The compound is where expats (staff from countries other than Chad) eat, sleep, and generally hang out after work. It’s a space about the size of a couple of basketball courts in a high-school gym, or maybe a medium-sized grocery store. Life in “the field” is, among other things, a social experiment of the first order. You have 3-12 ex-pats from all over the world, on staggered six to nine months contracts. Everybody arrives with a story about why they came, and what they left back home, with attendant hopes, dreams, and dreads. In short, it’s a reality TV show waiting to happen, except for the obvious. Short of the surgical amphitheatre, perhaps, I have not seen an environment more rife with social intrigue and drama. (The surgical amphitheatre wins for personality pathology though, hands down). Crazy and disturbing shit often happens during the day out here, and everyone blows off steam in their own ways. It does not take a psychoanalytically oriented psychiatrist to find this rich. Ask anyone who has spent time in the field, it’s a humanitarian-bent Las Vegas, but nothing goes home on video-tape.
The thing about being out here is that while it was mostly alien upon first arriving, one settles in rather quickly and adapts to the environment. It is that despite being in eastern Chad, we are living in a compound environment infused with Euro-Western values that make it so familiar.
Adaptation has its down sides. When one adapts to an environment that is not so healthy, it tends towards survival over grace. Avoidance and desensitization can develop so quickly that within weeks we can become accustomed to something that was perverse and dumbfounding when first encountered.
What’s been on my mind lately are the aspects of work that are truly bizarre and different, but which have, despite their otherworldliness, become familiar. The things that for some reason, for many reasons maybe, I cannot tap into, cannot find some common ground or frequency with which I can resonate in my own way with what’s going on. Since arriving in Farchana, gender roles, writ large in violence, have been one of the largest sources of curiosity, perplexity, frustration, anger, and rage.
“Acceptable reasons for beating your wife.” This is a mini-list that was told to me by Sudanese women: (1) Refusing sexual relations with your husband, (2) Not doing what you’re told, (3) Not doing domestic duties (cooking, cleaning, fetching water, etc.), (4) Leaving home for a non-duty task such as going to a ceremony without asking permission. There was a silence in the air when these were being ennumerated. The women seemed rather at ease, matter-of-factly even. There is something chillingly disturbing about a well-orchestrated and methodical system of brutality. I want to call it inhumane, but how could such a widespread practice be labelled so? Maybe this is why it is so chilling.
“Unacceptable reasons for beating your wife.” (1) If you’re drunk, (2) If you demand sex in an inappropriate place, the example given being a demand when children are in the room, (3) If you hit ‘for no reason’, and (4) If you hit her for leaving the house to carry out her expected duties.
I am resisting the inclination to trip over superlatives in describing the extent of the suffering that is endured by women at the hands of a patriarchy that leaves them as objects, vessels, chattel, and reproductive systems. The first duty is to describe.
Men and women have specific codes, duties, rights, and obligations. And, it seems, punishments for infractions thereof. One of the first things that you see when entering the camp is women lining up for water-collection, with their long lines of jerry-cans. Or with large bundles of wood balanced on their heads, or maybe hanging off the sides of a mule that they’re leading in return from early-morning foraging in the brousse (bush). Women clean, cook, sell fruit, vegetables and home-made crafts at the market, collect wood and animal feed from the brousse, and collect water.
Men, by contrast, are the animal herders, butchers, masons, merchants and construction workers. But there is simply not much of this work to go around, so most often what one sees is a group of men sitting together and chatting away. It is not uncommon for women to be the ones making bricks with the adolescents and children while men sit by, smoke, and watch.
Chivalry back in Canada conjures images of gallant men on horseback rushing to the aid of a damsel in distress. Sure, maybe it’s sexist in it’s own way, but in Farchana, and I dare say in the larger region, men coming on horseback is the stuff of nightmares.
Two of the staff and I walked today to one of the blocks to check up on a depressed patient whom we have recently started on medication. Her husband sat beside her and put his hand on her shoulder while she answered questions about having suffered a spontaneous abortion at five months gestation, approximately three months ago. He stays at home to look after her and has taken on her duties. For a man to show such tenderness in public towards a woman is rare. There are many good men here, too. It’s a guess, of course, but it seems like he is.
On the walk back to the Mental Health Services clinic, we went by the brick-making pits in the middle of camp. Only women worked. We asked where the men were. Both stories we received were from single women. Their husbands had left to find work in Geneina (a large city in Darfur, just across the border), one having divorced his wife before he left, the other just never came back. Two small children, looking bored, watched their mother labour in the fifty degree heat. They were her twins, she said. After chatting a short while, we thanked her for her time and walked away.