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