Take your desert dunes and sunswept sands, and pour them through your empty hands. (L.E. Modesitt Jr.) Thanks to Greg Greenwood for photos. I’m standing in front in the broken down landrover photo, and me staring off into The Great Void.
For a male, at least this one, a well organized atelier (workshop/garage) is viscerally affirming. The pungent odor of used motor oil and hot metal grinding is a working man’s incense; the merged bangs, thumps, hums, and metallic screeches a machinal susurrus; and an arc welder’s actinic flare, a piercing purifying light. We had such a place in Chad. Painted plywood draped walls, whereon every individual wrench and hand tool sheltered within its exact painted outline, a one finger salute to increasing entropy.
Outside land rover and land cruiser pickups escorted the battle ships of our fleet, two large school bus yellow Mercedes trucks, initially one with a mounted drilling rig and the other with a wood box built on it to allow transportation and prepositioning of fuel and materials near the villages where we intended to drill wells. Later both trucks would have mounted rigs. Hanging from the sides of the trucks were long strips of Marston matting. We simply called it tôle, French for plate metal. The strips were twelve feet long by one and a half feet sheets of perforated metal with hooks and slots along the sides, allowing the strips to be firmly attached one to the other. Perforations minimized weight and increased flexibility. Marston matting was invented early in World War II to enable the construction of temporary landing strips and roads, permitting planes, trucks and heavy equipment to function in the sands of the Pacific islands. When the big trucks bogged down climbing a dune we would lay it under the wheels. Those metal strips made ugly adornments to hang on our diva trucks, nevertheless to me they represented a triumph of human ingenuity — a perfect tool for a specific purpose.
The visible Tysen pump assembly on our wells was composed entirely of locally available materials, high density West African redwood (now critically endangered — oops!), plate metal, galvanized pipe, pump rod, nuts and bolts. We built them in our atelier, welding, grinding, cutting, threading, drilling. We soaked the redwood in used motor oil for at least a month to keep it from cracking in Chad’s dry heat. In later years I worked with hand pumps manufactured in Europe and the states. None of them held up as well, and all of them cost more per unit. More importantly that simple pump assembly was easily repaired with local materials. Notwithstanding the appropriate technology above ground appearance, down deep the wells were state of the art. A meter and a half to two meter cylindrical stainless steel drive point screen at the bottom, a gleaming silver spear, allowed water to enter but prevented sand. Above it a beveled brass cylinder housed the seated brass foot valve and the moving piston valve above, both one way ball valves. When immersed the chemically hardened leathers on the valves swelled and sealed tight against the machined smooth brass of the cylinder, allowing the moving piston valve to lift a column of water upward with minimum wear on the leathers, water that with every stroke of the handle ascended the two inch galvanized pipe casing above to the spout. The key inner parts were all imported from the states and expensive. Some things can’t be compromised.
Joe Mitchell & friends checking out new well
Those wells were the product of seven or eight years of trial and error by Peace Corps Volunteers in Chad manually auguring with limited resources. They required maintenance, leathers and wooden pump handles in particular had to be replaced from time to time. Anything with moving parts requires maintenance. Nevertheless, glossy brochures aside, exceedingly few hand pumps could withstand for long two to three hundred people, sometimes more, getting all their water from them everyday, as the Tysen pump design had proven capable of year after year.
Going en brousse (in the bush sounds way too upper class British) for a four to six week installation tournée required significant preparation. In those days land rovers and land cruisers were solid and heavy, mostly made of steel, which permitted us to build and weld on them sturdy overhead carryalls, which we would pack with jerry cans of fuel and enough water to last until we had the first well operational in a village, trunks of food, bags of local charcoal, tools, cots, sleeping bags, etc. The large heavy stuff like galvanized pipe, fuel barrels, and cement we’d prepositioned in makeshift storage huts, although local officials tapping the fuel barrels was a constant concern. Of course those overhead carryalls made the pickups top heavy, but in general the roads in Chad didn’t favor speed or fast turns, and when fully loaded we were usually plowing through sand in lower gears anyway. Flipping over wasn’t a problem as long as you didn’t get sideways on a dune, and we didn’t, always going straight up and over. If you didn’t make it on your first try, you would back straight down in your own tracks, and then use those tracks for traction on your next try.
