Sunday, November 27, 2005

Iridimi Refugee Camp

Grazing camels

Does silence indeed speak louder than words?

I suppose I am keeping to the policy that if you have nothing nice to say, it is best not to say anything at all.

But that isn’t fair, or is it?

Yes, things are tough. In the middle of the afternoon one can be startled by the deafening noise of Chadian-manned French fighter planes zooming over the town en route to hunt out army defectors who have crossed into Sudan. Or, after kissing up to one self-righteous, selfish WFP worker, get on-line to find an email detailing the banditry of “rebels” who broke into the hospital and the prefect of the other town where I am working, stealing vehicles. Then there is that one occasion where I am invited for a visit at another NGO, only to find that the driver has left with the key to the car. Fine, I walk, taking a guard and his friend with me only to find that when I arrived at my destination, there was a special alert out for the town and that nobody should be out. And there I am showing up, clear from the other side of town, with my flashlight and French 1664 beers in my backpack. What can I do?

I missed another Thanksgiving, my third African one in a row. Tilapia in Kigali, meatless chicken in Gulu, and Chad? Well, I thought I might make something given the lack of restaurants but instead resigned myself to a packet of Quaker Maple and Brown Sugar Instant Oatmeal. Funny how the childhood comforts never leave us. And the best part of the week? Two mysterious packs of Starbursts delivered from Abeche. They never tasted so good. I’m still saving the strawberries.

What else has happened? The water pump was broken for several days, hurting my dearly prized bathing ritual (those good smelling hair compliments don’t come easy!) and causing most residents to keep a safe distance from one another. Humanitarian workers had to ask the question, “is it bad to take water from the camps where the water is plenty?” The last time I flew to Abeche I realized that the planes have a direct view into my latrine/bathing cubicle, leading to extreme vigilance on my part. Yet on one unfortunate morning, the plane arrived early: )

Work continues, as does my head banging. I wish I could talk more about it, but…

As is increasingly the case, I find that I cannot write about what my life is really about. It’s frustrating, leaving me to wonder why I even bother with this blog. There is just something about the increasing responsibility and need to be careful these days. It’s a small world after all.

I must have something to say about Chad, the refugees from Darfur, something! What is wrong with me? I suppose what stands out most in my mind this week, was that during a meeting with women leaders in one of the camps, they wanted to know what we were doing to end the conflict in Darfur so they could go home. It jolted me awake, after hours of discussing the hardships facing women and girls in the camps (sexual and physical abuse by the local population when they go to get firewood, female genital mutilation, early/forced marriage, etc.). What can I say? Especially when I know that any and all Darfur peace talks are flailing and that violence is increasing in the region? That not only is the outlook dim in Darfur, but Chad isn’t looking so hot either? Can’t we all just start over again?

My cynicism is palpable, yet I am supposed to be the idealistic humanitarian, right?

Many questions this week.

Sometimes I spend time, just staring at the mud walls of my room, especially where the mud is dripping, and wonder if the whole mud house will collapse. What would it take? And how do those darn chickens find their way onto the tin roof – and why at such an ungodly hour?? While chicken has been the only form of meat that I would stomach, I find myself resigning even from that important source of protein. Is this because I see and hear them prancing around the compound, thus unable to bring myself to enjoy their untimely death? Chad…

