Few countries in Africa have anything close to a national identity as we would understand it in a western sense. It is better to understand Chad less as a location with defined borders and unifying culture and more in terms of circles of familial connection that feed into a web of power. Large generalities can be understood by dividing the population into north and south, herder and farmer, Christian and Muslim. Yet with these differences, connection occurs in certain areas, and conflict in others. The north tend to rely more on herding, be Muslim and nomadic. They tend to carry a weapon, and embody the warrior spirit that gave Chad its name in the Sahel. In the south, the people tend to be more Christian, less nomadic and rely on subsistence farming.
Multiple wives are common and accepted as the lifestyle of wealthy men. Not only as a Muslim practice, but in many traditional religions before outsiders introduced any major religion. Chadians typically have two last names, similar to the Spanish, but follow only the father and the grandfathers lineage. There are over 120 different dialects in Chad. The capital of N’Djamena largely operates off French, but mainly in the places that cater to expats and the 1%. Arabic is widely spoken, but the dialect itself is a great representation of the merge of cultures that have converged on this area of the world. Nomadic words are often intertwined with French ones depending on the topic. For example, words like democracy and government are spoken in French, whereas familial terms, such as brother and sister might have a more local word. Language and the ability to communicate often divides the groups of people who interact – without French it is unlikely that a Chadian will have any connection to the world outside its traditional familial upbringing.
I work side by side with Chadians, but only a specific set of the population: the highly educated. Those that have been abroad, speak multiple languages and are able to bridge the gap in understanding between our western ideals and their unique way of thinking. If you break away from this small segment of the population, you see a group of people largely uneducated, surviving in the same way that they have for thousands of years. It is hard to truly conceptualize the stark differences in reality that exist for westerners, the 1% and everyone else. Life runs in a continuous circle of family and survival. Yet, that life is not seen as difficult by many Chadians. There is a sort of ideal about living in the country that life is simpler, and therefore happier – away from the hustle and bustle of N’Djamena.
Chad is a part of the Sahel, a strip of land that cross-cuts a subsection of Africa from east to west. Historically, the Sahel served as a trade route connecting the Arab kingdoms in the middle east to African trading partners. Great kingdoms grew out of this timeframe in places like Timbuktu, and Gao. Through these trade routes, similarities formed in nomadic Islamic traditions. As colonial conquest faded and corrupt governments took ahold of this arid subsection, extremist ideology spread. The Sahel is known today largely for its insecurity both in the physical sense with violent extremism, and in the humanitarian sense with rising food and climate change challenges.
Chad is of course prone to these same insecurities, particularly in the humanitarian sense, ranking as one of the most impoverished places on earth. With extremism on the rise in the region and Islam as a core component of the population, you would think that Chad would experience some of the same problems as its neighbors. Yet, despite being surrounded by six unstable countries, there seems to be a collective disdain for Islamic extremism. The previous president of Chad, Idriss Deby, served for 30 years cultivating his reputation as a regional security leader. Political debates aside, he created – and strongly enforced – a culture of secularism in the government. Creating a military culture within the government, this military culture had a unifying sense against extremism. For now, Chad seems to have avoided the temptation of using religion instead as a rallying cry against corrupt and secular leaning government institutions creating a fascinating sense of community surrounded in a very militarized culture.
So how do you answer the question – what does it mean to be Chadian? Is to be Chadian even a concept? A Chadian is both a warrior and a farmer. A Chadian is a father, mother, son and daughter. A Chadian is religious, if not spiritual, still strongly embedded in family and tribal traditions. Family is everything. A Chadian is at their very core, a survivor, in a complex world of challenges living the most simplest of existences. A Chadian is still working through its identity as a concept under defined borders. A concept I intend to continue to explore.