Friday, April 6, 2012


When one thinks of Africa - there are many cliches and media induced images that come to mind.

and when one thinks of Africa - there is often a tendency to generalize it as a whole - however, no place on earth has as much dynamic diversity as does this continent.  We would not presume to generalize Italian politics in the same sentence as Ukraine's.  We would think of them first and foremost as separate entities, cultures, countries.  So why don't we do that with Africa?

I am reading a fantastic book right now Africa: Failed States, Ordinary Miracles by Richard Dowden, a British journalist who spent most of his adult life delving into the tangled web of politics, culture, power, foreign aid, colonialism, HIV/AIDS, war, and other factors that have created some of the greatest disasters in modern history - and the answers he comes up with are refreshing, complicated, and inspiring.  He talks about the continent in terms of the distinct countries and ethnicity that create the vast web of diversity. 

anyway, I highly recommend it. 

there is a lot of literature right now that is re-exploring the way that the "West" has traditionally defined and related to "Africa."  Economic policies are being dissected in hind sight, many people are looking for answers as to why many countries are no better off economically now than in the 1970's despite a massive influx of foreign aid, loans, grants, etc.  I won't attempt to rehash it all here as I am only beginning to study and understand economics, but there is an overwhelming shift in the social and economic literature against foreign aid, against the policies of the IMF and World Bank, against the NGO's that are now seen as inadvertently instigating and perhaps perpetuating some the complex problems such as poverty that many African nations face. 

there is a push towards the old "helping people help themselves," any many academics and economists are calling for cessation of aid to Africa altogether.  Of course, all this I'm typing is a gross generalization but I'm sharing it because until this year - it was new to me. 

I wanted to go off and "save Africa" without even attempting to understand the history, politics, culture, and complexities of the continent let alone the country I was going to.  It was going to be enough to help a few dying kids and brand myself a humanitarian so I could feed myself little shots of meaning. 

but it isn't that simple

anyone that wants to give a simple or pat answer for a problems facing any of the poorest countries of the world are grossly misinformed. 

consider for example the fact that most African countries were "colonized" by a militaristic and entrepreneurial Europe in a free for all land grab that took into absolutely no account already existing governments, cultures, ways off life.  Colonialism and imperialism were forced down their throats at gunpoint - the governments that were put in place to maintain order were unnatural to the cultures they were ruling - it goes like that for 50-100 years, countries are carved up with an ink pen by men most of whom had never set foot on the continent and BAM in the 50's-70's everyone gets their  "independence," the West swoops in, aids and advices, manipulates governments for their own interest, gives free economic advise, hands out some massive loans, enter the Cold War - the west sacrificing the pretense of democracy and begins courting various countries, exit the cold war - arms caches everywhere, democracy reimbraced, loans given, the conditionality of which were largely ignored, enter the dictators, the civil wars, the famines, the countries that actually did great.........

and see, I just typed a paragraph full of disgustingly gross generalizations - but really, is it any wonder that countries carved up on someone's coffee table half a world away are experiencing ethnic conflicts, civil wars, various governmental parties representing their ethnicity's interests vying for the largest share of the AID budget???

the point is, the problem started a long time ago.

anyone that wants to talk about Africa, about Tchad - should come here.


this country gets under your skin.  it bothers you.  it causes you to question.  it keeps you awake at night.  it keeps your heart pumping wildly.  it gets in your blood.  it never leaves. 

i have been here six months.  just long enough to figure out that everything I previously thought about tchad was complete crap.  Just long enough to realize what a fool I have been.  just long enough to decide to change.

and so I'm trying to be a blank slate.

instead of asking questions with answers in mind, I am going to ask real questions.

instead of relying only on google to tell me about tchad, I am going to ask the tchadians.

it is very hard to question someone open mindedly.  it is very hard not to file each piece of new information away in the slot you already labeled and have waiting for it.  It is hard when you get an answer you didn't expect or want to hear, an answer that surprises you, it is hard to accept its validity.

but here, you have to change your thinking.  I have to change my thinking.  or I will miss so much. 