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Chad tensions

CHAD: Embattled president turfs kinsmen from military leadership

NDJAMENA, 17 November (IRIN) -
Vowing defiance in the wake of a series of incidents that may have loosened his grip on power, Chad's President Idriss Deby has removed members of his own ethnic group from the military's top posts.Speaking on Wednesday to hundreds of supporters gathered outside the presidential palace, an embattled Deby pledged to stand firm despite recent desertions and attacks on the military."We can't allow opportunists from this or that armed group to make impossible claims when there is a constitution, adopted by the People of Chad, which condemns violent acts," said Deby, who came to power in a 1990 coup d'etat."It's important that we be strong against these mercenaries in order to bring peace and order back to the country," he added only two days after unidentified gunmen had attacked two camps in the capital Ndjamena and its outskirts.The situation is particularly tense in the country's east where an unestablished number of soldiers have joined the rebel Rally for Change, National Unity and Democracy (SCUD) after deserting their posts.Two years of fighting in neighbouring Sudan's Darfur Province have destabilised eastern Chad and proved a real conundrum for Deby.The conflict opposes the Sudanese government, which facilitated Deby's rise to power, to rebels, many of whom belong to the president's own Zaghawa ethnic group that dominates senior posts in the armed forces.But a number of Chadian officers have criticised the president for not giving enough support to Darfur's Zaghawas and his kinsmen were behind a mutiny in May 2004. The head of the SCUD group of deserters, Yaya Dillo Djerou, is also Zaghawa.In a decree on Tuesday night, Deby named Banyara Kossingar chief of staff and made Nadjita Beassoumal, a former companion in arms, commander of the air force. Both are southerners and were promoted at the expense of Zaghawas. In all, there are 200 names on Tuesday's decree which extends to the police and military units throughout the country.No official explanation was given but officers contacted by IRIN said that Deby, whose power base traditionally lies with the Zaghawas, no longer trusts his kinsmen and is reaching out to other ethnic groups to regain control of the situation. "The president has taken away the Zaghawas' exclusive hold on power and is rewarding career officers," a Chadian army officer told IRIN on Thursday on condition of anonymity."But they haven't been completely flushed out. Outside the capital, Zaghawa commanders have simply been assigned deputies from other ethnic groups."The Chadian president is no stranger to military reshuffles or armed opponents.Last month, Deby overhauled the republican guard charged with ensuring his security after a number of its members had deserted.And last year, he accused the Sudanese government of harbouring 3,000 rebels operating in the border region.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Road to Guereda

November 16, 2005

Today I did a day trip with my assistant to Guereda, the base for project activities in the refugee camps of Mile and Kounoungo. I always thrive on getting out of the office and into the field, despite that our driver today had me digging my nails into the dashboard. I tried to explain to him that as a child protection organization, it would not be looked on well for us to hit a small refugee child. I continued to scream “lentement!”, as though he didn’t hear me the first time. The driver’s most shameful moment was when he lost his temper with a small boy on the road who had thrown a rock at the car. The jerk stopped the car, hopped out, and ran after the boy, looking like a complete moron. He even picked up a rock and I was screaming at him to leave the kid alone. Had the man had the nerve to physically touch the child, I would have hopped over to the driver’s seat and attempted the sand and desert myself, leaving the moron to think over his behavior. Luckily, he won’t be working with me anymore!

Regardless, it was a lovely journey through eastern Chad. The roads, being that they are made of desert sand, are horrible, and I am somehow still struck with the vast emptiness. Occasionally we would pass a sole woman sitting by the side of the road and I’d just have to wonder what she was waiting for in this nothingness. There were many camels along the way – I find them simply fascinating! The creatures seem to come from some other world, as they eat off the trees like giraffes, but trollop along like an awkward horse. And there are turbaned men on horseback, women and small children traveling on donkeys. I was wondering if getting one’s own donkey was somehow comparable to a child getting their first bike – that freedom!

I was warmly received in Guereda, welcomed into a few homes. Anywhere in Africa, when offered food or drink, you are obliged to take it, less risk offending your host. Well, I was offered a luke-warm “Chadian” porridge with contents that sent off all sorts of warning bells in my head. Regardless, rather than offend a very sweet host who clearly had little means to be feeding others, I drank the porridge. Needless to say, the porridge still haunts…

Oh, the rumor of the attempted coup d’etat has been ironed out. It turns out that some rebels broke into the Chadian army weapons stores in N’djamena and made off with all sorts of goodies (though even this is still hearsay). Don’t ask me how this was possible or what it means. This is Chad. I don’t understand anything.

But I am doing my best to educate myself further about this region. What is evident is that the Darfur region of Sudan has for years served as a battleground for geo-political wranglings between Libya, Chad, and Sudan (and even the CIA had a base there in the old-school days). The latest episode of violence in Darfur, well, more to come on that…

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


Perhaps I am

American after all...

It’s true. I think I may be American after all. My relationship to my homeland has been tenuous these past years (a strange correlation with a change in the political landscape in 2000) and at times when traveling/living abroad, I have tried to pass for a Canadian in hopes of avoiding the usual inclinations to discuss American politics. What I am realizing is that while I have genuine and founded fears of where the US is going, I cannot deny that I have some of that American essence. Or maybe I am just full of it and I’ve sniffed too much desert sand up my nose these past weeks??

