‘Revolution? We’re not angry, we’re exhausted.’
The first thing you notice in Chad is the heat. You step out of the plane at midnight and it feels like someone pushed you into an oven. The desert air thumps you in the chest and sucks oxygen from your lungs. I’ll be halfway through a six-month stay in the capital, N’Djamena, by the time you read this. Most days the temperature is 45 to 50 C. Trust me, I carry a pocket barometer. I have never seen mercury rise so fast.
The second thing you notice is their flag, the same as Romania’s. When I tell the locals I live in Romania, they smile: ah yes. But the shoe cleaner outside my hotel frowns and says: “Your president told us to change our flag. That was not nice. Do you think we should?” I tell him no, and by the way I’m not Romanian, it’s just my adopted home. He asks me how is Romania. So I tell him. He asks if I want my shoes cleaned for $7.
He does a good job. He uses petrol to clean them and three cloths with polish. His name is Jeudi. That’s ‘Thursday’ in French. I’m tempted to ask if he’s read about Friday in ‘Robinson Crusoe’, but I don’t. Jeudi tells me to check inside my shoes every morning for scorpions. “Are you serious?” I say. “About what?” says Jeudi. He looks tired, bored and I’m not surprised. He has few clients. He used to work in construction, but the work dried up. He needs contacts. Do I have any? I slip him $10 and promise to keep my ears open. “And also look in your shoes,” he says, with a smile.
Chadians are friendly but have a weary air, as if they’ve lost hope. You would probably feel the same if your country had recently emerged from a 50-year civil war. There are plenty of bullet holes in N’Djamena.
Lots of soldiers too, hundreds of them, wearing all sorts of uniforms and hats. The elite troops outside the presidential compound cradle their AK 47s and stare at you until you look away.
My driver, Abaka, is a nice guy, quiet and safe with gentle eyes. He wears a long white turban around his head and neck, like we’re riding camels, not a Land Cruiser. I’m in the back seat, asking how’s life. He says life is OK, thanks. I ask if he has kids. He says two girls, but he used to have three. I lean forward, watching the road. “How do you mean, Abaka?”
Abaka says: “I sent my eldest to visit her grandparents in our village. But after two weeks she got malaria and died. She was 12. I was very sad.”
He sounds so matter-of-fact I hardly know how to reply. I assume it happened a few years ago and he’s had time to grieve. Now he’s dodging the potholes, lost in thought. A pick-up truck overtakes us, full of soldiers in smart uniforms with guns and radios. The smallest soldier, sitting on the tailgate, gives me a hard look. He’s just a kid, 12 years old, maximum.
“When did your daughter pass away?” I ask. Abaka shrugs, as if counting in his head. Finally, he turns and says: “About seven weeks ago.”
Over the next month, three of my Chadian journalist colleagues come to work bleary- eyed, walking around in a daze. I learn that their young cousin has just died of a bad tummy; their auntie got knocked off her motorbike; their uncle passed away with meningitis. In Chad, death stalks the land. That’s life.
Life in a hotel, of course, for the privileged few, is easier. Mine has a pool, a small gym and barbecued fish. However, as I write, a mosquito the size of a wasp is howling around my room, waiting for its chance.
I’ve been watching the Arab world ignite on a flat screen TV in the hotel bar. I ask some Chadians if a revolution would happen here. They just chuckle and say: “Mister Mike, we are not angry, we are exhausted.”
One of my friends in Chad is named Laguerre, which means ‘war’. He invites me to a hip-hop show and we sit on stone steps around a low stage under an open sky, studded with more stars than I’ve ever seen. The rappers are strutting their stuff. The guy to my left is dressed all in white, chewing a little stick, his head wrapped in a turban that cascades down his shoulders. His eyes are closed and his flip-flop is rocking to the beat.
Back at the hotel, I ask Jeudi about scorpions. He says they sit on door handles, so watch out. Then he laughs. “When we were kids, we used to pick up little ones by their tails. But you have to know how or they sting.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Like hell for three days. But the big black ones are worse, Mountain Scorpions.”
“What happens if they sting you?
“You die in three minutes.”
Next morning, I check inside my shoes. Then I check the calendar.
This article was first published in FHM Romania (April 2011) and appears here by permission of S.C. Sanoma Hearst Romania SRL.