Letter of Gratitude to a Friend

Hey, just to let you know. Today I had to fire one person and tell the rest of my team that they were all going on a non-voluntary 3 week vacation starting the beginning of January. It was not an easy task (certainly not in English let alone in French, a language I am by no means fluent in) but I followed your advice and I found it to be spot on.

It helped immensely, not just with my own nerves as letting people go is not something I am experienced at, but I think it helped others hear the information as well. People are, of course, tougher in these situations than many are given credit for but it still hurts both the person giving the information and the person receiving. Yet your advice brought a measure of dignity to the situation.

I was able to use it to frame the message better, not too cold but not too sympathetic either. I think it was important for me to learn that in this situation a person’s dignity is not necessarily upheld by treating them too softly. One should be, though, open and receptive to sharing this pain if it feels like the space is being offered, needed.

I think people can and do find strength in the one who is delivering difficult news. A manager needs to be that for other people and to do that a manager must overcome him/herself. Being less emotional than one feels, a manager is in effect making a kind of self sacrifice (in those cases that the manager actually feels emotional). I certainly was emotional and had to come to grips with the reality of what was needed of me and not cave to what I thought was expected of me as a sympathetic human being or to what I was feeling at the moment. It was counter intuitive but once I adopted the right disposition, I found that I was in fact being a better manager for them by adopting that role. So all of that is just to say thanks. It was some of the most useful and applicable advice I have gotten from someone. You showed your capacity to accompany me from a distance and that is a rare thing.

Manuel

Chromogram

If our way of life, modern and technological, is a work of art
It is certainly a beautiful one among them

Clean lines, subtle and vibrant color schemes
Endless metamorphosis of interpretation

We have used the finest materials
We have spared no expense
We have restricted no hand

Yet if our way of life is a work of art
It may also be short lived

A mandala experiment in the throws of its finishing touches

Look, the artist has become attached
She has fallen
in love

Can a preface be written to these grains of color?
I am simple
I am your permanent exhibit
You made promises
My flaws are yours
Created
Creator
Curator

You should know by now the gods are little satisfied to let remain
What hangs on walls
What rests on floors is

Swept up in the moment
Swept up in laughter

Tragedy does not contemplate its empty foyer
It only knows itself, and mourns.

Un Jour Férié

It must have been around 3 or 4 in the morning when I woke up to a still, pre-dawn darkness. This far removed from the reach of ‘the outside’, I have felt the hours between midnight and morning to constitute something of a natural vigil. There rested the familiar backdrop of silence. But I slowly recognized an echo overlay, a pulsing shrill of ululation, the baying of donkey’s, the excited chatter of chickens all raising their voices in celebration with my nearby neighbors. Eid was starting earlier than I expected.

As I lay there in the darkness, I softly contemplated getting up, slipping out of the base, and making my way unseen to the origin of my intrigue. I would lean my head around a red clay wall and encounter the image of a family encircling a courtyard fire slaying a mutton for the days feast, the faint illumination of grass huts framing the witching hour ritual of gratitude. That is what I imagined at least and I am sure I was not far off the mark. There was nothing in me, though, that could bring me out of bed at that particular moment.

The next time I was conscious it was 6:34 am, this time the sun was fully out and the heat of the day was already predicting itself. It was the cow bell clunk of the guard ringing for me that woke me up. Why so early on a holiday? By this time I have almost given up the feeling that develops in my stomach when I hear that sound, almost. I nearly always hear it just as I am getting ready to take the only rest I get during the day and it takes everything I have to get back up again and see what trivial matter demands my attention. Usually it is to get the keys to open the storage rooms or to give permission for someone to take a car to the market or, in the case of today, to receive one of the many letters, invitations, or notifications that are delivered by hand to my door. It was a letter from the Sultan of this region, who is also my next door neighbor, evident by the seal it was stamped with. I sat down next to one of my guards to read it in one of the remarkably hard and uncomfortably rough assembled varnished plywood chairs that are so common here and are inevitably in some stage of falling apart.

I opened the letter and it started out in the overly formal style that is both peculiar to French and to communications between people who occupy official capacities. Not boring you with the details it was, in effect, a letter that was simply asking for access to electricity during the day, an addition to the access he already enjoys from us during the evening. He was, some time ago, given permission by UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) to tap into the generator that supplies the electricity to our base, a line item in our budget which is paid for by that UN office. What the Sultan does not realize is that the generator that runs power to our base during the day is a JRS generator and none of the fuel or maintenance for that machine is paid for by the UN. This morning’s first business was to put a relational dilemma in my hands.

