Notes to the Varga Family
- Africa, Chad
The young, bearded American walked into the school director's office, depositing his books on the file cabinet next to the door. He walked directly to the director, who was seated behind a wide metal desk, and shook his hand while offering some words of greeting in French. The American sat down in a chair across from the desk of the director, directly in his view. They began to talk about life in America, his family in Philadelphia, his classes at the school, and all the subjects that might come up in a casual conversation in any country. But the whole time they talked, not more than twice did their eyes happen to meet. The director looked down at the papers on his desk or toward the curtained door the whole time that he talked. The American eyed his palms occasionally, after glancing at the window behind the director's head, staring out into the distant mountains.
Unlike American conversation where it is expected that the two conversants would look at one another during their interchange, in Chadian conversation such a practice is considered rude and a sign of poor upbringing. The idea during a conversation is to hear the other person but not fix your eyes on them; only when you have a specific question or request is it expected that you'll give a direct look. Needless to say, it is difficult for Americans to adjust to this.
The young, bearded American heads toward the rows of African women and the wares that sit in front of them in the hot, hot sun. Each day the women occupy the same places, and each day they sell the same things. There are peanuts, grouped in little ten-cent bunches; there is peanut butter in 25-cent globs, sitting on metal trays. There are bananas, tomatoes, greens, multi-colored spices, and plant roots. Each woman sits, her items displayed before her, and she talks and talks and talks all day to the other women. The American strolls down the makeshift aisle and greets each vendor with a greeting in the African dialect of Ngumbaye. He spies some peanuts that look good, but before buying, before showing any money, he bargains over the price, knowing that as a white man he is always charged double or triple the usual price.
The marketplace is wonderful to visit, although the chatter of the women can destroy your ears. They may not make much money, but like all women in the marketplaces of the world, it is the company of the other women they enjoy. Men do not sell their wares in the aisle market–they either have their own store building, or they sell their things outside some other man's store.
The American claps his hands twice outside the door of the Chadian's house, and from inside he hears "ee daiy" ("come in" in Ngumbaye). The American shakes the hand of every person in the house, including the smallest children. When he greets the host, they begin a series of greetings that can last five minutes or more.
American: How are things with you?
Chadian: Fine, and you?
American: Going okay. How is your wife?
Chadian: She is well. How's work?
American: Classes are fine. Your children?
Chadian: They are well. How is your house?
The two men continue exchanging greetings like this, asking about brothers, sisters, friends, fellow workers, health, gardens, etc. After the greetings are finished, the men share a beer together and often sit in silence after all that.
One does not knock on doors here. You clap your hands two or three times to announce your presence. This was difficult to get used to. To me, all the greetings seem a bit much, but if you do not do it, the Chadian is truly offended, and it is unlikely that you will be invited to his home again.
The young American hears a clap outside his door, and he hurries to open it to a rather well-off Chadian merchant who has decided to make a visit. Among the series of greetings the American offers is one: "How are your wives?" The Chadian responds: "The one in N'djamena is well, although the hot season is really hot there. The wife in Moundou is taking care of the six children there, and the two wives here in Bibokoum are doing fine, although the eleven children keep them busy."
Encouraged by a government dismayed by the meager population (only four million people in the whole country), Chadians love to have children. To this end, they love to have wives, and most men have at least two. Chadians on the average marry at 17 or 18 (men) and 13 or 14 (women), and if the marriage doesn't work out, the man gives the woman a lump sum of money and sends her on her way. This is rare, however. What is more common is for a man to keep his first wife (even when she's out of favor) and take a new wife. (By the way, there is a double standard–a man is allowed to have more than one wife at the same time, but a woman can only be married to one man at a time.)
It is early morning. Classes have not yet started, and the young American walks into the principal's office and greets each of his colleagues. There are eight members of the faculty, including the principal, who teaches physics and chemistry. Except for the principal, who has been teaching for nine years, and the young American, all the other teachers are Chadians who have just finished "junior college." They were not the best students in their classes, for the best students are sent immediately to either the University of Chad in N'djamena, or if they are exceptional, sent abroad to study, perhaps in France or Russia. The teachers were not the best in their classes, but they were pretty good, and so the Chadian government gives them a job for a year, to teach in a high school, and when the year is up, most of them will resume their studies at the University of Chad.
Because of the lack of teachers in Chad, this system is necessary. It is not a terribly effective way of teaching because for one thing, the Chadian teachers are a bit bitter at not having done quite well enough to go directly to the university. For another thing, these men have just finished their own schooling, but in that schooling there were no classes on how to be a teacher, and thus most of them simply copy or model the teachers who taught them. This is a hit-or-miss type of teaching. But everyone works together, and in general, the teaching gets done, and the students move on, only to continue the system when they themselves have completed the "junior college" phase.
