Africa, Cameroon, Chad, Humor, Nonfiction, Peace Corps, USAID
As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Chad working on a USAID funded project, I’d spent a good bit of time in the USAID office in N’Djamena. Also we mixed a lot socially. One of the senior USAID guys and maybe the best of the breed, Ed Costello, had been to my house for pig roasts, and I had been to his house to watch recordings of football games. So my interview with him near the end of my three years of service went smoothly. At the end he said that they probably had something for me lined up. He smiled, “But George, don’t go out and buy a cadillac yet.” So as soon as I was a free man again, I was hired on a short term personal services contract to figure out where the money they’d spent on a big multi-donor agriculture project had actually gone. Apparently they didn’t have a clue, or at least they pretended not to have one. I suspected that it was a bureaucratic hot potato thing. That project was a complicated mess and way too far gone to rectify. The folks back in Foggy Bottom must have demanded accountability or closure or something, and nobody wanted to have their names attached to that final ugly post-mortem report.
Since the project was potentially career tarnishing, the responsibility for supervising it had drifted down to the least common denominator, Stephen (don’t remember his real name). Stephen was the youngest and least experienced USAID direct hire employee in Chad. Let’s define that further to just one of the least experienced human beings anywhere period. He had spent some years as a monk in India (I think). I believe he even mentioned having taken a vow of silence for awhile. He was a likeable guy, academically smart, who exuded pleasantness and calmness and blissful ignorance about all things Chadian. Unfortunately he had become infamous in Foreign Service circles when he’d had some special honey shipped to him through the diplomatic pouch. A jar had broken, and from one stop to another the package had leaked the sticky stuff. Apparently the pouch had made several stops along the way to Chad, each one generating an angry cable. The ambassador was not amused. The point here is that sending Stephen up to the project site in remote Bol would have just been cruel. So they hired me, a rough and tumble well driller with language skills who knew his way around up there.
I spent a few weeks in the USAID office going over all the project files and learning to navigate my way through that bureaucratic sea. If that sounds like an exorbitant amount of time, then you have no idea how much paper a USAID project can generate in four years or so. USAID might be the preeminent bureaucracy in the entire US Government. If not it’s a contender. Until Jack Anderson wrote about it, they had an actual official job title: The Administrative Assistant to The Assistant Administrator for Administration, United States Agency for International Development. I mean when an agency’s “handbook” surpasses twenty-five volumes, that pretty much tells the story. We wells vols used to goof on USAID. When we wrote the subsequently approved two million dollar extension to our current project, we stated in it that once approved the first thing we needed to do was to go out and take a PISS (a pre-installation site survey).
A word about the Ag project. The polders are finger-shaped valleys at the edges of Lake Chad. Lake Chad has no observable outlets but it remains fresh water. It floods in the winter months when the accumulated water from earlier rains much farther south finally reach it via the Chari River. The river pours fresh water into the lake, and the higher salt content stagnent water is pushed to the fringes, flooding the polders. When the lake recedes again, shallow pools are left in the polders to evaporate during the dry season. There are also other ways the lake sheds salt, like natron formation and harvesting, that are not relevant here. Since the water table in the polders is near the surface, pumping up fresh water and flooding them to desalinate them if needed is not a big deal. Then build a little earthen damn across the usually narrow entrance to keep the lake from flooding it again, and you have a very fertile easily irrigated little valley. Traditionally when irrigation in Chad’s hot dry climate built the salt content of the soil back up, the locals would break down the damn and flood the polders again. The polders have been used for local agriculture for thousands of years, however up to that point never on a grand mechanized scale.
When that huge multi-donor project was conceived, in most years for a few months the open water reached Bol during the fall and winter, and then barges could navigate the lake and river between N’Djamena and Bol. So the idea was to grow wheat on a large scale and send it by barge down to N’Djamena to be processed and turned into delicious baguettes. Seemed like a great idea. Then the great Sahelian drought of the early to mid seventies hit just as the project was getting underway. The open water no longer came within miles of Bol, and never has since, even in wetter years. Lake Chad shrank. And tropical vegetation soon filled the void. Given the significant infrastructure investment and the lure of the fertile polders, they looked for solutions. For years at great effort and expense they kept a channel open through miles of vegetation, but the barge thing never panned out. So they decided to grow vegetables in the polders and ship them by truck over sand pistes (just tracks in the sand) and rough roads. Vegetables sold to expats at the project store in N’Djamena generated cash. Useful stuff cash.
