Finding the Poorest of the Poor in Chad
By Helen Blakesley, Catholic Relief Services (CRS)
Before I set off on each ‘intrepid’ journey in the name of CRS, I always flick through my guidebook to Africa. It was next stop Chad, in Central Africa, north of Cameroon and west of the Sudans. As my eyes alighted on the correct page, they were drawn to these words: “Wave goodbye to your comfort zone and say hello to Chad”. Gulp. It got worse. “Chad is Africa for the hardcore. This is an experience you will never forget”. Blimey.
As the plane made its descent to N’Djamena airport the balmy night of my arrival, I looked down onto the flat rooftops and street lights we passed. Was that falling rain lit up by each lamp head? No. That was swarms of crickets and other bugs dancing frenetically in the pools of light.
And they continued their welcome as we made our way into the airport and waited for our passports to be stamped. Locusts swooping, to settle on shoulders, in hair, on pant legs, or to be brushed off hastily by a skittish traveler. A little girl shrieked as she pointed to a large black unidentifiable beastie with scarab-like pincers, poised on my shoe. I’m very glad she did.
I soon started to see what the guidebook meant about ‘hardcore’, and I hadn’t even made it out of the capital city. For most ex pats, life in N’Djamena is a life lived behind compound walls. Houses, offices, restaurants are manned by guards, some are topped with barbed wire fences and visitors checked over with metal detectors. Armed soldiers are a common sight, especially along the road of the presidential palace (where, I was informed, if you stop your car they will shoot in the air to make you move along!)
Getting stuff done in N’Djamena isn’t the easiest feat either. There’s the heat and humidity, social norms to be respected, and red tape that has a whole extra kink in it, compared to other places I’ve visited. But despite all this, CRS staff members at the N’Djamena office (loyally guarded, or should I say wagged at, by a feisty dog called Babette) go above and beyond to put CRS projects into practice.
It turned out that the papers I needed to leave the capital and travel east to visit these projects didn’t arrive in time. A civil service strike meant the man who usually signs them wasn’t there. So, I was transported instead through conversation, as CRS staff spoke passionately about their work with the poorest of the poor.
Talking with Katie, a young project manager from the States, (and my dinner buddy for the trip), I heard about remote villages out East which are more akin to the Wild West. Surrounded by desert, living in such isolation, many of the people there have no other way to earn money than the crops they grow. And this year has been especially hard. The last cereal harvest was down by 50 percent. For many, food supplies ran out as early as January. Unrest in neighboring countries (Libya, the Sudans, Nigeria) has taken away the chance of seasonal work abroad for fathers, husbands and brothers. Throw into the mix a couple of hundred thousand refugees from Darfur, who fled to Chad to escape violence, but who admittedly put extra pressure on the region’s resources.
So, CRS stepped in with a program aimed at helping 10,000 households – which translates to around 60,000 people. Working with our partners, CRS chose the most vulnerable: families headed by a woman, someone who’s elderly or has a disability or is pregnant, families who eat as little as one meal a day – or less, families who have sold their last seed stocks or animals to buy food.
Then, vouchers are given out, which can be exchanged for food at local markets. The vouchers are distributed every 2 weeks instead of every month, so as not to flood the market and so that people have less to carry back home, often on foot, by donkey or camel. Using these local markets and local vendors also means a boost for local economies.
As we chatted late into the night, Katie shared with me the challenges of this project, but also the hopes…that the rains will be good this year…that the harvest, due in October, will be enough…that CRS can carry on helping set people on the right path to weather this most difficult of years.
with goods they´ve bought at the market, thanks
to CRS. Photo by Anicet Nemeyimana/CRS