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Archive for the ‘Tchad’ Category

Skittishness and homecoming

In Foreign Policy, Home Life, International Development, Kids, Peace Corps, Tchad on February 16, 2011 at 7:51 pm

I’ve been home from Chad since Friday evening.* The flight out of Chad was fine, my flight from Paris to DC was delayed, but otherwise fine.

Spent my last evening in Chad drinking, basically. I got to hang out at a very cool Ethiopian restaurant, the food was great, and I got to have a couple of beers under the stars with my feet in the sand, so to speak. The problem was my sudden anxiety when I got to the restaurant.

A few weeks ago, two young Frenchmen were kidnapped by Al Qaida from a busy restaurant in the middle of Niamey, Niger. The restaurant was a regular expat hangout, in the middle of the neighborhood where all the NGO’s are, including the Peace Corps and their hostel. The poor guys were killed before their kidnappers were subsequently attacked in a failed rescue attempt.

This kidnapping had ripple effects; the Peace Corps program in Niger was suspended indefinitely, and travel is generally going to be more difficult in the region. Personally though, this whole thing had me freaked out from the second it happened.

Call me a defeatist or weak, but terrorism scares the crap out of me. I do not want to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, very far from home, and be kidnapped or killed because of this whole amorphous and hard to understand global war on terror.

I took a calculated career risk in 2009, working with Iraq programs, thinking that might earn me the chance to work on projects in more peacefully, chronically poor countries in West Africa. This chance ended up panning out for me, but now this kidnapping has really messed things up.

So there I was on my last night in Chad, arriving at the restaurant in N’Djamena, in the middle of a quiet neighborhood where other NGO’s and expats live. It was my very last night at the end of a long trip that I couldn’t wait to finish. Wouldn’t it have been just my luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time…

But after two grand Galas and a satisfying plate of tef bread and spicy meat, plus some informed words from my new friend, who is a young US Foreign Service Officer (and Mauritania RPCV) on his first tour, and I felt a little less stressed.

Being home has been great. A few weeks more, and my third child – a son – will be born. Who knows what my next trip will be, but I know I’ll put myself through another wringer emotionally, balancing uninformed fears and calculated risks.

* I’ve actually been home for about four weeks, but sat on this blog post until I had the time to look it over before posting. I know that isn’t saying much but thanks for reading this far! Ah life with full time work and always-on family.

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A head clearing rant…

In Tchad on January 13, 2011 at 5:01 am

Just a little complaining to clear my palette.

I’ve been in Chad a week now.  Professionally, the trip has been fine, if uninspiring, as I haven’t been able to go to the field offices to see the beneficiaries.  Personally, the trip has been a drag.

The Chadian 50th anniversary independence celebrations went off without any disruptions.  All the heads of state of the region have come and gone.  But I still can’t really go out, I’ve been advised by more than one knowledgeable and reasonable person that I shouldn’t walk around town, I’ll almost certainly be mugged.

If you’ve been noticing my twitter feed, I got a little unwanted souvenir from Chad, my stomach’s been turning, which I had expected, but it still isn’t fun.  I laid low for a couple of days.  Since they were Chadian holidays there wasn’t anyone expected to work, and I had worked through the weekend, so I didn’t feel too bad holing up in my hotel room.

One thing that my work depends on is a stable, reliable internet connection.  We all rely on it – sending emails is the primary form of communication when you are 6 hours apart from HQ and home.  Fortunately, my NGO loaned me a blackberry, which has been great for clearing my inbox, but even that hasn’t worked perfectly.  I learned the difference between “EDGE” and “edge” for example… if you have the former, the email works, with the latter, it doesn’t.

The worst internet connection has been the hotel – they use a system where you have to continually get new password and usernames from the front desk, each is good for 2 hours of internet connectivity.  They use “Wibi Telecom”.  It’s free, thank god, because the service kicks me off almost every 2 minutes, and I have to sit there and refresh constantly.  I try to get as much offline work done as possible, but when you need the internet and it’s not there, you hit a wall.  Forget Skype after hours, forget downloading attachments.