So where is this digression coming from? Well, apparently and unavoidably, my Americanism is evident in my work, or more correctly, my frustrations with my work here. Working in this field requires one to work closely with people from all corners of the world and all walks of life. While I like to believe that I am a fairly open and accommodating person, I am in fact realizing that I am quite rigid (in fact, for the first time, I was called a control freak by a colleague in Uganda!). I am big on making a plan, figuring out how to make the plan happen, and then just doing it! While I can understand that things don’t run smoothly in these settings and one must always have a contingency plan, I cannot stand the bureaucracy created around the most basic of activities.

Where is this all going? I don’t know. Just that I am finding myself wanting to bang my head against the wall, paralyzed from doing the work I was sent here to do! I find myself having to continually remove myself from an infuriating situation to take a few breaths, compose myself, and return to go at it again.

Perhaps I shall shift topics?

This week does mark a momentous occasion for me – my month anniversary in Chad. This is no small feat, I tell you. Now if I can just make it a bit longer!

Last night my colleague informed me that he had just heard that there had been an attempted coup d’etat by the army. I’ve yet to hear any confirmation or official information, but I can tell you that my stomach was in my throat at the very thought of a coup actually succeeding here. As I fell asleep last night, I tried to prioritize what items I would flee with and could I get away with carrying more than the 15 kilos that UNHCR dictates we can take?? If we were evacuated, who would take my stuff? Would the people of Iriba be caught wearing my heathen Western clothes? When they break into my room, would they break in the door or calmly cut off the lock? See what happens when one is left to her imagination in this place!!

Sunday, November 13, 2005


Some kiddies in Iriba

A Friday night with canned fruit, planning my liberation

November 11, 2005

Yes, indeed. It is not even 7pm yet and I’ve already re-heated and eaten my overly saturated pasta as I watched a strange bonfire just beyond my back porch. Now it’s dessert time, meaning canned fruit cocktail, and it’s dawned on me that I can and should improve my state of being in Iriba. My problem is that I am physically stranded. What is my obstacle? Manual transmission, again! Yes, I’ve had my few lessons in Uganda, but need a quick tutoring before attempting to go solo on the sand. I could radio to get somebody to come pick me up, but I am ridiculously still too nervous to use it – I don’t need the whole town knowing just how incompetent I am in French. And shouldn’t people just want to come see me without having to say it anyways?

But why should one need to drive when one can walk? Well, I am not supposed to walk at night (and darkness descends by 5pm), though I am admittedly tempted. Where would I even go? Visit another NGO (namely one with a tv or good Scooby snacks) and stop by WFP to check in with the rest of the world on internet. What do I really want to do? Hit the gym, have a nice latte, followed by a spicy Indian dinner complete with naan and a glass of bubbly. Tomorrow, tomorrow.

I did hit the market yesterday. I coerced the new “cook” Anik to go with me to serve as French-Arabic translator, hoping she would ensure I wouldn’t get screwed over, in search of a couverture (blanket). If there is one thing that I so fundamentally love about this continent, it’s the markets! Even in Iriba, the market is quite lovely. I was just put off by the fact that nobody was hounding me to look at their stall or to purchase a pair of pants made for a 12 year-old. In fact, the vendors seemed to care less that I was even perusing their items. When I did find some blankets I was unable to get any impassioned bargaining going – is this AFRICA? No bargaining? I kept prodding Anik to do some bargaining on my behalf but she just shyly giggled, looking down. Clearly she was not going to be helpful. And when the man I bought a blanket from attempted to give me 1000 CFA change when he really owed me 6000, Anik was again of no help. No East African would stand for such injustice! Ok, cultural differences. I must be sensitive and respect. Nonetheless, I will do the markets solo in the future…

News: An NGO’s car was hijacked yesterday en route to Guereda (the other town where I will be working). The “rebels” (nobody seems to know exactly who they are), removed the radios and made off with the car and some people were injured. All cars are to drive in convoys right now. Vehicle later recovered across the border in Sudan...

Going back to the mystery bandits, there are all sorts of rebels running around. I have yet to get my grasp on all the dynamics. There are those who defected from the Chadian army, others running back and forth across the Sudanese border, I believe leftovers from past civil wars, as well as plain “evil doers” (Notice inclusion of a Bushism).

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Chad Mental Status Check

As I’ve shared with many of you, I have to admit that I do have a solid ten minutes (give or take) a day where I doubt why I ever came to Chad. Should I just call it a day and go back home? Today those ten minutes turned into a couple of hours where I devised an array of exit strategies, but somehow, I always come back around. Something always happens to make me laugh at myself and this situation, or in today’s case, my luggage arrived and I now have my boxed wine! In the end, I am determined to do what I was sent to do.

