BY: CHRIS PARCHER, CONTENT STRATEGIST, MORTARR
You may remember, a while back, that there was talk here on The Forum of revolution. A revolution changing the way people in urban communities live based off of the priorities they hold, such as experiences and location. You may also remember that this revolution was sprouting up in one area in particular, Minneapolis, Minn. and that leading the charge was a local architecture firm, DJR, and its founder and principal architect, Dean Dovolis.
The funny thing about revolutions is that they rarely stay contained to only one area. What is rare, however, is when they not only spread, but jump halfway across the world and begin to change an entire country. This is the story of how a Midwest revolution made its way to the Horn of Africa and the beautiful and storied nation of Djibouti.
It was in Minneapolis that this Minnesota-Djiboutian connection began. Dean and DJR were developing, as they had many times before, communities in the Twin Cities area for the large amount of Eastern African immigrants that were calling the area home. It was there that he met Diraneh Robleh, a Djiboutian native working in those communities developing real estate. “We actually met through a friend of mine,” says Diraneh. “I asked if he knew of anyone who could help from the architectural side, which led me to Dean.”
Diraneh was born in Sudan but when he was a small child, his family moved to nearby Djibouti, attempting to avoid the civil war raging in their homeland. Growing up, he developed a passion for the people and tribes living there, and for making their future a bright one. Everything culminated 3 years ago when Diraneh went home to visit family and, as he puts it, “Saw immense amount of business and interest in Djibouti due to its geographical location.”
You see, Djibouti, though a small country, holds a lot of strategic importance. As a country, it’s located right on the entrance of the Red Sea, leading directly to the Suez Canal one way and out to the Indian Ocean in the other. Due to this, the country’s capital and largest city, also called Djibouti, sits as a key port, with over two hundred ships passing near each and every day.
The country found itself thrust into the international spotlight after Sept. 11, 2001 when the United States obtained the rights to build a military base there, housing some ten-thousand troops. Not only was Djibouti important as a trade gateway between two halves of the world, but a place for military maneuvering by world superpowers as the nearby Middle East became a center point for conflict and strife. It was through this troubling time that the first promise of development came to Djibouti.
Throughout the last couple of decades, China has become very interested in the continent of Africa. By promising infrastructure development, the Chinese have gained access to the multitude of natural and manmade resources available. Djibouti was no different. Eager for the aforementioned promises by Chinese developers, agreements were made and infrastructure began to be built. It became quickly apparent, however, that what was being laid down in the borders of Djibouti was not intended for Djiboutians or their benefit.
The development by the Chinese within Djibouti showed little interest in the deep history and culture present in the region. Everything the Chinese did seemed to be solely for the benefit of the Chinese. Roads were only made to places where the Chinese wanted to go, and the buildings built were almost exclusively for Chinese-use only. And what was constructed showed little care for the environment they were building in, often electing to be built heavy with glass in Djibouti’s desert climate, creating an immense need for energy to regulate internal temperatures. With disappointments mounting, something needed to change for the Djiboutians. Lucky for them, an advocate was working hard half-a-planet away.
As the working relationship between Dean and Diraneh grew, so did Diraneh’s desire for Djiboutian-focused community development in his home country. “In my visit three years ago, I noticed there was a great need for proper infrastructure, starting with the airport and schools.” In an insane turnaround, it took only around sixty days from Diraneh’s suggestion that DJR bring their experience in urban development to Djibouti that Dean found himself on a plane headed across the ocean to help a country in desperate need of development for its citizens’ sake.
Dean and Diraneh found themselves meeting and presenting to the Djiboutian Ministry of Budget, using Diraneh’s expertise of the climate and culture in Djibouti and Dean’s in community development to lay out a proposal for sustainable urban growth and the infrastructure to support it. “For example,” Diraneh adds. “Djibouti is a really hot country; and currently they barely pull any power from solar. This has got to change.”
Out of these meetings came five major projects they’ve been asked to work on. “One is agriculture,” Dean explains. “They’ve already designated around two-hundred hectares to develop an area for aquaponic techniques. Another is an administrative building in the heart of the capital’s downtown. Another is the airport. They’ve also asked us to work on modular housing to support the immense growth of the city. Finally, they’re asking us to develop the shoreline for housing and commercial endeavors.”
As Dean and Diraneh return to Djibouti soon and present before the nation’s president, they’re hopeful for a future that gives Djiboutians the groundwork to thrive and grow both individually and as a country. “Part of our goal is to use our experience in urban development and train the Djiboutians to take it over and make it their own,” says Dean. “It’s essential that they own this process.”
For Diraneh, the chance to give his people and the country of his youth an opportunity to fulfill its potential is a dream come true. Through this friendship and connection that spans across the planet, the future for Djiboutians is bright and the effects of the work they’re doing will resonate many years down the road.