So, I can’t really go out and meet with regular people, when I’m in I can’t communicate virtually with anyone that easily – so I end up talking and texting with my wife a lot, which is awesome, but she’s got her hands full and we can only talk for so long.

Enough complaining, time to see the better side of things, look for the positive in Chad.  I have one week left as of today.  I need to make the most of the home stretch.

On Beautified N’Djamena

In International Development, Tchad on January 9, 2011 at 4:54 am

N’Djamena has probably never looked as good as it looks now.  Laborers are working diligently to spruce up the city for the “Cinquantenaire” celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Chadian Independence, which they’re holding on January 11th, two days from now.

There’s a large monument facing the ruling party’s headquarters on a really vast town square – the arch looks like the St. Louis Arch but with a big missile going through the top, pointing at the sky.  There is new gardening everywhere, the Yellow, Red, and Blue Chadian flag is everywhere.  They’ve draped the same colored Christmas lights – the kind that is made to wrap around bushes, over the roads, like electric bunting.  The visage of His Eminence President Idriss Deby ITNO, is everywhere.  You’re clearly supposed to know that he’s responsible for the peace and prosperity.

Any building with any significance near the main round points is being surrounded by new cement-bricked sidewalks.  Buildings have been refaced or painted.  Fountains are flowing.  I noticed in one of the parks on the way back to the hotel last night – there were people just chilling out on park benches enjoying their new civic beauty, however temporary it might seem to a cynic such as myself.

I would say that for the next few months, it’s probably going to be pretty good to be a Chadian living in N’Djamena.

Waxing Poetic on the Harmattan

In International Development, Tchad on January 8, 2011 at 9:46 am

The Harmattan wind season began in earnest last night here in Chad.  This is a two-month long dust storm that happens in the Sahel during cold season.  The sands are swept up into the sky and everything gets caked in a fine dust.  They’ve found this dust blown all the way to Brazil in the past. This is the season where you can never feel truly clean.

You start to feel it in your teeth, you feel like either spitting or brushing your teeth a lot.  When you sweat, if you wipe sweat away, you leave lines of dust on the edge and on your hands.  Anything you have that was white will never be truly white again, ever.  The sun becomes like some surreal moon hanging in the sky at mid-day.  The wind through the Neem trees can cruelly sound like you’re near the ocean.  It’s sunny and clear but not.  Anything beyond 500 yards seems like it’s melting away into the cloud.  All you can worry about is right in front of you.

This is how I’m trying to approach my work here.

Anniversaries in a bright new Chad

In International Development, Niger, Politics, Sustainable Development, Tchad on January 6, 2011 at 7:09 am

I’ve been in N’Djamena, Chad for two days now.  The big deal here is that the 50th anniversary of Chadian independence from France is being celebrated on January 11th – they’re calling it the “Cinquentenaire.”  All the main round-points and traffic circles are being spruced up with new cement bricks and landscaping, they’ve repainted the buildings on the main Avenue Charles De Gaulle (irony alert!) and workers are madly completing a large monument where presumably the festivities will be based.  From time to time, there are also jets rumbling overhead, which a colleague tells me are for an air show.

This Chadian colleague also told me that this is all to show that Chadians are in a new era of a prosperous Chad – they raised fonctionaire salaries and improved their housing, and are cleaning up the streets.  He also was worried that the recent republican takeover of the US congress was worrying for the future of foreign assistance.  I agreed on the last part, but remain uncertain of the new prosperous Chad.

So far, N’Djamena is a sleepy capital city by a river.  The streets do not seem that crowded, most of the people I see out and about are men.  There seems to be the usual Sahelian mish-mash of North Africans, Chinese, French, and here, Oil Workers.  We spent last evening at the Carnivore, a decent restaurant that caters mostly to expatriates. My Country Director here is Congolese, and he knew everyone, especially the other Congolese.  The Carnivore was hopping, with decent live music – one of the singers reminded me of Angelique Kidjo.  There was a point where the band was playing a cover of the Lionel Ritchie song “All Night Long”, sung by a Cameroonian, with Libyan, Chadian, and French guys all drunkenly dancing with each other and singing along.  The juxtaposition of styles was fun to watch.