At around 7:50 am it was time for me to take the internet repair technician to the airport. Check in was at 8 am and the flight at 9 am. Ludo is a Cameroonian who was crushed with boredom the entire 4 days he was here, 4 days that I was very grateful for. He repeated several times that he is one of the only consultants from Cameroon that will take a job in Chad and it was clear he was itching to return. As I got into the land rover and turned the key, I was met with nothing. The dash indicators did not light up and the engine did not turn. My instincts quickly pointed me toward the light switch which was turned toward the on position. That piece of handwork was my driver’s from the day before when I told him he needed to get the headlights fixed at the garage and he came back without the headlights fixed. We tested them and the brights were still burnt out. Anyway, It was clear the battery was dead. Damn.

Not to worry, though. The vehicles I have been driving have been leaving me spontaneously stranded in just this fashion for the last two weeks. I could just get some people to push this 2 tons of metal down the dirt path outside my base, pop the clutch in 2nd, and get this convoy moving. A guard and Ludo took up the task. They had the advantage of a slight slope so as the car lumbered backwards out of the drive I waited till it took some speed and…the engine labored once and died. Maybe it did not gain enough speed. I enlisted the help of a passer by to push it down the path. Again, the same result. The 3rd time I found a person to get in the car and I pushed along with 5 other people. Nothing. We pushed that car up and down the road in several attempts to get it started, but the battery was too drained. By this time it was well over 90 degrees, the dust was kicking up and entering my lungs, muscles were giving out, my skin was starting to burn due to the sun sensitivity gifted by the Doxycycline I am taking, and the sand was starting to sandpaper my sandaled feet. Fancy that. The process had attracted the neighborhood. Its failure was also causing them to disappear, to keep their distance so that they were not pulled back into the mix.

Halfway through this ordeal at 8:37 am, at a moment where I found myself simply sitting at the wheel, my head crained back, my mind drawing a blank as to what to do so that Ludo would not miss his flight, a young boy about 5 years old, slightly more composed and more neatly, though casually, dressed than some of his peers, walked by the open drivers side door of the car. He looked at me as he passed and when he reached the front of the car, he turned around and walked up to me. He looked up and extended his arm toward me in greeting. The direct and sincere manner with which he did this caught my attention. It was a little stiff, formal, but full of intent and genuine respect. There was a mix of trepidation overcome, a certain comfort of home turf, and a sense that this was his way of intervening in the situation, like he had no other choice but to do this one deeply appropriate thing, proper etiquette given the circumstances he found me in. We both found ourselves playing the foreigner in our respective positions. I could do nothing but smile and take his hand.

One of my new friends here, the directrice for the organization COOPI came to my aid in the end. I called her and explained the situation. She sent a driver to pick up Ludo and take him to the airport. Another neighbor replaced the battery in the car so that we could drive it back into the base. Ludo made his flight but his trip out here only seemed to further confirm why he so rarely makes the journey. COOPI’s driver also picked up my finance administrator at the airport who also arrived today. Life is not a balance where one side of the scales tip and the other rises but that I was receiving some positive results from all of my effort was lightening my mood a little. I remember at one moment just praying to god that no matter what happened, Ludo should board the plane.

Amy and I called our cook, Idé, to come and make us some lunch, a job she did not have to do as today was a holiday for her. We asked her what she wanted in return and she said some candy and a coke. Done and Done. We left the base in search of these, some bread, and some jumper cables, an item that beyond all reason does not seem to be standard faire here in vehicles. The market was relatively quiet but people were about. We got warm greetings from people we passed and some surprised smiles when we gave the correct ‘Eid Mubarak’ in Arabic. It was not much trouble finding the consumables, but when we stopped to find the cables we found that none of the big shops were open and the small shop we stopped at didn’t have them. There was a man sitting on a motorcycle outside the little store and he naturally filled in as translator for the store owner who knew just a little of the French we were speaking to him. After we were done talking with the man at the shop, we turned our attention to the man on the bike and chatted with him for a moment. He told us there were other shops that had what we were looking for but we would have to come back the next day to find them open. And then he introduced himself: The chief of the AIRD garage, an organization that does all of the repairs and maintenance for the UN vehicles of which we have 2 (1 of which is currently in for repairs leaving me with only the other). This man is the only person we could have run into today that had the necessary tools to jump start our car. I quickly told him who I was and asked him if he could do us this one big favor, to come over with some cables and get our car running. He agreed without hesitation. 30 minutes later my car was started and the battery was charging.

