Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Main Driving Hazards in N'Djamena

Tapis rouge (‘Red Carpet’)
The sudden and frustrating closing of all main arterial roads because President Deby wants to use one of them. Most frequently encountered when he’s travelling to the airport, but can be for almost any reason. His convoy usually involves several pick-up trucks filled with AK and machine gun-toting soldiers, police out-riders, and numerous black limousines. Its passing is often accompanied by aggressive behaviour from members of the Presidential Guard, hammering car bonnets with rifle butts and shouting ‘Are you mad?’ at anyone who happens to park in the wrong place. Tapis rouge can last for up to two hours, while the hapless population can only stand by and watch. Finding alternative routes on non-tarmac roads is a thankless task.

Crap roads
The sudden and frustrating appearance of massive holes, ditches and piles of sand and debris in the middle of roads. Often the debris consists of the putrid contents of drains which have been dug out and then left on the side of the road. Even roads which are only a few months old are covered in a thick layer of sand which is easy to skid on.

The sudden and frustrating closing of roads for maintenance and/or tarmac resurfacing. This follows an apparently random pattern, meaning that a trip which has been made two days earlier without issue suddenly becomes impossible. Road-works signs are not illuminated, and are generally sited approx two centimetres from any holes. Sometimes traffic is allowed to continue in single file, resulting in chaotic off-road driving by impatient motorists and bikers which generates huge clouds of dust. Often the intended diversion is not signposted, resulting in the inattentive driver suddenly finding themselves in the middle of a village wondering where everyone else has gone. (The editorial direction wishes to stress that it is not opposed to tarmac-ing roads in principle – this is a very good thing - merely the chaotic and disruptive way in which it is done)

Drink Drivers and Relatives of the President…
…find it perfectly acceptable to drive at 100kmph in town, often driving right up one’s arse with headlights flashing and tooting the horn to push one off the road. Presidential relatives often feel morally un-obliged to consider other road users, in particular the masses of cyclists, who wobble past lightless on rusting frames, balancing on the edges of ditches. The worst case I heard involved an army general and his son who were killed when their car was flipped over outside the Presidential palace, after being hit by a drink driver who jumped a red light at high speed. Many accidents involving UN cars and foreign drivers will result in the immediate corralling of the vehicle by onlookers, histrionic demonstrations of how badly injured the person who actually caused the accident is, including pulling-off of shoes and socks and hobbling along in the street, pointing to perfectly untouched limbs that are apparently now damaged beyond recognition. Invariably resolved when rich foreigner agrees to part with large sums of cash.

Police road blocks (demanding fines for lack of fire extinguisher in car for example); goats; torrential rainstorms and bad drainage causing small lakes to appear in a matter of minutes; random items of merchandise, (mangos and spare parts for cars for example), dropped in the road in market areas; potholes (so quotidienne); wedding parties involving ululating women travelling three to a motorbike driving down the wrong side of the road; midnight weapons searches by drunken soldiers; general disdain for the highway code, usually with regards to turning left; petrol stations not having any petrol; weekly flat tyres caused by the poor state of the roads; power cuts mean no street lighting at night. This list is not exhaustive.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Send me a postcard

In response to a delightful request from a reader of this blog in Malaysia, I set about trying to send a postcard from Chad. From experience I know there is only one place in the city to buy postcards – Meridian Hotel. There I found the most dismal collection imaginable – three out of four designs featured cave paintings that could have been anywhere.

So inevitably I chose the picture of Toumai, reputedly the oldest pre-historic skull discovered in Chad a few years back. Annoyingly for Ethiopia this re-opened the debate about where exactly the cradle of humanity is (Berceau d’Humanite in French – quite a different thing). Nonetheless fun to compare both nations’ claim to be the ancestor of all humanity on arrival at Bole and Hassan Djamous airports.

But Toumai is a somewhat dark figure. Found in hundreds of tiny fragments, even for a skull it has a particularly gloomy, haunted aura. But what really made this postcard stand out (amongst admittedly strong competition from cave paintings) was the eerie juxtaposition of the half-complete Toumai, resplendent with furrowed Neanderthal brow, floating menacingly above an innocuous view of the Chadian countryside. Battered, fractured; mysteriously suspended above a barren wasteland - as if primitive man had met the grim reaper to remind people of the eternal precariousness of their Saharan existence.

