The First Thing / by Rob Petit

Notes from Chad. Part 1 of 3.

As I sit patiently, in a sweltering room on the outskirts of N’djamena, watching a suited official forensically examine my papers, my eyes wander to the small window behind him, or more precisely to the blizzard beyond. Straining my eyes as I try to work out how it could be snowing in a place this hot, I realise the raging storm is actually a swarming mass of midges, mosquitoes and hard-shelled beetles. There are many things I am about to learn about this strange country but the first is this: Chad is a country where the bugs have won. 

It is on the orders of Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser that we are here. Sheikah Mozah, the second wife of the now former Emir of Qatar, chairs the Qatar Foundation, a charitable trust that has taken on the seemingly insurmountable task of getting 20% of the world's out-of-school children back into education. Geraint, our companion and Her Highness' right hand man (an ex-Clinton Administration diplomat who looks like he's stepped straight off the set of The West Wing), has just told me a story about how she once asked him to estimate the number of children in the world not attending school. He posited a figure of figure 60 million, causing her to slide her blank cheque book across the table and tell him that she wanted half of them back in school within 10 years. ‘You should have seen her face, Rob, when I told her that I couldn’t do it… I couldn’t end wars with her cheque book.’ So he convinced her to run a pilot scheme instead and opt for a mere 20% target as opposed to 50. Easy peasy. And so, with another film crew following Her Highness around the war-torn Gaza strip, Rwanda and the Ivory Coast, we are here in Chad appended to a delegation trying to broker a deal with the government to allow this massive influx of funds to UNICEF, the chosen beneficiary and my job is to make a film about the children who will benefit from the work that UNICEF will do. 

But it’s not quite as simple as that. The problem is, it wasn’t until yesterday that Sheikhah Mozah decided that Chad would be a suitable recipient of the aid, so no agreement is in place with the government to allow the funds into the country: that’s up to Geraint to persuade the Minister of Education, who he is to meet with tomorrow. And with the government feeling snubbed by the Qataris (why shouldn’t they be in charge of the funds they might wonder?) it’s quite possible that the Minister will demand such stringent terms that there will be no agreement. The fact that my brief is to make a film about a story that may not happen doesn’t escape the discerning official. ‘I’m hoping for the best’ I tell him. He smiles and continues to look through my paperwork. 

So here I am, sitting silently in a small interrogation room, barely 24 hours after I found out I was coming here, and knowing almost nothing about where ‘here’ is at all. Perhaps that’s of little surprise however: there is little-to-no international presence in Chad… no media, no embassies, barely any multi-national companies and very few foreign aid agencies. A quick scan of the guidebook on the plane told me that this is a country bigger than South Africa but with little more than 300 miles of paved road, no railway and only 14,000 fixed phone lines among a population of 10 million. Couple that with the fact that Chad hosts more than 70 languages and dialects across its five hundred thousand square miles and it's easy to wonder what basis there is for a nation-state at all. Like most of the sub-Saharan African countries, the borders were drawn up by the administrative colonial powers with no consideration for local ethnic or historical realities on the ground. Chad is a former French colony but it seems they weren't interested in building a state. It gave them a rich supply of slaves and cotton but wasn't deemed good for much else. By the 1950s it was for the French, as it is for much of the international community now, of no interest at all. 

So as I sit in the small room, still transfixed the biblical swarm of insects outside, the official (after much deliberation) gives a small grunt and decisively stamps his approval on my letter from the Minister, hands it back to me with a smile and wishes me good luck, even asking if I would like ‘un petit café’ before I hit the road. How strange. 

But stepping out into the blizzard, a free man, I get the distinct feeling that the strangeness has just begun...