If you read the title of this post and had to google the location of this capital city – fear not – you are not alone. I too had to google the location when I was told that N’Djamena, Chad would be my follow-on assignment following Foreign Area Officer Training.
I am sure many people would have various reactions upon the news that this was going to not only be your home, but your first jump into the Foreign Affairs world. For me, I was excited. What better place to start your journey in Africa than a place few outsiders have experienced, let alone know?
So little is known about Chad that if you were to google “Chad” the search gets confused between – that guy named Chad – and the country. After reading about “Chad” the person, you would see a series of NGO and UN related organizational pages pop up – UNICEF, the World Food program, International Crisis Group, World Health Program, among others. The fact that jumps out at you is that Chad is, and continues to, rank as one the most impoverished places in the world, 187/189 in the Human Development Index (HDI). To make matters worse, a rebel incursion (not uncommon for Chad) attempted to take over the government in April of 2021, killing the President, who had held power (and the country together) for 30 years leaving a transitional military government in charge until elections were set to take place.
While Chad may not be well known in the anglophone world, it is known in the francophone, or French speaking one. Gaining its independence from France in 1960, Chad is, in many ways, still trying to find its way as a country. Like many countries in Africa, there was no concept of borders or even a national identity in the western sense of the word until 1920 when the French claimed this arid country as a part of Afrique-Équatoriale française. Much could, and has, been written on the impacts of colonialism on Africa. For all the negative that can be argued about this part of history, one thing it did do was expose many African cultures to western languages, concepts of government and ways of life. These ties are still very much evident today. Out of the 120 languages that are spoken in the country, the main unifying language continues to be French, though many also speak Arabic, but may not read or write it, and there is a desire among the aristocratic class to move to English.
There is reading about how Chad is, and then there is actually moving here. Despite having two years to mentally prepare, I still was not ready for what it meant to live in a landlocked, impoverished African country. Frequent power cuts, no road rules, chaotic markets, dirt roads, women and children making a livelihood on the street, buildings that look like they are about to crumble. The few paved roads are swept every day by a sea of women, often with babies strapped to their backs, to keep the desert sand from completely enveloping the city. Everywhere you look you see vendors on the side of the street selling peanuts, an assortment of plastic goods and then just people, everywhere. Road traffic consists of mostly people on foot, followed by moped owners weaving in and out of traffic, with the rest being a mix between bicycles, donkeys, camels and the occasional car. Google, both the search engine and maps, are useless. To know this city you must explore and know its people.
N’Djamena is one of the poorest places in the world and yet one of the most expensive. Any product that is not bought at the local vegetable stand can only be purchased in 1 of 2 stories – for a price. Grapes or berries can occasionally be found, but are $20 for a portion. Cream cheese and American style bacon are not a thing, but who needs that when you can find some pretty amazing camembert and Roquefort cheese. Gala or Castel (think Budweiser) are your beer options, with Heineken for some variety. If you are into wine, you are in luck, there is one store, le cave, which has a pretty amazing selection if you are willing to pay for the Grand Cru. You can hire someone to clean your house, tend to your garden and cook for you all for around $200 a month, but wifi will cost you about the same.
Chad is a contradiction in time. It is ancient, in a way that you might characterize as backwards. Life for the average person is simple and in some ways has not changed in hundreds of years. Subsistence farming is the industry in the south, herding in the North. Literacy rates are minimal, people marry young and have large families. It is a fascinating, diverse place that takes months if not years to unwind – and some outsiders never will.
With a year to explore, I hope to open it up in a way that not many understand. Here’s to the next adventure: Chad.