The hot air blasts up to smack me in the face like a Danish sauna as I step out the door onto the runway in N'Djaména. Two months have flown by as Sarah and I trekked across Europe from Paris to Denmark to Portugal and then all across the US from California to Florida to Tennessee. We're back in Tchad, refreshed and not quite prepared for the crushing news soon to be unleashed upon us.
We clear customs without any difficulty, Job and Aime are waiting outside to take us to the mission house at AIM. We stop on the porch to chat and Sarah asks when Israel, Paul and Dr. Bond will be up with the truck so we can take the road to Bere.
Job has seemed strangely distant all evening and now his face exudes his anguish as he tells us the story that he didn't want to dump on us our first night back but now has to.
"The truck won't be coming for you...you see, there's been an accident..."
I don't hear the rest of the story till the next evening when I find myself sitting next to Sarah on a mat outside of the hospital ward in Pala where Pierre, Noel and many family members have come to grieve, console and encourage our administrator, Andre, who lies inside still a little wobbly, with bandages on his right temple and ear. Next to him is his mother-in-law and our former accountants daughter...the only survivors.
As I sit next to Job, Pierre and Noel the pieces of the story that Job only new part of that first night in N'Djamena begin to unravel themselves.
Last Saturday (before our arrival in Tchad), Sarah and I were chatting with some friends from Africa in the comfort of my cousin's house in Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA. Meanwhile, in Béré, Noel, André and the rest were preparing to leave church when a raging man broke in violently and tried to attack our chaplain. Before he could reach Noel, he was restrained and Noel was quickly ushered into a back room. The man was identified as the son of one of our janitors and was finally convinced to return home. Noel continued on to the hospital to see the patients and was followed by this man. When it was seen that he was heading for the hospital, the gatekeeper quickly locked the gate and Noel hid inside. The man jumped the fence, now armed with a knife. As he ran around hunting for Noel, the hospitalized patients' caregivers fought him off with sticks, brooms, and anything else they could get their hands on to keep him away from Noel. Finally, Andre was able to contact the gendarmes who came and subdued him, but not before he had stabbed and destroyed one of the two air conditioners in the operating rooms (the only two on campus and necessary for surgery in this hot climate). The man was taken to prison where he struggled so hard he managed to break one of their doors before finally being locked up.
That same day, it is discovered that our Accountant, Ganota, who we'd just fired for embezzeling, has managed to sneak into the garage and steal five bicycles, several large cooking pots and a generator. Somehow, he'd broken in the back door and little by little been carrying things off. We onlyfound out because these items were left by patients as collatoral for their hospital debts and one came back to reclaim his bike only to find it wasn't there. Andre and Pierre were able to go to the market and find that that very day Ganota had packed all the stuff up to ship to his home town of Lere and they were able to recover all the lost items. A warrant was immediately put out on Ganota who managed to slip through the fingers of the gendarmes. Ganota's wife immediately began to pack up to return to Lere herself to be with her relatives.
Monday, Sarah and I headed back down to Florida with my parents and my sister Chelsey. The van is pulling a U-Haul trailer with my sisters' college stuff to take back home. 20 minutes out of Chattanooga, Chelsey hears a noise from the back tire. We stop and don't see anything. When it continues, we are forced to find a mechanic who takes the whole wheel off and declares there is nothing wrong. We continue on our way, but with eyes and ears peeled, our nerves sharpened.
A woman passes us in a car waving her hands and pointing at the trailer, indicating there's something wrong. Dad hesitates. We've had one false warning already. Chelsey looks back and says the trailer's wheel is wobbling. I tell Dad to pull over at once, it won't hurt to look. We slow down quickly and move over through traffic to the side of the road. Not a moment to soon we find out as we examine the trailer. The bearing has completely disintegrated and the axel has pulled out almost completely from the wheel leaving just a centimeter of axel holding the wheel on. When the police arrive, we are unable to move more than 50 feet down the side of the road at a crawl pace before having to stop because the wheel is falling off. We got of the road not a second too soon. As the officer explains, if the wheel had fallen off, the trailer would've fishtailed causing it to flip taking the van with it. At 75 mph and a crowded interstate it would've been a lot of funerals to attend.
Meanwhile, back in Bere, Andre has agreed to give Ganota's wife a lift to the nearby town of Kelo where she has arranged for some relatives to send her some money. Arriving in Kelo, she finds that Ganota has proceeded her and somehow, despite Andre's advance warning to the relatives, managed to con the money from them. Right before leaving Béré, André asked his niece to accompany him with his two year old son so he wouldn't have to return from Kelo alone. His mother-in-law and Ganota's daughter are also in the truck. André decides he can't abandon Ganota's wife who, with all her belongings, doesn't have enough money to take public transport all the way to Lere. Andre decides to drive them all to Pala, half-way to Lere.
