Monday, March 28, 2005

Tchad Sketches

Tchad Scenes

November 2004

In November I visited Tchad for the first time. Tchad is the central African country where the Sahara Desert meets the semi-desert of the Sahel, and finally turns into the green ‘Sudan’ region. The purpose of this trip was to meet with our local partners, and to gather stories from the distribution of 2 containers of food and non-food items that were scheduled to arrive via Cameroun. The saga of the containers is its own full-length story. This allowed us to visit the two regions of Tchad that host refugees: Central African refugees in the south, and refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan in the central-north.

We arrived in the capital city of N’Djamena on a November afternoon. As we begin our descent the Ethiopian Airlines steward announces with great conviction and enthusiasm, “They are reporting beautiful weather on the ground of 38 degrees”. It is approaching winter in Tchad.

The streets of N’Djamena are thick with sand, which fills the air at the passing of every car. Open sewers that collect garbage and breed mosquitoes line the streets. There is garbage everywhere. A Tchadien wryly noted, ‘those aren’t black birds you see flying around; they are plastic bags.’

The themes we hear repeated everywhere- with all refugee groups and local populations, and widows and orphan groups: First a deep thankfulness for the small aid that MCC has provided. Second, a plea to provide them with the means to earn a small daily income- to cover the margin that separates them from destitution.

As we met children in different parts of Tchad, who were supported by MCC projects, they would give us their names in French, and Levy would translate the literal meaning in English. The meaning of these names invariably found some connection with the stories we were about to hear:
’My name is Faithful’
‘My name is Destiny’
‘My name is God’s Will’
‘The War Chased Me’.
And the women’s group…
‘Capable Women’

HIV-AIDs Project: (Generations at Risk)
Ardebdjoumbal: ‘Capable Women’

Madame Djikoloum: “When I saw the prevalence of AIDS and its impact in my country, I cried. If I didn’t discover such a passion for this cause, I couldn’t get up every morning to dedicate myself to this work. Sometimes people think I am like a fool in the midday sun! When we go into new neighborhoods, we use a megaphone to announce our community meetings. I have become like a megaphone, making public this very hidden and private scourge.”

Comments from the other ‘Capable Women’:
- If I waited for my husband to solve problems we would all go hungry. I have to feed and clothe my children and buy medicine.
- One day when I was sick someone came to give me a little money. That really touched me. I have received help I never imagined I could.

Goré/Central African Refugees
“My name is God’s Will”
We drive the 750 km from N’Djamena to Goré, visiting farmers and orphans near Moundou on the way. We pass a truck that has overturned on the side of the road, and a caravan of Fulani people with all their earthly goods that lasts for kilometers.

Goré is the area that hosts the Central African refugees. People from the northern region of CAR were forced to flee almost 2 years ago, when the government began a campaign of attacking and bombing the villages. I found the Central African refugee leaders to be most gracious and long-suffering. Despite the fact that they have just come through 10 weeks without food distribution, they expressed their thanks to UNHCR, they spoke of the needs of the women, and they were deeply grateful for our visit.

We have a meeting with the church leaders in Goré that lasts into the night. It is an African meeting: a circle of men sitting on chairs, being served food by women, and the children quietly playing in the background. Their bodies forming a living statue in the shadows- constantly shifting and reforming like the movement of the northern lights across the sky.

Inside the church meeting room is a progressive poster of girls in school, the message on the poster reads, “We need to have education too!”
“-This is in the same village where Melody asks a woman with a baby on her back:
‘How many children do you have?’
‘Then maybe the ninth one will be your last child?’
The woman looks at Melody with resignation. ‘Madame, do you not have a husband?’

Words from Central African refugees
A woman cradles a listless child in her arms, in the shade from the hot sun. She feeds him a small glass of milk formula. “My son developed a fever last night” she explains, “and today he is still sick”. Honyo Pauline fled Central Africa with her husband and 5 children. Their village was bombed like so many others. Now they wait for peace. What else can they do but wait for peace?

§ “You are our sister in Christ. We thank you for coming here personally to see us. We have been here for almost 2 years. No one comes to the South.” Koubra Allam, Zone A, President of Refugee Women’s Association
§ We have suffered so much; we wonder, will the suffering diminish one day, or will it continue like this?
§ If you could here directly from our wives and children you would understand that they have the greatest need.
§ “If God didn’t send you, you wouldn’t be here in front of us. So God will guide you in the ways to help us, and He will also guide your return.” Abraham Zaccharia, Zone A
§ “The sun will set again tonight, and we will remain here in obscurity, except that you have seen our faces. You can see that we are human just like you.” Mahamad Mahdou, Zone C
§ We want to find a way to become human again. We have nothing to do, no control over our lives, no way to earn a livelihood. We are completely dependent.