After a nap, the kind I need everyday that gives me just enough energy to make it into the evening, I woke up a more relaxed me. I dropped a sachet of instant espresso into a mug of hot water and sat watching the ever more acute slant of light, present during this time of day, intensify the colors of the brick, the plants in the garden, and even the sand in my little courtyard.

It’s Eid and even on this day I have many obligations, very few to myself. The time I was able to tuck away, exclusively for me, can be measured in the number of pages I got through in the new and only book I have on my kindle at the moment. That number is 2 and it was between the time I read the Sultan’s letter and the time I got into the car to take Ludo to the Airport. Interestingly enough, this letter from the Sultan served as an unexpected precursor to one of those obligations I just mentioned, to visit him and pay respect to his authority over this region. Sultans exist, in Chad, only in the far eastern reaches that share a border, and ethnic and religious identities, with Sudan. The differences between this side of the divide and the other are strictly political. I might as well be there save for perhaps the existence of a blended Chadian culture, the re-escalation of violence that is threatening to introduce itself here, and access to the variety of goods that make their way across the border and into the hands of vendors here in Goz Beida. Maybe I exaggerate but not by much.

Tomorrow, after work, I plan to share in a bit of that shared culture and spend some time in Camp Djabal towards evening, listening to some traditional music, a first step in finding the manifestations of culture that I have had such a hard time uncovering here. Who knows, I may even end up sitting around a fire, illuminated by its glow and the ululations of the musicians and the crowd. Maybe I will watch the slaying of mutton for the next days feast, not merely an observer this time but a participant, the stranger in someone else’s pre-dawn contemplation.

To new beginnings

We landed in N’Djamena after a painfully beautiful stay in Europe (Strasbourg, Rome, and visiting friends in Austria and Switzerland). Those days are close even here, even now. Somehow closer, still, through the distance.

Each leg of the journey since we stepped on the plane has somehow served as an encapsulated experience, not relating much with each successive part of our coming closer to our postings in Goz Beida. We stayed at a Jesuit compound near the airport for about 5 days, waiting for our papers giving us ‘permission to circulate’ to the eastern part of Chad which is still considered unstable or perhaps unpredictable.

N’Djamena, the capital, is, from what we saw in 5 days, not much of anything but a ramshackle collection of buildings and a central market, most of which look as though they are slowly returning to the sand from whence they came. But there are many of them, spread out over a very wide area. There is though, a very patriotic looking central square with a large arch. This is most likely not an entirely accurate portrait of the city as there exists at least one 5 star hotel. But we were not able to get out much. Or should we say, they don’t let us out much. There are security concerns which are probably a bit higher than necessary. One thing can be said about N’Djamena, and Chad in general: there are a lot of Chinese development workers here (Chinese reps of business cooperation between Chad and China, mostly oil in the south) and so there are quite a few Chinese restaurants around the city. Manuel is actually, right now, sort of wishing he had one available to him. Food is quickly becoming less and less important in our lives. Back to that in a bit.

Although the team in N’Djamena worked quite tirelessly on getting our permission to travel, we still did not get our papers in time to get on the UN flight that would take us to Abeche for out 3 day training. So we (our impossibly tall driver, our regional communications staff person, and us, the 4 new hires) all piled ourselves into a truck, with all our luggage in the bed, and sped off across the county on a 2 day journey on which our rights to travel would not be so meticulously inspected.

It is safe to say, this is one of the most interesting trips we have taken. We tumbled through vast expanses of land that held little more than a series of small mountains, grass huts, the occasional village, and lots of animals (donkeys, long horned cattle, sheep, camels, and some very, very large birds). The land is quite green right now due to the rainy season and water has flooded many flat areas, swelling the wadi (the dry channels that serve as the arteries for flood waters) making reliable transportation next to impossible. There were perhaps ten other cars on the road during the two days we were out. We nearly suffered stalling in the middle of one of these wadi while trying to drive though it, miscalculating the depth of the waters.

