All Beans, No Tomatoes

A week in the life of a food vendor in Djibouti.

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Amina sits idle in the shade of her makeshift restaurant. A pot of boiling kidney beans near her toes and a cardboard case of fifteen brown eggs remind her of the work to be done, the work she can’t do yet. She counts the eggs again, tapping her henna-orange fingernail on the shit-and-feather encrusted shells, one by one. She arrived in the upper-class Hara Mus neighborhood of Djibouti City in the gray dawn haze before the construction workers appeared, before the first call to prayer, before the sun slinked through low clouds over the Gulf of Tadjourah.

She claimed a wooden plank stool. Emptied yellow oil jugs, turned on their sides and indented from hours of serving as chairs, are harder to balance on and Amina will work here until early afternoon. The stool sits lower to the ground than the jugs and provides easier access to her knives, pots, vegetables, and fire, and her back needs the sturdy support.

Little known outside the Horn of Africa, Djibouti is strategically positioned at the crux of shipping lanes linking the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea and is in the throes of rapid development. Amina has taken advantage of the masses of construction workers and used diligent entrepreneurialism to carve out a niche for herself. Thirty-five years of independence from France and a consistent peace, other than minor skirmishes with Somaliland to the east and Eritrea to the north and a brief civil war in Afar territory in the early 1990s, have allowed Djibouti a steady momentum, though opportunities for employment remain limited. The CIA World Factbook quotes, as of September 2014 but based on a static estimate from 2007, a 59% urban unemployment rate and an 83% rural unemployment rate. Amina, with her tea and eggs and beans, is one of these officially unemployed people and the nature of her work ensures that she will be, year after year. Scraping for franc and earning barely enough to cover daily expenses leave little room for paying down her debts and no room for advancement.

The 2014 Misery Index lists Djibouti as one of five countries with ‘extremely high estimated Misery Indices’ but is unable to give it an updated ranking due to Djibouti’s lack of updated statistics. For Amina, the only numbers that matter are how many men will she feed today? How many will pay? How much will her supplies cost? How many people in her family will she be able to feed tonight?

I drove by these rickety stalls and anonymous people every day. I wondered about the women, bent at the waist over smoking charcoal fires. About the men, hurriedly eating breakfast and jumping up to catch a ride to work on a passing flatbed truck. My husband is a professor at the University of Djibouti. When we transplanted our lives from Minnesota to the Horn of Africa my aim was never to float above the culture that welcomed us. I wanted to understand it, experience it, discover the realities of average Djiboutians.

One day, for no reason deeper than curiosity, I stopped beside a random stall. I introduced myself in Somali. I told the woman the truth. I wanted to learn about the life of a woman who ran a makeshift restaurant. She laughed. No local person thought her life was interesting or unusual, no foreigner ever stopped. She wondered if I was crazy and ordered me to pull up a plastic jug to sit on. She ordered me to take notes. This was Amina, and she invited me to spend the week with her.

Amina keeps the soles of her feet flat to the ground, heels touching. Her knees splay out to either side and her shiid, a cotton dress sewn from a single rectangular piece of cloth with holes cut out for the head and arms, is pulled taut between her legs to form a resting place for her elbows. A peach shalmad, or headscarf, is tight around her face and brings out the hint of amber in her eyes. She scans the area. The clusters of men as they clamber down from open-sided lorries and saunter to work sites, cement trucks that lumber into the yards and kick up halos of dust, and the brightening sky, to see how long she has until the men swarm her for breakfast.

Hara Mus hosts the new United States embassy (2012), president Ismail Omar Guelleh’s house, and the prime minister’s home. The road past Amina’s restaurant is paved, smooth, and clean, and the women who own restaurants here are meticulous in picking up their plastic bags, tin cans, and piles of ash left after lunch. They feed scraps to pigeons and give potato peelings to elderly men who haul the leftovers to herds of goats on the other side of the mosque that stands where the pavement ends. The president might drive by here today, for noon prayers. Or maybe on Friday for the holy day’s sermon, and no one wants to bear the shame of displaying a disorderly work place.

