Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Should have known

I'm sorry all, that I haven't been updating. Chad was simply exhausting. Going from one place to the next, trying to take in as much as I could in the little time I had there (Even got right to the border with Sudan....and... saw George Clooney, newly named UN peace ambassador, who said in his cute little voice, "bonjour, ca va bien?" ... he is just as good looking in person.)
Now that I'm in Egypt, unfortunately, things aren't much easier. I went seven months in Sub-Saharan Africa without problems, and on the last day, the LAST DAY, I ate something funny and it has been downhill ever since. First just a stomach ache, then real pains, a bit of diarrhea, now vomiting. I haven't eaten in 30 hours. I'm even throwing up medication. I've had two shots in the ass today and I'm on rehydration salts now. Beautiful.
Anyways, here's a pic of me on the job - veil on, camera and notebook in hand. These kids are eating a watery flour-based oatmeal type thing as part of a school-feeding program. People have found that if you feed the kids, parents are more likely to send ther kids to school. That structure in the back is a modern hangar that UNICEF built for displaced kids. 200 kids cram into that outdoor classroom, sitting on the floor while an undertrained community teacher tries to give lessons.
second article from my trip is up:
6 more to go!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Now we're really talking

Welcome to Goz Beida, where young girls use donkeys to find wood in the bushes, where people make their homes out of straw, and where tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees and displaced Chadians have gathered to seek assistance from the international community.

I'm too exhausted to even go into all the incredible things I have seen in only two days here....

5-year-old girls taking their plastic bottles to the public fountain to fetch water for their families; Women walking 40 minutes under the sun and in the sand, carrying 5 kilograms of stuff on their heads and a baby on their backs, to get to the market where they can buy and resell things at to make some money; "schools" made of bamboo and plastic sheeting; entire villages displaced by fighting who arrive from kilometres away, and receive no assistance because they are not included on the "list of beneficiaries".

But meeting these people has kind of demystified the whole "refugee" thing for me. In some cases, they are desperate, dependent, completely deprived people, but today, I saw strong, smiling people making things work and living their lives.

At the same time, I think I have to keep things in perspective. I think I've gotten so used to a lower standard, that I almost see these refugee camps and sites for displaced people - whole villages really - as normal now. I say "oh, it's probably not that far off from how they were living in their own communities back home". The gradual transitions in my travel have made it seem all too natural. From Canada to Senegal was one drop in standard of living, Senegal to Ndjamena (capital of Chad), another. Ndjamena to Abeche (where NGOs are stationed), another. Abeche to Goz Beida (the town near which the camps/sites are located), and finally Goz Beida to the refugees' homes.$ I'm trying to remind myself that if you were to drop into this situation from the total outside, you would certainly be shocked.

Anyways, all I want to do right now is eat and wash my feet (constantly covered in sand), but certainly I got what I came for!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Now we're talking!

Got to the east of the country, to the main humantiarian hub, Abeche. The UN plane landed on a runway in the middle of the desert. No time on the internet (have to get home before dark), but here's a qiuck pic I could grab out the window, while rolling through the dust. Mud walls, soldiers in turbans... it's totally different here and I'm loving it!

Gotta go!

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

What am I doing here?

How I came to be lying on a mattress in the dining room of a German hostel wondering what the hell I was doing in central Africa:

Monday morning, I booked myself out of the Novetel (a wopping $180 a night), took my bags and went to the OCHA office here in the Chadian capital, N'djamena. I spent the day trying to get travel permits in order, figure out who to talk to, how to make the printer work and where to find food. By 6:30pm, I was exhausted. I had met someone who works for the World Food Programme on the plane and he invited me to dinner with some colleagues (an opportunity I can never pass up as a journalist, because - especially in Chad - so much of the info you need comes from casual conversation with people in the field.)

So the OCHA driver dropped me off at a cheap hostel I decided to stay at run by the German Service for Development (one of many international organisations working in Chad). The beauty of this place is that you can't go anywhere alone. You must always be in a vehicle. And not just any vehicle: one with a UN-recommended driver. So I called the UN recommended driver, paid three times the price I would pay in Dakar and spent a nice evening with good food and good company. When it came time to leave (at 10:30pm), I called the driver back - he didn't answer. I called another taxi number the UN gave me - it didn't work. I waited outside the restaurant for 20 minutes - no taxis. Finally, I saw one, and feeling uncomfortable staying too long outside the restaurant with my purse, I decided to take it. There was someone in the passenger seat already - never a good thing because two men are harder to fight off than one - and I wasn't exactly sure where I was going because I had only been to the hostel twice. But what choice did I have if I ever wanted to get home. We agreed on the price, I got in, and luckily, there were good people and took me home.

I gave him the money and he said "what's this?" I said "it's 3000 francs". All of a sudden he starts telling me that I owe him 15,000 - which was so unreasonably out of whack. Normally, the price is 2,000. At night, it might rise to 3,000, but that's it. He started alking about how it was dangerous for him to be driving at night. He also seemed genuinely angry. We argued for 15 minutes. I was frustrated and just wanted to walk away, but you never know what they will do to you. So I gave him 5,000 and walked into the hostel... Only to get another surprise.

The guard told me the hostel was full. I told him, "oh no, don't worry. I already have a room." He told me, "no, but someone else came." I laughed and said "no, but all my things are already in the room." Then he took me to the hostel office where all my stuff had been dumped into a big plastic bowl because some German woman had come and they had double booked the room. I couldn't believe it. I was ready to flip. I couldn't go back outside into the dark to find a new place to stay. All the rooms here were full. I started crying! The guard set up a mattress for me in the dining room and that's where I slept - among the mosquitos. It's not really a big deal, but when you've had a long day, in a different country, any little thing can push you over the edge.

