Finn Longinotto’s blog on GCI’s trip to Chad

I’m flattered that friends have asked me to write a short blog again, this time on the trip to Chad, to help finalize water projects with Green Cross France.  Having spent the past days discussing chemical weapons in Rome, as part of the 10th Anniversary of the Chemical Weapons Convention sponsored by the Foreign Ministry of Italy, my first day here is in glaring contrast.  I apologize ahead of time if this blog doesn’t deal only with water – it’s still the weekend and we haven’t got into that yet.  Anyway, in the short time here I’ve come across more than enough other things to write about until the real work starts.

The empty water trough at Koro-Kaga main school

We arrived late last night in the unpronounceable capital, N’Djamena, Bertrand Charrier, Vice President of Green Cross International and Head of Green Cross France, our organization’s ultimate water expert, and I.   As we climbed down to the tarmac from the plane the sweltering heat hit us, even at that time.

We faced extortion from customs officials and finally made it through the dark street – one of the frequent blackouts – to a Roman Catholic Nunnery where we spent the night.  Without lights and even a fan to move the tepid air, and the resulting sleepless night of sweating, even the 5:30 a.m. wake-up call was welcome.
After coffee, bread and home–made jams served by the nuns, two immaculate sisters from, of all places, Japan, we left promptly at 6 a.m. for the six and a half hour drive to south east to Moundou, our home for the next ten days.  I should mention right off that, thanks to Bertrand’s wife Chantal, a doctor who for many years has been doing extraordinary pro bono work here as part of a team of French doctors who volunteer here annually, we are being well housed and looked after at the “Centre de Handicapes,” run by the amiable Pere Michel, a French priest who has been in this region for over 50 years.  In fact, we are in an all-French environment, reminiscent of colonial days.
Over the years I’ve seen poverty and misery, but nothing to match this, borne with relative cheerfulness by the people here.  This ex-colony of France, of over 8 million people, is divided into three regions.  We are in the south, about one thousand kilometers south west of the troubled Darfur region of Sudan, from where refugees continue to poor into Chad.  The area where we are is lush with flora, and used also to be with fauna, compared to the arid north and mid sections of the country.  Nonetheless, we are at the beginning of the hot season, which is no exaggeration, with temperatures today over 45 degrees Centigrade, above 112 Fahrenheit.  Some rooms have fans, but not in our quarters not, and to ask about air conditioners would be laughable.
As it’s Sunday, and the doctors are not actually operating, they are carrying out diagnoses for tomorrow’s and the following days operations.  I sat in on these for about half an hour – enough to see five children with misshapen and burned limbs, six with cleft lips and what I am told is a particularly African bacterial infection which starts eating its way through the mouth and eventually deforms the whole face.  The doctors just came out. They made 23 examinations and will operate on 22.  I was there when they had to send away and tell one couple who had travelled for days across the country that their two month old baby, with a sweet smile and horrible deformity, was too young to be operated on.  They are carrying out ten or more operations a day, and those that can’t be operated during the doctors’ two week stint have to wait till at least October when another group will be back.   And we think we are doing good things!
As my Blackberry is under the weather, and I am uncertain about an internet connection, I’m not sure when I can get this off.  I’ve heard that Pere Michel has a direct link to The Vatican, maybe farther, so we might be lucky tomorrow.  Perhaps I can give a more positive report then, perhaps even about water!  We have Native American school kids who have diligently collected over $1,000 towards the rainwater harvesting project in Chad, who deserve to know which school will be receiving their generous contribution.  Identifying the most deserving schools will be part of the coming week’s work.  Water problems are often at the root of other major health and poverty issues here.
Chad, 23 April 2007
This morning Bertrand and I met for two hours with M. Richard and Beouam Linus, two local members of “Initiative Developpement, Association de Solidarite Internationale” in charge of water issues. We went over our strategy, to focus on relatively small and attainable projects, including rainwater harvesting for schools, within their overall water resource development program.   We agreed on a number of meetings to be set with them tomorrow and to meet early to visit schools around the area in order to start the selection process for a number of pilot projects.  Within our worldwide goal of equipping 300 schools with rainwater harvesting, and training school staffs and pupils in their ongoing maintenance, depending on the funds available we hope to be able to reach 5 to 20 schools in Chad.   Many of the schools are likely to have other water and waste related problems too.
Next we met with M. Jacques Laurent, who heads one of the largest corporate entities in Moundou, engaged in building water infrastructure in and around the city.  The purpose was to obtain prices for the work we will be carrying out – water tanks, pumps, waste treatment facilities, etc.  The information gathered is useful input for our more formal project budgeting and gives us a better idea of what we will be able to attain with the funding available.  Follow-up meetings will be necessary.
