When my youngest was born one of the highlights of our weeks was going to Camp Lemonier, the American military base in Djibouti. Officially, we went for chapel—English sermon, semi-familiar songs. But honestly? We went for the two hours of free, frigid air conditioning and the possibility of a quick stop at the store for American snack foods and maybe a recent issue of Runner’s World magazine.
In those days there weren’t many non-Djiboutian American kids in Djibouti, three of them were my own. Children and women in civilian attire were rarely seen at Camp Lemonier and we drew quite a bit of attention on those Sunday evenings.
For our kids, this was fantastic as it meant they left the base with pockets stuffed full with candy bars or jellybeans or Halloween candy or cans of root beer. Once as an American family was leaving, a couple of armed soldiers shouted, “wait, wait!” and shone searchlights on them. The family wondered what they had done wrong, security is tight, and waited. The soldiers ran to them and handed the kids fistfuls of candy. “We just wanted to say have a nice night,” they said.
I’ve never felt quite at ease at Camp Lemonier. Military life isn’t something I thought much about until we lived here. I don’t like guns or violence and I’m ambivalent about war. Yet the longer I live abroad, the more grateful I am for the freedoms I have in America, even while I recognize that so many other nations enjoy similar freedoms. There are a lot of bad guys out there and I don’t think they should be allowed to roam free kidnapping schoolgirls or taking Saturday afternoon mall shoppers hostage. Al-Shabaab in our region, Boko Haram further west in Nigeria, al-Qaeda to the north in Yemen.
I know military and force is sometimes necessary. But watching my children receive Butterfingers from men holding automatic rifles and dressed in full fatigues is something I don’t think I will get used to.
Sometimes I feel like we are suffering as civilians in Djibouti and that the military personnel have it easy. What a life! Air conditioning, American food, movies in an actual movie theater, Subway sandwiches, strawberries and ice cream. But what a fool I am to think that. These are trivial perks that bring momentary relief. These men and women are working far from their families and loved ones and they don’t have the time, off-base freedoms, or opportunities to engage in the local culture very often.
The things I struggle with as an expat—loneliness, culture shock, language frustration … are balanced by the deeply satisfying relationships I form, by the moments of cultural success, by the broadening of my worldview as it is stretched in relating to people so different from my background. Plus, and significantly, I have my family with me. No amount of air conditioning or ice cream could improve on these perks of the civilian expatriate life.
When Lucy was seven months old we attended an Easter service at Camp Lemonier. The chapel was filled, almost to overflowing. Lucy cried. She cried and cried. It was past bedtime, she wanted to nurse, she didn’t like that free, frigid air conditioning. I bounced and cajoled her and eventually took her outside to the chapel porch, frustrated because I wanted to be in the service and I didn’t want to have sweat pooling in my lower back while I held the only crying baby at the camp.
After the service, people poured out through the narrow doorway. One man, a particularly large soldier in full gear, approached. He had tears in his eyes and rested a broad palm against Lucy’s back.
“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for letting her cry during the service.” He got choked up and swallowed hard. “My wife just gave birth and I haven’t met our daughter yet. A baby crying is music.”
That Easter was eight years ago and I have never forgotten that man or his words. I think of him every time we go to the base, which has been less often in recent years. In a way, his few but heartfelt words have influenced my parenting.
First, he reminded me that children are a gift, that the ability to squeeze my daughter close, to be with her whether she was cooing or crying, was a treasure. His words remind me of the beauty and I hold in my memory the picture of this tough, brave soldier crying for love of his baby, thankful for the crying of my baby.
Second, he exemplified a love that crosses miles, a love that is sustained despite painful choices and the career options, or anything else, that separate families. Sometimes when people hear my children are at boarding school they say, “I love my children too much to do that.” I have an assortment of snarky responses to this but in the deep waters of my soul I know that some people understand. There is a love that knows no distance. It is heartbreaking and reduces the strongest among us to tears, but it is true and unshakeable.
Lucy and I went back to Camp Lemonier in May this year. She participated in a Girl Scouts bridging ceremony at one of the only bridges in the city—a short wooden porch outside the coffee shop, we pretended it was a bridge. Then she handed out miniature American flags, this girl who was born in Djibouti and calls herself American African. This girl who cried at an Easter service and brought a serviceman to tears. This girl who is a gift and who has crossed miles, who is learning about love over distances—siblings at boarding school in Kenya, grandparents in Minnesota, a dad currently doing PhD research in Somalia.
I still don’t feel quite comfortable at Camp Lemonier. All that barbed wire and the ‘Deadly Force Authorized’ signs and the weaponry. But at the same time, I feel an affinity for the soldiers, especially the parents. And somehow, though we don’t know each other, it is comforts me to know that just a few miles from my home in Djibouti there are other parents who feel what I feel when reduced to Skype calls with children and the occasional visit home. Parents who live with that stabbing love that knows no distance.
Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.
Photo by: Lyn Englin