Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Lost in Translation

For those of us who have grown up in one-language households and communities, the motivation to learn other languages can sometimes be difficult to find. For most of my life, English was my sole medium of thought, self-awareness and expression, education, friendship, understanding, work, play… in fact, nearly every aspect of my life that required reflection or interaction was possible only through expression in English. I learned some French in school but it was always a subject to study, a sort of theoretical knowledge base, and not really a tool I ever had much occasion to use. English was really good enough to communicate effectively with my family, friends, co-workers, and most everyone else I encountered in day-to-day life.

This changed when I moved to Chad.

There are more than a hundred local languages and distinct ethnic groups in Chad, and at least three of these languages are often used to find common ground in N’Djamena (Chadian Arabic from the North, N’Gumbay from the South, and French from the colonizers). Knowing any one of these languages will get you pretty far but in general it is not guaranteed that two people meeting on the street will necessarily have the same ‘go-to’ language. While the cultural and linguistic diversity in N’Djamena is certainly a beautiful and ornate feature in the patchwork of human anthropology, it can also be a practical challenge in the day-to-day. Admittedly I have only mastered a modest handful of useful phrases in various Chadian languages; however, I have thoroughly enjoyed the adventure of learning and the lessons go far beyond phonetics.

I have found many people in N’Djamena to be fiercely proud of their mother tongue, and I believe this is because each language carries with it a particular way of understanding, interpreting, and expressing someone’s experience in the world. Languages are intricately intertwined with identity, values, culture, and tradition… In this way, when I try and learn some basic phrases in somebody’s mother tongue I’m able to break the barrier of being a strange foreigner, and sometimes the set the foundations for a great relationship.

Unfortunately the language which allows me to do most of my communicating in Chad is also sometimes the source of this initial relationship barrier. In Chad, French is the mother tongue of hardly anybody. It’s a practical language. It’s a business and a social language that doesn't seem to be too deeply entrenched in anyone’s identity. French is still alive and well in N’Djamena largely because it works to provide a common denominator for various distinct ethnic communities (particularly across the south). It allows Chadians (and visiting Canadians) to have meaningful friendships among different ethnic groups. Through French, I am able to participate in the activities of my organization at work, express myself, get to know others, discuss interesting topics, and pass the evenings joking and laughing with my host family under the stars. French opens a world of expression, but it also carries the strong weight of a colonial history… perhaps especially coming from the mouth of a Nassara. In this way, sometimes my words come out tasting bitter sweet. For example, when I’m walking down the street I’m greeted with a lot of stares; often it’s a look of curiosity or confusion (that makes me feel a little like a strange and foreign animal in the zoo). I usually take advantage of this attention to pass on a pleasant greeting. A simple smile and “bonjour” can sometime crack a smile in return and make me a little more human in the eyes of the passer-by. But other times, despite a pleasant greeting, I receive a look that spells distrust and even disdain. It’s a burden I carry on behalf of the privileged who walked these streets before me.

Other times I choose to greet people in the local Arabic. Even for the southerners who may or may not speak Arabic, these basic greetings seem to be an integral part of Chadian culture. In such moments I greet my staring neighbours with “salam alekum” and the responses vary in a different sort of way. Some people are surprised to be greeted in a local language; some people are clearly amused; some people don’t even seem to register my words and simply respond in French; and some people really run with it, testing how far into an Arabic conversation I can get before I have to laugh and admit “Arab, shuia shuia!” …‘I only speak a tiny bit of Arabic!’

Arabic is also interesting because it’s a great example of how each language carries with it a particular worldview. For example, the basic greeting “Salam alekum” literally means “Peace be with you.” What a beautiful spirit to express to friends and strangers each time you meet. Then when you’re asked “Kikeif?” (how are you?) among the appropriate responses is “Al hamdoulilai!” or “Praise be to God!” which carries an implied, “I’m well.” And so it is that through the very structure of our language we engage in ancient cultural and religious traditions of how we see the world and how we ought to treat one another.