The young American finishes teaching his classes and begins the five-minute walk to his home. One of the other teachers who lives in the same direction accompanies him. As they walk, the Chadian takes the hand of the American and holds it. It is not so much a hand-in-hand, as it is a couple of fingers entwined around a couple of fingers. The two professors continue to walk and talk in general, and when a Chadian woman happens to come along the road, she steps aside to let the men pass, and her eyes are toward the ground. She does not look at the men, and only greets them if they greet her.
Coming from the American culture where two men do little more than shake hands briefly, it was at first a difficult thing to get used to–this holding of hands. But it was a necessary thing to get used to because if the Chadian senses some reluctance on the part of the American, he takes it as a sign of unfriendliness, and it does not make for good relations. The fact that the women step aside, even when it is very difficult for them to do so–as often they have large bundles of sticks or wet clothes on their heads–was another oddity for the American. At first, he used to step aside when he saw them coming, but this only made matters worse as the women insist on being the one to step aside. Most Chadians do not greet women in the street, but I've made it my practice to do so, if only so that when they sell me things at the market I get a good price. (Also, it helps me practice my Ngumbaye.)
Classes finished and lunch consumed, the American dozes idly in the early afternoon on the porch in front of his house. A cool breeze whispers through the tall willowy trees that shade his house, and undisturbed he is as he begins to drift off into dreamland. Suddenly, a shriller sound is carried by the breeze, and the young American startles to wakefulness. But he soon realizes that it's only another chorus of Chadian women making their way through the village. Chadians sing almost all the time, especially the women and the children, but not infrequently the men as well. They do not sing alone, but when walking in groups or carrying water pails or sacks of millet, they invariably break into song, with one voice sounding out alone, and the others echoing the leader immediately after. It's not uncommon to have groups of Chadians intermingling near the marketplace, each group retaining its song–the melody and the harmony–despite the diffusion of the group's members in other singing groups.
This is one of the things I especially like about Chad. The people, despite their hard lives, continue to sustain a happy, hopeful disposition: singing and laughing and playing even while they're working. They have none of the stifling self-consciousness about singing that we Americans have developed; they don't care if anyone thinks they sing well or not; they sing in any case, their music bounding off the mountain peaks and cascading back into town.
The sun breaks over the mountain, and the light seeps into the corners of the Chadian huts. Already the Chadians are up and about–the men sharpening tools, the women making things to eat and drink, the children playing or getting ready for school–they know today is the day they go into the fields–everyone. After a small breakfast of some hot African drink and some porridge-like meal, everyone sets out–sacks in hand–for the fields. They work all morning until 12:30 p.m., placing the puffs of cotton in the sacks and in large porcelain dishes. They do not work in the afternoon, for the sun is too hot, but after 5:00 p.m., the ones who were in school all morning go to the fields to do their share.
Next to peanuts, cotton is Chad 's money crop. Everyone talks about it in very serious terms, because the money they earn from the cotton crop sometimes has to last six months. The whole process is quite intriguing, but the only part I don't like is that my students often work all morning in school, all night in the fields, and the next day I have to let them sleep in class to compensate for their fatigue. This is the exception, more than the rule, but the life of a Chadian student is much more difficult than the way we have it in the States.
The American swaggers into the sitting room of the Chadian bureaucrat, finding himself to be the last guest to arrive. He greets everyone quickly, shaking each of the men's hands and then quickly seats himself. The eight men continue to speak–and meanwhile the women begin bringing in the food. They place the trays of food on the table around which the men are seated, and then they quickly leave. The afternoon passes this way–the men eating, and the women picking up plates and filling wineglasses. When the meal is finished the men leave, and the women eat dishes they prepared for themselves–they generally don't eat the same things as the men, and they never eat with the men, but always apart, in another room, in another country, in another world.
Despite the typical American's horror at such repression of women, the women seem to gladly accept it, and have no desire to change the status quo. Perhaps this acquiescence is due merely to the fact that they are so poorly educated, having married right out of primary school at 12 or 13.
It's June 1978. The end of the school year. The graduating seniors are looking forward to their future. Or are they? Surely the ones with the highest grades are–they're anxious to get away from Baibokoum, to continue their schooling in one of the bigger cities in Chad. But what about the others? Well, most of them will be returning to their villages, to stay there for good, working the fields their fathers worked, their grandfathers worked, and their ancestors before them. Despite the math, English, French, science they've spent four years studying, it's a future of working the fields because that's where the families are. The Chadian male, despite whatever education he receives, is expected, obligated, and ostracized if he chooses otherwise, to return to his village and succeed his father. The Chadian female waits to be married and then moves in with her husband's family. There is none of this American westernized business of the young couple going off to start fresh. The sons are always sons, always living in their villages, always working the way their ancestors did. The daughters are daughters until marriage, and then they become the daughters of another family, their husband's family.