Anyway I thought it rather fitting and flounced off to the post office. Imagine my amusement when I find that the only stamp available also featured the pieced-together fragments of Toumai’s skull, hovering above the price of the stamp.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

some blogs you might find interesting




great on darfur and somalia

and this one from American journalist Steve Coll whose normal musings on American public policy briefly gave way to Chad..

From Guantanamo to Chad...

Mohammed El-Gharani was Guantanamo's youngest inmate. Last month he was released after charges against him were dropped, and he was sent to N'Djamena.

I was so scared in Guantanamo. Sometimes I thought they would kill me or throw me into the ocean. I was there from 14 to 21 years of age, but sometimes I feel like I’m 40, because I’ve been through so much.

When I was in prison I called Al-Jazeera to tell them what was happening. Lots of people thought that when Obama came in things would change but it wasn’t true. In January I won my case because the judge said there wasn’t enough evidence against me. But even then I was still getting people pushing me around and not treating me well.

I don’t know why they sent me to Chad, I thought they would send me to Saudi because I was born there and my parents are still there. I’d never even be to Chad before. But when they asked me if I wanted to go to Chad I said of course I do! I could get to see my family and my country. There was no choice.

They gave me no help for the future. The day I arrived, the Americans brought me to the airport and handed me over to the Chadian authorities who welcomed me, and that was it. No more contact with them. The Chadians kept me at the police station for eight days. I don’t know why. They had to buy me a mosquito net and a mattress. I kept asking them every day why I was being kept there, they said don’t worry we’ll give you your papers you’ll get to see your family.

Finally they let me go, but I still don’t have a passport which means I can’t go to visit my parents. I don’t understand what’s going on. I’ve asked every day. Sometimes they say they don’t know if I’m really Chadian. I say if I’m not Chadian then how on earth did you guys take me from the Americans? They have no answer. I always say if I’m not Chadian, then just tell me, and if I am just give me my passport and let me live like everyone else.

Guantanamo is like a dream to me. I’m still living it, even now I’m free. Sometimes I wake up on a morning and I think I’m still there! I feel like there are guards around me, but after maybe half an hour I finally realise that I’m free. I never believed I would be there for so long, I never even believed I would go to jail. But I always knew I would get out. I read the Koran every day and I never gave up.

So I’m here in Chad now with no papers and no money, and my family are having to support me. I don’t speak Chadian Arabic and I’m still trying to learn my way around the city. But I’m free. Chad is really hot and not very developed, but I would rather spend the rest of my life here than another hour in Guantanamo.
I’m not angry with the Americans. I just want to get on with my life. I want to study, I want to work. I think I’ll try to go to school and find a job. I hope I can get back to Saudi Arabia to see my parents as soon as I can. I’m so close to them but I can’t get there. I call them every day. I tell them not to worry because I’m free now. Seven years away for no reason is inhuman

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Feeding time at the hospital

Looking back I clearly didn’t want to see the sick people. I made a feeble attempt to make contact with the hospital authorities, and then some excuse about how my accreditation wouldn’t be enough to get past the guards on the gate. So there I was, hovering outside, hoping to catch relatives who were coming to bring food to their sick relations because Chad cannot afford to provide food for patients.

The women arrived on a wave, every one of them wearing a different colour, sparkling scarves shimmering in the breeze, sashaying silently past me with their loving offerings balanced on their heads. Some had flat trays with fruits and sauce on the side, others carried round plastic cool boxes. Lifting a lid I caught the scent of cinnamon and milk, healthy cubes of meat floating in a steaming broth. Some of them told me it took them all day to prepare the food, and cost anything up to $5.

But Nassir was right, we couldn’t do the story properly outside – we needed to get in there. It’s actually quite a pleasant place with two-story wards painted in different colours, arranged facing each other across tree-lined avenues like the 1970s chalets in a tattered Butlins holiday camp in Skegness. But it’s obvious there’s little equipment or medicine, most rooms just contain beds and blankets.

I wasn’t expecting the man with legs as thin as chair legs. He seemed so welcoming when we first went in, but I should have seen the film over his eyes and the beads of sweat gathered around the hole in his arm where the needle went in. Nassir tried to ask him what he’d been eating, but he flung his head back, rolled his eyes up to the ceiling, and started pulling his trousers down. I looked away quickly when I saw the melon-sized growth which had taken over everything he could have been ashamed of. I laughed nervously and said ‘Does he realise I’m not a doctor?’, casting around helplessly for recognition from his female relations. They just nodded at me and watched him tearing his clothes off.

