Flying in a minuscule (ok, it wasn’t that small, but smaller than my typically ‘large and sturdy’ plane size preference) World Food Program (WFP) airplane between N’Djamena (Chad’s capital city) and Goz Beida (barely considered a town – try to look for it on a map, I dare yah), I had no clue how to envision the people and land that would greet me in the following hours. At the time, all I was able to envision were the pilots sitting one row in front of me (see, I wasn’t exaggerating too much…this was a small plane!) and my jumping hands.
For 45 minutes, the plane seemed to cruise up and suddenly dip down, as if dodging birds while simultaneously riding a roller-coaster air wave – that little thing was giving gravity a fight worth writing home about.
Splitting clouds and navigating over an expanse of unknown land below, I pondered the little I did know about Chad – information that made me feel a bit queasy (…or maybe we should just call this motion sickness?):
A landlocked country – neighbors with Libya to the north, Sudan to the east, Central African Republic to the south, Niger to the west, and Cameroon and Nigeria to the southwest.
Due to its snug position surrounded by multiple conflict-ridden regions, and its voluminous land mass (slightly larger than three times the state of California), some refer to Chad as a “large dumping pot for refugees, IDPs, and immigrants.”
Though I don’t ever think human life should be referred to as being ‘dumped’, unfortunately, this ‘pot’ analogy is not too far-fetched…
– Due to various political insurgencies, rebel groups, and widespread violence, Chad is currently home to close to 70,000 Central African Republic and 300,000 Sudanese refugees.
– Over the last two years, the government of Chad has done everything possible for internal security. 90,000 Chadians are currently living in IDP (Internally Displaced Person) camps, and another 91,000 former Chadian IDPs are in the process of relocating, or returning, to their home villages.
– Since 2011, there has been an increase in Libyan hostilities, forcing 150,000 Chadian returnees to arrive in Chad.
– Chadians continue to re-enter Nigeria and Libya by the thousands – instability is forcing them back home.
As reported by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), 80% of Chad’s population lives below the poverty line. Only 34% of its residents age 15 and older can read and write. And according to the United Nations (UN), 2.1 million people remain food-insecure in Chad, including 1.2 million people at risk of extreme food insecurity.
My friends, these are some serious and indicative statistics.
Village Profile: Maramara // Ready for Change
In the village of Maramara, the above numbers are tangible, coming to life in the form of the mothers, fathers, children, and chiefs:
Situated over two hours outside of Goz Beida, beneath the sporadic shadows of the surrounding jagged hills, Maramara hosts an indigenous community of about 1,000 Chadians. Though they are fortunate to have avoided any incidents with militant groups, the community remains painfully positioned at the bottom of the development scale. In other words, for decades, the people of Maramara have been surviving.
The nearest water source is a three hour journey away.
“The water that we gather is not clean. When I come back I am so tired that I barely have the power to cook. The water is the disease that is killing people here.”
– Fatouma, Maramara resident, 30 years old
Though residents have cultivated some food in the past year, in part due to a recent World Concern agricultural program, the prior years were spent scraping by on inefficient farming methods.
Like many of the surrounding villages, Maramara has neither a school nor a hospital.
Fortunately, the people of Maramara are aware of their situation and strongly desire to develop their village.
According to World Concern’s Chad Country Director, Athanase, “The people are willing to change. They have proved themselves very capable of farming and brick-making. They understand where they are and where their resource capacity ends – and this is where World Concern can fill in.”
“Everywhere the people are suffering. So where else will I go? I want to stay here and work – to improve my village.” – Fatouma
Homeless at Home
The Sila region, located in eastern Chad, hosts a high concentration of refugees, returnees, IDPs, and indigenous at-risk communities. Outside of the IDP camps, the vast majority of people in this area live without access to clean, or as the locals would say, ‘potable’, water. Additionally, the region is lacking in schools and hospitals. The location, its lack of resources, and the acute poverty combined make the people living in Sila a susceptible target to the Janjaweed and other local militant groups.
As reported by the Human Rights Watch (HRW), originally supported and provided with arms by Chadian militant leaders, the Janjaweed have been laying waste to eastern Chad since 2004. They are brutal, unpredictable, and (to anyone without firearms – meaning most everyone in these rural villages) unstoppable. In their presence, the villagers are defenseless – facing no other option but to run for the bush or courageously fight by hand (in most cases the outcome of such has not been positive).