My wife and I are celebrating an anniversary ourselves.  Yesterday, January 5th, it was our 10 year anniversary of closing our Peace Corps Service in Niger.  I feel like my trip back to Niger last September was reflective enough about this.  But it is a unique anniversary, and I’m happy to be spending it working in Africa, doing something I had wanted to do because of my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer, all those years ago.

The Traveling Dad

In Career Development, Home Life, International Development, Kids, Tchad on January 2, 2011 at 11:20 pm

I’m off to Chad for about 3 weeks tomorrow.  I’ll cover my thoughts and reactions to my work in Chad in future posts.  But, what I’m in the middle of right now is what a lot of us working parents would call the hardest part – leaving my family for a long business trip.  It sucks, for sure.  The kids start hugging me longer, I have to watch my wife make her logistical arrangements for the evening fitness and yoga classes that I’m usually there to pick up the childcare slack for, and my extended family treats it like a big deal.

When I was a kid, my dad went on trips all the time, at least 3-5 times per year, all over the world.  I missed him, but generally, the time went quickly, we got along well enough and I was interested in hearing about his trips and seeing the pictures of him all over the place.  When I was young, and my dad was about the age I am now, his trips were all to new places he hadn’t been to, so there was this sense of sharing in his adventures.  He would bring me back little tchotchkes and show me some pictures.  I went through a rough time around age eleven, where I was very much afraid of my dad dying on one of his trips.  So the half-dozen trips he went on while I was going through that were especially stressful.  But logic and pragmatism eventually won out.

The thing is, my dad is a scientist and was visiting conferences in Europe, Australia, and Japan.  I’m an international development professional and the places where I have to go are much more dicey, at least to people who may not be as thoroughly informed.  I went to Iraq in late 2009.  I was in Niger last September.   Now I’m going to Chad.  My dad didn’t exactly collect danger pay when he travelled.  This is why I learned to not really worry about him.  He was safer in the air than I was being driven to school.

This leads me to the second hard part about leaving this time  – I’m not only leaving home for a long trip away from my family who are making a show of missing me – but I’m going to a place where I’m really going to have to take care of myself.  In Iraq, I had a personal security detail (PSD) worrying about my security and I was in a secure compound in a walled neighborhood.  In Niger, I had the advantage of my Peace Corps experience, language ability, local knowledge, and friends to not feel stressed about it.

Chad is different – this is all business for me this time.  I’ve got my work cut out for me.  It’s a very challenging environment, even for experienced development professionals.  A former colleague of mine who used to work in Chad was unequivocal – don’t go out alone, in fact don’t go out, unless you’ve got professionally armed accompaniment.  They say by all measures, Chad looks, smells, and feels like any other Sahelian country, of which I’ve now visited seven of them (Niger, Benin, Togo, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, in case you were wondering) – but Chad is different.

So, as I write this, I’m feeling the gut feelings of a father of two (with another on the way in the Spring) who lost his right to die a long time ago.  I need to make this trip for my NGO, I have no real emotional attachment to Chad (yet) and I’m going there to do a lot of work that I want to prove to my NGO that I can do.  So logically, I know I need to go.  The gut has the excitement of going somewhere new doing battle with the sickening parts thinking about worst case scenarios.  The logic is winning over my gut for sure – Chad is a poor but quiet country – corrupt and hard to govern or manage, but not insanely dangerous or boiling over; I’ll be with my colleagues all the time in controlled situations which I’ll have a hand in planning.

But it still doesn’t make leaving any easier, especially as my younger daughter, having trouble sleeping, feels the urgency of my suitcase at the foot of the bed and hops up to spend the rest of the last night she’s going to spend with me for 18 days.