A month or so has passed since I returned from what was a particularly intense experience in Chad. I spent a day this week sitting with filmmaker Brad Bell tweaking the edit of some of the shots from our trip so I found myself reliving some of my experiences.
Some impressions take longer than others to surface. I find myself often gratefully thinking about my sheer luck of being born where I was. In Chad the average life expectancy for a man is 50.8 years. I’d likely be dead already if I had been born there. The situation in Chad is dire and this drought will trigger a major hunger crisis across Africa’s Sahel region. People in a community we visited hinted that they were already quietly burying children due to the effects of malnutrition.
Normality is an amazing thing. It is stronger force than we think. Near the village we were working in during the day, was the town of Oum Hadjer. It seems normal enough. You can buy a cold coke if you can afford it, go to the market and trade and drive around about your business in cars and on scooters just like a normal town. Women from the village went there on donkeys to trade the mats they wove attempting to replace some of their lost income due to the failure of their crops. The fact is they cannot sell their mats at a high enough price to justify the labour. It takes them, for example, five days work to earn enough money for two days food. But they go anyway. What other choice do they have?
Common sense alone says some of these women going to the market were grieving recently-lost children. But people carry on, supported by the comforting fiction of normal life. In times I have been in grief I have noticed how everyday life can seem strangely banal and on the other side of a veil. You wonder why people can’t seem to tell that you are full of misery. It makes me wonder about these women carrying on under the burden of their grief.
They carry on because there is no alternative, and there were other children to take care of. My friend Catherine Pope reminded me that infant death in the UK in the nineteenth century was far more commonplace than it is now. When many infant deaths are the norm, perhaps there is comfort in knowing your peers are likely to have experienced it too. Like in wartime when people lose their sons, if death becomes commonplace does it lose something of its sting?
Although I realised it was an inappropriate metaphor for the dry Sahel, I kept thinking that if we looked up above the dusty land we would see a tsunami of death and starvation racing towards the village instead of the wide sky and unrelenting sun.
The people we talked to lived in earthen huts but were every bit as intelligent as us, and could see plainly what was happening all around them. One woman told us a little about plans she had to expand into cattle farming and take on more land in a kind of franchise, but now her life is reduced to thinking about where she can get food from for the next meal. This is the grimmest end of ‘normal’ life, when the routines of daily life shrink to abject necessity. As the lack of food hits you, you can’t think properly. Simple things begin to seem impossible. The fiction of normality can’t help anybody then.
Currently, with terrorist attacks, entire populations being forced to move in fear of their lives, we are clinging, ever-more tightly, to rigid ideas of what we consider normal life. What is normal is a collective hallucination. We have to wake up from it sooner or later.
As an Africa newbie, a visit to Chad was in at the deep end. Chad is a landlocked country unappetisingly described by Wikipedia as the ‘dead heart of Africa’. It proved a difficult place to gain entry to. Despite having the right papers, as soon as our team of five landed we were shepherded from the airport into a hot, ramshackle office and given a grilling. Luckily our guardian angel Passiri arrived with a policewoman, and our problems began to melt away.
Our team was led by Steve whose leadership and clarity of purpose on this trip were inspiring, our photographer Pete is someone driven by a deep humanitarian instinct to move between disaster areas taking amazing photos, while Brad our filmmaker and cameraman, is a quietly spoken Canadian with an original mind and a fantastic eye. My old friend Matt Hunt and I were there to witness conditions for ourselves, contribute, help out and write stuff on the hoof. My remit was to help ensure the vision I had when writing the material was kept in mind. The team, many of us new to each other, collaborated excellently. This work was superbly enabled by the local team led by Passiri, and our two highly-diplomatic translators Tchang and Sylva.
The capital N’Djamena seemed to crackle with tension. This is due to the terrorist Boko Haram organisation, who in June set off a bomb in the main market, which killed a dozen or more. The threat from this appalling outfit feels very real. While we were far away from trouble in the heart of the country, another marketplace bomb went off near Lake Chad, not far from N’Djamena, killing 37 people.
Our journey from N’Djamena was a good ten hours by road, through a flat open country of the Sahel’s semi arid scrubland and trees, and interrupted only by armed roadblocks and goats or cattle crossing the road, or stubborn donkeys refusing to move out of the way. We glimpsed many villages of traditional mud huts with thatched roofs from our Toyotas. Here and there we could see people travelling on donkeys and camels, or at work driving cattle, carrying water and so on in the bush.
