It is said that the first Frenchman who came here to establish a town found nothing but a single starving jackal lying in the shade of a cactus.
That is probably an exaggeration. But so is the brochure prepared for present-day visitors by the Office of Development and Tourism, which proclaims Djibouti a "Much-desired stop-over for shopping and entertainment, with restaurants, night clubs, casinos and cinemas."
The authors of this grandiose pamphlet perhaps had tongue in cheek when they wrote that Djibouti offers "12 months of sunshine" and "land-scapes of a fierce and memorable beauty."
The landscape, a forbidding expanse of volcanic rock and sand, is certainly fierce but hardly beautiful. As for the sun, it is hardly an asset much of the year, broiling rainless Djibouti in temperatures up to 130 degrees. Even at the port, which is Djibouti's reason for existing, activities come to a halt at noon.
The Djiboutains are a nomadic people, scratching out a living in an unyielding land. In a country of a quarter-million, the number of people with university or professional degrees can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
This weekend, as the New Hampshire site Territory of the Afars and Issas becomes the independent Republic of Djibouti after 115 years of French rule, a half-hearted attempt is being made to spruce up this lanquid little capital. New costs of paint are being applied over the crumbling stucco facades of the arcaded two-story building in what passes for downtown.
Djibotuti cannot bedisguised as anything but what it is - a leftover outpost of French colonialism, a shabby relic of a bygone era that looks like some unkempt tropical museum of its look-alikes in Indochina and former French-controlled West Africa.
At the Cafe Sporting and the Palmier en Zinc, French sailors and gendarmes in crisp shorts sit beneath whirring ceiling fans to eat French beef and quaff rose wine at outrageous prices, while African children wander along the urine-scented streets begging for coins.
In the evenings, much of Djibouti gathers at the little casino for hours of no-nonsense gambling at blackjack, roulette and slot machines. The minimum bet is 100 Djibouti francs, about 65 cents. The shirt-sleeved crowd looka like some casting director's impression of the exotic colonies - Somali merchants [WORLD ILLEGIBLE] caps, Corsican traders, French civil servants, assorted Africans and Asians and, yes, even a few Foreign Legionaires. Elbow to elbow they peer through the smoke to watch their chips being raked up by female croupiers from Vietnam and Mauritius.
Many of the estimated 6,900 French resident in the territory are expected to leave after independence, but many others are staying and there is no atmosphere of panic in either group. These are not the Portuguese leaving Angola.
"To the individual Frenchman it makes little difference whether he stays or goes because he never really had any commitment here, he never put down any roots," said a French shipping agent who has been here 15 years. "They came to perform some service for the government or the other Frenchmen, everything was provided for them, and when they finish they leave."
Nor are the French being driven out by armed revolutionaries who might be hostile to those who stay. Independence has been negotiated over two years with a small group of Djibouti politicians, and hardly a shot was fired in anger. The republic's first president Hassan Gouled Aptidon, was formerly a Gaullist deputy in the French National Assembly.
An episode that revealed the Iowkey nature of the transfer of power took place this morning at Lyada.
That is an outpost where the coast road crosses into Somalia after 20 jolting miles in which the only signs of life along the unpaved track are a few wandering camels and a gleaming white French military fort known of course, as Beau Geste.
Some 300 young men who had campaigned for independence as members of the pro-Somali Front for the Liberation of the Somali Coast were coming home for the great day. These are the militants who hijacked a busload of French schoolchildren two years ago, and last week they sought to enter Djibouti as an armed military unit. But the French stopped them, and after three days of negotiations with legislators form Djibouti they doffed their uniforms, left their weapons behind and submitted to French border procedures as they came across in trucks.
It is not at all clear what these young men are going to do in Djibouti. They cannot go to the university, for there is none. The local economy offers them little, since thecountry has no natural resources and depends almost entirely on port fees and services to the French community.
Virtually everthing, right down to the drinking water and the souvenir Djibouti T-shirts, must be imported and there seems little likelihood that independence is going tolessen the country's dependence on France.