We stopped for the evening in a village right in the middle of the country where we were warmly greeted by a local catholic organization called ‘Faith and Joy’ who run the school system in a town called Mongo. There was a French priest who was there, doing some work, who was recently back from France. So we had wine. We drank French wine.

The second day of travel was much the same as the first, vast expanses of land, little contact with others except for the security posts we had to stop at, which we seemed to arrive at like clockwork. But, in the end, Abeche was nearer than we thought and we arrived earlier in the day than anticipated.

Abeche is more or less an outpost in the middle of a desert, barely making itself distinguishable from what surrounds it. 3 important things happened in Abeche during the 5 days we were there: 1. we had our 3 days training, 2. we met the rest of the staff here in Chad, 3. We ate bbq’d camel meat for the first time. Regarding our training, most of what applies to any one person in particular is discovered on the ground, in the mix of work. We are finding this to be more and more true everyday we are here. It is becoming clearer that intuition and ‘art’ play important roles in one’s daily life and work here. What one encounters, and the decisions that one makes, take on a sort of tangible image in the mind. Am I painting impressionism with this decision or is this something out of the Bauhaus tradition? The same goes for information and decisions that are being received.

After our time in Abeche, we really couldn’t wait to finally arrive in Goz Beida and see what life held for us there. We knew there would be quite an adjustment happening for us on several levels and we thought better to get on with it. We left on Tuesday, 8/27/13. UN flights are virtually the only way to get between places in this country, and especially in the eastern part of the country which is home to somewhere around 300,000 refugees, one of the largest refugee populations hosted by a single country. So, after one of the most chaotic baggage sorting ordeals either of us has witnessed, we took a, literally, 30 second bus ride from the waiting area to the airplane. It was comical and somehow less dignified than had we just been allowed to walk to the plane. The plane took off and we were airborne for around 45 minutes, taking advantage of a little air-conditioning and the ability to see wide tracks of land from the air. We are south of Abeche so the flight took us into ever greener and more geographically varied landscape. Our descent took us into the middle of a small ring of hills where Goz Beida rests.

We were greeted by the entire team: finance admin, two program officers, and the driver (that’s right, we have a driver). We were taken immediately to the base that is now our home. It is a decently sized, if not rough around the edges, walled compound that comprises a sort of indoor-outdoor living situation. Inside the gate is a shed where the two generators are housed as well as the guard station. Turning right, there is a drive that passes a small workshop and the two offices. Once you pass the offices you can either continue on straight where there are two more storage areas, and then a wall, or you can turn left into our living space. We have a small courtyard between the kitchen and the open air salle a manger (which are connected to each other) and our house which Amy and I and Djirabe (the finance admin) live in. There are two other guest rooms inside and a sort of living room that finishes off the house.

Behind the house is a separate building that is the bathroom which has two showers and two toilets as well as a small sink area in front. Showers are often ‘bucket’ and the bathroom also serves as the home to two bats. To the side of the house (the other side away from the drive) there is a small garden, our two water towers, an outside bed (which is a kind of tight hammock) and our tv and internet satellites. That is more or less the make up of our living situation…including of course that fact that it is entirely walled by some beautifully dilapidated and rustic red bricks. At certain times, the light makes our courtyard and the garden glow. Walled living is the norm here. We don’t get the impression it has anything to do with security although it serves that purpose too. There are several trees and flowering bushes which approaches making the place tropical. One expects monkeys. Sadly, there are no monkeys, only two cats….a black and white one and a grey and white one.

Our first order of business was to make the rounds and be introduced to the local government officials. After that, a sort of humbling process due to the fact that we understood very little of what was being said, we were already off to ‘end of the month’ meetings at the camp and ‘end of the month’ security meetings with the few other NGO’s that do work on the ground here.

At the monthly camp meeting, which was virtually our first day here, we had the pleasure of being presented with a letter of protest from a small portion of the refugee teachers (teachers who are refugees who also teach the refugees) who claimed JRS withheld their August incentives (small stipends) and expressed categorical opposition to the education reforms that are about to take effect. We have received 4 more such letters in the last two weeks, all signed by various representative groups in the education block and in the camp in general. We are trying to move forward with the plan that was already in place before we arrived and avoid both problems with registering kids for classes and with opening the schools for the first week of classes, problems which could be caused by frustrated camp leaders or even just a small group of influential camp representatives. Such is how our work has begun. We are lucky we have a bit of a crackerjack team backing us up. Without them we would be completely floundering right now. But we will see how their plans turn out.

