So Thursday night I went out to the English Discussion Group. Six of us went from the base, all men; a navy Commander (O-5), air force Colonel (O-6), two enlisted guys, a British colonel, and myself. We went to the Balbala English School to talk to the students and help them get more comfortable with the language.
The school itself is a little ways out of downtown in the "suburb" of Balbala. But this isn't what you'd call a suburb. It's a shanty town; you'd call it a slum if it was appreciably different from any other part of the city, but it's all about equally poor. The school itself is mostly made of rotten plywood and corrugated tin and has holes in the roof and a dirt floor and chicken wire for windows where the plywood has fallen apart. The students sit on moldy wooden benches and have narrow tables, not more than a foot deep, to write on.
The Balbala neighborhood is mostly just like the school, buildings made of corrugated tin and plywood, sometimes from scrap salvaged from ships that come into the Djibouti port to be dismantled. The main road is narrow, but paved, and choked with pedestrians, goats, running children, middle-aged men high on qat (bundles of which are for sale from dozens of identical stalls, all manned by women), more goats, and of course taxis and minivans (which are used as buses or large taxis) stopped in the middle of the road so the driver or passengers can talk to their friends. It's quite the obstacle course and demonstration of why you have to take a course to be permitted to drive in town here.
We did pass a few buildings made of more permanent stuff than plywood and tin: a mosque whose shabby stucco was falling off the building's corners in chunks, whose muezzin made the evening call to prayer as we were driving by and which not one person in the throng heeded; a restaurant with a mix of old tables and dozens of patrons, far more than would be allowed if there was a fire code, serving whole fish split open and grilled; a "cyber cafe" consisting of one small room with a single table and a single old computer, staffed by a greying man who sat behind the counter reading a French skin magazine. Balbala is a very interesting place.
As far as I know, this and the other English-language schools in town are a joint product of the US and UK embassies, and most instructional materials are donated by them. We go there under the auspices of the US Embassy, which suggests discussion topics each night. The point of the exercise is for us to help the kids get more comfortable using English (which is the third language for all the kids, sometimes the fourth (everyone learns French and Somali, and several of these kids probably speak Arabic)), but clearly the embassy picks topics to make the kids think about how their culture compares to the West.
So last night's discussion topic was, "What is the right age to get married? What is the right age to have children, and how many children should you have?" As I said, the kids could discuss soccer and get plenty of practice in English; the embassy obviously has an agenda with these questions.
And let me tell you, if we're going to save these people--well, if we're going to export Western cultural values to them, whether that qualifies as saving or damning I don't know--it's going to be through the women, not the men. The students who attended this discussion group were mostly between 14 and 16, although at least one fellow was near 20 and there were several younger kids who didn't say anything. There were five girls, and at least 20 or 25 boys. This was a small room and seating was tight; I myself ended up on the corner of a table (all the girls sat next to me, which one of the colonels mentioned on the way home in the van, to which I said, well golly, if I was a girl I'd sit next to me, too). This was an all-Muslim crowd (apart from the six of us from the base). The boys pointed out that the Prophet says they can get married at 15, and should be married by 20. One of the boys mentioned that Somali custom was that you could marry at 14 (!).
The girls would have none of that. At 14, you don't have a job, you're still in school or should be, and no way would they marry any boy at that age because how could he provide for them? The older boy said that he agreed, and although you COULD marry at 15, he wasn't married and thought the right age to get married was around 27 or 28, because then you're established and can support your wife and children. While of course I agree I think this is very interesting, because the life expectancy in Djibouti is only in the high 40s--so if you marry at 27, you've got maybe a dozen years to be married. And that means your kids are orphaned at 12 and younger. (That said, although the CIA says life expectancy is 48 or so, these kids live in the city and all their parents are still alive, and I think they probably expect to see 60 or 65 and with good reason; they're all trilingual or better and they'll all get decent jobs, at least as good as are available in Djibouti, and make enough money to eat well and stay healthy.)
Then of course there was the question of children. Opinions varied widely. The girls said maybe as many as four. The boys were all over the map--the oldest one said three or four, some of the youngers ones said eight, ten--and one boy said he wanted to have two daughters and 13 sons.
We couldn't let that one pass; our group leader asked this boy what he thought about the fact that if everybody had two daughters and thirteen sons, and if sons can marry four wives (of course all the boys said they'd have four wives)... well, where are all the wives going to come from? And then, too, if you have ten children, and each of them has ten children... well, Djibouti has a food problem already. How will that affect the future for your grandchildren if there are so many more people? The kids didn't really answer either of those questions, and I wouldn't have expected them to (they were 14; what were they going to say?), but the girls all said, they would not marry a man if he didn't have a decent job, they were all going to work outside the home, they would not allow their husband to marry a second wife (a man must have his wife's permission to take another wife, and must treat all his wives equally, according to Islamic scripture), and they would not consent to being the second (or third or fourth) wife of any man. Furthermore, they weren't going to be having ten kids, no way. And if they worked outside the home, by golly they were going to dictate where the money went: support the kids, support the parents (it's fully expected that children will send part of their income to the parents as long as the parents are living), and they weren't just going to hand over the money to their husbands, who would just buy qat with it anyway.
Of course this led some of the older boys to say that these Western ideas had made the women irresponsible and now they were not good wives. Of course we didn't say anything but I think all of us privately said Amen. I know I did.