Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Chadian Christmas

So I had a Chadian Christmas this year. I would never have guessed it and I that is part of the fun of my life, not knowing in which part of the world I'll have my next birthday, Christmas, etc...

Chad is technically a Muslim country as I mentioned before. I know it is, and you see guys praying on the side of the road and women covered up, but it's not an overwhelming majority of the population. You actually don't see many mosques and the other day we were in front of the Grand Mosque doing our market thing and I could barely even hear the Azan (call to prayer) for the main Friday prayer. There are also a lot of Christians here and between the president's palace and the National Plaza right in the middle of the city is a church. We are hanging out in a missionary compound so of course we were going to get some sort of Christmas.

As it turned out, one of the missionary families here invited us out to a Chadian Christmas service on Christmas Eve. For them it is an all-night service but we went for just 3 hours. It was interesting because the members are a mix of different tribal groups from the middle of the country so they do the services in Arabic as their common language. It's one of the few Arabic Christian churches in the capital. They actually use the Muslim phrase Salaam Aleykum and sing hymns to Allah, which just goes to show that it's all a matter of language translation. The church was in a small concrete compound and if that is the norm then there are probably lots of tiny churches and mosques everywhere and we just haven't realized it.

There was a lot of singing of hymns, not only congregational but also the children and women did separate choirs as well. It's really incredible to hear African music as it has such a different sound. Robin, the missionary that took us, explained that they have very different perception, with a pentatonic tonal system (only 5 notes instead of our 7) and also don't even distinguish between the colours blue and green. We also were brought into the back room to eat with the assistant pastor from a communal dish with our hands. It was good and we were given that honour because they knew we wouldn't be staying all night and would want to eat before we left.

On Christmas day we went to the church service in the compound we're staying in. They do a church service there 2 Sundays a month (rotating with another location) and it is attended by the mostly white, English-speaking missionaries in the area. It was also mostly hymn singing (I recognized almost none of the songs though) and had a very different sound and atmosphere to it. Robin and his wife Claudia invited us into their home in the compound to spend the afternoon and early evening with their family (they have 5 children). They've been very kind and helpful to us during our time here and this was great. They've had a very interesting life as well, having lived and worked in some very crazy places. I've now learned that the missionaries associated directly with this compound are all working as Bible translators (translating into Chadian Arabic) so I'm surrounded by linguists and feel very out of place here as well. There is always loud music playing from the shops just outside the walls of our compound and apparently we are living in the middle of one of the seediest parts of the city. If you want bars and the Chadian version of a red-light district, apparently we are in it, though neither James or I had even clued in or suspected at all.

We keep hearing about how dangerous the city is, but I've had much worse vibes from larger cities elsewhere. I think one of the biggest concerns here is a lack of health services. For example, we were told the hospital is closed on the weekend and the other day Robin's oldest daughter badly cut her forearm when she stuck her hand through a pane of glass. The wound was deep and jagged and they ended up going to an old English doctor out here who eventually got it sewn up. He had the material to do it, but no running water and electricity at his place and only had Robin's flashlight to rely on for the 1 ¾ hrs it took to put her back together. Yikes! They only learned after all this that James is a paramedic and has most of his stuff here too. So it sounds like if I get injured I'll be relying on him to fix me more than any hospitals around here.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Regrouping and starting anew,