They told me Chad was a miserable place. I expected things to go wrong, so this is normal. But certainly, life here is difficult.

You can't go anywhere without a UN driver. You can't imagine how this limits your freedom. Buying food, going to pick up something from the store (ie. mosquito repellent), etc. all has to be done with someone else. My life consits of getting picked up from the hotel by the driver in the morning, spending the day at work (and using the driver any time I have places to go), and being dropped off at the hotel at night (I'm at a different hotel now of course), where I sleep and then do it all over again. I can't really get to know the people because I can't really go into the neighbourhoods and chat with locals the way I would in Dakar. It's really frustrating being in a new place you want to discover, but being stuck behind the windshield.

The way I describe it makes it seem like it's totally dangerous - which it isn't. But there are incidents every now and then, and they don't want to take any risks.

I go home to the crappy hotel room and the one channel of Cameroonian TV and have the urge to talk to mom & dad, friends, etc. but the communication is so expensive and isnt always good quality. I called my friend in Senegal and the line was so bad, it just added to my frustration. So now I don't bother.

It would all be worth it if I got to do what I came here to do - get perspective, talk to real people on the ground, here their problems and tell their stories. But for the moment, I'm in yet another office, waiting to get clearance to travel.

Still, these feelings of fear, frustration and isolation always happen at the beginning. I had them in Senegal at first as well. And I know once I get more comfortable here, (if I can do that in 3 weeks!), that will change. One thing is for sure: my grandma's constant harassment in Egypt - "Heba, do you want to eat, Heba have an orange, Heba, bring me your laundry" - will be a welcome change.

N.B. You must all understand that I use my blog as a sort of diary. And what I feel today often disappears tomorrow. So now that you are jts reading my thoughts of this moment and that it will all change soon.

A bientot!

Sunday, January 6, 2008


Wow. What a new world. And I thought Senegal was a big change.

I had been nervous ever since I left Egypt about how the trip would go and what it would be like to deal with Chadian authorities. In the end, it went without problems. I'm in the hotel stealing wireless internet from somewhere. I mostly feel safe. Still I have my money divided in four places, I sleep with my passport under my pillow, I wear a pouch under my clothes everywhere I go.

I took off all jewellery other than my watch. I wear long sleeves and pants. They tell you not to go out with a purse. But at the same time, you don’t want to leave all valuables at the hotel. At the same time, you need to have your documents with you at all times – travel authorization, passport, etc. So, I spend a lot of time deciding how I’m going to proceed.

N’djamena, the capital of Chad, is totally different than Senegal. The streets are bare. The city is small and has the feel of an abandoned place. You can’t find newspapers on Sundays. The state television only airs six hours a day. It’s almost impossible to find someone selling a quick bite on the street the way you would in Senegal.

In one of the world’s poorest countries, hotels cost more than $100 a night – because there is simply nothing in this country and outsiders have no choice. Internet at the hotel: more than 60 cents a minute – because of its rarity. (By comparison, in Senegal it was 60 cents an hour because it is so common and widespread). The television cuts out every now and then.

In Abéché, in the east of the country, where most of the NGOs have their offices and where many of the Sudanese refugees and displaced Chadians live, there is a 9pm curfew, but most everyone tries to get home before nightfall at 6 or 7pm. Most homes have no internet, so you can imagine what kind of a life it is – from 6pm til bedtime, without going out or going on the internet! Here in the capital, l've spent the whole day trying to figure out what to do with myself, without knowing anyone, with no internet (until I found this lucky connection), and without wanting to wander around the city alone. Definately should have brought a book!

I head to the office tomorrow, and that's when things will really start happening.

Talk to you soon, I hope!

Friday, January 4, 2008

The whirlwind

So I am now in Egypt, and it has been a suprisingly big shock to my system.

I left Senegal at a 6:30am flight (didn't sleep the night before), arrived in Casablanca Thursday morning (transit point), took the train into the city to visit a little (Celine, the outdoor coffee shops and their bizarre Arabic reminded me of our trip), took an 11pm flight to Egypt and am now sitting at my cousin's computer, after two consecutive nights without sleep.

I didn't realize the change would hit me as much as it did. I guess I had forgotten how different Senegal was. Food is a bit part of it. When I saw a McDonald's riding the bus in Casablanca, I had a sudden surge of happiness. When I got to Egypt, my cousin took me to the mall, where we stopped at a desert place. I was so overwhelmed by the menu - cheesecakes and milkshakes - and the stores with everything you could possibly need.

I'm just in a totally different world all of a sudden - surrounded by family and rich foods, in comfort and luxury. (Imagine that, Egypt has now become comfort and luxury - changing reference points I guess) It's disorienting to think that just 36 hours ago, I walked through the sandy streets, passed the sheep, to a house with bare concrete walls, where I spoke my broken Wolof to people I could possibly never see again. It makes me a bit sad to see how easily Senegal can dissapear into the past. (I vow to return, but you never know where life will take you).

From Thursday morning to Saturday night, I will have done Senegal, Morocco, Egypt and Chad. It's a whirlwind really. Or like a slideshow that is continually changing and completely different slides.

The next three weeks in Chad will be a totally new environment for me. I am scared and excited at once. I probably won't be posting while I'm there, but will get back to you when I'm back in Egypt.

I can't wait to be able to just sit down and digest everything I've gone through in the last few months. But that day won't come anytime soon. So until then, let the whirlwind sweep me away...