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.