4. N’Djamena

I’m trying to figure out who the other people are who are on the airplane.  It is a 100-person flight from Paris to Chad’s capital, N’Djamena.  The fellow sitting beside me works for Exxon, and at the airport he and many others are greeted by people holding Exxon placards with various names on them.  As well, people in military fatigues are greeting other passengers.  Military, oil interests, humanitarians, missionaries.

A young fellow with a bright smile that shows all his teeth wanders calls out my name and looks relieved to have found me. “Papi” introduces himself and takes me directly to the bar, where I meet the administrative coordinator (AdminCo) who seems a bit fatigued, but offers me a beer almost before saying hello.  This is a good thing.  We chat briefly before heading back to the MSF compound, and I’m shuffled into the back of a 4X4 and we zip off.  Very quickly, however, we’re off paved roads and traveling slowly on bumpy ground in what looks like a sprawling shanty-town.  There is nothing that would betray that this is the capital city of a country.  Nothing.  You know you’re off the beaten path when you’re in the capital city of a country and there’s no Starbucks.  I’m not being anti-corporate, because if there were a Starbucks I would probably be there right now, and it wouldn’t be for the coffee.  As it stands, there is one (count it: ONE!) internet café in the city that the staff here know of, and it ain’t wireless. (The UN people may have wireless…)

Fast-forward a day.

Steven Cohen Psychiatrist Toronto

I’m now on the patio under the thatched-roof gazebo.  High white walls topped with barbed wire surround the compound, and there are guards 24/7, without guns, of course (this is MSF… more commentary to come on that). Most neighbourhoods that I’ve seen so far have this look, with the lucky ones having paved roads in front (ours does not). Muslim garb adorns people in the street, with goats and chickens running free amidst the ubiquitous vendors of gasoline (in old 2L drink bottles) and cigarettes. Also common are “recharging stations” for your cell phone. Toyota land-cruisers are the call-sign of humanitarian aid workers, and are surprisingly common, emblazoned with large identifying logos.

Steven Cohen Psychiatrist Toronto | msfcars

As it turns out, rather than scooting through N’Djamena in a day, I’ll likely not get my in-country “circulation” certificate for a week.  This is due to an unfortunate incident about a month ago wherein a group of French aid workers (working with the group “Zoe’s Ark”) tried to leave the country with 103 Chadian children.  Well intentioned at best.  Woefully stupid, irrespective.

Steven Cohen Psychiatrist Toronto | Market2 Steven Cohen Psychiatrist Toronto | IMG_1384 Steven Cohen Psychiatrist Toronto | Market3

At the training session for this mission, we were give talks by a number of people, but that by David Trevino stands out, probably because he is diva-like in his dramatics, brief, and has one of the best jobs of anyone I know (logistical consultant). He said that there were only three things we had to take from this week: 1) If you want to leave, just say so, and you’ll be on the next flight out, 2) If you are told to leave (ie. you’re being evacuated), don’t argue the point, just go where you’re told and argue later, and 3) never forget that your actions affect other MSF and NGO staff, even long after you’re gone.

Steven Cohen Psychiatrist Toronto | David

It’s this third point that’s the most interesting. I’ve made comments to friends about the “brand management” that is done by MSF. They’re a $400 million-dollar outfit and collect most of it in donations from grandmothers to bake-sales (I’m told this, but it must be more complicated; at any rate, there is a push to deemphasize funding streams from private/governmental sources) . At any given moment, there are about 3000 expats, and many more inpats, in the field, all with the MSF logo on their sleeves, hats, car doors, etc. In this world of viral information transmission, a story or picture can be seen by thousands of people, and have greatly unintended consequences. To this end, in my briefing today, I was reminded that drug use leads to direct repatriation; sexual liaisons with local staff and Chadian nationals are forbidden; that I have to radio my whereabouts at all times; and even that my blog postings must be read and approved before being posted. Usually my big-brother hackles get raised pretty quickly with these things, but not this time. It just strikes me as uber-prudent and well thought-out so far

Steven Cohen Psychiatrist Toronto

Non-sequitur: this arabic keyboard is bloody hard to navigate…   damned punctuation.

Well, I was told this afternoon that I may be off to Abeche, Chad (the largest city on the eastern border of the country, about 40km from Sudan’s Western border, the Darfur region.  If all goes well, in a couple of days I could be in the field! The next post will be from Farchana, in shala.

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