I talked for over and hour with Teskrio tonight, and Daniel, a french teacher.  both are successful in their professions, both are smart and articulate. 

and i learned some things

I learned that there has been some form or war or unrest here since the 70's, finally calming down about 4 years ago in 2008.  I learned that they regard the last 4 years as slowly bringing cultural change to Tchad.
they tell me, that despite the statistics I read elsewhere, almost every child in tchad goes to school.  I asked, for example, if there is a child from a very poor family, and he really wants to go to school from primary school to university, is there an avenue that he can follow??  and they said yes. 

after primary school here and the equivalent of high school, they all have to pass an exam called the bac to qualify for university.  Here, they admit, people get tripped up,  after this, the university is expensive - culturally, many are married by that time and cannot afford to maintain a household and go to school so the numbers of people that actually make it are severely diminished.  They admitted also, that once someone has an education, it is difficult to find a job in tchad that utilized that education.  So the incentive for a good education may not be as good as I would have thought. 

also, they stated the education was not technical.  for example, it is difficult to get training to become an engineer here, any degree that uses a high degree of technology - they have to go to Cameroon and other countries to be able to learn things that compete at a technical level. 

I have statistics that show that boys are far more literate than girls and go to school longer.  They said, yes, it was that way "before", but now, things are changing.  In the north, many people lead a nomadic lifestyle and the nomad children do not go to school.  Therefore, more children in the south go to school in the north but in this area, they said almost every child goes to school. 

the children have no text books or resources.  They admitted that the government teachers were not payed well.  Yet they both went to government schools for their entire education and insist it was a good one. 

they admitted that many girls dropped out of school at 15 or 16 or 17 to get married.  I asked if there was cultural pressure to marry at a young age - there is.  The older a girl gets, and she is unmarried, she will be ridiculed by her peers and it becomes more and more difficult to get a husband. 

I asked, here, does a girl have any choice in the matter??  it is still customary and practiced to ask for the father's permission before the girls.  They will agree on a dowry, payed by the prospective husband to the father.  I asked if the girl can say no, once this arrangement has made, if she is pressured to marry.  They admitted that "before" there was alot of pressure to marry by the family and it was harder to say no but "now" the girl can say no. 

however, i have heard it repeated by almost every tchadian man that I talk to that it is the girl that goes out and "looks" for a man and "gets herself pregnant."  there is a feeling that this is in no way the man's fault and if she marries young it is because she was looking for marriage.  here my open mindedness fails me abit and i find that hard to believe.  I think that cultural pressure, the fact that marriage is arranged with the father and dowry is payed, poverty, and many other factors account for high rate of girls that marry young.

also, since the man must pay a dowry, he has to wait until he has a profession, has saved up enough money, etc.  this plays itself out as older men that are finally marry look for young girls to marry.  They stated that the preferable age for marriage was when the girl was young because here she "ages faster" although the women here often outlive the men.  They admitted that hard life of cooking and childbirthing cause the women to age rapidly.  They also stated that when a man marries a girl more his own age, she will not be as inclined to be obedient and respectful.  fancy that. 

I asked about foreign aid - they support MSF and other agencies that respond to epidemics and emergencies such as measles, cholera, meningitis, etc.  They say that it helps the population very much because the government is not equipped to rapidly handle things like that.  They said if rich countries are going to give loans to chad, they HAVE to make sure and police that the project the money was going for actually gets done.  if that is not enforced, the government of Idress Deby will pocket the money.

They stated everyone dislikes the president and knows he is corrupt.  he tells them often that there is no money, but they know this is not true.  in a book I recently read it said that in 2005, that of  the entire budget allotted to the hospitals/health centres, only 1% reached its destination.  that is called corruption. 

also, family and extended family is very important here.  while some of the benefits are beautiful and a sense of community enables them to survive immense suffering and come out on the other side, there is another side.  If anyone in the network of family (and it is a very loose network) asks for money, you cannot refuse.  Anyone with a good job is expected to help the rest of the family with school fees, hospital fees, money for food.  This is an expectation.  they cannot say no.  So the people that are actually well off or have potential to be are kept in poverty. 

and that brought me to my next question - if they cannot say no - why does almost everyone that comes to the hospital say they have no money.  why didn't they ask their family before??? they didn't really have a good answer.

i'm tired of typing but basically i just think its interesting although this is a far from perfect account I am on the path to trying to better understand this country. 

books I just read that you should read too!!!!

The Blue Sweater
Dead Aid
The Bottom Billion
The Elusive Quest for Growth
The White Man's Burden
Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles


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