I am not the only one who seems to suffer from “Chad” syndrome and I think there is such a tight expat community because of the additional stress of working here and the distance we all somehow feel from the local population. I cannot tell you how many people have told me that if you can work here, you can work anywhere. We are all aware of the sorry state of our existence, but somehow we drudge forward, taking comfort in the little joys. For such a short time here, I’ve had such a great time with some of the strangest combinations of people from all parts of the world. We can somehow turn a night of eating whatever the hell we can find to mix up into a salsa dance party.

So how is the work? Well, I’ve visited one of our camps of operation and it was quite a contrast to the IDP camps in Northern Uganda. Desolation, spread out, dust, wind, few people out, aside from the women walking for firewood and water…Pictures are probably best. What I am struck by is the organization of the camps, all of which are managed by international NGOs. Language is tricky- though I’ve been struggling through Franglais in Iriba and Abeche, French gets me nowhere with Sudanese refugees who speak their own dialect of Arabic, which is different from that spoken by Chadians. I gave a training to my staff today, and everything I said had to be translated from English to French by my assistant, and then from French to Chadian Arabic by another worker and then vice versa when they want to talk to me. No wonder it takes forever to get anything done!

In case you have forgotten, I remain in my “sparse” living conditions. I managed to get two showers (and toilet!) in at another NGO this week and that is all anybody can really hope for. Food? There still isn’t any. Canned food gets old real quick and I continue in my attempts (though often in vain) to get other people to cook for me. There are only so many combinations I can concoct from pasta, canned tuna fish/veggies/fruits/lentils, and the occasional REAL tomato (peanut butter is a special breakfast treat and I am rationing oatmeal packets for a rainy day). My only score is the discovery of some children’s Flintstone-style chewable vitamins. The vitamins now serve as my candy fix – I take two mid-morning to pretend like I am having a little snack. I am freezing at night, hoping that as Thursday is market day, I can find a blanket. There are rumors that one can get potatoes on market day, but I’ve just found out that no such luck this week. I also eagerly await allergy medicine from the States, though what I can be allergic to other than dust and sand is beyond me!

I continue to fail in my attempt to paint a picture of the people or this region, let alone the Darfurian refugees. I suppose I just cannot get words around my impressions. I also think it takes much longer to really get a sense of what is going on beneath the surface. Give me time…

The things they say in Chad

Is the guard dead?
Again in Abeche. My colleague and I were going for an evening trip to the World Food Program office to schmooze our way on-line. We expected that the guard would hop up to open the gate as we came out of the house. He appeared to be resting on a bench. I made an extra effort to open the car door loudly and gradually proceeded with some very loud “bon soirs!” “ excusez-moi!” “alo??” The guard refused to move. Granted it was dark and all we could see was what appeared to be a man draped across a bench. My colleague and I both hovered over the guard yelling for him to wake up. Not even a stir. In about a 30 second span of time I went through an entire scenario of the guard being dead and what would we do? I bet the police will come and think that those horrible white women killed the guard! They will put us in some dark, torturous little jail where we will suffer for the remainder of our lives (flashes of the movies where the Americans are arrested in Thailand when the unknowingly carry drugs in their luggage). Ok, so I stoop down, relax, and attempt to see if the man’s chest is rising and falling. I can’t tell! Again, I try. Ok, it appears he is breathing. My colleague finally shakes the hell out of him, and without so much as a start, he rolls over and gazes at us with blurry eyes, as if we are disturbing him for requesting that, as the guard, he remain awake. Terrific. Nothing like a drunk to protect us in Chad!

They are bringing out the body.
Early Saturday evening: my colleague and I are going to the “Cameroon Club” for a beer with colleagues in Abeche. We show up to what appears to be some sort of disturbance. I was trying to have a look in, but avoiding the strange scene of motorcycles driving out. Suddenly our colleagues are running out of the bar and dashing to the cars for a getaway. Ah, there’s been a fight. Someone comments, “they are bringing out the body!” Was a person killed in the fight or just injured? I have no desire to find out, but rather to get the hell out! You never know what might happen in such circumstances.