If I’m not the walking the streets, navigating the markets or riding in a taxi, I don’t have a lot of opportunities to learn or practice Arabic. However, with my host family I've been learning another local tongue. Generally my experience of language in a Moundang household has been a lesson in patience, discernment and true listening: patience because often the most appropriate time to ask for a translation is when all is said and done; discernment because there is a lot of conversation that happens that doesn't need to be translated at all; and true listening is about paying attention to all the levels of communication that happen in and around language, apart from the spoken word. Mostly I listen to the music of a conversation and the drama of expression and reaction. Mama, for example, is a particularly animated story teller when she’s speaking Moundang. She adds all sorts of sound effects and gestures, losing herself in the rich details and emotion of her story in a way that gets lost when she puts it into French. Rather than needing the details, I prefer to just sit back and listen as she tells her tale. At the end of it all, I may have no idea what happened in her day but I understand things that are more important. I understand about how she is feeling and I've been gifted with an expression of her charm and good-humour.

This is just one example of how I've adapted to life in Chad by learning to read contexts rather than listen to conversations. In every-day life this gets me pretty far, but it’s not foolproof. It’s easy to make the wrong assumption and respond in clear confusion. For example, one day I was with a friend in a crowded market surrounded by identical looking taxi-buses trying to find one going to a slightly obscure area of town. There are lots of predictable things about the unmarked taxi/bus system if you know what to look for, but we were admittedly a little lost. As we stood around taking in our options, a man (who by the way was busy attaching a second story of grain sacks to a precariously positioned roof rack on the top of the nearest taxi-bus) yelled something down at me. This is what I heard: “Eh! Chinois!” This may strike the average reader as a little bizarre but the oil industry has brought an influx of Chinese workers to Chad and I’m becoming pretty accustomed to my pasty complexion being mistaken for that of my Asian expat friends. In general when people greet me with a teasing “Ni Hao!” I tend to reply in good humour. This particular time I looked up at my new friend and hollered “Pas Chinois!” (I’m not Chinese!) At this point my Chadian friend laughed and explained that the bus attendant had actually spoken to me in Arabic, asking “Machi wa?” a sort of slang for “are you coming?” … at which point I realized how ridiculous my response must have sounded!

Whenever I get caught blindly unaware, I try to remember to laugh rather than be embarrassed. Last week for example, I went to my normal taxi stop. This is the beginning of the route and there are usually half a dozen cars parked at any given time. Someone has the job of standing watch of the cars, flagging down potential clients and directing riders to fill up the taxis one at a time. When a car is full, the driver is notified that his break is over and away we go. This particular day there was only one lonely taxi waiting so I thought I’d just hop in. The usual attendant greeted me and said something in Arabic that had the word “coffee” in it, pointing over to a small street vendor. I smiled, shook my head, and got in the taxi – supposing that he was joking with me that we should share a morning coffee together (which in all fairness does happen to me occasionally… likely as a consequence of a culture of hospitality and people’s curiosity at the young, single, Nassara girl… but I digress). As it turned out, my attendant friend was trying to tell me not to get in that taxi altogether because the driver was off having his morning coffee. Only when another taxi showed up and people started filling it up did I realize what had happened. My friend the attendant had been watching me all along to see when I’d clue in… We shared a little laugh, I switched taxis, and I still got to work :)

It happens quite often that Arabic speakers go out of their way to try and help me out, but I’m often unable to accept their good will and apologetically tell them that their advice is wasted on me because “Arab shuia shuia…” before going on my ignorant way to figure out whatever they were trying to tell me the hard way. Sometimes people are trying to tell me how much I should actually be paying for the taxi on a given route; sometimes they’re telling me I’ve missed my stop (which is sometimes the case); sometimes they’re telling me that the roads have been barricaded for a presidential convoy and I won’t be able to find a taxi at all; sometimes they’re trying to tell me where I can find this or that thing when their own little shop is out of stock; and sometimes they’re just trying to be friendly and ask me how I’m coping with the heat, how my family is, or whether I’m feeling healthy and well. Most of the time I leave these situations with a pretty clear understanding of their kindness and hospitality, a little bit indifferent about my lack of information, and regretting only that I’m helpless to express my gratitude or reciprocate their kindness. 