Despite what I tell them about Western lifestyles, Chadians feel that their system is the best because it allows for family cohesiveness, the togetherness that perhaps Western families are now lacking. They like their system, and I'm not about to disturb it, but perhaps in part because of the strong family structure, Chad may always be a poor nation, in the sense that education and novel ideas are most often left in the schools when the students go home to be men.
The Chadian student doesn't feel well in class and asks the American teacher if he can be excused. The Chadian goes to the dispensary to be examined by the local nurse, who gives him some medication which after a couple of days proves ineffective at curing the malady. Tiring of his illness, the Chadian searches out the local wizard, whom he pays a small fee for an infusion of herbs and chants which are sung and shouted at the "evil spirits" in the Chadian's body. At first, nothing happens. But a few hours later, the Chadian is walking around in good health without complaint.
At first I was aghast at this "primitivism" but no longer. As much as my school-mind hates to admit, for some reason it works for these Chadians. They wear charms, recite oaths, bleed certain limbs when they are ailing (to let the evil humors escape), and all of it seems ineffective. Perhaps it is simply the old story of the power of belief: That is, Chadians really don't believe in the little red pills the dispensary gives out, thus they prove ineffective. But they strongly believe in this chanting, this herb drinking, appealing to the charms of the earth, etc. And perhaps it is that belief which cures them. I've seen these people "cured" before my very own eyes by these herbs.
The American teacher gulps down a steaming cup of Nescafé and dashes off to school as the BBC announcer on the radio twangs "Seven Hours Greenwich Mean Time." Soon after the American has disappeared, his cook/houseboy gathers the laundry which has accumulated during the week, wraps it in a pillow case, and treks off to the river side. He unloads the bag at the river, finds a smooth rock next to the water, and begins to "process" each piece of clothing.
The process is this: Thoroughly wet the item, polish it with soap (we have bars of Lux beauty soap here), and then beat (drum-style) the cloth on the rock to the rhythm of your favorite Chadian marching song. When the soap seems to have permeated the cloth and rafts of soap suds fly up into the air with each beat, it's time for the last step. Douse the item in the river, squeezing for every bubble of soap to come lathering up and out and away. Then deposit the item on the riverbank grassbeds to dry. When you are finished washing, play and swim in the river until all the clothes are dry.
There is no doubt that this method is efficient, fun, and healthy. Try to go swimming in your washing machine back in the States!
Chad is a country punished by its physical location in the heart of Africa. Being so far inland, the Chadian economy relies on the land for its sustenance, but being so near the Sahara Desert, half the country is simply sand dune after sand dune, with a camel plodding along noiselessly. The northern half of Chad is scarcely populated, and except for the city of Faya-Largeau, there really is nothing. Because of the uranium deposit in northern Niger, experts have speculated that underneath those sand dunes lies a fortune in uranium. But with Chad 's meager economy reaping the marginal profits of cultivating cotton and peanuts, there's little chance that this uranium will be mined by Chad. However, since oil has been discovered in small quantities in the south of Chad, foreign investors have begun to take a harder look at Chad 's future qualities.
There are four million Chadians, and nearly 3.5 million live in the South. The reasons for this density should be obvious from Chapter 13 (the barren, empty north), but also, one must note that the south does have certain plusses which are very attractive by comparison with the north.
For the most part, the south is flat, treed plains. Mountains are found only in the very west (a town called Lere) and in the furthest southwest (that's Baibokoum). The people farm for their living here, generally cotton or peanuts. They sell the cotton to the government processing plants that are scattered throughout the south. These plants are like plants you'd see in the States: sophisticated machinery hauling bails of cotton to gins, and then to looms to weave into spools of thread, giant-sized, and then woven into exotic-patterned African materials.
The peanuts are sold all over Chad in every market at every hour (at 3:00 a.m. you can find someone selling peanuts; I guess it compares to our all-night hamburger stands). People munch peanuts the way we do, or they make peanut butter. But Chadians don't eat peanut butter, for some reason. When they see me taking a knifeful and spreading it on some bread, they gasp. They use peanut butter in their meat sauces for the peanut flavoring, and that's the extent of their use of it. But I keep on buying it and eating it American-style.
