Sunday, January 31, 2010

Where it all began

Another entry, another African capital. This time though, I already know my way around.

For the first time since 29 Peace Corps volunteers and staff crossed the Chari to avoid the forces of the FUCD (yes, seriously), April 14, 2006 at about 10:30 AM, I'm back in Chad, in N'Djamena. I wouldn't say if I've come full circle though- I feel like I'd have to go back to Gounou-Gaya for that to happen, and unfortunately that's not going to happen on this trip. I originally came up from Yaoundé for about a month to work on a proposal, but after CRS decided not to pursue the opportunity, I'll only be here a few more days before heading back to Cameroon. I'm a little disappointed; the opportunity to be back here, a place that most NGO people and diplomats dread, is wonderful.

The familiarity begins from the moment I arrive. I step through the turnstile gate into the main hall in the N'Djamena airport, and see a face I recognize. Abba Ali Mahamat used to be a driver for the Peace Corps, and is now working for CRS. He's rail-thin, enormously tall, and with skin so black it looks almost bluish. His hair is grayer than I remember, and he's wearing a dark-red 'func suit' as we used to call them, named after the two-piece functionnaire (civil servant) outfit common around here instead of the typical bubu I'd almost always seen him in as a volunteer. We embrace. "Nathaniel, it's been a long time," he says.

"Too long," I answer.

"Tu me rappelles, n'est-ce pas?" he asks. You remember me, right?

"How could I forget- you're Abba Ali Mahamat," I respond.

He smiles.

Even though my life of Land Cruisers, air-conditioning and high-speed Internet is a world away from what I knew as a Peace Corps volunteer, something about being here just feels right, and familiar. This is Africa as I first saw it five and a half years ago; hot, dry, and desperately poor, with mirrored sunglasses and turbans. Everything feels familiar here- the superheated dusty air, the sand along the streets, the beat-up yellow Peugeot cabs with red and blue hand-painted numbers, even the kids yelling 'nasarra' at me, the most familiar word for 'white person' I know.

Perhaps the epitome of this familiarity happens when David, the Country Representative, takes me out to dinner the first night I'm in town.

"We'll go to one of my favorite local places," he tells me on the way. We pass the Rond-Point de 100 Ans, the sculpture commemorating N'Djamena's 100th anniversary, and less than a kilometer later, turn off into the dust and park against a the high wall of a restaurant. "I don't know if you know this place, but this is Le Pelican," David says. "The food is good, and it's inexpensive."

I can't help but laugh, and I explain why to David. As Peace Corps volunteers, Le Pelican was one of our favorite places to go, for the same reasons as David listed. Also, it was an inexpensive taxi ride from SIL, the missionary compound where we used to stay. I've probably been there 20 times, enough to remember the large pelican (the namesake) that would promenade among the tables, squawking at anyone in its way, and to know that the beef brochettes were best avoided, as they usually had the distinct taste of the propane stove they were cooked over.

Memories of gas-flavored beef aside, this isn't to say that there aren't any differences though. To the contrary, N'Djamena feels like a city on the move- I'm not sure exactly where it's going though. On the positive side, newly-paved roads are everywhere; the bumpy track that used to lead to the Peace Corps office is now two paved and striped lanes on each side with streetlights running down the center. People still drive horribly along the roads, only now LED traffic lights powered by solar panels control at least a portion of the madness, when taxis and motorcycles bother to stop for them. On the other hand, the beautiful and enormous trees that used to line the shops of Avenue Charles de Gaulle are now gone, chopped down by President Deby's men following an attack by rebel forces on the capital in 2008. The road passing alongside the Presidential Palace and central government headquarters feels far more militarized, with giant cement blocks lining the walls, higher strands of razor-wire, and many, many more of the Presidential Guard, virtually all of whom come from the president's own Zaghawa tribe, their thin, angular, Arab-esque faces topped with crimson-berets and yellow bandanas, toting enormous machine-guns, all in desert khaki uniforms and reflective sunglasses.

The next day, I'm walking along the street, making my way to one of the nearby shops where I can grab an egg sandwich with peppers, one of the few street food options I happen to see near the office. My shoes have turned almost completely gray from several centimeters of sand lining the road. It's hot (no real surprise there), and I'm not really paying much attention to the people around me.

"Na-tahn-yel, bonjour!" someone yells.

I wheel around- I haven't heard my name pronounced like that in years. Who could possibly know me? I see a young man on a bike- he waves. I look a bit closer.

"Ramadji?" I ask.

"Oui, c'est moi," he answers. Yes, it's me. I shake my head in astonishment.

Ramadji Cyrus was one of my favorite students when I taught in Gounou-Gaya, one of the few who I could see had the real potential to be a success, provided he could get out of the village, and somewhere he could use his intelligence and talents. I'm thrilled to see he has, and to meet him on the street in N'Djamena, a city of roughly 1,000,000 people is pretty incredible. I'm running short on time, so we exchange phone numbers and agree to meet for lunch. The next day, over plates of shwarma and fried Capitaine (Nile perch) at La Marquise, the Libyan bakery in the center of town, Ramadji and I catch up. He's in his second year at one of the local institutes of technology, where he's studying telecommunications- with a certificate in the field, he can get a job with Zain or Tigo, two of the big mobile phone operators in Chad. It's great to see that he's been able to move forward, and listening to him tell me about the handful of other students I'd hoped to hear from - Koussoungue, Mystere, and Sippa, it's great to know that they're all doing well too, in universities, working, or something else.

