Chad is one of the largest African countries (5th in size) but sparsely populated, with 13 million inhabitants, 60% of whom are Muslims. It’s located in the Sahel region, in the central part of Africa, and consists of three terrestrial zones with vast, flat, arid landscapes in the center, fertile savannas in the south and the Sahara desert in the north where the only mountain ranges form. The country took its name from the homonymous lake on the border of four nations (Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon) that has shrank drastically due to climate change. Although the country is claiming to be a democracy, in fact it’s a de facto dictatorship limiting political opponents, violating freedom of speech and human rights. Chad is one of the world’s poorest countries (ranked 7th) with 80% of the population living below the poverty line and also holding a sad first place of world’s most corrupted. Recent political upheavals that have triggered civil wars, immigrant waves from Darfur and the Central African Republic, and attacks by the terrorist group of Boko Haram, constitute a permanent humanitarian crisis. N.G.Os present an excessive number of 200 in the country, but unfortunately, as a common case, part of the funds leak in unknown channels. The subsoil has a substantial water bed at a shallow depth, but reaching it is not possible for the poor, with half of population not having direct access to drinking water and almost all to sanitation infrastructures. Chad is an oil and mineral producing country and also cotton, which harnesses wealth in the hands of the very few, creating a chaotic social gap. Finally, it’s one of the least visited countries by tourists in Africa and the world, since it has limited interest regarding typical travel requests, it’s quite inhospitable, unreasonably expensive and considered dangerous, with explicit travel warning. What I personally experienced, from the very first steps from the border, was a place so unique, difficult and demanding, but at the same time of an alternative beauty and rare anthropological interest.
The Chadians consists of an alloy of at least 200 ethnic groups, many of them nomadic, with diverse social structures. The reactions for the white-skinned visitor varies a lot, from hostile and rude to very friendly, helpful and hospitable. Among other things, the visitor must deal with deep corruption in the public sector and personal security risks.
The capital of the country and the largest city is N’Djamena, built on the banks of River Chari, which is a natural border with Cameroon, facing the neighboring city of Kousseri. It is a capital of contradictions with a small modern central section consisting of modern business buildings, expensive urban areas, few international hotels, nightlife places and government buildings, including the presidential palace-fortress that occupies an enormous expanse attached to the central square. This setting is in sharp contrast to the rest of the city where you find dusty dirt roads where vehicles, motorcycles and donkey carts claim space between cattle, sheep and people living in deep poverty.
The south city of Moundou is the second largest and has no modern look beyond the wide central road illuminated by solar powered pillars. Lake Chad, which gave name to the country, is an extensive shallow wetland, the second in Africa, with innumerable islands and villages, but has lost 95% of area over the last 40 years due to climate change and water exploitation. Lake villages are often the target of bloody attacks by the Nigerian terrorist group of Boko Haram.
In this vast country, in the far north and beyond the border with Libya, the inhospitable Sahara desert is dominated by the volcanic Tibesti mountains with the highest peak of Sahara. It’s the area of Toubou nomads who survive with their camels thanks to the few oases. Northeastern, is the Ennedi Plateau, with red geological formations of impressive forms, pre-historic petroglyphs, lakes with the last desert crocodile populations and oases such as the famous Guelta d’Archei. To visit the extreme north, you need to spend at least 10 days or more, enough money for transportation to such a remote place of the planet and to sacrifice every mean of comfort. At Southeast is the country’s only, Zakuma National Park, which after a major effort to protect and revitalize fauna from poaching, is considered a success story.
Hide and seek with Boko Haram
It’s a dawn of a New Year’s Eve and instead of being in a mountain chalet or an exotic beach, once again I travel squeezed, 7 passengers total in a small car for 190 km of torture from Cameroonian town of Touboro to Chad’s Moundou, passing another African border experience. Me and my travel buddy try to fit in the front passenger seat, with four more people in the back seat, in a vehicle that suffocates from the exhaust fumes entering the cabin while my eyes were tearing and still I was lucky enough to sit on the side of the window so I traveled all the way with head outside. The border was marked by a rusty beam and some tree branches, 3 border post structures and the two countries’ dusty flags. All around is uninhabited, uncultivated land. In the 1st office, with a speed of elementary school student, the officer of state recorded our data in the big book and put the first stamp on the passport. Wego next to the office on the other side of the road where two young guys have a friendly mood and knowledge about Greece, surprisingly not just for football but also ancient time philosophers and scientists, like Thales. We cross the road once again having a first taste of Chad’s bureaucracy. The gentleman here had an interesting appearance, with a traditional robe and a whitewashed turban wrapped many times on his head a tradition in this country, seen often covering mouth and nose. The gentleman is serious, pokerface and put many stamps on the precious remaining space of my passport. But the process is not finished yet. In the middle of the road, a soldier opens all our luggage and empties clothes and objects on the ground. Luckily, I have my clothes enclosed in plastic bags, successfully to keeping some of them clean amidst the amounts of thick dust my luggage has suffered till here. Nevertheless, I try to keep in my arms whatever I can protect against mistreatment, in this first example of a visitor dealing with local authorities.
