Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Am Timan does not have an airport. But it does boast a freshly-carved, brick-red landing strip. There is no fence, and the tarmac is not tarmac, but a piste of rough stones and gravel. Fortunately (or unfortunately?) the South African pilots of the small Cessna don’t seem to mind its uneven surface or the stray mangos littering the ground.

We bank in low over the huts made of reed-matting that scatter the outskirts of the town. After the arid desolation of Abeche, the shimmering mango trees seem somehow un-Chadian.

It looks like the entire village has come out to watch the plane skidding to a bumpy halt. A gang of shoe-less children, wearing Arsenal shirts and oversized trousers hovers nervously beside the single Chadian soldier acting as airport security, check-in clerk and baggage handler. He has a light green scarf wrapped neatly around his head; his fake Ray-Ban sunglasses slipping down his slight nose betray his true age.

Wide-eyed the children lift their hands tentatively to wave at the pilots. Grown men in white and blue boubou robes stand idly by, buying cigarettes from a mobile shop, conspicuously trying not to seem as excited as the children.

The teenage soldier is efficient, and within minutes we’re on our way again. I press my face hard against the glass to watch how the assembled horde reacts as the plane speeds up for take-off. Like locusts rampaging through a cornfield, a long tail of Arsenal supporters is chasing us down the runway, screaming and waving frantically, convinced, as all children are, that they can run faster than the plane.

Suddenly my face is jerked away. We’ve had to stop because a child ran, literally, under the wings of the plane. Sitting high up, the pilots saw him just in time. They barely react. We speed up again. The trail of ragged bodies is squealing and giggling in delight.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Cultural Awareness Training

I have been able to establish that it is culturally unacceptable to carry out night-time guerrilla-style tactics (for example throwing shoes at tents, coughing loudly or turning on lights) to gently convince a recalcitrant snoring Chadian to turn over. None of the embarrassed, self-effacing (albeit slightly irritated bafflement that it’s always le ronfleur who’s expected to apologise) joking of the British caught in the act of snoring. Instead, an unfettered dagger-like stare was proof of my faux-pas. Tu n’as jamais entendue quelqu’un qui ronflent?

Ed: I got away with it - they thought I was scared..

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Gold Mobile.. the missing indicator is due to me smashing into the back of a pick-up truck

Better than ice-cream

It’s not strictly correct, as some claim, that you cannot find good ice-cream in N’Djamena. You can, thanks to a small Lebanese/French owned cafĂ© called Amandine. They even have a Mr Whippy machine, so you can order a sugar cone (I was never allowed these when I was a child), and pile it high with delicious vanilla or chocolate flavoured ripples. Outside, where the heat can only be described as if someone was blowing a hairdryer in your face, the cacophony of phone credit sellers, children with trays of peanuts precariously balanced on their heads, trinket sellers, and pugnacious horn-honking dies away, as the luxurious slurping brings back memories of ’99 flakes, on late-April Sunday afternoon strolls through the park, with teenage girls stripping down to vest tops and miniskirts at the first hint of sunshine.

But I’ve discovered something even more refreshing than sticky ice-cream. The best tonic for this 50C, blood-boiling climate, is to find a young, impassioned Chadian who lets you into their world for a few minutes.

Today I met Dembeye. She studied journalism in Dakar (where all budding journalists from across West and Central Africa aspire to go), and now she’s back in N’Djamena trying to find a job. “I just love talking to people and writing she says”, but she’s aware of the difficulties. On a three month internship at a local newspaper, she knows her chances of finding permanent work outside the strictly-controlled government newspapers are slim.

We went to visit women in the Walia neighbourhood, who’ve taken to buying buckets of blood fresh from the abattoir and frying it up with onions into a liver-like dish (jokingly called ‘vampire’ by aficionados). “People don’t like to talk here” she says, staring at the floor. “When I tried to do this story a woman insulted me and asked me why I was doing a job like journalism”.

I’m a real novelty. We met some men who’d been sipping on local brew since 9am and were belatedly lining their stomachs with this new delicacy of fried blood. They spoke to me with a mixture of awe and ridicule. “Bili bili (the brew) and vampire is an excellent mixture” one man told me, “it’s cheaper than meat now that we Chadians face such an increase in living costs”. A fat pig snorted outside as it wallowed in the mud. “How can you live in Chad as a vegetarian?” another asked, and the room erupted – the laughter smelt so high I could have lit it with a match.

Back in Dembeye’s house, handing me a hand-made fan, she told me even she is ashamed sometimes when she sees how rude Chadians can be. She hasn’t had electricity for the last week, yet she still managed to find me some ice for my coke. I asked her what she was going to do. She looked across at her husband – “If he can find a job abroad then I will do some more study. I want to learn everything I can about journalism”.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Another Day, Another Flat Tyre

I don’t know how old the tyres on my car are. The car itself, (affectionately known as ‘the gold mobile’ by your correspondent), is a Toyota Corolla, circa 1982. The bonnet is a slightly different colour to the rest of the car, and looks like it’s been repainted with the sort of glitter pen I used to use in school. It had to be repainted after I crashed into the back of a pick-up truck one day on Avenue Charles de Gaulle. It’s been repaired many times before, I know, but I like that. Here a car will last almost forever.

I guess these tyres are no more than a year old - they even have treads, but that doesn’t stop me getting a flat at least once a week. I left the house today to be greeted with the familiar image of the car listing sadly to one side. I was already late to a meeting with a Chadian Women’s group to talk about how they manage to prepare food and look after their houses when there has been no electricity for one week (that’s another story). I asked my guard if he could help me to change it. He didn’t know how to do it and started turning the nuts the wrong way. My new clothes from America are now covered in motor oil.

After the rainstorm on Monday (this is not the real rainy season – just a two day break in the infernal 48C heat cruelly tempts with the sort of cool breeze that can instantly change a bad mood to one of reverence), I looked at those tyres and realised quite how useless they are going to be in the rainy season. Six months after the last drop of water fell here, one hour of ‘Mango Rains’ left plastic bags, banana skins, broken electrical goods and other assorted rubbish swilling about on top of a pungent black pools. The painstakingly perfected new tarmac roads which are springing up all over town thanks to Chinese engineers flooded instantly, the freshly cut drains blocked already.
Every season in Chad reminds me of how far away from home I am. Every season gives a false sense of security. Of course when it’s hot, it’s a relief to not have to spend half an hour staggering about, half asleep in the dark (power cuts – I’m getting to it!), trying to work out whether the mosquito net is inside out or upside down. But the mosquito’s demise pales into insignificance against the 4am 38C room temperature and the associated wet pillow. I long for the slippery leaves stuck to wet pavements and insipid air and drizzle.