N’Djamena, Chad, February 2011

CHAD

The airport in Chad is trees. Much of the rest of the country is desert—but landing and leaving, there are trees. A few minute after landing, and getting off the bus that transports us from the plane to the airport, one smells jasmine—on of the most divine smells there is. One jasmine tree graces the door that is both entrance to and departure from the airport.

The only way to describe my first, sensory and visceral impressions of Chad is: Heat. Weight. Breeze. Feels like Chad. I had no idea what to expect, and, like many people who I talk to, knew very little about Chad. There’s a lot of surprise.

I expected a hot dry place. It was hot, and hotter each day (98 F when we arrived; 110F a week later).It’s dry, but the hotel room was humid.If the door to the balcony remains open for more than a few minutes, many, many bugs infest the room. All sorts of bugs, large and small, huge and tiny, winged, colorful, stingy…..its quite awesome.

As is the fluidity of movement and life there—much like Sudan. Long white robes, immaculately shaped turbans atop elegant faces, brightly colored dresses, open sandy earth, trees that arc in shape, and when the wind blows. I didn’t see any camels, but one can see how perfect they fit there.

One of my first questions after arrival was “What’s across the river?” Our hotel sits on the banks of a lovely river—the river Chari, I later learned. Turns out its Cameroon on the other side. I didn’t believe my colleague when he told me this, at first. “Cameroon—that’s West Africa!” But Chad is the heart of Africa, and so it touches North Africa, West Africa, Central Africa, and East Africa—or at east it touches countries from, or right at,those regions.

Our workshop (same project that took me to Sudan in December) went well. Similar glitches and bumps to start—logistical challenges—but after 4 days, an amazing process with mostly national and a few expatriate humanitarian workers who spend time in some of the world’s most difficult places—Darfur, the border of Niger, N’Djamena itself—long known to be a hardship post.

Despite all this, the elegance of the people and their hearts dominates my impression of this crossroads of Africa—the true center, the heart.Watching the movement of the river, many dugout type boats cross daily. I wanted to cross, too, but was told that, despite the sleepy appearance of the village across the river—there were border guards, and they would deport me if I didn’t have a visa. The bird and animal life is rich—colorful lizards of all sizes; herons, storks, tiny song birds—its very peaceful to lay by the hotel pool and watch the river, the village, the magnificent birds fly overhead.

There is a contrast—we were not allowed to leave the hotel (lock down, essentially) w/o escort. The streets seem dead. On the one day we went to a market (close by but we were not permitted to walk) there were people on the street. But very few, for a capital city. This might perhaps be a consequence of the war in February 2008 that was fought right here (and that resulted in the President cutting down ancient trees so that there was less camouflage for invaders).At night, there is no-one—NO-ONE—on the streets. It’s eerily dead. I never got a concrete answer to my inquiries as to why. I did, once, ask (in response to the events in Egypt and Libya, and also Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Jordan which were breaking news the whole time I was there) if it might happen here, in Chad. The response: It would be squashed, immediately.Perhaps that is why the streets are empty.

I came to Chad knowing little and left knowing more—but still, very little. There is a quiet and a peace here, which is in stark contrast to some underlying layers of tension, or repression, or oppression—or maybe all of it. When we left, we were actually threatened with being detained at the hotel (which means law enforcement, and being detained from actually leaving the country) because our employing organization had not fully paid the bill (which we were not able to do) and had not sent the reference number for the funds supposedly transferred and in route. This was no joke—the hotel staff went from friendly and open, to stern to an extent that was creepy.Phone calls were made. We called our local support, who settled the situation and who whisked us out of there quickly, with barely any time to pack, and escorted us to the airport (not originally planned) to make sure we could leave.

At the time, it seemed stressful. For days afterward, I was unsettled and fretful. Couldn’t sleep for a few days. Realized in a visceral way how delicate our safety and security is when we are deployed in any capacity, really. I’ve worked in the front lines of the field, and in the consultancies that take place at nice hotels (like this one). There are clear risks associated with front lines work, and, there are always risks.I think sometimes we (perhaps I am referencing Westerners, or more specifically Americans, abroad—perhaps the whole of humanitarian workers)—operate in an illusion of impunity from harm. Even when I was in Darfur I didn’t feel unsafe, except during one specific event (an ambush that occurred very nearby).I was working in one of the most insecure environments that exists—but I didn’t feel unsafe. And that’s good—feeling safe is essential to do our work. Its also important to remember that safety is a fragile and mutable thing.

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