I remembered why I don’t like hospitals. The cloying sweet air compounds the stifling eeriness of the living and the dying drifting along silently in parallel. We left in a hurry.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The gold mobile sinks to new depths
OK one more clue: Impossibly posh English aristocrat

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

When I find myself in times of trouble, I just think of my crazy middle-aged bespectacled housemate, completely drunk, sharing his ipod of Finnish tango music with a slightly bemused Chadian toilet attendant in Piccolo nightclub.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Oh.. and any more suggestions on the un-named celebrity? I'm enjoying the randomness :)

Generator Wars

Despite my proclivity for exaggeration, I kid you not when I say we are now into the third month of a dismal, dismal electricity situation. At best I can remember a couple of days since April where the power has been on uninterrupted for more than 24 hours. A more usual situation is the power is off all day and then comes back at 2am for about five hours, until dawn. And then goes off again.

At first it was funny. One of those things you expect as part of the African experience. We naively thought it was random, a sudden surge in demand due to the arrival of the hot season. If everyone was out of the house during the day, the constant outages meant the temperature inside the fridge got to 35C. Food went putrid, the fridge stank; last to get unceremoniously dumped in the bin was prize cheddar, lovingly passed through x-ray machines and three airports on its way back from Europe. Iced water in the 48C heat was impossible. The water pump couldn’t re-fill the tank on the roof, so we had no shower.

Things began to be less funny when the heat got too much and I bought an air-conditioning unit. With the prospect of a room that could be slightly cooled off at night, there seemed a reason to live. But my joy was cruelly shattered when one night I turned on the light, the air-con and my computer at the same time, and the wiring in my room blew with a pusillanimous puff and a small blue spark. The victim least able to be resurrected was my laptop battery which (thankfully) took most of the blast, collapsed and died on the spot. (I could tell you how I’d just ordered that battery on my last trip to UK, and how I’d had to get the keys for my old house and go and await the delivery the morning of my flight back to Chad. Or I could tell you that I have been trying since mid-April to get that battery replaced, but due to issues of it being apparently eaten alive or thrown out of a plane window by some cantankerous creature living in the bowels of the US diplomatic pouch system, at the time of writing I still have to have constant power to be able to use my laptop (and thus work). But that would just be whingeing).

Finally, after several weeks of interrupted work and sweaty sleep, we accepted that the power just wasn’t coming back and we succumbed to the evil allure of the superficially liberating generator. Stumbling about in the dark, I had to use the light on my nokia phone to figure out how to turn on the one-tonne ‘Lifting Eye’ generator (manufactured in the UK but not adhering even to US standards on CO2 emissions).

But it comes at a cost. And I’m not even talking about the on average 100 litres a week of diesel fuel we’re igniting. It’s the noise. As soon as the beast is kicked into action, coughing and spluttering, as a black cloud pumps merrily out of the erect exhaust pipe that resembles the furnace of a 19th century steam train, the walls begin to shudder. Doors which aren’t closed properly rattle as if an Antonov is passing overhead. Nina the cat darts for cover.

Under the gentle burr of the air-conditioning and ear-plugs, I can just about block it out enough to doze off. But then I get cold and wake up to turn off the air-con. From then on, all hopes of sleep are frustrated as my brain begins to rattle inside my skull with the vibrations from the voracious monster, scoffing and hiccuping not ten metres from my bedroom window. All I can think about is how much fuel we’re using, tantamount to leaving the car running all night, and hypnotically my mind begins to follow the rise and fall of the interminable rumbling towards apocalyptic visions of melting ice-caps.

We tried democracy. One of us is super-human and can sleep at 9pm with no fan, lights or air-conditioning. The rest of us have varying indifference curves measuring cool rooms versus sensitivity to the racket and/or destruction of the planet. One room is conveniently located at the back of the house and therefore is somewhat insulated.

After several frantic weeks of night-time wanderings, tepid showers, insomnia, madness, generators being turned on and off, screaming matches and hapless guards caught in the cross-fire, we have been brought to the conclusion that we cannot sort this out. We’re all looking for new houses, with the massive self-deception that in a different neighbourhood there may not be so many power cuts.