We have mostly been in reorganizing mode the last few days. Taking it easier, working up some other contacts and ideas (which if they come to fruition will be worth writing about but I won't preempt anything on here). We've been without a driver so have resorted to motorcycle taxis to get around. It's the typical hang on and zoom in and around traffic and people and along very bumpy streets hoping you don't hit anything or fall off. It's fun. The compound we're in is on the opposite side of the city that we need to be on so it's about a 5-6 km commute on the bikes. We typically do our stuff in the morning and by early afternoon are back in the compound relaxing or in James' case trying to organize more details. I am the cook which amounts to me throwing everything we got at the market (potatoes, carrots, meat, cabbage, onion) in a pot until it's mushy. Fortunately we tend to have lunch over at a nice cafe in the centre while we're running around and get croissants for breakfast so something still tastes good.
Speaking of running around the city, the hassle is not bad at all, and we never get harassed for transport. Taxis simply ignore you. There aren't enough foreigners taking them here for it to be worth their while and it's obvious they aren't really used to it because we have yet to use a driver that actually knew anywhere we wanted to go. Embassies, hotels and UN buildings are not really very useful landmarks. When we go out, we either go to the market or to the phone company headquarters on the main street as a reference. To get home we go to one of the bus stations and then walk nearly a km to our compound. We don't have a map of the city (other than google maps to reference once in a while) and James is pretty hopeless with directions so I am the navigator from place to place.
As for the compound. I don't know what to say. We're the only guests staying here at the moment, and I guess they don't get that many as it's mostly a residential compound for missionaries and their families. As this is a contact James doesn't want to abuse and wreck (since we are in there because of connections through some of his organizations and friends working in Chad), he tries to be overly gracious and friendly, and I spend all my time hiding. James takes me a little too seriously and literally sometimes and I've managed to convince him that I'm some sort of paranoid, anti-social, anti-religious, fire-breathing, Satanic monster hiding in the midst of the my enemy. Thus I don't actually know how many people are in here. They get visitors as well but I haven't seen all that many people regularly running around. There are about a dozen small buildings within the compound for various purposes, a few of which are residences. But the missionary culture is pretty big in Chad. As someone told us here, it is easier in many ways to get visas and permits to do NGO and non-profit work in Chad as a missionary so some go that route, but most have legit religious affiliations. So within the community they all know each other and the various other mission compounds in the city and elsewhere in the country.
It's through this network that James has finally got a solid lead on setting up the internet cafe project. Originally he wanted it to be a working solar-powered internet cafe in N'Djamena, but at the moment it looks like his equipment will end up as support for an educational project and learning centre in a town 300km from here. That is to be set up in our final days here so we won't see the results of that until the very end. James is against me making daily assessments in terms of success and failure (though personally I see us still being alive and getting back with food from the market as being a success), but maybe that's because micro-assessments throughout the day would see us tallying up many small failures, eventually overcome by one larger success. Either way I'll remain optimistic because being here is interesting and regardless of the outcome, I will still take something from my time here (though I can't recommend N'Djamena as a place to come visit for weeks).
It's also becoming increasingly obvious why all the cars are in such bad condition here. Yesterday on our way home in a taxi we were T-boned by a motorbike who obviously had failed to see a car in front of him. The motorbike sort of deflected and bounced off the car and wobbled away quickly while our driver got out to pick up pieces of his front light that got ripped off from the side. One thing that has surprised me is that there aren't any roadblocks or police checks in the city so we haven't been harassed by the uniforms at all so far nor asked for our ID.
Today we were to meet with our new driver that James had arranged through his ENVODEV contacts. We met the guy out front of our gate and there he was, all alone. Somehow, lost in translation we ended up with a driver and no car! This is the kind of nonsense that sets things back everyday. The good news of the day so far is that our stay in the SIL compound has been extended for our full time here (there was originally a mix up with the reservation dates. I also finally got my visa for the Central African Republic (CAR) today.

Monday, December 19, 2011

First glitch

Sometimes those 2 steps forward don't lead to 1 step back, but instead take you tumbling off a cliff you should've seen coming. This is not a place for optimism. It's not a place for things to run smoothly. We all know that. We know it very well. But still we must try, maybe for no other reason than to prove something to ourselves, even for a moment.
Ok, really that is far too dramatic. What happened is simply that James got sick of the situation with Jiddy and has dumped that contact. Every indication was telling us that we had lost control and were about to lose any kind of effectivenss because we were about to go into a full “take advantage of the foreigners” scenario. I think James woke up unhappy anyway, but when Jiddy was an hour late (as always) we took off to the central market to go shopping on our own, and made Jiddy come find us. But James always buys them lunch (which kept getting more expensive each time), Jiddy was making too many personal stops on our time, was high-quoting location prices (we think, but it could be a difference it understanding in what James actually envisions), generally trying to get himself too involved in certain aspects of it all, and asking for more fuel money when we'd already given him a more than sufficient amount for the week.
The final straw I guess was when we were driving along with them talking about locations still when we hit an old lady. It was mostly her basket that hit the truck but her arm was also hurt. After a moment of thought Jiddy decided to just drive on. James disagrees with this on principle and it does suggest a flaw in Jiddy's character. Me, being the cold-hearted practical one, did not fail to realize that stopping to help or apologize could result in a tricky or expensive situation as happened to Ben in Ethiopia once upon a time... However I don't really think Jiddy had our best interests in mind when he decided to continue, and even had time to stop a taxi that had been yelling at us for leaving and nearly pick a fight over it.
Thus when we got back to our compound James cut him loose and now we will regroup and have a day off to rethink before trying some of his other contacts here. We have finally bought some food and have a kitchen so maybe some “real” food will do us some good too. There really isn't a whole lot of selection and right about now I really miss Dutch dairy...
At the moment I seem to be getting regular internet access because we are staying in the capital and James needs to check stuff online all the time. Unfortunately the censorship restrictions on the internet in the SIL compound make the Chinese look very free and open so I can't do anything there :(

