Honoring Mothers, Djibouti Style

Beautiful Djiboutian mothers, honored for good reason


A few years ago an expatriate woman was robbed while walking through a Djiboutian neighborhood to visit a friend. The culprit stole her bag and knocked her down and then bolted.

The moment he released her, people poured out of their homes to make sure she hadn’t been stabbed, wasn’t bleeding. They brushed off dirt, grabbed her hands, and marched her to the police station, incensed that this would be done to a foreigner on their turf.

Two dozen eye witnesses and a history of small theft meant the thief’s identity was no mystery. But his location remained a mystery. After the police scoured the vicinity and failed to find him, they (gently) threw his mother into jail.

This not-super-common technique is supposed to shame him into turning himself in. If the boy doesn’t turn up, his father will be next. Then his siblings, one by one. But I have never heard of familial arrests moving beyond the mother. No man can withstand the humiliation of allowing his mother to languish in jail while the entire community watches.

Ten years ago in Somalia our guard was involved in a car accident. He spent the night hiding with friends and his mother spent the night in jail. The next morning he turned himself in.

This shame-casting event for the son is, in a rather round-about way, an honor to his mother and proves how valuable she is to the family.

Of course Djibouti has other, less arresting ways of honoring mothers. There is a proverb that says ‘mothers are the most expensive.’ Folk tales and day-to-day real life stories abound of women who overcome obstacles and make sacrifices on behalf of their children. Mothers are given respect and honor and praise throughout the year.

And while I want to keep this post light-hearted, I do have a heavy heart regarding motherhood. Mothers in Djibouti are honored with good reason. Motherhood is a dangerous undertaking, for more serious reasons than risking arrest. The maternal mortality rate in Djibouti is 300/100,000 live births. In Burundi, it is 970/100,000 live births. In the UK, that number is 8.6/100,000. So while I joke about mothers tossed into jail, I want to also remember that there is a very good reason to honor the women who, literally, put their lives on the line to raise the next generation.

To the women in Djibouti who have mothered me into the culture: Thank you. You held my hand when my birth mother left. You held my baby during the celebration song for her birth-party. You taught me how to cook from scratch. You taught me how to speak Somali and how to dress appropriately for this country. You accompanied me to the jail, not to be put behind bars but to help capture a thief. You sacrificed a goat for me and helped me chop ten kilos of onions for a feast. I am happy to honor you on Mother’s Day.

mother3To my own mother: Mom, I know I forget Mother’s Day. My excuse is that I see no advertisements, no commercials, no boxed chocolates or Hallmark cards or flower bouquets. My other excuse is that Mother’s Day in Djibouti is celebrated on a different day, with infinitely less hoopla. Usually the way I know it is Mother’s Day is because I get a lump of clay molded into a mysterious shape by one of my elementary-aged children. It says, “Je t’aime maman.” And then I remember that I forgot to wish you a Happy Mother’s Day.

So this year, maman, you have two things to be thankful for. One, I remembered. Two, you aren’t in jail. Are you?

How does your culture honor mothers?

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