[Personal blurb. While the Janjaweed’s actions are entirely unacceptable – here is something I encourage you to consider (a thought which I always find to be both humbling and eye-opening): The Janjaweed are equally human, and their motives and way of life stem from living in vulnerable, difficult circumstances as well. If you’re able, think of them from this frame of reference.]
According to Yaya Harun, a 21-year-old recent returnee and resident of Amkréréribé, “When the Janjaweed came there was nothing we could do. They had guns and we had nothing. Fortunately we were warned of the possibility by a neighboring village.”
Referring to the horrific Janjaweed attacks, the HRW stated, “Government soldiers did little to protect civilians from these exactions, and in many cases were themselves responsible for abuses.”
“When we came back to the village to bury the dead, the Janjaweed came again – killing eight more people.” – Yaya
Village Profile: Harako // Resilient Returnees
At 25-years-old, Kaltam is my age-mate. This is one of the few things we have in common.
For Kaltam, growing up in Harako was difficult, yet memorably peaceful.
Due to Harako’s vulnerability, while she was still young, Kaltam’s community was attacked by the Janjaweed and she was forced to flee with her family. As a consequence of the raid, over 20 innocent people were killed. Kaltam spent the next four years living in Gassire, an Internally Displaced Persons camp near Goz Beida (a full day’s walk from Harako).
A few years ago, Kaltam returned to Harako with her husband and two children. Along with everyone else, she arrived to find nothing – her home turned to ashes and property stolen.
When we met, I found out that Kaltam is now a single mother of two.
“It is very hard for me, but I have to trust in God. We are not getting much food, all I have left are these few seeds from my husband, but he said he will come and take everything.”
Like Maramara, the people of Harako have survived for decades sans clean drinking water, schools, and hospitals. Most who fled during the attack have been slow to return to the village as they are fearful of further incidences (and Gassire provides clean water and education).
Through World Concern’s One Village Transformed program, the people of Harako are returning in large numbers. After working with its residents to construct a deep-well, their first ever clean water source, Harako’s passion to re-build and improve their village has increased tenfold. Initiating it on their own, the people of Harako worked together to collect sand and gravel to build hundreds of bricks for their first ever school. Even the chief jumped in the mud to take part in the brick assembling process.
“I have seen Harako now, and it is better than last year. We have a school and potable water. I will be very happy to go back to school. I will go with my children!” – Kaltam
“We have lost everything.”
Spending time with the men, women and children who have bravely returned to what’s left of their villages (literally nothing – houses burned, livestock stolen, millet fed to the rebel’s cows), I have heard the same horrific stories over and over again.
Though, by western standards, these communities had very little to begin with, most everyone told me beautiful stories of how wonderful their lives were prior to the Janjaweed.
There were thousands of cows and goats. There was plenty of millet to eat. They had three grass huts each.
According to 34-year-old Abdillahi, “Before the Janjaweed people came, I lived with my two wives, brother-in-law, and children in our seven homes. We had over 30 cows. They took everything – even the millet we had farmed.”
It is in these places, with these uncharacteristically resilient people, that World Concern works – focusing on restoring and developing returnee villages and partnering with extremely vulnerable communities.
[IMPORTANT: Please note – all of this is not to say that the people of Chad are helpless, or without resources. It is to say that there are millions of skilled, intelligent, and capable Chadians who are innocent victims of an unjust society and a violently tainted political history.]
Moving Toward Rebuilding, Renewing, Restoration.
On a weekly basis, World Concern staff ventures two or more hours each way to sit with people. To hear their stories – their struggles, their triumphs, their dreams.
They spend hours conversing – deciding how everyone in the community can contribute their skills to partner with World Concern’s resources – to make their villages as they once were, and then some. To develop their villages in order to decrease vulnerability, create sustainability, and empower individuals may be living as victims to living as empowered human beings – a privilege worth of all.
I cannot fully express the urgency of these situations. In my short life, I have witnessed extreme poverty in a variety of countries – but something feels different about eastern Chad. The need is tangible in a way that it causes my heart to palpitate, as if wanting to explode out of my chest and love on every person in a big way – a way that I am not capable of. A way that, more than ever, prods me to desire super human powers, so that I can dig wells, build schools, and train midwives. Though these feelings of mine may sound a bit trivial, and erring on the side of cliched – they remind me that development, if done well, takes time and equal contributions by all – partnership is key!
‘I’ cannot be the one to build the schools. ‘I’ cannot educate communities. ‘I’ cannot dig wells. But with your partnership and the proper resources, Chadians can.
You can be a part of restoring lives and developing villages like Tessou and Maramara.