When I get to work there are even more language challenges. A good deal of my tasks with MCC revolve around translation work between French and English. With the vocab I picked up from my Chadian hosts along with my high school French and a couple undergrad grammar courses buried deep in my back pocket, I've found myself in sink or swim situations time and again. A Chadian partner would be sitting across the table from my American supervisors… both understanding bits and pieces of the others language and myself in charge of filling in the gaps. In the beginning the partners were very patient with me, stopping to explain vocabulary that I was missing, and waiting for me to paraphrase my understanding to ensure we were on the same page. Now these meetings go much more smoothly as my language skills have improved, but our habits of pausing to clarify, check or explain things continue in each meeting. This is because when I’m translating, I am not just substituting words like an online translation algorithm. Even though I understand French, I’m still using all the listening skills from the rest of my day in order to really understand what the partner is telling me in light of cultural and religious contexts. Then my challenge is to articulate the same idea in my own words while maintaining (as much as possible) the integrity of the original speaker’s intended tone and connotation. It requires empathy to see the world through their eyes, and a deep respect for the speaker such that I can give voice to their thoughts even if I disagree with the idea that I am translating. It is absolutely my favourite job that I have taken on in my time with MCC. These meetings often go on for hours and at the end of it all, when there seems to be a sense of understanding and direction for the next phase of the project, I feel energized (despite translation fatigue) by the positive relationships and hope for change that comes with each project.

After nearly a year in N’Djamena, I’m no longer content to be a one language person. The different ways of understanding and expressing the world that I've learned here have inspired me to continue seeking new perspectives and creative outlets. It is hard to believe that I have only a few short weeks left in N’Djamena... Through friendship, culture, work and play, the lessons I have learned here are diverse, life-changing, subtle, and sometimes lost in translation. Stay tuned in the coming weeks as I start unpacking more of my experiences and prepare to transition back into Canadian life.

À bien tot! 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

A Tale of Three Cities.

A gunshot rings out. One crisp, clear, haunting snap. Sound waves like bullet shells ricochet off the walls of surrounding buildings. These walls still hold the memory of a different soundscape – of laughter and handshakes that end in affectionate finger snaps. Now the neighbourhood is empty and the remaining voices are hushed in fear as the gunshots fire again. Most families have already fled north to the unhappy welcome of Chadian villagers. Unhappy because political boundaries don’t separate the traditional ties between the two nations and the Chadian southerners may assume the worst about the arriving refugees – “You killed my brother!” they’ll shout in accusation. Unwelcomed and unarmed, the persecuted ones become visitors and squatters in the Chadian wilderness just as a visitor crouches unwelcomed and unarmed in the doorway of their abandoned brick home. Her bulletproof vest sports a badge of neutrality – PRESS – while the French flag on her shoulder carries an inherited power dynamic, like a messy divorce after an abusive marriage. Normally a visitor in this village would be received with honour, long handshakes, warm greetings, and more food and drink than she could handle. But the visitor understands that this is no time for lingering moments and social graces. Despite the pre-written colonial prologue she’s determined to help write a peaceful ending to this story. From the base of the brick-framed doorway she watches some small children run across the courtyard, instinctively ducking as the deadly clatter strikes again somewhere in the much too near distance. Two young girls race across a no-mans-land that used to be home, dragging a bewildered toddler in tow, together seeking the cover of bricks and the comfort of an adult. Instinctively, the visitor raises her voice in encouragement and raises her camera to capture the moment.*

-    -    -

An alarm sounds. One long, sustained, annoying tone. Supper is ready, and your friends will be here any minute. There are no night classes today and there’s a concert in the student life center. It’s true you don’t know much about it but one of your friends is in the show and you could use something fun to get your mind off all the midterm stress. An hour or so later you find yourself approaching the front of a ticket line. You’re looking for some indication of the student price when your eyes meet the two dimensional stare of a small girl, holding her sister in one hand and a tattered blanket in the other, running towards you in desperate search for security. You see so many wars on the news that images like this one hardly surprise you anymore… but for some reason this time you can’t look away. The girls remind you of your own little sisters and for a brief moment, you’re the one holding the camera, shouting encouragement to the vulnerable children, heart aching for their safety. Just for a moment. Then an enthusiastic voice jolts you back into your own pair of clean, comfortable shoes. “Suggested $5 donation please! Proceeds go to peace and development work in Central Africa!” You pull a 10 out of your wallet and pause for a second… taking your change would mean a Starbucks in the morning, but on second thought… “Thank you very much! Enjoy the show! …Hi there! Suggested $5 donation please! Proceeds go to…” The volunteer’s speech fades into the bustle of the foyer as you enter the auditorium. You relax into a discussion with your friends about the recent Olympics and the vibrant energy of the growing audience keeps you firmly planted in your shoes. It’s nice when Friday evening entertainment supports a good cause.