Normally, Amina’s hands don’t stop moving. Normally, she doesn’t look at the men walking to work or the purple onions she slices. Normally, onion skins drop at her feet, white fleshy onions steadily fall into a pot until it overflows. Normally, eight kilos of onions, chopped before dawn and not a single tear from onion-burn dampens her cheeks. She is more cautious with the chili peppers and sometimes hands garlic cloves to Guleed to peel. Guleed is five years old and smiles proudly to reveal the gap where his two front teeth are missing. He roams between the restaurants, helps peel potatoes, and delivers messages and earns vanilla crème-filled cakes or coffee flavored lozenges for his efforts.

But today Amina’s hands are still and she folds them over her stomach. Then she stirs the beans, folds her hands again. She sighs and looks to her right, at another restaurant where two women bend over heaps of tomatoes and smoke curls up between them like jinn.

There are four restaurants like hers on this block, serving the same meals at slightly varied intervals, to alternating construction crews. The men appear like shifting shadows in unfinished windows and between whitewashed pillars. They cement and paint rooms larger than their homes. They chant while they work, their words and the foreman’s whistle provide a rhythm for passing buckets of wet cement. There is a constant, unhurried but persistent pace.

Amina’s husband works at the house directly in front of her but they don’t acknowledge each other during work hours, both concentrated fully on the job and need of the moment. Cement buckets thrust up, beans stirred. Cement buckets coming down, ground tea leaves spooned into boiling water, a carefully choreographed ballet.

“Allah doesn’t give us anything,” Amina says. She protects her hand from the heat of an aluminum pot cover with a page of newspaper and covers the tea, whips the beans with a quick flick of her wrist, and bangs the metal spoon against the pot.

Today the truck that should have delivered her onions, tomatoes, potatoes, hot peppers, and garlic never came. Amina calls her coworker Deeqa and shouts orders: stop at the market, purchase supplies on credit, take a taxi. Hurry.

Amina started the restaurant itself on credit. She used to borrow from neighborhood dukaans simply for food and prayed she could pay back what she owed at the end of the month. But in 2007 she’d had enough of borrowing and praying. She wanted to work. She borrowed 80,000 franc worth of supplies, over $400, and opened a restaurant. Six years later she still owed almost the entire 80,000. She brought in small amounts of cash in months when she had a surplus but it barley dented the total. Sometimes the shopkeeper harassed her, sometimes he ignored her, but mercifully, he never charged interest. Maybe in the future, maybe in a hundred years, Amina would be debt free.

Water in a handle-less pot over a third fire of wood-based charcoal begins to boil. Amina rips open six packets of spaghetti noodles with her teeth and fills the pot. She adds two handfuls of coarse salt, replaces the dented cover, and drops her hands back into her lap.

A rice sack stuffed with thirty limp baguettes leans against Amina’s shack. Her produce should have arrived with this bread but the white van broke down. The bread man pushed his cart from the bakery and brought the bread, not enough, and the news that the van wasn’t coming.

Now Amina’s bean-breakfast for the construction workers is bland and her baguettes are cold. Her lips narrow under the strain. If she doesn’t get any produce for lunch, and get it soon, she will lose the entire day and possibly some clients. She might not eat. She might have to walk the roughly ten kilometers home. She leans against the restaurant but doesn’t rest her full weight against it.

Sheets of rippled aluminum balanced on top of splintering plywood slats form the three-walled structure. The boards are nailed together with long rusty nails, which poke clear through and when Deeqa arrives she ducks to avoid getting sliced across the forehead. A torn blue mosquito net waves in the humid breeze at the entrance to the restaurant and blends into the sky as the sun peeks over the rounded top of a newly constructed, uninhabited and ocean-side mansion.

The Gulf of Tadjourah is less than a kilometer from Amina but she sits with her back to the ocean. The water isn’t visible from here anyway. It used to be, until the building boom of 2010 began, then the United States embassy and rows of diplomatic housing and a new mosque sprang up. Now intimidating black and gold gates block the old dirt paths to the ocean and Amina’s restaurant is surrounded by construction sites and homes modeled after the American White House.

She doesn’t mind not being able to see the ocean, she didn’t establish a presence here for the view. She moved in because of the construction. Where there are new buildings, there are workers and where there are workers, there are hungry stomachs and parched throats. As Djibouti expands, even into the ocean on manmade sandbars and landfills, these construction sites are further and further from her home in Hayablay but Amina shrugs her supplies higher on her shoulder and trudges the extra blocks, extra kilometers, between work and home.