On the outskirts of Pala is a notorious stretch of road where in the last year, unbeknowst to Andre, five vehicules have crashed. The dirt road, through a series of natural events such as wind, rain, composition of the road, gravity and incline has collaborated together to make a "washboard" road. If one goes too slow or too fast, there is no problem. But when onegoes average speed, say 35-45 mph (50-60 km/h), the tires hit the tiny ridges at just the right velocity to skip across them causing one to lose traction and experience what drivers from rainy and icy countries know as "hydroplaining".
As Andre hits the stretch of road, suddenly, without warning the car starts to slide and he loses control. Instinctively, he tries to brake resulting in locked wheels which, according to police reports, skid 31 meters veering to the right off the road. When he hits the ditch at the side, the car turns on it's right side just in time to collide with all it's forward momentum into a hugh tree trunk. The roof takes the brunt of the force and is smashed to within inches of the bottom of the back seats, tearing the metal supports on both sides of the windshield off. Andre slams forward bending the steering wheel 45 degrees with his chest and taking the windshield on the head. He is knocked unconscious. His mother-in-law in the front seat suffers a similar fate. In the back seat, Andre's niece and his son are killed instantly. Ganota's wife manages to open her eyes and say a few words to those who quickly pulled everyone from the car before dying. Ganota's daughter miraculously survives even though being in the completely compressed back seat. She has minimal lacerations on her scalp and some bumps and bruises.
The car is virtually unrecognizable despite having no damage to either tires, wheels, chassis or motor. However, the extensive damage to the cabin is sobering as one realizes that no one should have survived that accident.
After hearing the news from Job that first night in N'Djaména sleep comes difficultly. I toss and turn only to wake up early. We are forced to take public transport. Job accompanies us. We arrive at the chaotic Dembe market and find a mini-van filled with people with a loaded rack apparently ready to leave. Blessing our good fortune we pay up and sit down to wait for the "one other passenger" that they need in order to leave. After 15 minutes, the people start to get out of the van until it is empty. Then, they start to unload some suspicously light sacks until there is virtually nothing on top. We have been duped and are forced to wait an hour and a half until they really find enough passengers. By this time, it's already after 2pm and we have a long journey ahead of us.
On the way down, Sarah and I are crammed in the very back seat. My seat has no back, only the rear window to rest my head against. We share the seat with a Chadian woman and her shy child who plays incessently with a noise-making toy cell-phone. Sarah tries to discourage him by poking him every time the cell phone makes a sound. It doesn't work.
In front of us, as the journey progresses, I watch unfold one of the most unusual and astounding things I have seen in my three plus years in Chad: plublic affection between a man and wife. I am mesmerized by their intimacy. They actually seem to enjoy each others company leaning their heads in closely to share secrets. Her arm rests lovingly on his shoulder. He casually loops his arm around hers. As night approaches, their heads lean in and touch as they alternately rest and share intimate moments in their own little world. She has the traditional muslim head covering and he, while not dressed in Arabic robes, is obviously a firm believer as he steps out to pray with the others as the van takes breaks at all the appropriate prayer times.
In order to appreciate the magnitude of this, one has to have lived in Africa and seen the total separation of the sexes. Men and women eat apart, socialize only with their own gender and come together only in private for making children. One may see gruff soldiers walking down the street hand in hand all the time but rarely will one see a girl and boy or man and woman making even this most minimal of public gestures of affection. One time, before a trip that Sarah was making, as I was huggingher good bye I saw that Pierre and his wife had arrived. Pierre was going to accompany Sarah, so to tease him I told him, "Pierré, this is how we say 'au revoir' in my culture." He replied that it was a good custom and he was willing to try it. As he moved toward his wife, she began to laugh nervously and quickly got up and moved rapidly out of reach. Pierré would have to wait for another day to try that new cultural experience!
We arrive late in Kelo and have to wait another hour for the bus to Pala. We finally leave a little after 10pm only to be stopped by the gendarmes at the exit of the village. The barrier is down and they say that no one can travel after 10pm so we might as well just settle down and sleep till morning. The driver turns off the van and everyone sits there stunned. I feel a little nervous, but decide I should try something.
I cautiously approach the machine gun toting soldiers in the dark and greet them. I introduce myself as the doctor from the Béré hospital just down the road. I explain the situation with Andre and the accident and how I'd like to see him tonight so I can return to Bere in the morning. Otherwise, I point out, the hospital will be without a doctor. Oh, and I heard there's a national strike going on and the Kelo hospital is closed. Wouldn't that be tragic if one of your relatives got sick, decided to go the the only hospital around that's open (in Béré) and find that there wasn't a doctor there? I wonder if there's anyway they can help us. They tell me to come over and sit on the bench with them. I get up from where I'd been squatting on the ground in front of them and sit down. They call up their superior and explain the situation. After a few minutes, they call over the driver and tell him to get his passengers in and get on the road. We make it to Pala a little after midnight where, after my enlightening conversation with Pierre, Job and Noel I find myself lying on a woven mat on the ground with the mosquitos buzzing around and no lights on in the entire hospital thinking that only 36 hours ago I was in Paris.
C'est la vie au Tchad!