Thursday, December 6, 2007

Djibouti - I remember a Gift

In 1986 I was making a tour of U.S. embassies in eastern Africa. I was in Djibouti, a small desert country at the southern mouth of the Red Sea. Neighboring Ethiopia and Somalia, then at relative peace, had been warring for years. As a result many thousands of ethnic Somali tribesmen from the Ogaden Region of Ethiopia had sought refuge in Djibouti. They were confined to United Nations run camps located in the arid hinterland of one of the most desolate nations in Africa. I visited one of the camps, which grouped several thousand refugees who had lived there for months; essentially on a moonscape.

This refugee camp was a bleak and seemingly hopeless place. Yet, the elders of the camp committee greeted me graciously and guided me on a tour of their squalid domain. Green plastic sheeting provided cover from the sun. Bags of U.S. donated maize and tins of vegetable oil were stacked in the food distribution warehouse. A one-tent school was operating, as was a small clinic. Flies buzzed incessantly. However, the camp committee was most anxious that I see their newly acquired well, water pump and garden.

We walked up a rock-strewn ravine past the cemetery where several new graves provided mute testimony to the ravages of disease and malnutrition. Beyond, nestled in slope of the valley in the region where there was not a blade of vegetation visible for miles, was a small patch of green. The elders showed me how boys carried water from the new well to the plots where they had managed to coax several scraggly tomato plants and other vegetables from the hard earth. The chief pointed with pride to the first water melon, about the size of a small soccer ball. He then had it picked. He presented it to me with great ceremony and thanks for America’s concern and assistance. I was overwhelmed. The camp’s children were desperate for this sort of nourishment, yet it was given unhesitating to a stranger – to someone who obviously had no need for it. Yet, I had to accept. This was a gift from the heart. I managed to utter thanks and a few words of encouragement. We then shared the bits of melon.

In the years since, I have always been struck how people with so little and with such great needs could give so easily. Yet we with so much, find it hard to give a little.