I find myself in an SUV with a group of Muslims roaring across the desert towards Eastern Chad and the crisis in Darfur. We pass Bedouin caravans heading north. Women in brightly colored body wraps and head scarves with huge gold nose rings frantically beat donkeys to get them to move off the road as we come cruising past. Robed, turbaned and bearded, the men lumber by swaying on the backs of heavily loaded camels, bounce along on horseback or plod along on foot chasing the goats and sheep. Most are armed with bows and arrows or spears or staffs. Tucked away in the robes is the ever present dagger and many probably have rifles hidden in their saddle bags.
Dead animals in various states of decomposition and drying litter the shoulders of the highway. Poor rainfall this year has lead to famine and the loss of cattle, donkeys, horses and other vital livestock. Occasionally the smell of a rotting carcass sneaks it's way in through the windows of our passing vehicles.
The African plain starts to be interrupted by wadis, rolling hills and piles of boulders. In the distance, jagged peaks and granite outcroppings break up the horizon. We enter into the central Chadian Sahel where rain has been more abundant and the grasslands are bright green and crops of millet are starting to push their way out of the soil as local farmers dig up the ground with small spades on the end of long poles. Women coming back from the fields carry water and rations in woven net bags suspended from poles slung across one shoulder. No one carries things balanced on top of their heads like they do in Bere in the South.
We stop by the side of the road for a picnic. Tea and Arabic coffee is poured from thermoses as we wait in the shade of a thorny desert scrub tree. A platter of grilled goat chunks and French baguettes is shared among our two groups of five.
We continue on with regular stops for tea, milk and ritual prayer. One stop for prayer finds us in the midst of a cluster of mountains and date palms. The prayer rugs are rolled out and the absolution's begun in front of a man slicing up a sheep into large portions to be roasted on a piece of tin roofing suspended over a wood fire.
We spend the night in Mongo at the World Food Program compound and are up before five for morning prayers, milk, tea and Chadian beignets. We arrive late in the afternoon at Abeche, Chad's fourth largest city.
As we enter the mud brick compound and seat ourselves on enormous mats, I experience for the first time what an Arabic greeting really is. A rhythmic, staccato exchange of words proceeds for at least five minutes with at least 20 "mashallah's", 15 "Al hamdullilah's" and countless other words asking about health for everybody, strength, improvement, etc. I soon join in and find it very satisfying. Hands are shook during most of the greeting, eyes look down and occasionally the hand is released to bring one's own hand into touch the chest over the heart before reaching out again to take the other's hand in greeting. To end the salutation, one releases the hand and slowly sits down on the mat letting one's "mashallah's" and "al hamdullilah's" slowly fade out.
Adding to the milk and tea we now have local coffee seasoned with cardamom and added to the meat and bread is "boule" (millet or corn paste) and some of the best sauces I've had in Chad: ground meat with lots of cumin and okra.
I then take a shower in a walled in corner with a poop hole and a step up for showering from a bucket. Just outside, in the other corner, about 20 small girls are learning to recite the Koran in Arabic. Their sweet voices blend together in a cacophony of different rhythms as none of them is in sync with the other. It is beautiful and cute. It feels good to splash water on me and wash the red dust out of my hair and off my face and arms.
The men stretch out and sleep together on the mats in the men's courtyard where the women don't dare to enter. Whenever a female family member has arrived she starts her greeting and then kneels down just outside the low wall of the courtyard while the male family member goes outside to greet her and kneels down beside her for the prolonged ritual greeting.
The morning starts with sunrise at 4:30am and prayer. I read some passages of scripture, we drink milk and eat beignets and head out to see the local authorities.
First stop is the governor. Our host, Mahamat Saleh Abakar, explains that he's invited us out to look at the possibility of opening a medical center in his village of Gnelme. The Governor doesn't seem to keen since there's a health center in the neighboring town of Abougoudam. However, when Mahamat Saleh explains that it will be more than a health center, more like a hospital, the Governor reluctantly gives his ok. On walking out with his "Directeur du Cabinet", we receive a much warmer reception. The lighter skinned man with obvious Arabic features dressed in an ample robe and white turban beams a smile and says that he is from Gnelme and will do everything to help us get the paperwork pushed through for the land and anything else we need.