Me in front
A typical installation tournée would include a Mercedes truck with mounted drilling rig, one or two pickups, maybe three vols, three Chadian workers, and a cook, something along those lines. You either put in a hard day working in the heat or you slaughtered and cooked chickens and goats, not both, hence the cook, and of course clothes had to be hand washed. Generally vols drove the vehicles. I remember driving a Mercedes truck with one of our workers, Djimtojingar Nadjitam, sitting in the passenger seat. It had the standard three rearview mirrors, although the middle one wasn’t much use with a drilling rig mounted on the back. I noticed that the passenger side mirror was badly out of kilter and asked Jim to adjust it for me. He shook his head and pointed, “You Americans. You have two mirrors there and there. This one is mine.”
If I were to tell somebody that I’d drilled oil exploration wells out in the Sahara, it would make a macho impression on them, not so much for someone who drilled water wells for the Peace Corps. Yet the opposite is true. We lived and worked out in the desert heat for 4-6 weeks at a clip, never even getting a cool drink of water, eating chicken or goat cooked in tomato sauce and served over rice, couscous, or pasta everyday. Sometimes we couldn’t even get chicken. I once ate goat meat for thirty straight days. The worst part was that unless we were in the Bol area where they grew vegetables in the polders, that tomato sauce was our only vegetable. Given the inevitable heat dehydration, bumpy nonexistent roads, and the lack of vegetables, our digestive systems turned into cement mixers. Once during the hot season I monitored my water consumption for a day. I drank 11.5 litres of warm water and didn’t urinate until three in the morning when things had cooled down some. Constipation was a serious problem. Canned imported veggies, even lowly green beans, were way too costly for vols.
Our project was well funded by USAID, so we requested that the project fund enough canned green beans so that en brousse we and our counterparts (Chadian workers) could eat them for three meals a week. USAID had no problem with that, however Peace Corps balked until Dr. Carey Engelberg, the PC doc, framed it as a health issue, which it was. Also, I doubt Peace Corps was aware of it, but he quietly issued us a syringe of morphine when we went en brousse, which we checked back in on returning. We worked with heavy equipment in the middle of nowhere, and he was afraid that the pain of a crushed leg bumping along on sand pistes (tracks) would result in shock and death. I asked him how to administer it. He said not to worry about the niceties, just jab it in the fat part of the thigh. We never had to use it. He was a good guy.
Sometimes we would stop off at an oil exploration camp on our way back to N’Djamena. They worked four weeks and then had some R&R off at a beach resort somewhere. They ate well-prepared imported food, and slept in air conditioned trailers. And they thought that we were completely nuts. The only reason we stopped off there was their ice cream machine. In fact USAID hired an old well driller, Lester Maupin, to work with us as a consultant on the design of a large follow-on project. He was in his early sixties, wiry, and seemed healthy; although at night in N’Djamena he was a hard drinker, about what you would expect from an old well driller. He went en brousse with us for several weeks, unfortunately during the hot season. Back in N’Djamena, the day after we returned and one day before he caught his flight out, in my old battered French colonial house dubbed White Trash Acres in honor of my southern heritage by my fellow PCVs, with a high ceiling and an overhead fan, the temperature in my living room registered 108. God knows what it had been up in the sand. The next day Lester went into a coma on his plane and died. We should have realized how tough that trip had been on him, even though he seemed fine, but one can only surmise that the stress and dehydration of the trip en brousse combined with some heavy whiskey drinking upon his return to N’Djamena may have been too much. We were young and as cured and dried as beef jerky.
The first leg of a typical trip north was on a pothole riddled paved road that ended at Massaguet. The next leg was a badly rutted mostly clay road that ended in Massakori. That is where the sand started, and where we stopped to let air out of the tires. The wider the tire surface, the better the traction. On the way back we used quality German-made foot pumps to reverse the situation. At times it seemed to me that nearly every town and village we spent time in had one character who defined it, someone who colorfasted my memories of the place. In Massakori an old bearded blind man with a wood staff would stand theatrically in the road in the center of the town, one hand on a child’s shoulder, white cataract filled eyes gleaming, dramatically thrusting his staff out from time to time like Moses parting the Red Sea. Instead of shouting the standard “Allah kareem!” (God is generous), meaning God has blessed you so how about return the favor, he would shout “Ar-a-bee-a kareem!” (generous truck). Given his life perhaps he’d had better luck with trucks.