We continue our route in the country, which due to the fatigue of the previous days in Cameroon, seems to me endless. I really wonder how the rest of the passengers can breathe with so much fume in the car! I take my head out like a dog but the wind speed doesn’t allow comfortable breathing. I try to somehow direct an inflow of air into the cabin. Moreover, my bones numb from pressure, I am afraid that after so many days of hardship, I’ll return with skeletal, respiratory or other health issues. We are finally approaching Moundou shortly after a document check and denying a tip the police officer was asking. Moundou does not show any interest apart from wide dusty roads. We’ll not waste time here, as we get in a bus to the capital city. My buddy was looking for some bananas to minimise the effects of another day of hunger, but he didn’t. I only managed to get two of the back seats of the bus. It turned out to be another bad way to travel, with the engine’s heat, window that didn’t open and the position above the rear axle of vehicle, made each of the countless potholes of the road, painful. I had read that this is the only paved road in the country. Apart fromthat it wasn’t true, the main road connecting the two largest cities, it is a horrible 480 km roadway that takes more than 9 hours. I was really desperate, my mental strength collapsed. It’s just the beginning of the trip in this country, but after the previous hardships in Cameroon, the physical and mental power is exhausted. The landscape unfolds outside the window and looks quite differently from the neighboring country. Flat lands with minimal vegetation are sparsely interrupted by small water ponds cooling animals and people, while small settlements of brick houses and mosques, populated with people with of traditional, Arab influenced clothing, compose a scenery of unique, wild beauty. On the bus we met Hamit, a very kind and educated man working in a mining company in the south. Hamit, who speaks fluent English, will eventually become a precious friend, sacrificing his holiday time, to help us find solutions and solve problems during our stay. We stop in a small town called Bongor, on the border line with Cameroon again. In the open market there is a typical 3rd world condition, dust, flies and disordered crowd. For food we fount nothing more than bananas, again. Some red grasshoppers were available too, but I do not think they’d fulfil my hunger, and they were covered with flies. Hamit helped me buy and activate a local mobile SIM card. As I was shooting some photos inside the fenced area of the bus station and the enclosed market, I dared to get outside and capture the tension of the moment. In the beginning everything was good and no one seemed to bother, but one of the crowd is enough to uproot others and become threatening. Unfortunately, I don’t speak French to appease the rage, but another bus passenger we got to know each other, a Cameroonian photographer of luxury weddings, undertook to support me and eventually engage in an almost violent confrontation. I felt very bad, but in these cases you have to keep distance from the incident.
At some other point, just before dusk, we stopped for the passengers’ physical needs. At that point, a serious traffic accident had just happened. A passenger car had a heavy crash, probably with a truck, the windscreen and the cabin front had been crushed. The driver was suffering on the ground, with a crowd around him watching. At one time, one of the attendees decided to offer help in the most criminal way. He trampled the wounded from his head making violent massage in his neck, which as we all know could be fatal immediately. The bus was departing and I’m not aware about the fate of this man, but unfortunately medical treatment in Africa is almost non-existent and human life vulnerable.
We finally arrive at night in N’Djamena. The hotels found online are limited to just 2 or 3 belonging to international brands and having high prices. But Hamid knows some local hotels that can’t be found even on the map. We take 3 motor-taxis to go, cause in Chad, unlike Cameroon, no 3, 4, 5 passengers are allowed on one bike. Quality is far below average even for African standards and the price of 30,000 CFAs (Central African Francs that equate to € 45) is far too unjustified. Welcome to N’Djamena, the 2nd most expensive city in Africa after Angola’s Luanda that holds the world’s top spot. We are lucky we chose not to spend too many days in Chad, given that we only have 2 kidneys for sale. We had just entered the room and Hamit came to tell us that according to rules of the hotel owner, they do not accept two persons of same-sex in the room. This leaves us surprised, even in strict islamic countries, it’s forbidden for people of the opposite sex to stay in same room if not married. The price for the two rooms is approaching one of the international chain hotels and any negotiation is useless. We walk on foot to a nearby one. This is a short-stay “love” hotel for young couples but many others were spending their time in the hall. The room is better and cleaner than the previous one and at a significantly lower price (20,000CFA / € 30). We thank Hamit and renew our meeting for the next day asking to help us find a car. Enjoyed the luxury of a shower after 4 days, removed Cameroon’s dust from myself and wore clean clothes, while I try to remember how many days I have to eat. Since we are not in a western world metropolis to celebrate the New Year of 2019 with parties and events on the streets, we decide to make a gift to ourselves and go to celebrate … at the Hilton. Here, as one can imagine, we met a society that was light years away from the poverty that takes place outside, on city streets. The price was equivalent to a European restaurant but included a buffet of wide variety. Our stomach was shocked after so many days of starvation. After the countdown and celebrations, people were starting to leave and the spectacle, well-dressed girls of high local society, were also leaving the place. The nightclub of the hotel was quite empty and boring, and sleepiness led us back to our poor accommodation.