Chad is like Alaska
We finally figured out why every man seems to be pining for time with us ladies – there’s a shortage of us! Chad seems to have a high concentration of expat men, while only a few women have made there way to the desolation. I’m not complaining about the attention…

Chad isn’t the end of the earth, but you can see it from there!
The comment of one soul upon arriving in Bahai, which is just north of Iriba. I landed there on my way back to Iriba on Monday and it indeed appears to be the end of the earth – just endless desert brown, blowing sand… You know, I feel I’m at the end of the earth!

Ah, Chad!
The words that any expat sighs over and over in any given day. That which seems unexplainable can be encapsulated in this short expression.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Dude, where's my toilet? Part Deux

Posting after the fact, due to communication difficulties!

November 2, 2005

Iriba! Iriba! After two weeks in Chad I finally made it to my home base village of Iriba. I again got stuck in Abeche longer than expected, but at least had the chance to go to the local Jamba Juice, also known as a dude with a blender and fruit on the street. Now that’s Eastern Chad living! I was a little weary of the little UN plane ride to Iriba, especially after some stomach flipping sessions in northern Uganda, but the experience was quite alright, perhaps even amusing, as one pilot would craftily swat the bugs on the windshield as we flew along. We arrived on a strip of, well, desert, that was lined by rocks. No building whatsoever to indicate that we had indeed landed in an airport - Iriba International Airport, that is. My colleague and I hitched to our office, as we had no way to communicate that we would be arriving. Within a few hours, I’d made a few acquaintances and already secured a few invitations for showers.

So here is the dealio. My mud-walled, UNHCR ceiling-tarped office and home are one in the same and for now, I don’t have my own room. I am sleeping on the floor of what will become my room in a week’s time, insh’allah. No running water (hence no shower), no electricity, no toilet, no stove, no phones, no food, little furniture (the list just continues), but a whole lotta sand and dust. I’ve got a little partition in the “back yard” that serves the double purpose of toilet (bare hole in the ground) and place of bathing. I get my weightlifting by carrying a bucket of water from the “front yard” back to the partition (past the crying goat that will be the end of Ramadan feast for the guards), where I then play a game of duck-n-bathe, as the partition walls are quite low and in a culture highly concerned with the coverage of women, I must do my best to not give any peep shows. Also funny to find how one’s eating standards can change. I was famished yesterday, without breakfast or lunch, and I started eyeing my canned veggies and fruit cocktail, but wanted something more substantial. I made some pasta, but had nothing to put on it, that is until I came across some semi-molded pesto. While I would never consider consuming the pesto in any other circumstances, I couldn’t resist (When in Tchad…). I did the smell test and it was surprisingly appetizing. Yes, so I have now added mold to my food repertoire. Note to self for next time: pack more food, pack vitamins.

Ah, but Iriba is a welcome relief from N’djamena and even Abeche. The climate is a bit cooler and there’s a constant breeze. I’ve already been warmly received by the Iriban community of humanitarian workers (again, invitations for showers says it all – sounds like a pick-up line, huh?). The town, well, it’s tiny, and I’m elated to be walking place to place. Beyond town lies what seems like vast nothingness. Amazing how people can adapt to such climates. The children, who should of course be in school and not hanging out on the street, are quite timid and not as boisterous as the Abeche children who constantly demand to be given “un cadeau!” Better than asking for money, I suppose.

It’s time to get down to work, but as it is now Eid, the end of Ramadan, people are busy celebrating. I have not yet made it to the camps I will be working in, but hopefully after I return from a weekend of “coordination” meetings in Abeche. Working on gender-based violence in this region is a whole new ballpark than what I’ve previously been doing in the Great Lakes Region, namely as the Darfurian refugees and their Chadian hosts are largely Muslims and practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM) persist widely. I will certainly be expanding on this at a later time.

Security in this region remains tenuous, though Iriba is calm for the time being. Tensions are increasing between the Darfur refugees and the host Chadian communities, which means we must find the delicate balance in our work of assisting the refugees, but not forsaking the local populations who see the humanitarian agencies favoring the refugees when they themselves are living in pretty tough conditions. In an attempt to address this issue, the project I am managing focuses both on the camps and nearby Chadian villages. Chadians, though mostly from the south and capital, are benefiting from the new NGO job market in the east as well, though naturally this isn’t necessarily sustainable. Actually, some NGOs were attacked by local Iriba Chadians in protest to the hiring of staff from N’djamena (though it’s the folks in N’djamena who are educated and experienced).