removed by one solitary generation from the old nomad life in the desert.

Zouk music began to play and, light-headed still, I danced with the host, who had just returned from France. She laughed in a coarse, loud way. Her tights hissed as her plump thighs rubbed against one another. All the while she attempted to lead me rather than the reverse.

But there was another woman I wanted to dance with: she was slim and with a diffidence that signalled she was based, for the moment, in Djibouti rather than abroad. She was a skilful dancer and wholly at ease in a stranger’s embrace.

Holding her, I said, “You’re not drinking?” In her glass was fruit juice. “Non, je bois pas,” she murmured.

Je suis Musulman.” She was Muslim. It was good, I thought distantly, that dancing groin to groin with a man need not offend religious sensibility. A surreal night.

The next day I wondered, Cinderella-like, whether any of it had taken place.

I was determined still to enter the nightclubs. Finally, alone, I went. Beau Travail had been faithful in its portrayal. The legionnaires were there, ludicrous in their white topis, short-sleeved shirts and tight shorts; there was something exultant in their dancing. The drinks were exorbitant and the whores bored. In every club, it was the same.

At midnight, the dance floors emptied and the legionnaires departed for, presumably, their barracks ahead of curfew.

I stared at an Ethiopian whore, a hard-eyed gamine of no more than nineteen years, dancing before a mirror to dancehall reggae. Her skinny hips writhed. There was no expression on her face. It was the last night of my visit and I contemplated bringing her back to my hotel. But I was deterred by a vivid fear of meeting a colleague returning late from a Qat session.

She never once looked in my direction. The harder I gaped, the more intricate her movements became. I wanted to enter her head. What had drawn her here? And where had she learned to dance?

Then I went out into the hot night.

Olufemi Terry is an award winning author of short fiction