In the beginning of Thor Heyerdahl’s Ra Expedition, he writes of his trip from N’Djamena to Bol to study the papyrus boats on Lake Chad as a great harrowing adventure, fraught with danger. I found his hyperbole amusing. At one point I almost fell out of my seat laughing as he described his acute anxiety at being surrounded by “swarthy bedouins.” He was talking about Kanembous. In N’Djamena the street vendors carrying bright colored towels and scarfs on their heads who insistently tried to sell you cigarettes and heart-shaped sunglasses were Kanembous. Also Kanembou ladies were renowned for friendliness. En brousse I found them to be generous, hospitable, and quick to laugh, but stubborn at times. Once a bunch of young Kanembou men piled into the bed of my pickup and refused to budge until I drove them to a not too distant village for a wedding. A fellow wells vol compared them to the Hekawi Indian tribe in the TV show F-Troop. Honestly I never for one moment felt threatened by Kanembous, annoyed at times, but never threatened. I’m sure they found me annoying at times too. Anyway a trip to Bol was just a day at the office for me, albeit a long dirty one. I must have made that trip thirty/forty times. Still and all, it was difficult enough that I knew it couldn’t make economic sense to ship perishable vegetables that way.
Other than some cement and construction materials which went into the project infrastructure in the early days, the USAID part of the project consisted of underwriting the costs of improving and maintaining roads in and around the polders. The Chadian governing agency, the World Bank and the UN were really the major players. So it was my job to find out if the USAID money had gone and was still going where it was supposed to go. USAID did ask me to try and find out exactly what their construction materials had been used for. However, short of any authority to access the files of the other project participants, that was a fool’s errand, water under the bridge, and I ignored it. Within two days up in Bol I had confirmed what I’d suspected from the files, that the USAID polder road maintenance funds were financing nearly all of the operating costs of transporting vegetables to N’Djamena by truck, including fuel, vehicle repairs, even driver salaries. I stayed up in Bol for two weeks anyway. I had friends up there, fresh vegetables aplenty, and as long as you had shelter from the mosquito swarms coming off the lake at night, Bol wasn’t a bad place. I was in no hurry, earning some real money was nice.
One of my friends, Mike Bouchard, was a PCV mechanic in Bol working on the ag project, and whatever else they asked him to do. He was the youngest vol in Chad, and very unusual for Peace Corps didn’t have a college degree. Apparently he had been in college and had been questioning if it was really the thing for him at that time, sitting around in a dorm with some buddies (maybe drinking, maybe stoned, I don’t remember him telling me that part), when they saw a Peace Corps recruiting ad on TV that enigmatically asked if the glass they were showing was half full or half empty, call this number to find out. He called. The recruiter never answered the question, but she did ask Mike if he had any skills. Mike figured that electric guitar probably didn’t count, so he answered with his other main skill. “Well, I’m a diesel mechanic.” There was a pause. “Hold on, let me get your information.”
Once during what passed for the rainy season up there, when Mike had been in Bol over a year, I stopped the landrover on top of a dune, and we looked out over an expanse of small dunes sparsely covered in light green cram cram grass. Cram cram is a burr grass, and where even cram cram no longer grows is considered by some botanists as the demarcation of the true desert. If we gazed at the most distant dunes, they appeared to be totally covered in a light green fuzz, but closer you could clearly see the sand beneath. Mike turned to me: “It kind of reminds me of the Shenandoah Valley.” After I took that in, I replied, “You know Mike, perhaps you should consider going home for a visit.”
Mike worked with David Girven, one of the true Chad legends. David had been a Chad vol back in the early days when Peace Corps did fun things, like teach new vols the wrong language and dump them without a structured job in isolated villages. Psychovacs were not uncommon in those days. David had stayed on in Chad working for the Chadian Government agency running the ag project as a mechanic. He fixed everything that needed fixing, and invented things like a plowing shield to put on the bow of the boat that cleared the papyrus blocking the channel to open water. He had a Chadian family, lived in a humble mud brick compound, and was bigger than life, a Chadian Jeremiah Johnson, liked and respected by Chadians all over that region. He was a humble, compassionate, and generous man.
Since a good portion of Bol used our wells, we vols were up there fairly frequently. Many a night we’d camped out in David’s compound, huddled under our mosquito nets. You didn’t walk around much in Bol at night. The massed whining of mosquitos coming in off the lake at sunset compared to a big jet preparing for takeoff. One night David stood outside the nets and held out his bare arm until no skin was visible, just mosquitos. David was not loquacious by nature, but it was a real treat when we could coax one of the old stories out of him.
So after a couple of weeks I went back to N’Djamena, spent another couple weeks in the USAID office slugging through the bureaucracy, and then turned in my final report. I was still being paid to hang around while people digested my report, in case they had any questions. The initial reactions had been favorable, and I had hopes USAID would find something else for me to do. At that moment all hell broke loose in N’Djamena. It was a civil war, fighting in the streets, a total breakdown in order. Leaving the war stories to be told separately, after several days when the fighting had diminished enough to risk it, I made my way out to the airport. All non-essential personnel were being evacuated to Yaounde, Cameroon, and from there to the states. Baggage was limited to two suitcases per person. Apparently some of the “essential” personnel decided that my language and practical skills could come in handy, so I was asked to stay on and help with logistics, first and foremost the loose packing of abandoned homes. I accepted. Continue reading