I get back to the guesthouse that evening, surrounded (in typical expat fashion in Chad) by high walls, electrified barbed wire, and patrolled by guards- the reality of life in a place where the gap between rich and poor is so vast. Getting out of the silver RAV4, I stop to talk for a moment with one of the guards, a rail-thin young man with large brown eyes.

"C'est comment?" I ask. How's it going? It's a common saying around here, even though it's completely wrong in French.

"Ça va," he answers, the standard response for virtually any question in this part of the world.

"So, where are you from in Chad?" I ask.

"Le Sud," he answers. The south.

"Where in the south?" I press.

"A little village called Gounou-Gaya; I'm sure you don't know it."

"Are you serious?" I answer in disbelief.


"I lived in Gounou-Gaya for two years" I tell him. "I was a teacher at the high school."

He looks at me again.

"Monsieur Nah-tahn-yel, c'est vous?" Is that you?

"Yes" I answer. "Were you one of my students?"

"No," he responds. "I was already in Terminale (the last year) when you were there, so I wasn't in your classes."

"What an amazing coincidence, in any case," I answer. We chat for a few more minutes, and I walk into the house, marveling at how small the world apparently is.

A few days later I have a chance to meet Grâce, one of the language teachers we had during our Peace Corps training. She meets me in her sister's 4x4 at the French Cultural Center in the middle of town. She wears a matching blue and yellow complet, with a blouse, skirt, and headscarf, typical attire for Christian Chadian women, especially someone relatively well-off, like Grâce.

Arriving back at her house I meet Béatitude, Grâce's daughter, who I knew as a chubby five-month-old, but who is now a beautiful little four-year-old, who shyly shakes my hand and whispers "Ça va?" when I greet her.

As Grâce and I catch up, Béatitude begins to warm to me, coming over to tap me on the shoulder- I stick my tongue out, and she giggles. We talk a bit longer, and Grâce goes to get drinks from a nearby boutique. Béatitude sits on a plastic mat off to the side, playing with a plastic Fisher-Price airplane. She looks at me expectantly, and I join her on the mat. We play with the plane, tossing the pilots in and out, flying circles around her head, and coming to a landing at her feet.

She wears an enormous smile- it's probably rare that an adult will actually play with her, something that isn't common in Chadian society. After awhile, Grâce comes back, we talk a bit more, and I catch a ride on her friend's motorcycle back to the guesthouse, just as night is falling. It's a slightly harrowing trip on a motorcycle with a headlight that works only intermittently, and I'm very happy when I climb off the bike and back onto the ground.

The next few days fly by, a blur of meeting old friends, including a chance to reconnect with Al-Hadj and Adji, two of the former drivers for the Peace Corps. They both work for the US embassy now in N'Djamena, and over a lunch of nachif (grilled meat and vegetables), we catch up on the past few years. Both seem mostly unchanged, although there are new kids, jobs, and marriages- life clearly went on uninterrupted after we left. We talk about 'les evenements,' as the rebel attacks on the capital in 2008 are referred to, where large portions of the city were heavily damaged, with hundreds of people dying in the fighting. The only evidence I see is the machine that I used to get soft ice cream from at L'Amandine, the French bakery in the center of town- it still works, but now sports a rather large bullet hole in the side. Al-Hadj and Adji talk about a wary sort of calm throughout the city, as everyone waits to see what happens next.

That does seem to be the general theme of life in Chad though- always a sense of waiting to see what happens next, a life dependent on the fates, where the next rebel surge could change everything. Despite all of this, however, life goes on, and people find a way to cope. Life isn't easy there, and being back even for a brief time reminds me just how tenuous things can be. Even as a volunteer, I lived a well-protected and insulated life in many ways, and didn't really get a true sense of that fragility; I'm not sure if I ever could have. Now, I certainly can't. I think the realization that that tenuousness exists though provides some perspective, however, and it's one that I'm glad to have. Realizing that the majority of people in a place like Chad tend to look at life with the realization that everything can change on a whim affects how you design and manage anything, and can sometimes make the whole concept of sustainability seem a little ridiculous.

Ultimately, my trip ends up being much shorter than I'd planned, but I feel like it's been meaningful all the same. Not being able to go back to Gounou-Gaya, I didn't get the closure I guess I thought a trip to Chad might bring, but still feel like it was worth it. Seeing familiar places and old friends was a wonderful way to get some perspective, and as I move into the next step of my life in this whole 'development' thing, I'm grateful to have had a moment to catch a glimpse of where it all started…

N'Djamena, January 2010

I had the chance to go back to Chad, although only for about a week due to a change of plans. I was able to visit a few old friends, and see some of the places I remembered, which was truly memorable.

Unfortunately, due to extremely heavy restrictions on photography in N'Djamena, I was only able to take a few photos, mostly of the people I met and a few places I was able to take pictures out a window in passing. I'll post these few though, and hopefully give you a sense of what life in the Chadian capital looks like today...