A golden yellow sun climbs over the mountains that engulf Baibokoum, and a woman stirs a milky white liquid over an open fire. Her husband is still asleep in front of their mud hut, and the dozen children have already dashed to the well–each with a pail or a jar or a bottle in hand–to get the morning's water. The Chadian woman stirs the milky whiteness, and as it boils and bubbles, she adds a half-kilo of rice, stirring briskly to keep the rice from settling on the bottom of the pot where it would become brown (or worse, black) and ruin the whiteness. As the rice seems to melt away into the snow mounds of white, she adds sugar cubes to sweeten (and seemingly to whiten) the mixture. By this time her husband has arisen, and she brings him a bowl of this rice/milk/sugar (called briii here). He gulps it down, and when he seems to have had enough, his wife pours the remainder into a large aluminum pot, balances it on her head, and heads for the market where she'll do a good business selling it. She has a good location on the corner of the meat and vegetable rows, and she takes in ten francs for every bowl she sells.
Unlike most other affairs of money here where the man decides everything, this is one way a woman can make a few francs and pocket it herself: to buy a new dress (something GoodWill sent over in the last shipment), get some things for her children, etc. It seems that every woman here in Chad has some angle–apart from her husband–as to how to make a buck. Chad is ready for the full-speed ahead capitalist plunge.
A young man, a Chadian, walks into the compound that surrounds the young American's house. The Chadian pauses before mounting the two steps that lead up to the veranda that leads into the American's house. The Chadian claps his hands and waits for a response. From inside the house, the Chadian hears "entrez" or "ee day" (French and Ngumbaye respectively for "come in"). They shake hands, and after the American has asked about the Chadian's work, family, life, house, and health, the American offers something to drink (sometimes a beer, sometimes a soda, sometimes plain cold water; the latter being perhaps the most in demand of the three). If it is approaching eating time, which varies with every household, it is understood that the Chadian will stay and eat with the American. You can never say, "Well I'm going to be eating now, so I think you ought to leave." If the Chadian feels out of place eating with the American, he does not refuse to eat but simply claims a prior engagement. (Many times a Chadian will excuse himself because he fears the mockery of the white man regarding his eating habits; that is, Chad is such a poor country that no one eats with forks and knives–who can afford to buy them?–so he eats with his hands.) However, the Chadian expects that the white man will give him a fork and knife, and not being adapted to these, he worries over making a mistake with them.
I usually put them at ease when they stay and eat by either telling them it's all right to use their hands, or else I don't even put forks and knives out, and we both use our hands.
The weaving notes of a bamboo flute circle through the village in the early afternoon: a wedding announcement. Already, women have spent the entire morning preparing literally hundreds of dishes to be carried in the wedding march. Children have trekked to the river to wash all the dirty clothes, assuring that everyone will look their "Friday best" (Friday is the Muslim holy day). The bride spends her morning preparing all her things to be carried to her new home; the groom busies himself with the same sort of affairs. But as in the States, neither bride nor groom sees the other until the fatal moment ("fatal" in the sense of deciding the future fate of each; not in the sense of mortal).
At about 4:00 p.m. all the children in the neighborhood and surrounding neighborhoods, and anyone who knows the family, begin gathering in front of the bride's house. Quickly, all the dishes which have been prepared are gathered up by each person to be carried on their heads in the march to the new house. There are mostly women who have gathered, as the majority of the men are with the groom at his house. The men who are in front of the bride's house are to carry the marriage bed, draped in the most colorful cloths.
With the musicians in the lead, and the bed close behind, the march begins, with a river of little children singing the Arabic wedding chant and dancing along side the bed. At the same time, the men are carrying the affairs of the groom to the new house in the groom's father's compound, where the couple and all their possessions will be united by an aging Arab father.
It's 4:00 on a Wednesday afternoon in Baibokoum. Shops are beginning to re-open; people are stirring once again after the siesta hours. The checker game starts again outside Bar Minzo, and the mechanics re-work the insides of the truck that'll make the journey to Moundou on Thursday. Clusters of women are still hanging out at the market, although their selling day is over; time to just sit back, sip some bili-bili, and enjoy the new greenness that is Baibokoum.
Suddenly, a drum sounds from a distant corner. The checker game stops. The mechanics brush themselves off and sit idly. The women empty their calabashes and stop chattering. The drum approaches the center of town, and the closer it resounds, the quieter become the inhabitants.
Finally, the drummer arrives. He ceases his drumming, and first in Arabic, and then in the local African dialect he announces: "By order of the Sous-Prefet (mayor) it is hereby declared that beginning today all animals shall be tied, or attached to something immobile. It is now the planting season, and we are all working hard to get our fields in order. We certainly don't need goats and chickens wandering around eating our crops. If you have a goat, tie it now. All goats found wandering tomorrow will be confiscated by the Sous-Prefet, and owners will be fined."
The drummer, ceasing his words, picks up his beat again and marches off to another neighborhood to repeat the order. (And you thought town criers were merely an American tradition!)
Peace Corps Volunteer Fan Yang began her service in Chad in 2005 and, similarly, was evacuated in 2006 because of an ongoing civil war. She continued her work as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo from 2006–2008.