She sighs again and pushes her palms against her knees, stands, hikes her shiid up under her armpit to keep it from dragging, and walks to the closest restaurant stall. Amina explains to Fadouma and Nasra, the mother-and-daughter team, that she needs produce. She returns with five tomatoes, two onions, and a green chili pepper. Within minutes all of it is peeled, chopped, and in the pot with the beans.

In 2010 Amina hired Deeqa. Deeqa sold tea and sharab, cold water mixed with Vimto, a thick, blood-red fruit juice flavoring. Together, she and Amina have become a formidable supplier of breakfast, lunch, tea, and cool drinks.

“We share work and sweat,” Deeqa says. “We are sisters.” She thinks she is twenty-five years old. Or, she might be thirty-seven. The truth most likely lies somewhere in between but exact ages are not as relevant as the fact of survival for those on the fringes.

Amina is quiet and steady, seamless in her labor, her mind on the work, the timing, and the money. Or lack of money. Or lack of produce. She is taller and stockier, more careful with her scarf and maintains a calm focus on the flow of food. She has no patience for flirtations or joking. Deeqa’s lower lip protrudes and she pulls it in when she laughs, often and loud, scratchy like a smoker. Her lower belly also protrudes and she tucks her shiid up in the front rather than on the sides under her armpits like Amina, which gives her the appearance of a front-heavy pear or a pregnant woman.

“I don’t have time for more babies,” Deeqa says, though. “I’ve got my daughter and my husband divorced me. No more men, no more babies. That’s fine with me.”

Deeqa isn’t clear about why she and her husband got a divorce. She suspects their troubles stemmed from her cesarean section. Divorces over c-sections aren’t unheard of. Deeqa is content to raise and provide for her daughter, content to not worry about also providing for a husband or another baby.

This doesn’t stop her from scooping extra beans or giving tea to men she knows won’t pay. She doesn’t even bother to write down their names. She smiles, they ask her to marry them, she insults them, “Aabo wus,” father-fucker.

Deeqa’s job includes bringing the day’s supply of meat just before breakfast. She walks from the bus stop, hauling a white rice sack of supplies with another woman, each of them holding one corner of the bag and swaying back and forth in a coordinated gait. The first thing she does when she reaches Amina is remove her red shalmad. She wears a bright purple or green masar, smaller and tighter over her hair, and drapes the bulkier scarf over a meter-high wooden pole jutting at an angle from the ground on their corner. The scarf hangs like a siren, a bright marker against the background of desert and towering white security walls. Deeqa is here.

Today, Deeqa rides in a taxi like Amina instructed her and Amina calls out, “Where did you find that taxi? That’s a boy. A baby can’t drive a taxi.”

She is visibly relieved and cracks a fleeting smile. The driver lugs old USAID satchels of potatoes, onions, tomatoes, hot peppers, and garlic to the restaurant. Amina grabs an onion. A yellow plastic bag is tied around her thumb to protect from blisters and the knife blade and she drops onion chunks into a ten-liter capacity bowl at her feet, finishing one before Deeqa has the chance to toss her shalmad.

Most of the supplies are bought on credit or through an exchange of goods and services, little hard currency changes hands except at the end of the month when the construction workers receive their salaries, pay what they owe to Amina. No one charges interest and no one claims collateral, communal pressure provides the necessary accountability.

Amina relies on water from one of the new, occupied houses. She fills her jugs from a yellow hose the gardener tugs outside the front gate. Later, she delivers kilos of ground sorghum flour in exchange. A woman with a raisin-wrinkled face and calloused feet walks through the neighborhood a few times per week and exchanges whole cumin or black pepper kernels, which she carries in cut-off plastic water bottles, for meals and tea. She receives half a baguette or a cup of Vimto.

Deeqa bends from the waist, her legs and back straight, and filters tea through a strainer into two thermoses. She cracks open two cans of sweetened condensed milk with the blade edge of a knife, folds back the top, and adds it to the tea. She pours the thermoses back and forth to mix and drinks the dregs from the condensed milk cans. Amina’s hands pick up the pace and she tosses more tomatoes into the beans.

Here come the men. Amina has enough time to add a few more hot pepper slices before they cross the street and no one will know how close she came to being shut down. They swoop in like a flock of crows, demanding, dogged, and covering the ground with little respect for personal space.