From Massakori a mixed clay and sand road headed northeast to Moussero, then wound its way to the far north. The road followed the Bahr el Ghazal (Gazelle River). The Bahr el Ghazal is a long dry mixed clay and sand river bed, part of an extensive water system that once existed in the heart of the Sahara, the only remnants of which remaining above ground were ever shrinking Lake Chad and an oasis here and there. That road was navigable with difficulty by transport trucks. However our main area of interest lay to the northwest and north of Massakori, and that meant traveling on pistes (vehicle tracks in the sand) often up and over dunes. Double clutching a land rover over a dune was an acquired skill. Double clutching is when you shift into neutral, take your foot off the clutch and hit the gas pedal to rev the engine the appropriate amount to sync with the next gear, then push the clutch in and shift. That allowed you to downshift at high RPMs without sacrificing momentum, and thus power your way over the top of a dune. It is still used on big rigs with their many gears to save transmission wear and tear, and by race car drivers to slow without braking and maintain better control in turns. Our older vehicles required it, newer ones with synchronized transmissions less so, but it still put less strain on the transmissions, and was just plain fun to do once you became skilled at it. Hearing the motor scream at high RPMs and feeling the entire vehicle shake in first gear as you barely made it over a dune approached macho nirvana. Of course driving through sand in low gears at high RPMs was murder on the engines. It wasn’t unusual to have to rebuild an engine after thirty to forty thousand miles.
in the above photo, we’d broken down between Bol and Liwa. A bolt holding the gearbox to the clutch housing loosened and all the gearbox oil drained out, causing the gearbox to seize up. We had only 1st gear (H and L range too) but no reverse so there was no option to back down a dune if we couldn’t get over it. Greg Greenwood worked a miracle to fix it so we could drive at all. It was a harrowing drive back to BolThe consequence of screwing up, not getting the double clutching RPMs thing right, was all too frequently a broken axle, although it was a broken transmission in the above photo. Broken axles happened often enough that we took extras with us, but changing a land rover axle half way up a dune in 108 degree heat with no shade anywhere was not a fun experience. The first step in my usual approach to most breakdowns was to crawl under the vehicle, the only available shade, and take a nap. Cosmically, problems were easier to solve when the temperature dropped. In fact some breakdowns were heat related and would just go away, unfortunately not broken axles. One of the odd things was that no matter how isolated the place, a Kanembou (the principle tribe inhabiting the area around Lake Chad and one noted for producing street vendors) would inevitably show up, wearing heart-shaped sunglasses and persistently trying to sell us odd gaudy things, like well, more heart-shaped sunglasses. That seemed to be one of the immutable laws of the Chadian Sahel.
Once we reached our destination, say Ngouri, we would shake hands with the local authorities and be assigned a mud brick hut. We used the hut for storage. If the nights were cold sometimes our workers would take their cots inside, but generally we all slept on cots with mosquito nets under the stars. I liked sleeping inside the optional nets even when there were no bugs to speak of. I had read horror stories about nomads in the Sahara having their faces bitten off by hyenas. Now I never saw a hyena in Chad, never even heard one, and I didn’t know how much protection a net would be anyway, but I still slept better inside that net, some primeval id thing no doubt. Sleeping out in the desert forces you to think about time, space and stars. One older vol was fond of saying that one day in Chad they would discover immense deposits of time. The stars hung over you like ripe fruit there. I became proficient at naming stars and constellations. Near the equator Scorpio can be seen in its full glory. Few constellations really look like what they are supposed to be. Scorpio is an exception. However even Scorpio failed with our Chadian workers. They couldn’t get the connect the dots thing at all. They just saw little lights in the sky. Once I described UFOs and asked Jean NGartobytorde and Nana Nabel if they’d ever seen them. They said that they’d seen them from time to time, but always thought it was just the crazy Americans doing God knows what.
In the late afternoon and twilight the harsh colors of the day faded into beautiful soft earthy colors, and quiet descended gently from the heavens. I’m sure it wasn’t original to us, but we often said that we could hear the mystic humming of the desert. I actually think I could. Morning was a different matter entirely. I liked waking in a Chadian village. The Greek poets wrote about rosy fingered dawn tippy toeing up the sky. Dawn in a Chadian village was more like a train wreck. Roosters crowed, donkeys brayed, horses neighed, cattle bellowed, goats bleated, and camels made the awful sounds that camels make that I can’t begin to describe. That is what giving birth to a new day is supposed to sound like. The world should scream its arrival. To get going in the morning we drank chai, the favored local drink, green tea, though not exactly in the style Chadians drank it. They would put tea, water, and most of a huge cone of raw sugar in a teapot and boil it until it approached the consistency of light syrup. Then they would make a big ceremony out of pouring it from distance into narrow shot glasses. We didn’t boil it all the way to near syrup or use quite as much sugar, but we made up for that and then some by drinking mugs of it. It was strong stuff either way, and did the job. It’s funny, because we Americans think of green tea as being weaker than regular tea, but trust me, not if it is prepared that way. A Chadian defibrillator, you could feel it jump starting your body. Chadians dismissively called black tea woman’s tea.