The next day Hamit comes back with a car owner. Since we do not have 15 days and needed funds to travel to the far north at the Sahara, the Tibesti Mountains and the Ennedi Plateau, our goal is Lake Chad, on a three-day trip. Regardless the area’s risk due to Boko Haram’s attacks, we want to see this particular spot of the planet. Before that, we wish to head southeast to Durbali, to meet the Mbororo tribe, hoping they will be different from those in Cameroon. The price of the car is too high. Fuels are only included in the price until Durbali. This is a new Toyota Highlux which is a huge upgrade compared to Cameroon’s means of transport. We are trying for a long time to reduce the price but without success. We earn some discount if the vehicle does not suffer any damage on the route and does not fall into the hands of Boko Haram. After the lengthy negotiations we start immediately for Durbali, which is 100km away. Hamit and the driver stop to eat. Since no other lunch seems possible for this day, we buy meat, roasted at the side of the road on a wavy sheet metal. We chose the best piece that costed 3,000 CFAs and we tried hard to consume some, as it was full of fat and had bad taste. On the street, were kid-beggars with metallic plates. We witnessed that everywhere in the country, hanging around asking for food. I have traveled a lot in Africa and other developing countries, but what happened there deeply marked me. There was enough meat and we wanted to give it to those children. One of the first things to learn having a basic travel experience, is not to distribute things (pens, candies) uncontrollably to street children because of violent conflict between them. But at that moment there was no other way. As soon as we showed the dish everything was turned over, the pieces of meat fell down to the ground, and children grabbed them in the blink of an eye and ate them. Most of the African continent is in poverty, mortality rates are high due to exclusion from public health, but hunger almost does not exist. But here, not in an isolated or warring region, in the year 2019 there are children who are in hunger! Right next to us, who can satisfy this basic human need, with the meat of the sheet metal or even the Hilton buffet.
How to continue my story after that? How important is it that we went to the villages of Mbororo? We found extreme poverty there as well. Lack of basic commodity, water. A small pod is infected by human use of laundry and is unsuitable even for animals. Women and children wash carpets and clothes in the shallow pond. Hamit tells us that a rich water bed is just 10 meters below. But a drilling can cost up to $ 2000, at this place of the planet that’s so far from the sea, so equipment are scarce and expensive. In the area you find camel and cattle flocks fed with sparse vegetation. In the settlements, the members of the tribe welcomed us, most of them old men. One of them complained about his limited vision, apparently because of an unhealed cataract. We plan to visit the area again one of the following days, hoping to attend a traditional festival. Returning to N’Djamena, we visit the small village of Gaoui, which is a pottery center. Young children are working, carrying mud for the preparation of clay and they all welcome us with smile and cordiality.
The next day we leave for Lake Chad. But first we need to pass time-consuming bureaucratic procedures for issuing a special permit for this area, which is considered dangerous. Ministries are located in downtown, the small area of the city with the luxury, guarded villas and modern business mansions. The experience of the country’s public services is unbelievable. Large halls with one or two offices but with employees absent. As is typically the case with bureaucratic systems that respect themselves, whenever you are addressing an employee, he sends you to someone else, even to another building and another area of the city. In addition, we need to find a private office to type a document that mentions the places we’ll visit and the contract with the vehicle owner, also a time-consuming process, since everything must be accurately reported. As long as we wait for the official to sign and stamp the document, we visit the central square with the huge arch – the landmark of the city. Those days a cultural event were hosted with representatives from all the provinces of the country, where each presented their cultural customs. Entrance hours were at afternoon, so the ticket fee ended up in the pocket of chief of the heavy armored guards. The experience was excellent, since we came in contact with many different people who welcomed us warmly and got a taste of the culture from the most remote parts of the country.
