Moving to the 'Dead Heart of Africa'

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September 12th 2010
Published: January 3rd 2011
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Town ctr is the hub for expats, where almost all restaurants, "grocery stores," banks, nightclubs, etc. are located. I am lucky to live less than 5 mins away.
As the captain announced that we were descending into N’Djamena, just after midnight on Sept. 1, I looked out the window and saw only a faint smattering of lights; it was hard to believe I was landing in a capital city. The airport was unnecessarily chaotic, considering that there are only two international flights a day (hours apart); as expected a couple of immigration officials tried to give me a hard time—until they saw my UN laissez-passer that is. And yes, I will drop that term obnoxiously often 😉. The UNHCR driver took me straight to Le Meridien hotel, which is one of the three “luxury” hotels in N’Djamena. I just booked there for the first two nights until I had a sense of the city and could find a safe place to stay that was cheaper. I knew N’Djamena is ranked as one of the top 10 most expensive cities in the world—literally—but I didn’t understand to what degree prices were inflated. For a UN rate of $190 a night, I got a slightly above-average version of a motel room in the U.S.

The next morning I was chauffeured to the UNHCR compound in the city. It’s a huge office, with over 100 staff—bigger than any I had worked in before. Which makes sense since this is one of UNHCR’s biggest operations, covering 12 camps for 250k+ refugees from Darfur (to the east) and 63k+ from the Central African Republic (to the south) as well as countless sites for 180k+ IDPs (Chadians internally displaced by the conflict in Sudan, which has had repercussions on this side of the border). Security is a major issue here, unlike any operation I have worked in before; all staff have to carry radios on them 24/7 and do a nightly check-in. For the first time in my life I have a radio call sign: Novembre Romeo Quatre Unité (NR4.1) 😊. I’m also required to keep a “go-bag” at ready in case we need to be evacuated (which happened a couple of years ago). I can’t (officially) go anywhere unless I am in a UN vehicle—even for personal business—which is the number one most frustrating thing about life here so far. I have learned that the drivers are the kings of the office, and they wield their power capriciously! Eventually once I have a Chadian license I will get a UN car of my own to drive around in the evenings and on weekends, but for now I depend on the benevolence of Les Rois Chauffeurs.

N’Djamena is a pretty small city from what little of it you see as an expat—most outlying areas are “off-limits” to international staff under the UN rules. Even compared to moderate-sized cities like Kigali or Brazzaville, N'Djamena feels like a small town. The main landmark is a large square with a cathedral directly facing the president’s residence. Unfortunately, the road between the two is THE main artery bisecting the city; I say unfortunately because it is lined with zealous presidential guards wearing aviators and toting Kalashnikovs pointed right at you as you drive by (several times a day). As local drivers like to joke, cars know better than to stall on that stretch of road. The other main road is Av. Charles de Gaulle, which is sort of the hub of expat life. On it or immediately off of it are the few “international” restaurants in N’Djamena, as well as all the banks, airline offices, and shops you can’t really call grocery stores (but which carry some imported foodstuffs). There are a handful of paved streets in
Typical "street" in N'DjamenaTypical "street" in N'DjamenaTypical "street" in N'Djamena

Only a handful of streets are paved - most, like the street UNHCR is on, or the street my house is on, are very potholed dirt tracks
the city, the rest are extremely bumpy dirt roads whose potholes are sporadically packed with dirt (an improvement which lasts a couple of weeks at most).

What struck me the most, seeing the city for the first time in the daylight, is the distinct Muslim character of the city. Although Chad is a secular nation, and Christians form at least half of N'Djamena's population, most women wear veils head-to-toe and men wear West African "bou-bous"—long, flowing, long-sleeved, pastel-colored gowns over matching pants, usually with a skull cap. At prayer times the city stops and crowds of men can be seen on the side of the road, in front of their shops, pretty much anywhere, in prostration. Ironically I never hear the call to prayer, presumably because the city's mosques don't have generators to power speakers (and the municipal electric supply is hardly functional). The main language spoken among educated Chadians is Arabic, in addition to French which is the second official language. The north and east are predominantly Muslim and with a desert climate, and it is rare to encounter French speakers there. Chad's more fertile south is where the majority of Christians are concentrated; it is the most developed region, so the vast majority of Chadians working for the UN agencies and NGOs are Southerners, who are educated in French rather than Arabic. English is rarely if ever spoken, however for some reason the official language of the UN peacekeeping operation, MINURCAT, is English. So when you go into their base (which is just like a military base, with a "p/x" shop and everything), all signage suddenly switches to English!

There is a huge French presence here, in the form of old colonial holdouts, oil company employees, and especially military personnel. (To me this translates as fromage de chèvre, baguettes, cornichons, et Bordeaux bien sûr!) My first meal, with my boss (Dutch) and another colleague (Italian) was at Le Central, a French restaurant with a (real!) French chef. The menu features confit de canard, steak tartare, and escargots. It’s beyond surreal. Another popular restaurant, Le Bistrot, has the exact same sandwich I used to order after every Wednesday half-day at school in Annecy: demi-baguette avec beurre, jambon de Paris et cornichons. It's very classically French, with old guys standing at the bar smoking and drinking small draft beers. (The French influence is also present in the colonial civil code, still in force, which makes the legal marriage age for girls 15 while it's 18 for men (!).) We also have a Lebanese restaurant which serves decent classics like tabouli and hummous. Aside from that there is a solid choice of Chinese restaurants, just another manifestation of China’s huge (and growing) investment activities in Africa. I haven’t come across anything that could be called “local food” so far, though oddly one can easily find Senegalese dishes like thieb and yassa.

