D.L. Mayfield

living in the upside-down kingdom

Filtering by Tag: Djibouti

Authentic Mobility: Guest Post by Rachel Pieh Jones

*****Quick plug: I wrote something on the Trayvon Martin case for Out of Ur. You can find that article here.******



Rachel Pieh Jones has shared her astounding thoughts in this space before, and I was thrilled when she agreed to tackle this subject. Her post resonated so much with me, because I too find myself in so many seemingly contradictory spaces--and I am learning to love them all. Rachel continually inspires me with her commitment to celebrating her life (while not white-washing it either). I call her the "Katherine Boo" of Djibouti, since this is one lady who has definitely earned her facts. If you are anything like me (and even if you aren't) I am positive you will find this piece to be both relatable and encouraging. 



Authentic Mobility: Guest Post by Rachel Pieh Jones

I haven’t thought much about downward mobility but I have thought a lot about moving toward need.

Not just moving toward need but moving toward need and bringing comfort, attention, and affection. Bringing Jesus, dignity, and relationship. And not just bringing these things to deliver, but bearing them in my skin and in my soul and receiving them back.

I don’t view need in purely economic terms, but also in community and spiritual terms. A wealthy, childless widow. A toddler begging on the street corner. A man searching for peace in Islam, then Buddhism, then pot. My own vulnerability and loneliness.

I spent last Wednesday with two other expatriates in a Djiboutian village. We visited fifteen members of the Girls Run 2 club I helped to start in 2008. Eighteen of us, plus more than a dozen neighborhood children, sat in an unlit cement room, and talked about running and school and family responsibilities.

Some of the girls have electricity, none have running water. Some have at least one permanent structure to call part of their home, some have walls made of sticks and flattened powdered milk cans and t-shirts. All of them are required by club rules to be in school. Most of them come from large families where the emphasis is on survival and hard labor – hauling water, scrubbing clothes, herding sheep, walking four miles to school, there is little time for affection or personal attention.

After all the girls arrived, after we kissed hands and cheeks, and after I had asked each of them about their running events and best times, about their dreams for their future, their favorite subjects in school, and what their mothers thought about them running, we walked to the car.

The Land Cruiser was heavy with thirty twenty-pound boxes of rice, with additional nutrients, from Feed My Starving Children. Each member of the club received one box and the extra were left at the stadium for when they needed more.

Then I drove the two hours home to Djibouti City and read an email about my upcoming family reunion this Christmas in Disney World.

And I cried.

I cried for the confusion and the contradiction in it. I cried for the joy I felt sitting in the dark room with the running team and for the joy I felt thinking about Christmas with my entire family, including a newly adopted niece I have never met. I wept for the joy in the conversation with the other expats in the car on the drive, about prayer and comfort and brokenness and Jesus.

I need God to show me how to live in this life of authentic engagement with girls in the depths of poverty, girls with strength and dignity, girls who crave and thrive on physical touch and individual attention, and at the same time how to live in a life of Land Cruisers and Disney World with my beloved family.

I think the way to live this life is to live like Jesus, to be always on the move toward need. My own and others’.

The girls in that village needed food. But they also needed to talk about school and their training. They needed to be told they are precious. They needed to hold my hand while they talked about mentally unstable fathers and dead babies. I needed to hear them laugh and I needed to watch them care for their siblings and their parents and each other. I needed to hear them defend their fellow runner who has never been to school before and can’t write her own name yet. I needed to know their names and their unique stories, unique personalities. And so we moved toward one another, meeting in our need-places.

My family needs to be together. We have said goodbye and been separated so many times over the years. My parents need to draw their four children from the four corners of the earth to celebrate who we are and to delight in each other for a week. I need to hold my new niece and hear my nephew explain Lacrosse to this clueless aunt. I need to hear how God is moving in my brother. I need to watch my children tackle their grandparents. And so we move toward one another, meeting in our need-places.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to go to Disney World with my family. I would be lying if I said I didn’t want to sit in the cement room with the team. And I would be lying if I hid one side of this life from the other, that feels disingenuous. But this, this moving toward need with the confused-crying and the releasing-joy of it, feels like authenticity.

It feels like authentic mobility. Not necessarily downward or upward, possibly both. I move both ways in my Djibouti life and while it feels like a split down my middle some days, on most days it feels true and honest.

Sometimes moving toward need means bringing rice to hungry families and accepting a chilled Coke from them. Sometimes it means going to Disney World and accepting the gift of family. Sometimes it means bringing my own brokenness into the conversation and accepting the step of someone moving toward me, bearing Jesus in the soul and in the skin.




downward1Doesn't she just look like the coolest/nicest War Photographer ever? Rachel can be found here: Blog: Djibouti Jones, Twitter: @RachelPiehJones, Facebook: Rachel Pieh Jones







For more in the Downward Mobility series, click here.

War Photographer: Rachel Pieh Jones

True Confessions: I have a girl crush on Rachel Pieh Jones. She lives in Djibouti! She is fluent in several languages! She has written for the NYTimes! She has really amazing hair! I could go on and on, really. But what I love most about her is her desire to be real at all times in her writing. She is one of the best examples I have seen of writing with your entire audience in mind (and trust me, she has a very diverse readership). And that stems simply from her entering into relationships with people--they will never simply be props for her. I'm beyond thrilled to have her wise words here with us today.





