Arriving in Chad was a shock that I enjoyed experiencing and subsequently observing in others. Chad defied anticipation. One night shortly after my arrival, my nascent French being close to useless in a common Chadian bar, I asked an older vol how to order beer in Chadian Arabic. He called the bar maid over and with a smile said: “Jiba lena Gala hamsa.” (Bring us five beers.) I figured the joke out, but used the entire phrase anyway the first time I walked into a bar by myself. Normally I am not superstitious, but for some reason I felt ordering the five beers would be auspicious. I made some friends that night.
At one point Peace Corps Chad’s doctor was a brand new, wet behind the ears, young for a doctor fellow stationed in Yaounde, Cameroon. He covered several countries, and on his first trip up to Chad he gave us an extensive lecture on the importance of boiling drinking water. In case worse came to worse and we had to drink bad water, he made sure we knew how to dissolve an iodine tablet in a gallon of water. We were all old hands by that time and had difficulty hiding our amusement. On his next trip up one of the wells vols interrupted him. “Doc, I just want to thank you. The other day I drank some of the dirtiest water you ever saw, but just like you said I swallowed a couple of those iodine pills and I feel great.”
Once I took our Chadian workers out with me to the airport to greet the new wells vols. I told them that “water, chicken, shoehorn,” was a traditional American greeting. I failed to convince them. They had spent years drilling wells with vols and were familiar enough with the words “water” and especially “chicken” to be suspicious. “Shoehorn” by itself might have worked. Mark and Doug were two of the new vols. After they completed their on the job incountry training, they moved into the house formerly occupied by another vol, Dague. Dague had given the old guardian (watchman) a radio. The old fellow would sit on his straw mat and listen to the radio all day, only turning it off for his five times a day prayers. That had earned him the nickname of Mr. Radio. Mr. Radio only spoke Chadian Arabic, and Doug and Mark were still learning French. Therefore communication between them was challenging. One day the new vols were feeling especially homesick for some American food. Mark had brought a large can of peaches in heavy syrup with him from the U.S., and they dug into it with gusto. It was a hot day, and they couldn’t quite finish the can. There was one peach left. They decided to give it to Mr. Radio. Mr. Radio had taken his shirt off and was readying to wash himself in preparation for prayers. They showed him the can with the peach in it. He looked at them blankly. “Yum, yum, yum,” Mark chanted. Still no reaction from Mr. Radio. Doug tried his hand at communication. He thrust the can toward the old man, while rubbing his stomach with the other hand and chanting, “Yum, yum, yum.” Mr. Radio looked toward the heavens beseeching Allah for guidance. Then he reached inside the can, grabbed the dripping peach, and mashed it into his stomach.
My first two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Chad we had no single female vols, hadn’t been any in years due to some ugly incident in the past. So they caused a stir when they started coming back in. Barbara was an interesting young lady with a fun personality (dam hafif – light blood, as the Chadians would put it). Attractive in a tomboyish way, the daughter of missionaries, virginal but not naive, she was fluent and literate in Classical Arabic, not the creole Chadian Arabic most of us spoke. She just seemed a cut above the average. All the new female volunteers were English teachers. Of course I was one of the hard-drinking, cowboyish water well drillers. Although none of the male vols ever got very far sexually with her, she seemed to like my company. It might have been wishful thinking but I thought there was a little Bogart/Hepburn chemistry thing going on.
New Year’s Eve party. Barbara was on the far side of the room, bent over, back to me, stone sober, playing chess with another vol, oblivious to the chaos behind her. I sat on the floor, back against a pillar, having lost the ability to stand for long periods of time. The Peace Corps Director, Bill, was feeling no pain, standing with a lampshade on his head singing Elvis Presley songs. Things were looser in those days, including Bill’s two front false teeth. From my vantage with Bill between me and the light, I watched as an especially enthusiastic version of Heartbreak Hotel ejected Bill’s teeth and caused them to arc upward and finally drop unnoticed by any but me down the gap in Barbara’s pants. An immediate search began. I tried to be helpful, but all I could say was “teeth.” Somebody patted me on the head. ”Yes, George, we’re looking for Bill’s teeth.” I staggered to my feet and looked at Barbara, still oblivious. It then occurred to me that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I meandered across the room and plunged my hand down Barbara’s pants. She screamed and whipped around, beet red, chess pieces flying, and yelled, “What!!!”. Sensing the urgency of my situation, I managed to double my vocabulary. “Teeth pants!” “What!!!” “Teeth pants!” “What?!” At that point someone intervened, “I think he’s saying that Bill’s teeth are in your pants.” To this day I thank whatever gods may be that when she reached back she found them.
Shortly after that party civil war broke out in Chad and all volunteers were evacuated. Eight years later I landed in Khartoum on a job for a private voluntary organization, only to find that the US had bombed Libya the night before and there was anti-American rioting in the streets of Khartoum. One American had been shot. I was restricted to my hotel until the embassy could arrange an evacuation of non-essential personnel. The next day in the hotel I chatted with a missionary who turned out to be working with Barbara at a mission outside of town. He wasn’t under the control of the embassy and was heading back to the mission. I asked him to say hi to Barbara for me. The next day Barbara showed up on a mobylette, a risky thing to do, and we had lunch together. It was nice to see her again.
Agma Prins said:
Such a vivid story, George. I enjoyed it!
Manuela Huso said:
Although I worked for an NGO in Abeche from 1984-86 I was a PCV in Upper Volta then Burkina Faso from 1978-80. I think some of you that were evacuated from Chad came to BF. Your story brought me back so completely it was like yesterday. I was in tears laughing at the teeth scene. Thank you! I’ll share the link with all my PC buddies.
George Branson said:
Wow! Thanks for the kind words. If you haven’t read Accident Prone, I think you would get a kick out of that one.
Chris Reznich said:
Enjoy your tales of Tchad. I was an ESL vol ’74-’76 in Bousso. A very different PC in those days!