Petty Officer 3rd Class Casey Matthews wrote
On August 10, 2011, Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 5, a small team of 11 Navy seabees, one Marine sergeant, and one Air Force senior airman began a journey to a remote town in western Djibouti–Dikhil. Their mission was to relieve Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 74, and finish a primary school in the even smaller village of Kontali. The town of Dikhil has approximately 40,000 people living in town and the surrounding villages. Our only line of support was a two-and-a-half-hour convoy from Camp Lemonnier, a forward deployed Naval facility in the country’s capital Djibouti City. Our mission was clear, finish the primary school and work on partnering with the indigenous population.
The crew knew how to finish the school, but partnering with the locals was new to each of us. We quickly figured out that simple gestures such as saying “hello” in a local language would start the process of integrating us into the community. Being good neighbors was the key to establishing good relationships. The children of Kontali were quick to pick up on our openness and love for children.
Within a week, a father, worried for the health of his son, Mohammed, asked us for help. Mohammed had tripped on a stone three months earlier and had a laceration on his ankle and contusions on his head that were severely infected. The crew, with approval, cleaned his wounds and dressed them. Mohammed was running and playing a few days later.
It was a great start to build trust between us and the people of Kontali, but it didn’t end there. Soon afterward, two women from the village were bitten by a snake and rushed to the local hospital in Dikhil. Upon hearing of this, several members of the team decided pay the women a visit to wish them a speedy recovery. One of the ladies who was already under the care of her friend, commented that she could not believe the American’s had come to simply wish her well. When we left, she claimed her opinion of Americans had changed completely.
Unfortunately, tragedy was about ready to strike again, a neighborhood man passed away from natural causes at the untimely age of 35. With our translator leading the way, we went to his father’s home to pay our respects. When we left, he was in tears with gratitude. The next day, he came by to express his gratitude and help us to become a part of the community. We decided to host a luncheon in our team house and break bread together with a few of the neighbors also in attendance. On the day of the lunch, the second day of Eid, we cooked a large meal, pulled the crew from the jobsite and feasted with our newly found friends. Both men were retired, one retired as the major general of the Dikhil province, the other was retired from the exalted position as minister of energy. We forged new and hopefully lasting friendships.
As the days go by, we have felt a sense of welcoming in the towns of Dikhil and Kontali. Today, we cannot walk the streets without receiving greetings and well wishes from the local populace our new friends.