Today I left my cocoon. Still in the armored vehicle of course, but the President of Chad was driving through town and the roads were closed so we were forced to take a detour. It was my lucky day! This is the Africa that our ex-pat bubble carefully protects us from, but the version that I most love to encounter.
(I did not take any of these pictures, they are from the Internet. Credit for this photo goes to Meredith Kohut 2012).
Riding alongside us as we bumped down dirt roads dodging animals and rickety old Toyota Corollas, there was a school of motorbikes flowing in and out through the current of the traffic. The sun was setting so everything was dusty, aglow with fiery orange and red. And sometimes a real fire! Burning tires or plastic or who knows. I was almost brushing shoulders with entire families balanced on a single motorbike. If not for the bulletproof glass I could have reached out to touch the babies huddled on their mothers’ backs. Through the thronging people I saw vendors lined up along the street, selling all sorts of vegetables, clothes, mattresses, and shoes. There were thick cubes of soap the color of dark honey, occasional jars of Vaseline, buckets of peanuts, and tables sagging with unlabeled plastic bottles of amber-colored moonshine. We all find a way to drink our alcohol, don’t we? Butchers had their own little section with animal parts neatly organized in piles. I recognized hearts, shins, rib cages, and feet. Everything covered in dust and flies. That part reminded me of Azerbaijan, except that nobody was petting a dog.
This bustling neighborhood market went on for miles. “This is Chad!” our driver told us, as Gangnam Style came over the radio. The streets were full of men in flowing pastel robes and women in saris and Chitenge skirts. Some had their heads covered, many did not.
The people and culture across Africa are a mix of African, Arabic, and (insert colonial power here). It’s not just the white people who have colonized Africa. The Arabic world has done it too, as well as India and China. A colleague at work today told me she was a Tuareg, born and raised next door in Niger, a local culture that is neither African, Arabic, nor French and is recognized by no one. And America calls itself a “Melting Pot.” We are clearly not the first or only ones who have had to figure out how to cope with diversity.
It’s interesting, in the light of the current immigrant crisis, that we think this is the first time the world has ever had to figure out how to make a functional society that combines a Christian and a Muslim. Or a Frenchman or an Arab. Or an Arab and a Jew. Or any combination of American with African, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Asian, I suppose this list could go on. Or a black person and a white person. Or a person who covers their head everyday and one who doesn’t. Or any two neighbors who have lived together for decades but still find a reason to hate each other.
Hasn’t this happened before? Didn’t this happen here hundreds of years ago? When the French came to colonize Chad (or insert any country and their colonizer here), where was the African guy saying, “Hey, if you want to come here you have to speak our language, and you have to cover your head because that is respectful in our culture.” I don’t see any ex-pats covering their heads, and the official languages in Chad are arabic and french. There are 120 other languages here, thousands of languages across the continent of Africa, yet when I google “how to say hello in Chad,” I only get options in Arabic and French. Constant mixing seems to be the natural order of things and has been so for hundreds of years. Darwin noticed this too. He proved it was a good thing.
Outside I hear drums pounding. The President has arrived and there is a huge band of musicians, dancers, and singers heralding him. I like the way Africans do that! It’s really cool.
These are pictures I took, of the Parliament building across the street from my hotel with the sun going down. African sunsets are really cool too.