As a result, we have been nothing short of overwhelmed, confused, and challenged by all that we have been placed in, and all that has transpired. We have to manage a conflict we were not even originally part of, try to learn the day to day functions of our work, and hold meetings with government officials, all at the same time and in a language that we don’t speak fluently. We are finding ourselves often ‘falling short’ of the occasion. It has all been a game of catch up since landing on the ground.

We are both struggling with French but recognize we are improving at the same time. I am sorry to say I (Manuel) think I may understand how the French feel about their own language now. The Chadian way of using French makes things simpler over all but, depending on the person, the accent at times….it is bit of a mumbling mess to my ears. When I hear a French person speak French now, I kind of rejoice inside a little.

This is our second weekend and that means trying to find our ways of relaxing, leaving the walls of our little compound to check out the local market, and to catch up on communication with family and friends. Speaking of the local market, and returning to the subject matter of food, we live in a very precarious food situation here. Largely due to the flooding that happens this time of year which makes getting things to market almost impossible, we live in a very expensive food desert at the moment. Chad is, itself, one of the most expensive places in the world for expats to live and we have found that out first hand buying supplies to make Amy a special birthday dinner. We are lucky that we can largely avoid this problem as we contribute 100 dollars a month toward food and our femme de manage uses that during the month to buy food and cook it for us. But as there is little in the market to purchase, we have nearly the exact same meal everyday. It’s a sort of mutton stew with a red sauce and either rice or pasta to put it over (terribly, terribly overcooked pasta). Vegetables are few and far between. When we were at the market the last couple times we found only this one thing called ‘gumbo’ which is a green zucchini type object. There were also a handful of shriveled potatoes and a couple rotting peppers. There is, however, garlic and onions a plenty. If we are really lucky, our cook makes us beignets. We put jam or chocolate-hazelnut spread on them. Apples are available too. They aren’t half bad but they are 2 dollars a piece. The general rule right now is that if you want food, you have to slaughter it.

This village is isolated. That cannot be stressed enough. Life here is as it probably was some hundreds or perhaps thousands of years ago, plus cell phone reception. Transportation is by foot or donkey. Market days are Sundays and calls to prayer measures the hours of the day. Local products include chopped wood, dried beans, oils and incense, tea, and animals for slaughter. The worth of women can be measured in numbers of cows and polygamy is a common affair. Roads are completely untended. Our presence on the street and in the market is met with many mixed emotions.

Islamic law is pretty relaxed in our area. One can buy beer and there are even a few bars. Here in Goz Beida, there are perhaps two that exist but it is a ‘speak easy’ situation.

One has time here, lots of time. That is both liberating and daunting. We have a fair amount of entertainment what with e-books, French study, movies and tv shows we brought along, our musical instruments (Manuel brought his guitar and he also bought Amy a mandolin before we left), internet (which is a bit weak), a Benedictine prayer book, and a hookah which, a couple times a week, Manuel sits with, under a tree in the courtyard, and uses to relax and reflect on life and the week, the very image of a Ibn Battuta. There is a challenge for us, though, to not try to ‘fill time’, to be busy. We are finding that life has the opportunity to slow down a bit. Doing laundry by hand with a bar of soap has become a way to turn off our brains, do something physical, and take stock of our environment.

Since it is the rainy season, great storms roll through about every two days. Sometimes they bring sheets of rain, sometimes they just make noise. But they are a feature of our time here and we are relishing their arrivals. They bring with them cool air, a buffering of summer that is to come sooner than anyone would like.

This has been a very condensed recapping of the last 2 weeks. From here on out, we will be writing jointly and separately.  We will figure out how to make a distinction between the two. Anyone who sees our page and/or has run a blog before is welcome to suggest how this can be done in a clear and attractive manner.

Our About Page is also finished. Please take a peek. Overall, this blog will be mixed content. There will be idle musings, cultural content, thoughts on our work and life here, factual pieces, the situation of the refugees we work with, some story telling and feature pieces, and content that comes from within each of us individually. We hope our expressions do our time here, and the lives of the people we encounter, some small portion of justice.

With much love,

Manuel and Amy