The men don’t behave indifferently and brusque out of callousness or patriarchy or laziness. They are as bound to their labor as Amina is to hers. They work from six in the morning until late in the afternoon with only ten minutes for breakfast, fifteen for lunch. Between hoisting buckets filled with cement and hammering and climbing up and down faux-marble stairs, their muscles burn and sweat darkens their shirts from the neck to the waist.

There is no time to debate issues of gender-influenced labor roles. There are no accusations of selfishness, of taking advantage, no one demands a please or a thank you. The men need the women and the women need the men, and their system, hardened and brutal and efficient, works. There is little time for friendship, only time for nourishment, though in the laughter and the extra splashes of sauce, kindness emerges.

But there is always time for flirting, which is how I received two marriage proposals in two days. And a third, sideways proposal in the form of a rebuke for not introducing one of the workers to my father, who could arrange a marriage between us had he not lived in Minnesota, had I not already been married.

“Your husband has a good job?” Mohammed asks.

I nod.

“You could throw him away and I could throw my wife away and we could be happy.”

I quote a Somali proverb about a man who saw a camel in the sky and threw away the donkey in the yard. Ninka awrka cirka arkay dameerka heerka ayuu ka tuuray. The men laugh and bits of bread and beans fly from their mouths to the ground.

“Write in your notebook that there are three men here without wives.” I shade my eyes from the sun and squint up at a tall, narrow-hipped man in hiking books and a blue hardhat. “There are nine men here without wives. None of the men here have wives.” He flourishes his breakfast baguette at the other construction workers.

Half a dozen men ask me to find them wives and an older man rolls his eyes. “They all have wives already, a man without a wife isn’t any good.”

Suddenly breakfast is over and the men head back to their work sites. Most of the plates look nearly clean, only a few streaks of beans or puddles of oil left behind. There is no time to talk about the morning or for Amina and Deeqa to complain that now they must work faster because of the late vegetable delivery to prepare for lunch. There is only time for Amina to whisper, “Alhumdillalah,” while she uses the crusty butt ends of baguettes to swipe remaining beans. She shoves the food into her right cheek and chews, slices more onions, checks the position of the sun over her shoulder, calculates the timing until lunch. Praise Allah.

Amina survived that day but shortly afterwards she and Deeqa had to move. The house being worked on by the construction workers they served was nearly finished. Fewer men came and at inconsistent hours, just to add finishing touches. Things Amina only dreamed of like electricity wiring and water pumps and curlicues carved into plaster and staircase banisters and glass windows. The house remains empty a year and a half later, large and echoey and casting a massive afternoon shadow over Amina’s abandoned workspace. White chalk marks off the dimensions of a mansion to eventually be built on her corner. She gathered her supplies and moved to the next promising location, near the police station on Rue d’Arta. This one is not near new construction sites but near the main bus route.

She and Deeqa split up, still friends, but Deeqa wanted to try managing her own restaurant. There is not much open space on Rue d’Arta for new restaurants, each one wedged between others. Less room for flamboyancy and the women needed breathing room, which really meant they needed a space to call their own, even if it was simply a patch of dirt beneath warped wooden planks and cloth shades flapping in the wind.

Like the men she cooked for, like the woman carrying spices in plastic water bottles, Amina lives an itinerant life, ever on the lookout for where her skills might fit a niche, for where she can earn a few coins for bread and tea. Officially, it is unclear whether the employment statistics Amina is not included in have budged or not, but people working in these types of day labor jobs say not much has changed even while Djibouti explosively expands. That explosive expansion includes more restaurant and tea shops sprouting like mushrooms on street corners and in the shade of new construction sites. There are always women willing to cook and men hungry to eat. These women often lack the reading and writing skills or education or legal paperwork that could launch them into actual, statistically relevant careers. Amina is one among a horde, singular in her story but universal in her labor.

And she does have skills. She can cook, she can do basic math, she can show up and work hard, sweat streaming down her back. As long as Amina is able to work, customers will come for her pasta and rice, her fried onions and Vimto-flavored water. As long as Amina is able to work, she will remain unemployed and, insha Allah five franc at a time, she will pay down her debts. If God wills. • 8 December 2014

Rachel Pieh Jones is a writer raised in the Christian west who now lives in the Muslim east. Her work has been published in the Christian Science Monitor, the New York Times, and the Huffington Post among others. Find out more at her website here.
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