-     -     -

A song rings out. A rhythmic, catchy, repetitive melody. Under the shade of a modest sun shelter, a choir sways together in matching, vibrantly coloured, patterned dresses and head scarves, characteristic of Chadian Christian attire. Behind them, another choir of Muslim high-school aged girls await their turn to serenade the President of the Republic. Thousands are gathered, filling in every available inch of shade underneath a single row of colourful mats that have been propped up along the edge of one of the few well paved roads in the capitol. Shaded by a larger-than-life Chadian flag, the president is seated in the center of the National Square on an extravagant throne, his hand-picked dignitaries enjoy cushy theatre seating behind him and the three heads of the Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant faiths sit side by side at his right hand. This is the day when the religious leaders of the nation gather with their followers to commemorate a time of ‘Peaceful Living-Together and National Unity’. The mood is festive and the proceedings are formal. Security is showy – soldiers and tanks (recently retired from civil war) are standing guard while the choir sings:
“We want, we want Peace!
We want, we want Joy!
We want, we want Love!
…for all Chadians!”
It’s a heartwarming image of hope, harmony and healing… or so it appears from the comfortable chairs under the Chadian big top. Meanwhile the eyes on the street take in the scene with seasoned skepticism for the fanfare of the authorities.  The words sound sweet… “All religions carry as part of their faith a message of peace… We must come to appreciate one another”** …and the image is charming – look now as the leaders of the three faiths and the president himself release four peace doves into the sky… watch as they fly away in glorious hope! …but these personalities in their comfortable chairs and clean shoes have yet to earn the trust of the people. In the morning the newspaper will read:
Extra! EXTRA! Read all about it! “SACRAMENT OF HYPOCRACY!”
“To speak the truth, this day of prayer is purely a formula… [of] fallacious discourse. Peace is not something that you can decree. Peace is not imposed by political dialogue... Peace is another precept, more serious that is found at the foundation of the human heart and that manifests itself in human actions, coming from our inner strength. Do the incantations of these religious men… really come from the heart? …In short, it is not sufficient to pray [for peace], but it is also necessary to put in the personal efforts to instil… justice [in our country].”***
The rich and the poor, the Muslims and Christians, the influential and the ordinary. There are so many walls in a labyrinth of conflict.

-     -     -

Why is this post written this way?
The three stories in this blog post represent two ‘historical fictions’ based on the current atrocities in Central African Republic (CAR) and from my life as a university student in Waterloo. The third is a true to life description of an event that I attended last month in N’Djamena. I framed my reflections this way because all three of these realities feel very close to me at the moment and I’ve been thinking about the connections between them. How does my life in Waterloo connect with the stories of CAR refugees arriving in my current neighbourhood? And what does our peace work in N’Djamena have to do with someone in Canada reading this blog? These questions are bigger than a blog post, but perhaps you are already seeing your own connections. To highlight just one of my own connections, I invite you to think for a moment about the term “global community.”
I don’t know about you, but I am someone who takes community to heart. A healthy community is diverse, accepting, vibrant, safe, fun, supportive, nurturing… and creating a healthy community takes people who are willing to invest meaningfully in one another’s lives. That is hard enough in our own families, so what does it mean to be part of a global community? This post tells three stories but it could easily tell three thousand. It’s impossible for us to separate our stories from the history that’s unfolding around the world, so who will we take time to connect with? Which stories will you weave together, and which ones will you write yourself?

*Inspired by the second image in this article: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-26210193
**Archbishop of Moundou. In a public speech at La Place de la Nation, January 25, 2014. Translated to English.

***Moussaye. (February 10, 2014). “Sacrement de l’hypocrisie.” Published in the Abba Garde, N’Djamena, Chad. Translated to English.  

