Ramadan in Djibouti

Life in the Port City

Port in Djibouti. James Jeffrey

It seems obvious that fasting between sunrise and sunset for the month of Ramadan would hurt productivity. But in the port city of Djibouti, East Africa’s premier trade hub, there can’t be any letup, even during Islam’s most holy month. The pressure is especially high this year, as landlocked neighbor Ethiopia’s burgeoning economy is proving insatiable and someone has to offload those ships.


Ramadan, which began on June 6, is a testing time for all those involved, especially if there’s work to be done. Every region tends to bring its own challenges. In northern Europe, Muslims have to contend with early sunrises, signaling the start of each day’s fast, and sunsets as late as 10 PM to mark the end of the fast. In the Horn of Africa, the sun tends to set at a more manageable 6:30. But beforehand, there are the hours of searing heat to contend with.

In Djibouti, all over the port’s quaysides, thin men toil away in temperatures averaging 100 degrees Fahrenheit that, with humidity, feel more like 110 degrees. The port’s 24-hour system of three eight-hour shifts mitigates some of the travails of Ramadan for those working outdoors—although not entirely. “It’s hard with Ramadan,” says one worker during the hottest afternoon shift, a vest bound around his forehead as a sweat rag. He’s standing out of the sun between trucks being filled from conveyor belts with bags of food aid destined for Ethiopia, which is experiencing its worst drought for decades. “We feel pain everywhere, for sure, it’s a struggle.”

The occasional worker admits to not fasting owing to the pressures of working in such heat, but the vast majority of dockside workers appear to adhere to the strictures of Ramadan. “Everyone here is fasting,” a man named Osmah tells me as he offloads wheat from the lee of a ship. His T-shirt is soaked through, whether with sweat or poured-over water—one permissible use of fluids to

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