We miss the Prefet and Sultan who are out of town so we head out of Abeche towards the sous-prefecture of Abougoudam to see the local sous-prefet, the chief political figure of the group of villages including Gnelme.
He welcomes us into his old, colonial thick walled mansion that unfortunately hasn't been maintained since independence in 1960. We sit down on mats and drink tea and local coffee along with sodas and some goat meat. Directly in front of us is a room stacked to the ceiling with cement, all that's left of a project to build the sous-prefet a new house. Apparently, the rest of the supplies where stolen by bandits and the builder assassinated.
We follow the sous-prefet out to the village where he shows us a flat, barren stretch of ground he wants to give us. It doesn't feel right. We move onto where Mahamat Saleh and his brother have drilled a well for the village so they can have water. It's down in the wadi, too low for construction and likely to be washed away by flash floods. Next to the pump are three dried out cattle carcasses...the water came a little too late for them. About 10 boys mounted bareback on horses have come to water their flocks. I point to a fairly close plateau next to a small mountain and say that's more what I'm interested in. They say it's in another county and so they can't help.
We seem at an impasse when a local man almost hidden by his enormous turban rattles off something quickly in Arabic. We hop back in the SUVs and head a little out of the village towards another village where we find a small hill crowned with huge boulders that is unfarmed. In all directions stretches the African plain broken up by wadis and scrub brush and mountains in the distance ringing us in on all sides. It's perfect. They are happy and agree to give us 10 hectares (almost 25 acres). The location will also allow us to build using local stones.
That evening, I speak with Yacoub Abdoulaye, Mahamat Saleh's cousin.
"What's the hospital in Abeche like? For example, how's the surgery service?"
"Well, let's put it this way, if 10 people are operated on, 5 will live, 5 will die. Plus, often people die in the hallways of the hospital without even being seen by a doctor or nurse because they have nothing."
That goes along with what I'd heard last week in N'Djamena from a German mid-wife working at an Orphanage in Abeche.
"A few weeks ago, during a single week, three women died during c-sections while still on the table. Most of our orphans are orphans because of their mothers dying in childbirth. It's not AIDS or the refugee crisis or the war...it's almost complete lack of health care during deliveries."
If you have money, you can get health care, it just might be a little sketchy. An old Arab man with a skull cap, white robe and a wizened face with years of smile wrinkles shows me his lab slip and prescription. He has malaria and a negative Typhoid test. He was prescribed Typhoid fever treatment anyway along with 5 other meds including quinine for malaria. The total was the equivalent of $50, more than a month's wage for most. To top it off, they hadn't even filled the prescription right as he showed me his malaria medication which was actually Chloroquine instead of the prescribed Quinine.
That night, a funeral next door allows all the local Imam wannabes to practice their oral recitation of the Koran...with a microphone and speakers. All night long until 6am the next morning we are alternately soothed by those who have the talent and annoyed by those who seem to be screeching like dying mules trying to sing the otherwise beautiful Arabic of the Koran. I sleep well anyway.
On the way back, Mahamat Saleh tells us a story:
A man gets up one morning to go to the market. He fishes his money out from under the mattress and sticks it in his pocket.
"I'm going to the market to buy a donkey" he says to his wife.
"Inshallah" she responds.
Halfway out the door he looks back at her. "Inshallah? If God wills it? What has God got to do with it? I've got my money in my pocket and there are plenty of donkeys at the market. I'm going to buy one. Keep your 'Inshallah' to yourself"
With that he slams the door and marches off. Halfway to the market, he is waylaid by bandits who tie him up and take his money. They leave him under a tree all day and when it's dark they release him and take off into the bush. The man makes his way slowly back to his house where he finds the door locked. He knocks on the door.
"Who's there?" His wife asks from inside.
"It's me. Open the door...inshallah!"
As I finally pull up into Bere after two straight days of traveling back from Abeche I'm reminded of the story. I pray silently that God will continue to open the doors for us to have a hospital there in Eastern Chad...INSHALLAH!