Not long out of N’Djamena we passed an enormous oil refinery. We had been told by locals that the Government signed a disadvantageous deal with Exxon Mobil, and while there was clear evidence of recent building in the capital, it is said that precious little oil revenue has trickled down to the poor.
Hour after hour we travelled deeper into the centre of Chad, until at sundown we arrived at the edge of Oum Hadjer, and a compound that was to be our base for the next six nights. Early next morning we got to work. First, protocols had to be observed: we met the secretary general, the Government’s chief representative in the area, then the mayor of Oum Hadjer, and finally we were driven to one of the local villages to be introduced to the Chief and the community.
Once these formalities were over we could start talking to ordinary people. I felt punched in the guts by the stories the women of the village told us. They had pitiful amounts to eat, one day’s food in the bottom corner of a little plastic bag. The crops were diseased and withered. The rainy season had not happened, the rainfall replaced by a heartbreaking drought. One woman showed us how they dug up ant’s nests to find grain that the ants had dragged underground. This grain stolen from insects was what one lady would feed her children with the day we spoke to her.
The children were obviously malnourished, their orange hair is a sure sign. Others had tiny bodies, one little boy had stump-like arms, deformed feet, and had only one eye and yet he smiled at us cheerily.
The overarching cause of these problems is climate change. The change in the weather means areas of the Sahel, a semi-arid scrubland between the Sahara and greener regions of Africa, are rapidly becoming desert. As the rains fail, the soil quality deteriorates. All around we can see the soil rapidly eroding into sandiness and large trees and bushes becoming islanded in a dry sea of poor soil. On one drive I asked Tchang our translator to ask the Chief who was travelling with us, what the name of the place we were driving through meant, ‘The place where crops grow’ he said. We looked out at the window at the desiccated scrubland. Little grows there now, and certainly no crops.
There are steps that can be taken to limit the spreading desert. Planting trees is one remedy to reduce the combined effects of drought and human agency, irrigation and water conservation initiatives are another. But optimism is hard to come by when you can walk on vast stretches of a sun-baked riverbed that should be deep underwater at this time of year.
Personally I found this trip to be an endurance test. While we were there the temperature soared to 49°C, the hottest I’d ever experienced in my life (and far hotter than the 36°C it should be at this time of year). Steve and Brad came down with sunstroke and vomiting, I had diarrhoea that Steve fixed for me with antibiotics and we all were dehydrated or had too much sun at some point. But everyone, including me, just picked themselves up and carried on. Compared to the trauma we were seeing around us, our ailments were minor. We filmed and photographed everything we needed, and the use of a drone was a real boon, as the people in the village community loved it, and would laugh with delight and gather every time we flew it.
Curiously, this journey has left me thinking about God. My own faith is a simple one. I believe in God. I have personally drawn spiritual nourishment from a variety of sources including both Testaments of the Bible, but also from attending Buddhist retreats and in my reading, such as the Bhagavad Gita. Generally though I find the man-made structures and hierarchies of religions to be obstacles and distractions.
The charity I am working with is a religious one, and there was prayer woven into each day we were in the field. I had absolutely no problem with this. Not to pray in gratitude for our food when a few kilometres down a dusty track the people of an entire village are in desperate need would have been unthinkable.
Oum Hajder, the town we used as our base, is a predominantly Muslim community, a fact the call to prayer reminded us of each day. It started a couple of hours before dawn from the town’s main mosque, until other more distant voices joined in as dawn grew nearer. A memorable soundscape added to by the crowing of cockerels and other animal and insect noises bubbling up from every direction of the dry land. We attended the Church next door on Sunday, and I found it to be an explosion of sung joy and dancing. God is known by everyone in Oum Hadjer, and surely this must count for something.
After our passports had been examined on nine separate occasions in the airport at N’Djamina, and the plane soared up over Chad, I felt both relief and a responsibility not to give-in to helplessness.
I recalled standing on the edge of the fields as the team were shooting scenes that I had first imagined sitting in my office in Brighton. I had to keep pinching myself thinking that it really was me actually standing in the centre of Africa with the other guys of our team. But now I have seen this situation with my own eyes, it is something I cannot unsee.
I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to do something, to write the most compelling material I can to persuade people that this situation our team encountered is something that needs urgent attention. It seems that it’s time to step up.