One of the big advantages of drilling over digging is that we could install wells on top of the dunes in the middle of the villages. Digging wells in sand is best avoided, so the traditional source of water was usually an open well down in a clay wadi, where they often watered livestock as well. In addition to the obvious sanitary concerns, women would have to transport heavy containers of water up the dune, sometimes with the help of donkeys, often not, and sometimes the nearest wadi suitable for a well wasn’t all that near, and some of those dunes were pretty damn tall. The number of wells in any place depended on its size. If memory serves Ngouri was a two or three well town.
When we arrived in a village, we were often given a couple of chickens or a goat, which was fine, chicken or goat cooked in tomato sauce and served over rice, pasta, or couscous was our standard meal. Chadian male cooks never cooked Chadian food, only nasara (white people) food. Chadian food was a women’s only thing. On rare occasions the women in a village would prepare a meal for us. A typical Chadian meal consisted of a soft mound of some cooked starch, which could be made from millet, corn, sorghum, rice, or even beans, and a sauce. The starch had different names in different parts of the country, usually esh or boule in our region of operation, and most often made from millet (petit mille) or sorghum (mille rouge). We would tear off a hunk of esh with our right hand, form a little spoon like depression, and then dip it into the sauce. I liked a lot of the Chadian sauces, chicken in peanut sauce being a favorite, but a few of them, like the dried fish sauce near Lake Chad, were just terrible. Sauce longue had to be seen to be believed. I grew up on okra/gumbo. I love the stuff. However they had a variety that could have been used to make an industrial glue. They made a bright green sauce with it, aptly named sauce longue, that would stretch in streamers all the way from the sauce bowl to a mouth two or three feet away. I had to suppress the gag reflex with that one. One of the problems up there was that they couldn’t keep sand out of the food. The esh was made outside by women pounding huge wooden pestles into tree trunk size mortars. That sand eventually wore teeth down. The further up we went the more likely we were to be given camel’s milk, horrendous pungent stuff that even our Chadian workers (southerners all) wouldn’t drink. Since we hated to hurt people’s feelings, someone burying camel’s milk in the dead of night was not unheard of.
Back to Ngouri. So we would drive the Mercedes to the chosen site, start the rig motor, and begin spinning augurs into the ground, being careful to keep the hole perfectly vertical, which was far easier to do with a drilling rig than by hand auguring. That was crucial because if the well casing wasn’t perfectly vertical, the couplings on the pump rod would rub against the side and eventually wear through. Auguring is one of the simplest forms of drilling. It works on the Archimedes Screw Principle, which has been around, well since Archimedes. The drill bit had no problem with sand. Layers of clay above the water table slowed things down, but for the most part were not a big problem. Once the augurs hit the water table we needed to find sand, our porous aquifer, as a rule of thumb a minimum of three meters below the water table to anticipate fluctuations in the water level and provide a sanitary buffer, although on rare occasions a clay layer would force us to settle for less. Unsurprisingly sand wasn’t hard to find out there. When we hit water, we would spin wet sand up to coat the hole and hopefully keep it open all the way to the water table, below which the hole always collapsed. We would carefully drop the drive point screen, brass cylinder, and pipe casing down the hole to the collapsed sand at the water table. We used the rig tower and a hammer, a sliding weight attached to the casing, to drive the screen down through the wet sand to the necessary depth.
Mark Palumbo & Djime checking sand in developing well
Then we developed the well. First by pushing the water in and out of the screen with a large piston, which brought the nearby small grains of sand into the screen. Next we pumped the sandy water out, and repeated the process until there was no sand in the water we pumped out, signifying that the coarser grains of sand in the aquifer, too large to enter the screen, were now arranged tight to the screen so as to block the finer sand from entering and over time filling up the screen. Next we dropped down and seated the foot valve in the cylinder, then the piston attached to the pump rod, and assembled the pump with the exception of the handle. Finally we put molds around the well and poured cement, leaving the wet sacks on top to keep the cement from drying too fast. After three days we’d return to remove the mold and attach the handle. As a rule, except for that final stage that made the well operational, we accomplished everything in two or three days.
In Ngouri as elsewhere we were the biggest show in town. Often I felt an irresistible impulse to play to the crowd, hanging off the rig tower by one arm making monkey sounds, just silly stuff. There was a sense of freedom, almost euphoria, that came from being surrounded by people whose expectations of you were not yet fixed. Conrad wrote about the dark side of that. Fanta was a young woman, maybe twenty-five, who had clearly been touched by the gods. Her front teeth were missing, but she had perfect bare breasts without a hint of sag, very unusual for a woman that old in Chad. Obviously her mental condition had placed her off limits for marriage, motherhood, and presumably sex. Yet she was giggly and fun and everyone seemed to like her. She loved to steal one of our bright yellow or orange hard hats right off a head and run around wearing it. Fanta was Ngouri.
