Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
A Djiboutian Refuge

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My yard in Djibouti is a porous refuge. Thieves climb over the stacked stone fence, braving shards of glass and barbed wire for a single handful of ripe dhemal fruit. My iPod disappeared from the car one morning, along with the car battery, and when there are riots, smoke from burning tires curls between bougainvillea bushes.

I sit on the brown chipped-tile steps and the coolness seeps through my skirt. I lean my head against the metal banister, hoping for some relief from the sweat and it clangs against the wall where the nails have wiggled loose in the five years since we moved in. Lucy, my youngest, is running around the house and I time her on my stopwatch. She comes around the corner, jumps over the one-wheeled faded green scooter, and slides toward me.

“How fast?”

“Faster than last time. Do it again.”

She takes off, this time toward the front gate. My husband is teaching afternoon courses at the University of Djibouti, our oldest two children are doing homework, and Lucy was bored. I told her to run laps, hoping she would burn off energy but the more she runs, the more energy she seems to gather.

Neem trees arch over the driveway forming a shade tunnel, like the summer oaks and maples of my childhood Minneapolis. Crows perch in the branches and caw at me, daring me to throw a stone. I do and they burst from the trees and don’t return. I assume they have found the decaying cat road kill outside and hope they devour her intestines and kidneys and liver quickly so the stench won’t permeate our yard much longer.

Behind the house my landlord Aisha squats in her charcoal-darkened kitchen and slaps wet laxoox batter against a metal bowl with her open palm. The sound echoes through the yard and is answered by the neighbor girl, also slapping the fermented pancake batter for tomorrow’s breakfast. Aisha hunted down my iPod the day it was stolen and retrieved it from a guy who had bought it from a guy who had bought it from the guy who had stolen it. Even with our hired guard, Aisha feels like the true protective force, a pillar who has taken my foreign family into the comfortable warmth of her refuge.

Lucy runs full force into the green gate and the clattering of her hands on steel brings Yusuf from his cardboard guardhouse. She grins at the young guard and sprints back toward me. She brushes the termite-ridden rocking chair on her way back and kicks a single hacked-off goat hoof out of the way. I am relieved she didn’t pick it up and ask me to examine the coarse black and white hairs, stained with blood from yesterday’s Islamic Eid sacrifice.

The wooden yellow rocking chair my grandmother rocked my father in is in the basement of my parent’s home. My mother rocked me in it. The rocking chair I rocked Lucy in is disintegrating in my front yard. It came from Iran, from a clever dealer at an Iranian expo hosted by a Djiboutian woman’s organization. My husband didn’t want it. Two years later, I didn’t want it either. But it was the only rocking chair in the country at the time and I was pregnant and he bought it for me. Now it rocks for no one, sand blasted and heat splintered. Lucy will need to buy her children their own rocking chairs. This life must one day be replaced; this yard will one day be replaced by snowy ones or oak-lined grassy ones.

Tires tower in the corner of the yard. I forbid Lucy to play there, where snakes coil inside damp hollows. The landlord plans to sell the tires but never does. Maybe I should offer them to the youth to burn in the streets next time there is an uprising, just to clear the yard.

I feel safe here, in this now-familiar world so far from my own childhood, this world that holds my children’s childhoods. A woman was knifed three doors down last month. But it wasn’t me. My yard is a refuge, porous enough for life to float in, on the winds of riots and the whims of robbers, but thick enough to keep me in too, to keep Lucy in.


Rachel Pieh Jones is married to Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children (one named, loosely, after Indiana). Raised in the Christian west saying “you betcha” and eating Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says “insha Allah,” and eats samosas. Her work has been published in the New York Times, Family Fun, and EthnoTraveler, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble. Visit her website: Djibouti Jones for more information or follow her on Facebook or Twitter.


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Beautifully written. The manner that danger and the felt jeopardy inherent in this environment is expressed is lovely, in its way. As is the honest gratitude that the little daughter remains safe. Danger is everywhere, no matter what. My daughter is 22-years-old and I never stop worrying. The timeless preoccupation of all loving mother's.
Thanks Theresa, exactly - the love of a mother and the worry of a mother are constant.
My heart caught at: "This life must one day be replaced; this yard will one day be replaced..." Strange how I have come to love the temporary spaces I inhabit, and how I mourn that they - in all probability - will not be returned to by my children. The image of the rocking chair is the pivot point in the essay, in my opinion. Beautifully written, Rachel. I can see why your class applauded.
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