Saturday, December 17, 2011


So far I've been disappointed with the lack of street food. Ya, there are bananas, and I have seen the odd other fruit or a baguette walk by, but the most common other thing I've seen are trays of fried locusts. Big ones. With lemons. I am not going to try them. We're still not totally organized or sorted yet. Maybe we never will be. It may be impossible to do so in a place such as this. But we haven't starved to death, eating nice bread and we are purifying water from our bathroom with a purifier James brought. I don't feel like I'm actively contributing a whole lot other than moral support most of the time to be honest but it's an important role too. We just seem to be trying to balance a lot of different things at the same time so staying focused and not giving are going to be key. It's weird being in the fifth wheel role.
I also honestly doubt I will get many photos of Chad, certainly not any to put up on the blog while I'm doing text. It's just too anti-photo around here. People see a camera and they freak out and the police, security, etc are always suspicious. We are filming secretly without using something obvious for film and even that generates more attention than we want. We do have a video camera here and the first time we brought it out to film our lunch with Jiddy and his friends with their permission it started a big argument with other people at the little eatery, even though we'd told them they wouldn't be filmed. So something as obvious as a camera is not something you want to bring out and play with really. We did find out that Jiddy is somehow affiliated with the police as he has a police ID card. It's probably a good thing, but we are generally afraid of the police more than anyone else too.
Have I mentioned the flies? Lots of those. Lots of little lizards running around everywhere too. And mosquitoes also. I haven't missed them and am now back to starting my mornings with the mass slaughter of revenge killings. My blood comes at a very high price. Malaria is definitely a problem out here so we are taking Doxycycline for prevention. Another unmissed aspect of travelling that I'm back to again is hand-washing the laundry. I was smart enough this time to go with really light-weight clothes so it would be easier, but I have never liked the process.
I have finally seen some traffic lights. They are just little ones on the side, not above the intersection and look really out of place as well as useless as nobody seemed to be paying any attention. If I was going to have a city scavenger hunt here I'd make that one of the items. Find a traffic light. And a building taller than 2 storeys. That'd keep people busy for a while....
We ended up sorting out the battery issue fully, more or less, before moving on to the next thing. We still haven't started on location yet. It's possible to buy stuff here to set up solar power systems, but the system is different from what James wants, which is a bit messed up because he has already brought out half of what he needs. For example the battery we have now is a wet battery (We had an accident and James dropped a bottle of electrolyte/acid which broke over our legs and one of Jiddy's friends didn't realize what it was so started cleaning it up with his bare hands. Fortunately it wasn't too strong and we were in front of our hotel so it didn't burn our skin too long.) with the wrong terminals so he'll have to rig it up somehow. It'll brobably end up being a fire hazard and burn down half the city or blow up like home made fireworks.... So it's all good and remains interesting.
On Friday we moved over to our new residence, where we should've been from the start. It's the SIL compound. It is a missionary compound primarily (Protestant) and unless you have some sort of religious connection you can't really get in here anymore. There are missionary families living in here permanently and others come to work. James is also a new director of a Chad based NGO called ENVODEV which is now not religious oriented but way back when was a religious organization and so still has some contacts like this. Cool for us, but it also means we get to change hats, name drop a bit, try to behave and pretend we're doing holy work ;) We change what we're doing as we have to. The amusing thing is that Jiddy and his friends that accompany us daily are obviously Muslim. So when Jiddy tried to drive into the compound in his pickup with our stuff, he got some very funny looks from security and we didn't think they'd be allowed in. I guess there is still some religious suspicions or something going on. The populace is apparently about 50/50 and it's not too hard to tell them apart from the style of dress and language. The good news for us is that because it is a special type of compound that you really have to earn your way into, we are now staying in basically an apartment, with our own living room, kitchen, etc for less than $20/day total! It's a very very nice deal. We are reserved in here for the next 2 weeks.
I think we've also finally turned a corner with Jiddy as he seems to be more welcoming of us and relaxed and when we went to his home today to film his family we were able to openly film the entire thing. He still shows up to meet us very late, but I guess we'll have to chock that up to African time... So now I'm staying in a nice compound, have a local driver (who doesn't know where anywhere is, but whatever, you can't blame a guy when there are no street signs and he doesn't normally work with foreigners) and generally feel awesome.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Arrival in N'Djamena