Thursday, January 30, 2014

La Seminaire Interreligieux, Doba 2013

"Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry,
but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die,
it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other,
we may even become friends"
-Maya Angelou-
La Seminaire Interreligieux
Doba, Tchad
December, 2013

(Photo and quote re-posted grace à Jonathan Austin)

War and Peace

What do you see when you watch or read stories about Africa in the news?* Recently you may have been following the stories of political turmoil and deadly violence in South Sudan and Central African Republic (CAR), or perhaps your attention was captured by last month’s tribute to the life and peace advancements of Nelson Mandela. The contrast of these events in particular has made very real to me the importance of the work happening in our Peace department at EPJ. For a nation like Chad, with a long history of civil war and a fairly recent history of peace, there is a great deal of healing, relationship-building, and education needed to ensure that a new generation of Chadians can leave past conflicts in the oral history books. Today, Chadian Muslims and Christians seem to share a relatively peaceful coexistence, but the barriers of ignorance, prejudice and intolerance are clearly present and accounted for, always carrying the potential to rekindle past conflict. Despite such a complex challenge, EPJ’s peace building strategy is remarkably simple. Find the people from various camps who are likely to be the most influential (religious leaders, women, and youth), bring them together to learn non-violent, conflict resolution skills, and provide a context for them to get to know one another as people. And so it happened that even while deadly Muslim/Christian clashes were escalating in the CAR and the songs dedicated to Madiba’s peace achievements were resonating around the world, I found myself in rural, southern Chad – roughly 100km on the peaceful side of the CAR boarder – hanging out with thirty or so influential priests, imams, and pastors from across Chad. Our goal? Simply to help dissipate the kinds of political/religious tensions that divide our Centrafricaine neighbours, and continue building the culture of peace to which Nelson Mandela devoted his life.

This week-long workshop began with a healthy dose of Chadian pomp and ceremony, and a presentation by Souina Potiphar (Secretary General of Protestant Churches in Chad), who had some pretty clear ground-rules for our religious authorities:

“We are not here to discuss theology,” exclaimed Potiphar.
“We are not here to call one another to the other’s religion.
We are not here to combine our doctrines together to create something new.
We are here to learn how to share life together.
We have to live together,
so what kinds of relationships will we develop?
…In working for peace, if this week we can form friendships between priests, pastors, and imams, that is already a strength.”

As Potiphar spoke these words, I looked around the room and wondered about the reality of the religious divide. I am a far cry from a religious scholar, but it didn’t take one to noticed that the religious leaders were even divided physically, sitting in three relatively distinct groups. At meal times they generally clumped together with the friends they had come with… but, they had all come. Perhaps just sitting in the same room and sleeping in the same guest house was an important first step.

The first day of the workshop continued to set the context and elicit buy-in from our participants. We wanted them to understand that despite differences in tradition, doctrine, and lifestyle, the need for peace is something that we all share. What’s more, working for peace is a task that requires everyone’s collaboration. “Without peace, no project of development can happen. In times of war, nothing functions – no markets, no schools, no industry, no livelihoods, we can’t even eat. There is nothing but war” (Victor Dogos, head of EPJ Peace). In his presentation, Victor spoke at length about the reality of living in a war zone and in this crowd of elders and religious leaders, what a vivid and well-known image that must be. Having highlighted the numerous consequences of war, Victor concluded his talk with a reminder to the attendees of the immense level of collective influence they have in Chadian society. “Peace is not an option, but an obligation for inter-religious leaders.”

There was significant time for the participants to engage with one another. Some early discussions included the naming of stereotypes and stigmas that each group held regarding the other groups’ customs and beliefs. The conversations were surprisingly blunt! These people were not at all preoccupied with being politically correct towards other groups, nor did they seem at all surprised or offended by the accusations on their own faith. Instead they patiently took turns explaining the truth and intentions behind their own rules and customs. There was a clear emphasis on the need to understand one another. “We’re afraid of what we don’t know” said Victor at the end of one such discussion. “There are no verses in either of our sacred texts that encourage us to take part in violence and war. It’s only the extremists from one side or the other who interpret our texts in this way…. we must accept our differences and work together for peace.”

The next morning, having enjoyed the modest and generous hospitality of the village’s guest house, the religious leaders settled in for another day’s lessons (in exactly the same seats they had chosen the day before). For day two, the emphasis was on teaching about the nature of conflict. Religious leaders in Chad are extremely influential; they set the moral ground rules for what is acceptable behaviour in Chadian society, and their advice is taken seriously. If these leaders can better understand the nature of the disputes in their villages and neighbourhoods, they will be better equipped to mediate these situations. To this end, lesson number one went as follows: Conflict is a normal and neutral part of every-day life, and any positive or negative effects arise from the choices that we each make in response to situations of conflict. Boniface Tchingweubé (head of advocacy at EPJ) facilitated an engaging presentation including roll-plays and discussions, but at the end of the day there is only so much that can be taught. Some things need to be learned by doing. At the climax of his talk, Boniface suddenly broke from his energetic style of lecturing and settled into a chair at the front of the room. “You cannot choose what conflicts arrive, but you can always choose how you respond,” he said. “If you want to make peace in your communities, you must change your position.” Then he sat there, looking out at the Muslim/Christian divide in our own seating arrangement… Religious authorities looked at him. He looked at them. “Look at yourselves,” he exclaimed! “There is conflict among you right now!” He paused for dramatic effect, taking on a calm, authoritative tone. “…I’ll wait for you.” Like a soccer mom on the side of the road, refusing to budge until all mischievous little passengers start to behave, Boniface sat in the driver’s seat of the lecture and with a brilliant display of teacherly charisma he waited for the religious authorities of Chad to mix it up. He crossed his legs and settled conspicuously deeper into his chair. The religious authorities looked at each other…