Abeché/Sudanese Refugees
“My name is Destiny”
From Abeché we drive 150 km of potholes and desert sand-road to the closest camps of Sudanese refugees. We pass deserted villages, and then turn one corner to see a huge gathering of all the people from this area in a dry riverbed. Our trip is during the feast of Karem that celebrates the end of Ramadan. And as we enter Bredjing refugee camp, we see row upon row of praying Sudanese men, all in white flowing robes, women in brightly coloured cloth behind them.

Hadjer Hadid
We slept under the stars in the courtyard of the Sub-prefecture. He was the most gracious man I met in this area of Tchad. He brought out all their mats and blankets and pillows, and they themselves went without. And so we slept under a black sky brilliant with stars and galaxies, including the Milky Way.

I interviewed Mahamat Brahim Bakhit, Chef du Canton de Bardi. After our interview, which ends about 10am, he brings out a feast of to and sauce and the tenderest beef we have eaten. I start an impromptu English lesson by teaching everyone there how to pronounce the word, ‘Thursday’ (as opposed to ‘Tuesday’ which is quite easy). They all do very well. This will probably be the name of the next male child.

Bredjing Camp
As of September 2004, UNHCR reports more than 200,000 refugees living in 9 permanent and 2-3 overflow camps located within 50 km of the border. This includes a high percentage of women. These camps stretch along a 600 km frontier, north from Abeché. The expected influx is for 70,000 more in 2004 and 100,000 more in 2005.

Most of the Sudanese refugees left their villages in 2003, in a situation that has been called ethnic cleansing- bombing and firing on villages of black Sudanese by Arabs, confiscating their land and animals, burning villages, raping women and girls, and forced evacuation. ‘The military came with trucks and took all our possessions (including beautiful women) in the trucks into Sudan.’ The refugees report difficult relations with the local population, “they steal our donkeys and won’t let us collect wood or dried grass to build shelters.” The local population reports difficult relations with the refugees, “they come into our gardens and steal our food, then try to sell it back to us in the market!”

As we walk through this camp we are invited to a gathering of men. I gain the status of ‘honorary man’ to be allowed into this all-male gathering. And so there I sit, a lone white woman in a sea of Moslem men- all in loose white robes and head turbans. Laurel’s Harem. One young man shows us his bullet wounds, which precipitates a round of men revealing scars, missing fingers...

Women’s work in Africa is invisible. Women are invisible. If a man’s wife dies, her work will be taken over by another woman. “The women have nothing to do” comments one of theSudanese men, when listing the difficulties refugees face. As I walk around the camp, I see women collecting water at the well and hauling it back to their tents, washing children, washing clothes, preparing meals, heading into the bush to collect wood, and I think to myself, ‘There they are again- doing ‘nothing’!

Interview with Sudanese woman in Bredjing camp (Kadhidja Assane Kerim)
Kadhidja is a 25 year old widow with 3 children- two 8-year old twin girls and a 3 year old boy. As we interview her, all the neighbors gather on the other side of the low woven grass fence. She is from the village of Nabaré. She is living under the protection of her uncle, who translates (and interprets her answers) for her She lives in a small, hot UNHCR canvass tent with her 3 children. Their areas is separated by a small fence of woven dried grass. She collects water with a broken plastic gerry can, and cooks on a very inefficient set of stones in the corner of her courtyard.

Jangjaweed (Arab Sudanese militia) shot her husband. It took them 8 days to reach the Tchadien border, then UNHCR took them in trucks to the camp. The whole village fled at the same time. Those with animals came on their own; it took a further 4 days. What is life like for the women? “We have no way to earn money to buy any extra food. We only have the clothes we are wearing. We can’t find wood. We talk together about our suffering- no land, no work, just depending on others to give us everything. The kids just run around because there is no school. I am concerned.
Arid Blooms

Rocky outcrops
rise out of undulating sands,
supporting thorn bushes
and Acacia trees.

We pass sun-scorched crops,
abandoned by the rains
that never came,
but not abandoned by the grasshoppers
that did come.

We pass ghost villages
with markets empty of people,
full of thatch-roof shelters
on stick legs,

Then- defying this faded ochre
of dried up wadis
and thirsty camels-
brilliant blossoms of pink
flame forth from a
lone scrub bush.

Blossoms of hope in the Sahel,
like the brightly-clothed children we meet,
orphans and refugees all,
their voices proclaiming:

’My name is Faithful’
‘My name is Destiny’
‘My name is God’s Will’
and a last little boy—
‘The War Chased Me’.
Sahel Heat
It is so hot here in the Sahel
that even my shadow drips.
At high noon it drips out of sight
leaving just me, dripping in the desert.
Me dripping, and the riverbeds dry for months.

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