We returned to the employee who had been authorized to validate the permit document and we enlightened our pockets from a 12,000 CFA weight (€ 18). Hamid provided us with valuable help and the gratitude we feel for this person is great. But he is very formal with the rules of the country, whether legal or not, and is not a strong negotiator. The paper we paid for, would be useful in a following case, but no one would ask for it on the way to the lake. Although it is the most dangerous area in the country and the bloodiest by Boko Haram’s attacks, the army is totally absent, to a point of wondering whether there’s any purpose, tolerance or even support for terrorism by governments. After many hours we start our journey without Hamid, obeying his father’s advice not to follow. Happily, we got a delicious pizza from a Lebanese restaurant. The road to the north is paved, but as everywhere it is full of deep holes that test the durability of vehicles and passengers. Thus, a unique practice takes place. Instead of driving on the road, the drivers follow many sideways on dirt or sandy soil, sloping between trees and other obstacles. So the journey time increases, just like dust, but luckily our vehicle is good for this kind of road. Construction works were carried out from the point where the tarred stopped completely. The surrounding environment is deserted, with sparse vegetation and gradually the sand prevails. Small brick settlements interrupt the monotony of the landscape. At some point the driver stops at a side restaurant with camel meat. Among other vehicles, a truck was loaded with calves and a small bus had made a stop. We gave a few candies to the children, and I noticed for some unknown reason a young passenger looking at me angrily and maybe insulting. A little later I notice at some distance, that he was holding a metal bar and was moving threateningly towards us. I forgo the camera that hangs on me and I alert my travel buddy to prepare for a fight. Someone eventually stopped the offender and surprisingly the news were quickly spread. A lot of people, except our driver, came out of the restaurant interested to know what happened. We tried to explain to them in English that it was probably a crazy person.
Eventually we will reach Bol, the biggest lakeside settlement, late in the evening. The driver tells us that there is no kind of accommodation around. indeed, apart from small houses and some fenced and guarded facilities of various N.G.Os, as well as a fuel station, we did not see anything else. At the fuel station, however, they inform us that a hotel exists. We take them there to find it and… to our surprise, in the middle of nowhere there is a large, modern building, with about 70 rooms. The exterior looks new but abandoned. The interior as well. The hotel is new, with a large reception and conference room, interior patio area and newly designed rooms with comfortable beds, soft duvets, air conditioners. It shows that it has never been inhabited. It doesn’t have electricity and water and everything is covered by a thick layer of dust. These conditions turns the accommodation into a difficult place to stay. The price that the key owners are asking for, is unthinkable for a room without electricity and water. Since we can’t negotiate well in French using the mobile translator, we call Hamit to tell them the price we want. We agree and try to shake and remove as much dust possible, quenching the sleeping bags and enjoying the night in the ghost hotel, with only annoyance of the rats living in the air conditioner. We wonder what business expectations had led to this investment.
The next day, we walk around the village with the wide, sandy main road. Children with school uniforms go to school. We are looking for the Sultan’s home. Indeed, the area of the lake is still run by traditional local monarchs, and the Sultan of Bol is the top amongst them. In a simple, enclosed courtyard of a common home, we get offered seating. A barber shaves a gentleman who at first sight didn’t make his status obvious. The freshly shaved Sultan, in fluent English, a sign of education, welcomes us. We express our honor to our acquaintance and inform him of our intention to visit the lake islands with a motor boat. He tells us that we should get a license from the local governor, paying the corresponding cost. We explain to him that we have the ministry permission, but he insists that a local permit is also necessary. The case is smelling for another attempt of money exploitation. At some point, the boatman appears, kneeling in front of the Sultan. The lord informs us of the price and we think he has made a mistake of many zeros. It calls for 250,000 CFAs, almost € 400 for a daily ride. We inform him that the amount is huge and far beyond our capabilities, that we come from a poor country in Europe and we are not rich. His treatment was at least ironic and disdaining. Among other things he told us: “Since you are poor, why did you come here?”. Since we didn’t see a motor boat on the lake shore to try our own negotiation, we informed him that we would visit the nearby islands by traditional canoe. This did not require a license as he told us, realizing he won’t benefit from us. With his majesty, the Sultan of Bol
We leave in disappointment and frustration. The traditional canoe ride was enjoyable, and the shallow lake with the small islands offered a distinct picture of Africa. On the islands there were small settlements, similar to each other, with wooden branch fences and brick houses. The residents were all smiling, the girls slightly shy, the visitors are probably not frequent there. Cattle herds were grazing in the area and their shepherds moved them even through the water.
