Happy NEW 2008


The Shadows of Chad?

Maybe I would be forgiven for saying that 2007 has been overshadowed by my mission in Chad. After all, while in Chad, I was only let out of the country on two occasions (which went by so quickly I hardly noticed I had been gone). And, after all, while in Chad, I hardly did anything other than be in Chad (read: I didn’t send any emails, didn’t call, didn’t learn a language, didn’t take up belly-dancing or Nuba wrestling, didn’t get a Ph.D. nor pass the New York bar, didn’t mingle or socialize, didn’t get any air miles, did not get my thesis published, in fact, did not submit my thesis for publication, didn’t edit any reports or articles, and didn’t take on any hopeless projects that eat up lots of free time without bringing real rewards).

But such a statement would neglect the fact that I did spend 4 ½ months of 2007 outside of Chad. And, of course, would imply that all things in Chad were gloomy (which a lot of them were; but I did learn how to make yoghurt and weaned off my internet addiction). So, let me start again.

The Green Meadows of Chad

After having spent most of the last half of 2006 convincing my favourite international humanitarian organization that they really wanted me to work for them, I finally arrived in Chad in early May of 2007. Eastern Chad, to be precise, close to the border with Darfur (which, unless you have lived in a hole for the past four years, you will have heard of). Sadly, Chad is peculiarly devoid of Fletcher people (but I expect this might change with the arrival of MINURCAT whenever that might be...), with the exception of Anna (05) who provided a warm welcome in Ndjamena.  

I am a so-called “economic security delegate”, which means that I get to work mainly on distributions of food or essential household items such as blankets and tarpaulins to internally displaced people or IDPs. Not as easy as it might sound to many of you, but hard work and a logistical masterpiece (alright, not my masterpiece, but that of my l
ogistics colleagues)! Imagine having to distribute flour, beans, oil, sugar and salt to several tens of thousands of hungry people who are quite happy to start a riot if they feel they are being left out. My job requires a lot of negotiations with sheikhs and other community leaders, a good dose of common sense, and a reliable team of local assistants without whom I'd be lost.
It is easy to start wallowing in self-pity when you start describing the living and working conditions. Note: that would be MY living and working conditions. Most shocking of all is probably how quickly I have become accustomed to, and accepted as a way of life, the living and working conditions of the beneficiaries who have been subject to the most abject poverty in this hostile environment all their lives. In the sites I work in, at least 80% of all families live in straw huts the size of a small room with little more than one bed (if they are lucky), a few donated blankets, some sorry excuse for a cooking pot, with only the clothes they are wearing but plenty of flies and rats. No wonder most of the mothers here look like old grandmothers. But it is simply impossible to change the whole of Eastern Chad anytime soon and more often than not I find myself arguing that we should not provide "my" beneficiaries with latrines or more food or more blankets, simply on the basis that not having latrines or food or blankets is normal everywhere else in the region. Sad but true: if you want to avoid a stampede to these IDP sites, you mustn't offer "services" that far exce
ed the local standards. Once I had accepted that my work would never be more than applying band-aids to a bad situation, it was easy to steel my heart against the daily misery and redirect my pity to myself: "Okay, so these people will never get to eat chocolates in their whole lives anyway, but what about me not having seen a fridge or a shower or decent food in four weeks?".  Anyway, my living conditions: up to 50 degrees Celsius in the summer, bad food, curfews, flooded roads during the rainy season, frequent water shortages, insects of all shapes and sizes, illness, banditry. Worst of all for me to come to terms with: the complete lack of privacy and social life. It is hard to "shut the door behind you" when you live in a mosquito dome 70% of the time... Of course being so close to the people also has one immediate advantage: you see the effect of your work, are met with immens
e gratefulness, get job satisfaction right where it matters. At the same time, my micro-perspective of a handful of IDP sites is diametrically opposed to developing any understanding of the big picture. So my search continues for the job that combines all of my requirements - or maybe I will have to start living two lives at once... 
Outside those stressful periods distributing food, I spend much of my time assessing whether or not we ought to distribute food. I call these the peanut assignments. I look at how many peanut bags are left in stock in each hut. How many peanuts every family has planted. How many peanut bags every family has harvested. How expensive it is to transform peanuts into oil. How many bags of cereals the average family can buy from selling how many bags of peanuts. Which is the cue for you to start laughing. This is Connie who until recently thought peanuts grew on trees and cereals came straight out of a cornflake box. But who ever said
that I wasn’t versatile?

Besides, how many of you would have thought that peanuts grew in Chad at all? You have all seen the pictures of dusty, sandy Darfur on the news – which looks exactly like dusty, sandy Eastern Chad. But during the rainy season I have seen dry riverbeds turn into raging torrents of water, sandpits transform into green meadows, and wastelands produce man-high plantations. And those are the moments of magic when you feel that traveling is the best thing in the world and having a job that allows you to witness the wonders of the world makes it all worthwhile.

Highlight of the Year

Alright, alright, officially this would have to be receiving the first regular pay cheque since 2004 from a "real" (i.e. non-studenty, non-short term) employer and, by implication, holding a steady job with long-term future prospects in the area in which I have really been wanting to work for years. The shock of this unusual state of affairs seemingly proved too much for me, since I handed in my notice last week... (but you'll hear more of that in next year's newsletter). 