I had a few contacts when I arrived, which made my outlook infinitely more bright. My friend Caroline (whom you may remember from my blogs in Malawi, where we both worked for UNHCR in 2008) is here working for Doctors without Borders. She’s in the field but comes to N’Djamena on weekends. My friend Chris works for another refugee aid NGO, and through him I met Matt and Jen, his colleagues and neighbors. On Saturday we all went out to dinner at Coté Jardin, a nice outdoor French-ish restaurant, and then dancing, which was a blast and definitely a good start to two years here. First time I have been to a club in Africa where there
One of the UNHCR gatesOne of the UNHCR gatesOne of the UNHCR gates

Our compound is huge, with around 40 vehicles inside, offices for over 100 staff, and around 8 guards working at any given time.
were as many foreigners as locals—lots and lots of French soldiers in addition to the humanitarian community, which is enormous here. On Sunday we went to the pool at the Novotel, which was another surreal experience. It looks like something out of Cannes—lots of tanned bodies in designer swimwear and sunglasses lounging on chaises longues and even huge beds shaded by a canopy of white gauze. Having come straight from a village in Congo, I didn’t have a proper bathing suit and just went in shorts and a t-shirt; I was promptly kicked out (after having paid the $20 entry fee). Despite this indignity I have been going back every Sunday; it provides much needed respite after a week in 90+ degree heat. (And this is the “cold” season!)

My second week was spent getting briefed about my job, security, logistics, and opening bank accounts etc. I did some house-hunting with a new friend of mine, Julie, who is French and also just arrived in Chad, but out of the places we saw that were suitable, basically none were going to meet the UN security standards (which for N’Djamena are really rigorous and strictly applied). Prices in NDj have also skyrocketed from the huge influx of humanitarians in the last few years, so rent here is absurdly high (in proportion to the quality). Most UN staff lived in ok-sized but dark and crumbling flats that cost $1200 a month. Chris’s large, modern 3-bedroom house, with an airy kitchen and enormous living room, costs $1500 a month. So I'm lucky that we got along well enough that he offered to let me be his roommate. I just need to raid Ikea for some nice, easily packable housewares to ship from home and we will have a very comfortable house. Which I have learned is step 1 to making a decent life in the field.

My job here covers the nebulous sphere called “community services,” which is another domain of UNHCR’s protection work (like refugee status determination and resettlement which I was doing in Malawi and Thailand respectively). In short, it involves making sure that we seek out refugees’ perspectives on what they need, what their problems are, and what solutions they think should be applied before we undertake projects to protect them. This ensures that our work is well-tailored to refugees’ needs as well as their resources, which can
My streetMy streetMy street

The blue gate on the right is the gate to our house
vary largely from community to community, and that our work responds to the needs of all refugees—including women, children, the elderly, handicapped, seriously ill, etc.—and not just those with whom we tend to have official communication (often refugee committees made up of men of a higher socioeconomic status).

Refugee crises tend to bring about a lot of common problems no matter where they occur. For example, refugees often aren’t allowed to work in their host country, which means the adult population is frustrated and inactive which leads to violence, especially domestic violence and rape. Refugees usually experience a lot of hostility from the host population, because there is a huge strain on natural resources, which can lead to violence. Community structures fall apart which means that crimes and disagreements between refugees can escalate into violent conflicts, often on ethnic or religious grounds. Refugee parents who can’t work can’t afford to feed their children, which means they are more prone to marry off their daughters before they are 18 in order to get a dowry, or to depend on their children to work instead of go to school.

So these are some examples of the types of issues I
My bedroomMy bedroomMy bedroom

Not yet furnished! But with my brand new curtains
confront in my work. It’s a truly broad, loaded, and engaging portfolio of issues to work on. For the first time I am working in a head office rather than a field office, which has its ups and downs. I don’t have as much direct contact with refugees; I go on missions to the field regularly and visit all the camps, but I am an outsider and not someone the refugees recognize. That said, it’s great experience because I am coordinating the community services work of all the field offices, which means I get to play much more of a role in policy and planning that impacts refugees all over the country. I am also directly responsible for the urban refugee population in N’Djamena which is a very important and challenging though neglected population. (Urban refugees, meaning those who live in cities rather than inside refugee camps, are a notoriously ignored segment of the world’s refugee population.)

All in all, though N'Djamena is by no means a desirable place to live, it's not as bad as I thought it would be and I'm just too excited about getting the JPO to really even dwell much on where I am
Our living roomOur living roomOur living room

Again, not quite furnished yet - perfect for yoga class though!
posted. A lot of people end up in far worse places, like the field offices in eastern Chad! I'm only a 5-hr direct flight from Paris, and I get a mandatory week of r & r (rest & recuperation) every 8 weeks...could be a lot worse 😊.

So up next: my first mission to the field.



Additional photos below
Photos: 15, Displayed: 15


Our huge kitchenOur huge kitchen
Our huge kitchen

The windows look over the backyard, which has potential but is seriously overgrown right now.
View of nightclub PicoloView of nightclub Picolo
View of nightclub Picolo

One of my favorite nightclubs. Women get in for free - even us foreigners - while men have to pay $20! They won't let you in without proper shoes though ;)
Inside Le BistrotInside Le Bistrot
Inside Le Bistrot

A very popular hangout, where you can get a croque-monsieur, merguez sandwich, bottle of Bordeaux and French cheeses and charcuteries sold in the back. They are even taking orders for oysters, shrimp and pate for people sticking around for New Year's.

3rd January 2011

Sounds like you are really enjoying your time there and the house looks huge!! You must be practicing your french all the time, i'm so jealous! love that you got kicked out of the novotel. Hope you get your own car soon! love you! kpoms
18th January 2012

Insights of N'Djamena
Hi Martina, I was looking for some information from inside N'Djamena, an "outsider's" view really. This actually got me digging more into what UN does and how I can contribute. Best luck! V

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