Chad has just come to a standstill for the best part of a week. The Muslim ‘sheep fete’ or Tabaski, fell on a Friday and Saturday, followed by ‘democracy day’ on 1st December, celebrating the day Deby took power through an armed coup.
I’ve never seen it so quiet. The streets were empty, apart from the armoured personnel carrier parked at the end of our street, with its gun barrel facing our house, and the Chadian housekeeper taking some French ex-pat’s three white poodles for a trot through the dust. Birdsong could be heard, and walking was a pleasure in the cool Sahelian winter. For one delightful day, no monotonous drone of the ubiquitous motorbikes, whose riders zoom out from every junction without ever looking, driving on the wrong side of the road. However those who were out and about presented a new hazard – driving with a sheep sitting on the front of the bike with its front legs draped over the handlebars.
A few things were different this year. For one it’s actually chilly. Although for a European it still seems slightly over the top to see Chadians in puffer jackets and woolly hats at midday, at night I’m delighting in a blanket. Secondly, there seems to be far fewer sheep than last year. Anecdotally I’m hearing that after a year of rising food prices, a ban on charcoal which has sent the price of wood through the roof, and falling oil revenues (Chad’s main export), not everyone can afford the traditional Tabaski sheep this year.
But the real difference is the tranquil passing of the ‘democracy day’ parade. Last year the streets were blocked with tanks and mean-looking soldiers - the skies screamed as four Sukhoi fighter jets passed over. The newspapers were full of jingoistic ranting about defeating the rebels, Deby’s speech was bellicose and dramatic. This year a small band of soldiers marched up and down smiling, and Deby was almost placatory. The greatest gift Chadians could enjoy this year, he said, was freedom. Debatable, but peace at least seems achievable now.
The day was crowned with a firework display at midnight, which blasted me from my slumber with half-formed fears of a rebel attack. Even a year ago, so common was the sound of gunfire in the streets of N’Djamena, I would have never believed the explosions were for fun. Chad closes 2009 with a real possibility of change for the future.