Why N’Djamena is one of the most expensive places in the world

and yet, it is also one of the poorest.

This dichotomy is difficult to process. Frozen berries, when you can find them, are available at one store and cost 10,000 CFA = $16. Peanut butter, protein powder, are nowhere to be found. Anything processed, or packaged that was not raised on a small farm is flown in from France. Chad lacks any sort of infrastructure in the form of roads, railways or air transport to get goods and services in and out of the country. As a result, it is extremely expensive to get anything modern or manufactured into the country. They rely mostly on their old colonial power for connections outside their borders – and that connection is strong.

But the real issue, the thing that is not talked about when we talk about extreme poverty – is corruption. Corruption is so rampant that head of the state-owned oil company Société des Hydrocarbures or SHT (Chad has the 3rd largest oil reserve in Africa) has publicly stated that half of his gas and fuel deliveries get diverted to shadow networks. On Thursday June 23, 2022, the Deputy Director General of the SHT was dismissed for a scandal of embezzling upwards of $120 billion CFA or conversion to dollars can get tricky with exchange rates but it comes to something close to a few billion dollars. To put this amount in context, the countries GDP as a whole was $10B in 2021. In what is being dubbed as “SHT GATE” the exposure of such a case is having ripple effects, not just taking down the network of corruption, but potential lasting effects for the transition.

We (the international community) often talk about how (corrupt) Chadians are able to continue their lifestyle while looking outside their compound gate at the poverty** that ensues. How can you not look around and say, “I need to do something about this”? Realistically though, we could say the same thing to ourselves. I do not do much different in my own country or in this one. You get stuck into your work. Your circle of friends. After a while, you start to harden to the poverty you see. Ignoring it. Sticking within your own bubble of comfort because the issue is so overwhelming that it is impossible to know where to start.

The average western person would have trouble processing the lifestyle realities of living in a place like Chad, a hot arid climate, with limited infrastructure and corrupt governments. Power outages occur every day. If you require electricity, you also require a back-up energy source, a generator or solar (which is a thing here despite lack of development otherwise…pretty awesome). International aide organizations, the UN and national embassies all have different policies on how they take care of their people in what they consider to be ‘hardship’ locations. If you are not allowed to take your family, the UN, for example, pays for a ticket back home every 8 weeks. The US on the other hand might get one ticket a year (if you are lucky). International aide organizations typically attract Europeans with requirements for long vacations. A reset is recommended every quarter if you and your organization can afford it.

Context. Expectations. Attitude. Perspective. They are everything when trying to understand the complexities that are a place like Chad. Yet the eternal question remains. There is a collective desire amongst the international world to help the people of Chad, but will they help themselves first?

**Just to give an example of just how difficult and rampant poverty is, amongst the throng of people on the streets include many disable people missing limbs – an unfortunate legacy of polio or other life mishaps. These people are quite often crawling to get from point A to point B. Crawling. Makeshift wheelchairs exist that are powered by wheeling with your hands (quite an ingenious no energy method) but there are more people that need them than exist. Truly, it is difficult to see.

What does it mean to be Chadian?

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.

Plaza de la nation is the most iconic location for N’Djamena. Military parades and national days are always centered around this representation of the Chadian capital.

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.

Leaving the capital has few paved roads and even fewer rock formations

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.

A herder and his son

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.

Two colleagues putting on a traditional headdress. You will see many Chadians wrap a piece of cloth around their head and face serving two purposes: protection from the sun for their heads and protection from dust to cover their mouths

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.

Moving to N’Djamena

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.