Cautiously, one brave imam rose to his feet and crossed the room.

At this point, whatever force was holding the groups in isolation was broken and the natural laws of chaos took over. In a very literal sense, Christians and Muslims found new positions and new neighbours, creating model for relationships upon which Boniface would elaborate for the remainder of the workshop. In every-day life, in our neighbourhoods and communities, “when the leaders [of different faiths] connect and visit one another, that gives an example for all the others in the community to follow,” he explained. “If we learn to share everything in our lives, we will live together in peace and be true friends.”

Throughout the week, people began to change how they interacted with one another and with me. For example, because of my status as a young woman I was not surprised at the beginning of the week that several devout imams would not shake my hand. I was surprised however, when several days into the workshop these same imams greeted me with a warm and friendly handshake! By the end of the week, we were all eating together, washing our hands in the same sinks, chatting about the day, trading English, French, and Arabic lessons, and sharing lively stories and laughter. And these results were not just limited to the inner courtyard of the village guest house. Several leaders from each confession have called us since the workshop to tell about the meetings they held when they went home. They wasted no time spreading the ideas of acceptance, tolerance, and understanding within their communities.

I could end the blog there. But there’s something a little too perfect about the end of this story. Doesn’t it seem a little odd to be so proud of simple acts such as eating and washing hands together…? If I’m totally honest, sometimes this work is so basic it’s frustrating… why is it even necessary to go to such great lengths just so that people will see one another as worthy of a little respect and acceptance? I wrestled with this question throughout the workshops, and in the end, I don’t know why. But when I see Africa in the news, I know that this work is necessary, urgent even. In current civil wars, in the history of Apartheid, and even in my own N’Djamena neighbourhood it’s clear that the roots of prejudice and mistrust run deep in the generational identity and psyche of peoples who have lived through violent conflict. Reversing this trend is the untold story of African development, the story that takes place when international reporters have gone home, or perhaps before they arrive. It’s the epilogue of war and the prologue to peace.

*This is not exactly a rhetorical question – I would really love to hear your responses! What do you see when Africa is in the news (or any other media)? Please post your comments here or email me at michellemetzger@mcc.org with the subject line “I see Africa.”

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Chadian Social Life (Part 2): On verra…

To me being flexible has always meant the willingness to change plans with changing circumstances… that is to say, even flexible people have plans to start with. This year, however, I’m discovering a whole new dimension to what it means to be flexible which often involves a good deal of going with the flow. This December, my ability to live in the moment has been ultimately put to the test. From weddings to Christmas gatherings, ‘on verra’ or ‘we’ll see’ has been the hallmark phrase of each celebration.

Take for example, the wedding of my friend Clémence earlier this month. As it turned out, the wedding was the scheduled for the last day of a large workshop on conflict transformation that Ethics Peace and Justice was running in the south of Chad (about a 8 hour journey from N’Djamena). This was a problem. I had already told Clémence that I would attend her ceremony and she had even asked me to wear a matching dress with many of her other friends and family… and yet, would I make it to the ceremony? On verra… with permission to leave the workshop early, I caught the early morning bus to N’Djamena the day of the ceremony. If everything went normalement (according to plan), I’d arrive in the city at 1:30pm for a 2pm wedding. I of course had no plan for how I would get to the ceremony; it was way too early to think about those details… Despite potholes and animals running between our wheels, herds of cattle and a few traditional ‘bathroom’ stops, we arrived precisely and remarkably on time in N’Djamena. Similar luck proceeded to guide each step of my speedy transition from traveller to wedding-goer until I found myself standing in front of Church 6, dressed in my freshly tailored Chadian outfit, only about 20 minutes late, and one of the first guests to arrive…