Going further north in the area of Rig Rig and Nokou, sometimes we installed wells in villages where it was likely that the children had never seen nasaras. Up there the devils in their childhood horror stories were often white demons with flowing blonde hair and blue eyes who lived at the bottom of lakes and rivers, exotic frightening places to them. I had blue eyes and long blonde hair, almost white blonde in the Chadian sun. I remember sitting in the passenger seat as the big Mercedes lumbered through the sand up a dune into a village. The children started shouting with excitement and running close behind the slow moving truck. That was dangerous and we tried to discourage it. I opened the passenger door, leaned out long hair flowing, and yelled, “Ana nakoulakou!” (I’m going to eat you up!). The kids stopped in shock, then noticed the adults in the village laughing, then they laughed too.
On occasion at night sitting out on mats, we would be surrounded by three or four men playing long loud horns. I did some research and I think they might have been waza horns, traditional to The Sudan and Chad. Anyway the music was repetitive with subtle changes, and very exotic. Problem was it was incredibly loud and like Lambchop’s Song That Never Ends, it went on and on my friend. If we gave them money, they kept playing to get some more. And they wouldn’t stop until we gave them some money. A classic Catch-22.
The further up and out we ventured, the more likely we were to get lost. Now let’s define lost. As long as we were on a piste, vehicle tracks in the sand, we never really considered ourselves lost. All roads/pistes lead somewhere, maybe not where we originally intended to go, but somewhere. True lost was when the piste had petered out a while back, and we didn’t have a clue exactly where we were. When that happened we would scour the area for any habitation, a lone hut would do, and pray that whoever lived there spoke at least a little Chadian Arabic. Then after an appropriate greeting, we would get out our detailed maps and compass and begin interrogating our new friend. Chadians living out there had an incredible, even uncanny, sense of direction. We’d name a town and ask him which direction it was in. Without hesitation he would point directly toward it as if his arm was a compass needle, and we would take a compass bearing. Next we’d ask whether the town was near or far, and then try to define it even further to very near or very far. We would keep repeating that with other towns/villages until we had a good fix on where we were and the direction we needed to go. However, there was one thing to be careful about. Sometimes with Chadians it would be the thumb jutting out at ninety degrees from the hand that would be the correct direction pointer and not the arm. It was important to clarify those parameters. The method of payment for those valuable services was usually some tea and sugar, preferred over money. Particularly if we were heading toward the great void, we would never go directly toward the town. If we missed on the wrong side, we could get too far out in the real desert before we realized our mistake. Instead we would aim to intersect the main road/piste well before our destination, and then follow it on in.
And finally on the very edge of the true desert in a small village that was more nomadic than sedentary, I watched two teenage orphans, a brother and sister from one of the far northern tribes, Gorans maybe. They lived under a tattered flap of canvas, yet they carried themselves with dignity. Long ago I had hardened myself to scenes of poverty and misery. I quickly learned that if I gave medicine to everyone who asked for it, I became a doctor and not a well driller. Still I can’t say that I never gave medicine or money or other assistance. Nobody is that numb. Hardening yourself enough to survive and be efficient and yet not enough to completely lose your sense of compassion, establishing that highly individual and precarious balance, is one of the defining characteristics of being a Peace Corps Volunteer. And like any balancing act, you are bound to slip a little here and there. I was told that neither of the orphans had either the funds or the sponsors for their well past due coming of age ceremonies or a dowry for the girl, which was probably the main reason she was still single. I went on about the well drilling I was there for, but those kids tugged at me. Finally I sent our only Muslim Chadian worker, Nana, over with some food, tea, and sugar. They refused the tainted nasara food, but took the tea and sugar. Frankly I was out of my comfort zone up there. I was familiar with Kanembous, Chadian Arabs, and the southern tribes, but Gorans were proud and fierce, and I knew next to nothing about their customs. I never considered giving money. If they took that wrong, I might wind up with a knife in the ribs, or worse yet married, and the last thing I wanted to do was fund a female circumcision ceremony. On our last day there I saw two men helping the boy shuffle to his shelter. The front of his ragged djellabia (in Chad a simple male gown resembling an oversized shirt) was covered in blood. He had taken a cord, tied one end to a bush, and circumcised himself with a knife. I don’t know what happened after that to him or his sister, just another sad story swallowed by the sands of Chad. But I’ll never forget them.