Africa Colors A Destiny
- Africa, Chad
- Personal Essay
Hi, my name is Michael Varga. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Chad, Central Africa. That's me standing next to a camel. I was 21 years old at an animal market outside of N'djamena, the capital of Chad. People were selling camels and goats and sheep and cattle. I wasn't used to being around animals since I had grown up in Philadelphia.
My Peace Corps service taught me to be comfortable with foreigners, and to have confidence in my linguistic abilities. I learned how much I enjoyed functioning in another language. It also made me much more aware of cultural sensitivities in dealing with people who have grown up in a different environment with different values. I learned that "different" did not mean inferior, and this helped me to succeed later in life as a diplomat in the U.S. Department of State. I had learned how to show understanding and compassion when negotiating with representatives of other countries. In Africa, I was a "minority" for the first time in my life, and I learned how important it is for everyone to feel that he or she gets a fair shake. Chad allowed me to re-define myself as a citizen of the world, and not just a boy from Philadelphia.
We were about twenty Peace Corps Volunteers who arrived that summer. As we wandered through the animal market, Chadians were calling out, "Narsara! Narsara!" This is the word commonly used in Chad for a white-skinned person. Some Chadians speak Arabic or French, as well as an African language, depending on which tribe they belong to. But this word "Narsara" was used by most Chadians to refer to white people. The Peace Corps sent me to Baibokoum, a village of about four thousand people in southern Chad. I was to teach English at the high school.
Baibokoum is very isolated—far from other villages and the muddy roads, so it is impassable much of the year when during the rainy season those roads become soupy rivers. Most Chadians didn't have cars. Some had bicycles or donkeys to get around. But most Chadians get from village to village by hopping into the back of pick-up trucks and paying the drivers for the ride. Since the roads are not paved, the rains sometimes cause all travel to stop.
The living conditions in Baibokoum were tough. No running water, no electricity. I had to walk three miles to the Logone River to wash. Many days I didn't have time to walk there and had to buy a bucket of river water at the market. I used a coffee mug to pour some water over me, pushed a bar of soap over my body, and then rinsed off. It's amazing to learn how you can stretch one bucket of water so far.
Because water was a scarce commodity, whenever we would have rain Chadians used to run and position containers—plastic tubs, buckets, earthen jars—in the open fields to collect water. The same water we would use to wash our hands before a meal—we didn't have forks and knives but used our hands to eat—was used after the meal to wash the dishes and cooking pot.
I was the only Narsara living in Baibokoum, although there were some itinerant Italian priests who came through sometimes to run a little Catholic mission.
Since my house had been vacant for months, the sous-prefet, a kind of mayor, told me I could stay in his guest house until all of the snakes were cleared out. But just when I arrived, the prefet, his boss, decided to visit, so I had to go to my derelict house that first night. I didn't get much sleep and kept a kerosene lamp burning to try to keep the snakes away from me. Fortunately, they stayed away.
My house was made of concrete with a tin roof. This was much more than most Chadians had. They lived in huts made from dried mud with a thatched straw roof. This photo shows how dry things became during the dry season.
After that first night, I set up my mosquito net over my bed and had a short wave radio to get news from the BBC or the Voice of America. Otherwise, I wouldn't know what was happening in the rest of the world.
Mosquito nets were very important since mosquitoes carry a lot of diseases, and they would swarm during the rainy season. Even though I took my medications, I got malaria a couple of times. I would be feverish, shaking with chills, yet perspiring in the African heat. The symptoms sometimes lasted for days. But I was lucky. The Peace Corps had provided me with a first aid kit with medications to rely on. Chadians often had no medical care. Pills were sold at the village market, and Chadians often asked me to translate the instructions. But many times the pills were sold loosely—not even in any container—and so no one had any idea what the pills were for or how harmful they might be.
The market was very close to my house. It was divided up into two sections. One section had rows of women lined up to sell peanuts and peanut butter, bananas, tomatoes, lettuce, spices, and plant roots. The women chattered through the morning, and in the afternoon when the sun got too hot, they would go home and prepare a meal for their families.
Men controlled the other part of the market—little shops that sold woven mats, rice, soap, and canned goods imported from Europe. They also slaughtered a cow or goat to sell the pieces, but sometimes—especially during the dry season—there would be no meat to eat. The dry season generally lasted from October until April. Chadians who had stored grain to eat often ran out during the dry season, and it was not uncommon for my students sometimes to go days without food. Some of the bolder students used to ask me for food, but some were too ashamed, and I had to try to make sure no one starved.
The school was just a simple concrete structure with a tin roof and no glass in the windows. Supplies were scarce. We distributed just one notebook to each student for the whole school year, so students had to be very careful about what they would write down. Some months we ran out of chalk, so it was hard to teach English without being able to write anything on the blackboard. There weren't enough teachers, so sometimes I had to teach French and mathematics, too. Each class I taught had about eighty students in it, although they were almost all boys since girls rarely got an education at that time and were often married young and began having children in their teens.
Classes were held from 7:00 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. It was too hot in the afternoons, so that's when I used to work at the village medical dispensary or work at the library at the Catholic mission. Friends in the U.S. sent me magazines and books to stock the library.
Although Chad is a very poor country, Chadians used to save up some money to visit a photo studio and have their photos taken. Here are some friends in a typical Chadian pose. That's me wearing a specially embroidered Chadian shirt. Here are some Chadians wearing traditional clothes in the bush. They wore western-style clothes to school, but liked to wear their African traditional garb at home in the bush.
The Peace Corps Coverdell World Wise Schools program used an essay I wrote, "A Straw Fence The Height Of A Man," in its book Uncommon Journeys. In this photo, you can see what straw fences were like in Chad. The people took a lot of pride in weaving together the stalks to create something very durable and strong. These fences were used to separate groups of huts from each other.
Chad produces a lot of cotton and peanuts, and those were the predominant crops that people used to farm to make money. This is a cotton collection station. People would bring their cotton harvests and load it onto the big trucks. The government hired people to stomp it down. You can see them on the top of the truck.
Chadians use fermented millet to make their own alcoholic drink, called bili-bili. This is a bili-bili stand that, especially on Sundays, would be filled—mostly with men—passing around a calabash of bili-bili and sharing stories.
During my second year, civil war broke out, and all Americans were evacuated. We rode in an overland convoy to Cameroon, the country to the west of Chad. But the war worsened, and we couldn't return to Chad.
After the Peace Corps, I devoted myself to my diplomatic career and to writing. I have drawn many times on stories from my experiences abroad, beginning with those years in Chad. Much of the resiliency, creativity, and perseverance I learned derives from my time in Chad, where I was so challenged. The Peace Corps opened so many doors for me. Thank you for sharing this little bit of my journey with me.