Bridges for the Brave

They're cool, interesting kids, and I want the reader to sense that, too. Because we can talk all we want about how corruption or indifference robs people of opportunity - of the promise our societies squander - but if we don't really grasp the intelligences of those who are being denied, we're not going to grasp the potential that's being lost. But a funny thing happens when you spend nearly four years at the bottom. You see them as people. You see how their stories, despite the details of filth and stink and crime, are really not so different from ours.” Katherine Boo


I am in the proposal-writing stage of a book about Djibouti, Somali women, Muslims, and faith. This is dangerous and slightly terrifying because though I do have faith, which has evolved over ten years in Somalia and Djibouti, I am not Djiboutian or Somali or Muslim. And yet.

I am compelled to write. Because, like Boo says, after years living among people, you find out their stories are really not so different. I’m compelled to write their stories and my stories and the way they interact. Awkward, painful, life-giving, thrilling. Always in process.

Part of writing these stories is selfish. Writing helps decompress and life in this developing country overwhelms. If I don’t take pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, the weight and emotions and confusions cloud my ability to see and hear. A mentor used to say, “Thoughts untangle themselves over the lips and through the fingertips.” In life outside writing, my words emerge in Somali or French and tangle themselves so badly in the speaking that to untangle them, I turn to the written word.

But also, this compelling comes from what I hear in Djibouti and what I hear in Minnesota, from what I see on bookshelves. Or don’t see on bookshelves.

Book covers of burka-clad women in shadows or only the slit of eyes in a black cloth. Other. Them. Those people. I see an Iranian woman in a suburban post office and no one speaks to her. I see an American in Djibouti and children throw stones at her. I see a Somali cashier at Target in Minneapolis working on Eid and she cries when I say, “Eid Mubarak,” because few non-Muslims know it is her high holiday. I hear Christians at the French Protestant church in Djibouti reciting the Lord's prayer at the same time as the call to prayer rings out from the mosque across the street.

I see people living separate, divided lives, sometimes out of fear and sometimes out of ignorance. Often out of simply not giving a damn. But we need to give a damn because the lives of Muslims and Christians, Somalis and Libyans and Pakistanis and Palestinians and Americans are not separate anymore. "Those people" are now neighbors, the "other" is a classmate or a coworker.

Western photography, movies, and books often present Muslim women as one of two types: the prisoner or the escapee. Either a Muslim woman is trapped in her culture and religion by an abusive husband, oppressive politics, and poverty (Jean Sasson’s Princess series) or a Muslim woman has “escaped” to the supposedly enlightened West (Ayan Hirsi’s Infidel). Rarely in this ‘enlightened’ art is there a picture of the Muslim woman as a flawed (read normal) human being, pursuing an education or career, dealing with family issues, struggling to understand her place in life, and who is content in her religion, not abused, pleased with her modesty, and has no thoughts about fleeing to the west.

This is one of the stories I aim to write. I am not (cringe) a ‘voice for the voiceless.’ Muslim women have powerful voices and are being increasingly heard from around the world. I don’t imagine I have everything right when I explore this world with my friends. This is why I invite Muslims to help me edit, talk me through difficulties, lend me books, straighten my thinking. And this is why I feel led to use my own voice, to be present in the stories I write. So it is as clear as possible that these words are filtering through my own peculiar experiences and perspective.

As I grow in writing, experience, courage, knowledge, intimacy, I dream of writing like Katherine Boo – self completely absent, the portrait of humanity presented with clarity and compassion but not pity or false heroism. I have not reached that level of wisdom or self-perception – to see when the story is stronger without me in it.

I’m not there yet but I do have a vision for my current way of writing. I see this kind of writing, my war photography, as a bridge for the brave. For those who recognize the need to move beyond mere dialogue with the Other into interaction and engagement, into meaningful and mutual relationship.

The Midwestern-evangelical-Jesus-loving-American in me can relate when people are afraid of the Iranian woman in the post office, or intimidated, or could care less. The decade-in-the-Horn-of-Africa, Somali-speaking, Islam-studying, Muslim-women-befriending-and-coworking part of me can relate to the scarf (wear it sometimes), the Quran (read it through in three languages), issues of shame and honor (have experienced both).

And for now I believe there is value in being present. For better or worse, it is often easier to hear from, trust, and relate to someone like you. My writing is an effort to go first, with the desire that some will join. I write so the people I am like can relate and not be so isolated and so the people I am not like can hear how it feels to be ‘outside.’ When someone needs to admit to feeling left out while Muslim women go to pray, I write it. When someone needs to experience the difficulty and spirituality of the Ramadan fast, I write it. And then confess to cheating on it.

These words are a bridge. I see the people (the glory and the gory) with whom I love and cry and sweat and laugh here in Djibouti and I see the people who live where I used to live and think what I used to think and fear what I used to fear and I pray the stories help them cross this great divide. I pray people will read and learn and look deeper than the words. That they will lay down prejudice and fear, take up courage and humility, and cross over to the other side with hands extended.

War photographers and war storytellers weave cables and throw down cement and construct archways and erect bridges for the brave. The question lingering behind every well-crafted, unsentimental, and true story, the question offered to all who will gaze with gravity, is: Will you cross?

Blog: Djibouti Jones, Twitter: @RachelPiehJones, Facebook: Rachel Pieh Jones






For all posts in the War Photographer series, just click on the category by the top of the post.

Powered by Squarespace. Background image by Kmayfield