The journey to Chad was as I anticipated in my previous blog. Long. I was surprised that there were almost no Africans on my first flight to Addis Ababa, so it wasn't until I got to the Addis airport that I started to feel like I was going somewhere different. I met James there the following morning (after a relatively painless night in the Addis airport, where they do have benches you can lay out on) just before boarding our flight to N'Djamena. The landscape coming in looks very desolate and dry and even as we were landing and looking out over the city center, you would never guess we were about to land in a capital city. There are no high-rise buildings and it's quite small looking.
Our adventures here started almost immediately. James wants to film as much as possible of our time here, starting from the moment we arrived. I was wearing an iphone of his that was set to recording as I went through the whole airport process. James was busted with his small camera before he even got off the tarmac and into the airport building. So I no longer knew him and he was dragged off to a corner to pay his first bribe and get escorted by security through the remainder of the immigration/customs process. His luggage didn't all arrive at first so we were stuck waiting around and he had to go make some trouble filling out a report for a missing bag, etc. We were the last people to leave from our flight and were generating a lot of attention standing around with a lot of luggage. It's literally a 3 room airport, one for immigration and vaccination check, one for baggage and customs xrays, and one for the main “hall”. We finally got outside, James went back in to change money with the one money changer but ended up finding his bag, grabbed it and ran out of the airport in such a hurry to run away that we jumped into a random taxi without either of us changing money...
The guy didn't know the place we wanted to go so we got dropped off at a bus station near where we needed. We had to cross the city to get there so I got a decent first look. My immediate impression was that it wasn't all that unfamiliar, having seen most of the rest of west africa already. There isn't a lot of traffic and I think the population of the city is just under a million people. I don't even need to describe anything for the rest of my family to get the picture but lets just say that I haven't seen a traffic light yet, there are military and police everywhere, it is about 30C and very dry and dusty and my lips were cracked within the first hour of landing, many of the guys are wearing the local variation of the shalwar while the women have very colourful clothing as full length skirts or wraps. Not that it feels like there are many women here. Seems like maybe 80% of people on the street are men. Bananas and other fruit float along on trays at head height through the crowds. For vehicles, you have a choice of Landcruisers, Patrols, Hiluxes and other 4WD's, very beat up taxis mostly in one piece and with very cracked windshields or minibuses and small buses for intercity transport. There are not a whole lot of private cars driving around that don't look like hand-me-down landcruisers from the ubiquitous UN agencies or NGO's running around. Only the main roads are paved. There is a lot of dust and dirt elsewhere...
I observed all this while I was sitting on a street corner with James' bags (He has a very heavy backpack, a camera bag, a laptop bag, a day pack and a box of solar panels. In contrast my total weight is 12kg including my day pack which easily fits inside my big bag with room to spare.) while he went to check out where the place was. As it turned out the reservation James' friend made for us doesn't go into effect until the 16th so we were without a place to stay for the first 3 days. Another taxi ride across town to Hotel Central, one of the cheapest hotels that James knows of from his previous time here. It is ridiculously expensive and while it does have A/C, a fridge and hot water, it is a very basic place nonetheless. The cheaper accommodation option in Chad is staying with various religious mission guesthouses which is what we have a reservation for later. Totally fried by the long journey over we walked out to buy some bread and bananas and a SIM card and I believe I was sleeping in bed at about 7pm.
The next morning, it took us a couple of hours to actually get the SIM card working so we could even start attempting to talk to James' contacts here. Of course they couldn't be reached right away. So instead we walked over to register with at the immigration office, which has to be done within the first 3 days of arrival. No hassle there but I'm pretty sure I caught someone trying to pickpocket my bag while walking over there. Of course walking anywhere means mostly in the street. The sidewalks, where they exist are cracked and uneven or simply the dirt on the side of the road. The hotel is centrally located in the city apparently but apart from a couple banks and the offices of the phone companies nearby it feels like we are a long way from anywhere, probably because there is nothing here. The presidential palace and a huge new (6 months old) people's square or something is not far either. It is known as a very boring place to visit. I still have my doubts but I really hope we can get something done here and start getting organized soon. It'd be a very boring place for nothing to be happening...
We did get in touch with James' primary contact, Jiddy and met him later in the afternoon with a couple of his friends. Jiddy is a friend of a friend of James' that he knows through his site back home. Sounds slightly sketchy, but that's the way it goes out here. I think we've come to grips with getting ripped off to some extent while setting this stuff up. We talked to them for a while explaining what was needed for the internet cafe then went out to look for the right kind of 12V batteries. We found some but didn't buy any yet. I don't understand most of what's going on. James speaks much more Arabic than French so is usually working in that language, though he's often frustrated because a lot of people seem to speak only French. I can follow a bit of the French when he has to switch over. Tomorrow we'll work on finding a location.