And because I was one of the first to arrive, I had no idea where my friends and colleagues were, nor did I know where amongst the groups of matching outfits might be an appropriate place for me to sit... apparently my colour hadn’t arrived yet. I managed to find a young usher (who looked like she’d much rather be enjoying the ceremony with her friends than showing older guests to their seats). Without a word and assuming I must be a very special guest, she showed me to some chairs that were set up at the very front of the church and on a bit of an angle to the rest. I had a sneaking suspicion I was in the wrong place, but a bit helpless to make a better choice. As the rest of the angled chairs filled up with middle-aged, important-looking men, I grew increasingly certain of the awkwardness of my situation. Eventually my friends showed up, clearly a little surprised to find me seated with the pastors and elders. By this time the church was full of dancing guests and the choir (backed up with a small keyboard, solo guitar and drum kit) was in full swing behind me. There was no room to move so I stayed where I was. I gave up on fitting in a long time ago, so I just sat back and enjoyed the music!

The wedding ceremony itself took several hours and was full of song and dance, and of course a long sermon. Since all of the legal marriage rituals are done in a separate ceremony in the morning, this is a strictly community-focused event. A friend of the couple presented a comedic monologue and various groups of family and friends gifted the couple with a prepared song (accompanied by a traditional stringed drum). Many of the traditions were surprisingly similar to how weddings are done back home – the vows, the rings, the cake, and even the attire of the bride and groom were not at all unlike what I’ve seen at my friends weddings in Canada. When it comes to presenting the gifts, however, there was no mistaking the distinctly Chadian flavour of this wedding. After a brief announcement the music began again and people began dancing up the isles, all manner of household items held high above their heads. People cheered and clapped and danced their gifts up to the front to create a large pile in front of the couple. This more or less marked the end of the ceremony, but the dancing continued; we were offered plates of sweets and eventually filtered out into the night.

All through events like this, if people are worried about how things will turn out they certainly don’t show it. From an outsiders perspective the ‘Chadian way’ can easily be seen as simply putting off planning as long as possible, or occasionally altogether. Or it might be seen as a lack of foresight or organization. In practice, however, I’ve found it to be more of a preference that often just makes sense given the context in which we are living. Instead of a schedule where each task is allotted a certain time, tasks are prioritized and generally carried out in that order regardless of how long they take to accomplish. In this context, leaving plans ambiguous is actually an extremely practical way of ‘organizing’ one’s day, accounting for all the likely yet unforeseeable happenings of day to day life.

At the end of the day, acceptance for the unexpected is the prominent attitude, and I’ve found that the more comfortable I become with this way of scheduling, the easier it becomes to settle into the flow of Chadian life. Even as I write this, it is 5:30pm on New Year’s Eve and I still don’t know how I will celebrate. I might drop in on my host family’s church where people will be singing and dancing until dawn tomorrow. I might be invited to attend a formal new year’s party with my host dad and many of his colleagues. I might spend the evening with some expat friends (who have clearly picked up the Chadian tendency of last minute planning), or I might have a quiet night in with my host mom and sister… What is certain is that 2014 is going to begin in the company of good friends, looking back on a full and fruitful year, thinking of loved ones around the world, and looking forward to certain and unpredictable adventures in the year ahead… On verra. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

My Chadian Social Life (Part 1): Are You Married Yet…?

Amusingly, the marriage question seems to come from all directions in my life, whether my grandma is kindly reminding me that I could bring a special someone to our reunions anytime I like, or here in Chad where complete strangers are known to propose on the spot hoping for free immigration status. In general the topic of marriage is inevitable when getting to know Chadians and they always seem a little surprised to find out that a young women such as myself is both unattached and unafraid of the future. While it may be perfectly normal for a young Canadian women to be traveling or focusing on education, finding a husband is of paramount social importance for Chadian women and all the single ladies are watching the clock to make sure they don’t get too close to 25 without securing a dowry. This time of year, with the rains long gone and the heat subdued, there’s plenty of events going on. So even while I play the role of long-distance maid-of-honour for my best friend in Canada, I’m taking note of how things are done Chadian style.