We drive to another village, Medi-Kouta, despite the driver’s reluctance, claiming that the deal was up to Bol. Generally, the intense attempts to exploits us and the continuous negotiations of obvious and agreed deals, has tired us on this trip, from Cameroon to here. On the banks of Medi-Kouta we meet families who, as in other places, were washing clothes and utensils in the water. In the midst of absolute poverty, with the flies standing undisturbed on the face, even in the eyes of children, we were given smiles of joy, happiness in the simple, troubled life. We are once again -like the adventures in Cameroon- in an isolated area, near dangerous border lines. The driver refuses to take us to Baga-Sola, who had 41 dead in the last attack of Boko Haram, claiming that it has deep sand even for our capable vehicle.
We return to Bol where we visit the Marche, the bustling local market surrounded by a perimeter construction. We were encountered with friendliness and curiosity, someone gifts me a candy that I offer to a child. Few people react negatively with the camera. The driver does not forget the time of his lunch break, but we, although we were in hunger, prefer to be lost in the the village life. The lake shore has laundry and bathing activities, by young men this time. We decide that we have pretty much collected enough experiences and images from the area and maybe didn’t make sense to stay another day.
We informed the driver we wished to return and use the prepaid day on another route, possibly in Dourbali. He was dissatisfied, we were trying to translate on the cell phone, he wasn’t able to read and finally we went to the Sultan who acted as our translator. The driver had understood exactly, but he didn’t want to offer us the change we asked for. On our way back, he stopped at 6pm in a small town called Massakory. He decided to quit driving and sleep there, ignoring that there was no accommodation and that it was potentially dangerous for two white guys to spend the night there. We called Hamit again by engaging him in our problem in an attempt to find a solution. We decide to find another means of transport. As already mentioned in the story of our trip in these two countries, a small public car fills up with 7-8 people to leave. We waited for three whole hours there waiting, hungry as the nearby grills did not have anything ready at that moment. At some point we found a truck and fortunately two seats inside and not at the carriage where our luggage were squeezed among loads. Before we started, our driver changed his mind and suggested that he go, something we refused and promised to report to the police. The speed of the truck was unbearable and we finally reached the city’s outskirts at 1am, from where we had to board a taxi to the city and the hotel, hungry for three days but finally with hot water and a comfortable bed. In addition, a flu was troubling both of us with a tedious sniffle and light fever, a result of the exhaustion of so many days. Next morning we decide to spend our last money on a luxury premise so we can recover before the flight back, for the first time on my trips we’ll stay at the Hilton of N’Djamena with an online offer. In a chaotic contrast to all the days before we will enjoy a cool swimming pool. On one hand, relaxation rest does not characterize our travels and on the other hand we had to go to the police station together with Hamit to report our abandonment by the driver in the middle of nowhere and claim the rest of money back. The commander was friendly, he told us that they paid special attention to the tourists and suggested that we leave assured about the solution. The poor Hamit stayed there trying to communicate with a driver and vehicle owner by calling them to the police station. He suggested that we go to the Greek restaurant that was close enough, to satisfy our starvation. Indeed, we devoured two large skewers with chicken and pickles, which ended like stones in our stomach. The boss was missing in Greece, but at one point P. introduced to us with whom we’ll spend lot of time in the last few days. Hamit calls us from the department and reports that the driver appeared and got into jail. We invite him to have lunch with us, but until the order comes he is forced to return to the office for further deals. He sends good news, we’ll get the money of one day back but not the fuel we had filled neither thetruck-taxi cost. I get to the police to end the case. The chief and the car owner are smiling. The chief tells me that a percentage of money, the small amount of 20,000 CFA as he said is “lost” in the process. I’m furious and I try not to accept another bribe, but the facts are against me. He gives me three choices. Either to accept the money, or to accept one more tour with the unreliable owner and driver, or to forward the case to court. So I had to choose the money. In the evening we will meet with P. and introduced to the nightlife of the city. A very nice bar with live music and white people from the many NGOs in the country. We will also visit a night club, almost empty on that day. In addition, flu and discomfort put me down and the well-paid Hilton room was getting unused. The last day in the country we went on another tour to Durbali where we hoped to attend a local celebration. Finally, to our great disappointment, our hope did not apply. But we came in contact with many Mbororo people, mostly women with tattooed faces, colorful clothes and authentic lifestyle unaffected by civilisation.
Back in N’djamena, just before the late night return flight, we’ll have a drink in the city’s most popular club, with the lasers illuminating the gorgeous, well-shaped but… sadly “working” girls, as unfortunately happens extensively in big African cities.
Reviewing the trip in Chad and despite the continuing hassle, difficulties and unexpectancies that followed us from the beginning, since we landed in Cameroon, I have earned unique experiences and pictures full of feelings from the magic of a rough, unexplored world.