Unofficially, having snow fights in Lebanon is right at the top of my list of highlights, as is shopping for love potions in the Aleppo souq in Syria and tasting Karoun’s Easter-turkey in Washington D.C..  

The best thing in the world …

… about not having a steady job (before April 2007, that would be, and I guess after March 2008...) is of course that it gives you lots of time to travel - and, simultaneously, the sympathy and hospitality of your settled-down, steady-income friends. With that in mind, this time last year, I had decided to push back full-time employment by a couple of months.

In order not to be called a professional bum and disgrace to my parents, I pretended to be
engaging in intensive Arabic studies for the first three months of 2007. So New Year’s saw me dancing on the tables in Beirut with my former Boston flat mate, and gracious Beirut host, Elias. My status as arduous but impecunious language student forced me to move to an affordable, Arabic-speaking part of town where, as an honourable member of the “Republic of Qasqas” trio, I was able to combine a phenomenal view over the rooftops of Beirut with an addictive soundtrack (being located right next to five different mosques). My friendships with bearded Lebanese/almost-Lebanese men (you know who you are!) were somewhat counter-balanced by my frequent moving in a circle of fabulous (non-bearded) non-Lebanese women. I blame Michaela, Veronika and Kate for distracting me from language studies for the sake of aquarobics, saunaing, powerboxing, and pilates, as well as of manicures (!), skiing, eating, more eating, and late-night dancing (to my shame, I never put up much of a fight).
Beirut was also a lesson in ap
plied politics: I learned never to look at street posters in the same way again (you can even sell jewellery with a political message). Thanks to Wissam and May for taking me to my first Ashoura festivities in the Shi’a part of town and for plying me with food, putting me up during unexpected crises, and showing me how to dodge bullets and burning street blocks during political demonstrations. And of course thanks to Nayef for taking me sightseeing all over the country! As a Fletcher-friendly destination, there were also plenty of Fletcherites around to make me feel at home: Elias (for a short while); Kathleen and her gorgeous family who provided my annual supply of chocolate cookies; Sara, Ermina and Oren; and Nicki from Tufts. 
When back from Lebanon, I had just enough time for a short but sweet trip to the USA, to see Fletcher friends in Boston, New York, and Washington (oh, plus a quick weekend trip to New Orleans for Melissa’s hen weekend!). I guess my four weeks in Geneva during my training prior to “deployment to
Chad” don’t really count as travel… But it allowed me to meet up with Fletcher’s very own Jessica and Martin on several occasions, Ugo and Marina and Adriana and Michael (Emi, we toasted to you!), as well as – unexpectedly – catch up with ELSA's EMCC and ELSA old-timers Thomas and Isabelle.

Last, but not least, I got to meet the husband of my oldest English friend, Pippa, the day of their wedding in Cornwall - an absolu
tely beautiful day made all the more magical by the fact that Pippa and Jon normally live in New Zealand these days and that almost all of our old boarding school crew made it there. Talking about weddings and other epiphanic events: god, do I feel old! After Claude last year, this year saw the weddings of Pippa, Melissa, my oldest-est friend Sylvia and pretty old friend Flo (not to each other…), numerous engagements, and the birth of Emily’s Willow, Tina's Maya, and Jack’s Dexter. It also saw my turning 30, with nothing so much as resembling a settled life and an earthshattering party in Abeche that ended at 18.30 due to curfew restrictions.  God, I feel old.

On the returning end of friends’ visits, few people took advantage of Schneider-hospitality this year. It seems Chad isn’t that high on anybody’s list of places to visit and Duesseldorf not as appealing as during the World Cup… Respect to Anita (who managed to park the world’s largest van in the world’s smallest parking space) and Delphine (who flew to Duesseldorf from Washington for an unprecedented two-day stint during one of my rare “compensation” visits home in November). And please remember that I will be back in civilization in the not-too-distant future and thus expect your visit…

 Fil mustaqbal, insh’allah

Yes, “in the future, hopefully”, I will ...

… finally learn how to speak Arabic properly (my pigeon-Arabic is teetering along, but my Lebanese colleagues warn me that the Chadian dialect all but destroys any sense for grammar).

… return to Germany (and Geneva, for a couple of days) in mid-February, and then disappear on a two-week-long family holiday to Thailand in honour of my mother’s 60th birthday (E
mi, am hoping to pop in!).

… be in Saudi Arabia for five weeks some time between March and May to teach an introductory course on public international law at an all-women’s university.

… be able to repay Erin, Xanthe, Pippa, Sylvia, Tanja and Marko for having sent the best care packages in the world (after my mum’s); Arne not only for making the best video, but for being the best charity donor, of 2007; and Kit and Eugenia for my failing to make it to their wedding in my favourite city in the whole wide world (and Andy and Lauren for not even having responded to their much appreciated wedding invitation - c’est le Tchad!)!

… return to “the best thing” in the world for a while as of May 2008?! Let me know where you are and when to visit (for which, see above, re "settled-down, steady-income friends")!

 Rest assured that I think of you all often and that I wish you all the very best for a happy and successful 2008.

May our paths cross again in 2008!


All is the same: everything has changed!

A Year in the Life of Connie