And do Chadians ever have style! Last Friday my friend Charlee came into work with her hands and feet covered in beautiful henna art. She was going to have a part in her cousin’s dowry celebration the next day and invited me to come along. We arrived early in the morning to find that dozens of friends and relatives had already begun filling the small courtyard of the bride’s home. There was a DJ and a sound system playing upbeat African and International favourites, and chairs were being lined up for some sort of ceremony. As I took in the scene, Charlee took me by the hand and led me to a separate room just off the courtyard where the bride was seated on a pile of floor pillows. This is where she enjoys the party, surrounded by aunts, sisters, cousins, and friends. It’s not considered proper for her to view the ceremony. The mood in the room was lively and fun as the women greeted, laughed, teased, and laughed some more. Before long the groom’s family arrived (the groom doesn't attend the ceremony either). They filed in carrying large platters of useful and beautiful items – soaps, boxes of sugar, stacks of cloth, piles of shoes, seeds, oil, and crates of fizzy drinks. The chairs quickly filled up so people crowded together on the porch of the house like they were posing for a large family photo around the pile of gifts. Then the proceedings began.

One family member stood and greeted the crowd with charisma. After a flourish of introductions, a mat was ceremonially brought and rolled out in the small bit of open courtyard left between chairs and fizzy drinks. Members of the two families came and sat on either side of the mat. Greetings were exchanged, and then the ‘negotiating’ began. I should add that even through the complete language barrier, it was clear that the entire event was staged for the enjoyment of the two families. Any real decision making was done long before the ceremony, and both families were clearly thrilled at the prospect of the marriage. But on the day of the dowry it’s one for the money, two for the show… The father of the groom pulled 200 000 francs ($400) from his pocket, and the banter began. The family of the bride was clearly unimpressed at the insufficient sum. After some time, the grandfather pulled out the extra 50 000 ($100) to help his grandson’s cause, and still more banter and laughter from the crowd. Eventually the grandfather sheepishly pulled out a single 1000 franc note ($2) as if to say “really, this is all we've got” and everyone laughed, agreements were made, hands were shaken, and the dancing began (yes, for me too!)

On the way back to my house I had lots of questions for Charlee. Why doesn't the couple attend the ceremony? What does a dowry of 250 000 francs mean socially? What exactly was being said between the families? …There is still much that I don’t understand, but I’ll share a few notes. Compared with our western traditions, it may seem strange at first that the couple doesn't attend the ceremony. Back home, the couple is absolutely the center of attention for all events associated with their wedding. However, I would say that this tradition is not so much diminishing the couple’s role, but rather it highlights that the families play a much more central role than in my own culture. Perhaps this is representative of the ways that family plays a more central role in the lives of Chadians in general. I also learned that the amount of this dowry was pretty much average (at least for someone in this socio-economic bracket). If the price were much higher it would reflect badly on the father of the bride, as he would be seen to be ‘selling’ his daughter. Similarly, a less than average gift would suggest that the bride was not worth a proper dowry.

Overall, I think I see more similarities between our traditions than I expected to find. I think at the end of the day, it’s really about the community coming together to support the future of the couple. Back home we function in a society where a bride and groom are starting an independent life together, and all financial support tends to go directly to the couple. In Chad, as in many African cultures, financial inter-dependency within families is the fiscal norm. The couple may be starting a new chapter in life but they’re not necessarily becoming any less dependent on family connections and support. In this way, perhaps trading money between the families is as much a sign of unity as the marriage ceremony itself.

And speaking of ceremonies, the next big celebration will be the wedding of another co-worker in early December. It’s a Chadian tradition that the bride arranges for friends and family to tailor outfits from the same cloth for the wedding day, and my custom dress is in the works. I’m honoured to be included and curious what this next celebration will have in store!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Road Trip! (Pictures)

This is the home of our host, Martin, in Gounougaya. The homes were pretty similar in all the villages - small brick rooms, usually round, with thatched roves, and woven grass sheets for courtyard walls. 

Also at Martin's house, when I explained to these women that I was taking photos so that my friends and family in Canada could better understand life in Chad, they smiled and insisted that I also photograph them with their cooking charcoal.  

This is our second flat tire of the trip.

And don't forget our meetings. This is a group of children in Doba ready to receive their new school supplies. 

There is a herd of cattle in the road. Classic.

On the way home, we stopped to buy all sorts of foodstuffs that are cheaper to buy in the villages than in the city. At this stop we loaded up with fresh sugarcane.