With the program set for tomorrow, primarily around school water projects, we set out to view other needy areas.  We started with the most extreme, a visit to the local prison.  The conditions are indescribable, but I’ll try anyway.  About 400 prisoners were held in a small compound, little bigger than a tennis court, with five or so rooms on the perimeter where they were to sleep, crowded one against the other, with the spillover having to sleep in the same yard we saw them crowded into.  There was one water faucet at one end, which works only when the city water works.  When there is no city water, which happens often, water is pulled up manually in a small bucket on a rope from a well 20 meters below ground.  A pump is planned . . .  Recently a small building was built on the grounds to house the 10-20 women prisoners separately from the men.  This separation does not seem to have prevented a number of the women becoming pregnant.  What was most remarkable was the absence of guards.  The prisoners guard each other, a system which works, on the whole, though a few days ago one inmate, in for murder, showed up at the Handicap Center, having been given a permit to leave by a fellow prisoner.  Apart from the abominable conditions, one shudders to think of what legal recourse these men have, especially those from Nigeria and Cameroon, jailed for smuggling (mostly false currency), who are thrown into this same compound with a sizeable number of murderers and assassins.
On a relatively more upbeat note, a few words about our visit to the hospital.  Here we saw some of the patients whose diagnosis I had witnessed yesterday.  It was remarkable to see crooked legs straightened, though still in plaster for the next three months, and faces repaired.  In one case, a young man I remember from yesterday, whose head was permanently bent into his chest as he had no neck, underwent a few minutes very close to death with his breathing interrupted as a result of the incision; finally he came round and his throat was made whole with two two-by-six inch patches of skin taken from his thighs.  Recovering after the operation, with his head flat on the stretcher for the first time in his life, he had to be restrained from touching the bandage around his throat, as if he had trouble believing what had happened.  After watching several gruesome operations first hand my admiration for these volunteer surgeons rose even higher.   Fortunately, the water situation here at the hospital had already been largely corrected during Bertrand’s last visit, though sanitation improvements were discussed.
In the evening we were blessed with a short shower, which dropped the temperature a few degrees.  This was a little early in the season, as the rainy season usually runs from May till beginning of September, with the heaviest downpours in June and July.  The annual rainfall of about one meter is so concentrated during that period that there is extensive flooding as a result.  One of our tasks is therefore to see how water can be stored from those months to cover needs during dry months.  Apparently, the problem is that the air carries so much bacteria and other impurities that standing water quickly becomes stagnant, and largely useless.  The evening was topped by a dinner invitation to the hospital manager’s house, conveniently on the hospital grounds, where we sat outside in the relative cool for the first time.
Chad, 24 April 2007
A slightly cooler morning was a pleasant start to the day, but it was not to last.  We first met with our colleagues from the ‘Initiative Developpement’ (ID).  Bertrand went over the changes in the French law that specifically describe water as a Human Right and lay the foundation for developing water and waste programs in Chad, not only around the schools, which are our top priority, but also the prison and main marketplace.  We also touched on the conflictive water situation between farmers and city dwellers, which bears further discussion.  There is much to be done.
Then we went on our tour of the schools.  We visited 7 out of the 20 or so in the city.  If the prison and hospital yesterday were eye-openers, the schools were no less.  At the first school, Ecole du Centre, next to the hospital in fact, the 500 students had no water or toilets.  The school principal explained that many of the female students stayed away from school entirely as they didn’t feel comfortable performing their bodily functions in the garbage dump behind the school, with all the other students and passersby looking on.  Of the schools visited during the day, this one turned out to be the best suited to rainwater collection and we will be considering it as a pilot for that project, within the overall program.  Despite this unsanitary situation, the students everywhere were neatly dressed in uniforms, which their families have to purchase themselves.  Interestingly, in all the schools we visited, Parent Teacher Associations were responsible for the overall upkeep and even the teachers’ salaries.
The second school, the inaptly named Ecole Bellevue, had a view over a public garbage dump.  The dump was actually on the school’s own 54,000 square meter property, where the 2,000 students also relieved themselves. The classrooms we visited had about 300 children in each, all sitting on the dirt floors.  Here, although there was a water pipe for city water, there was actually no water at all as the school had not been able to pay its water bill and the water had been shut off long ago by the local water company, CEE (Compagnie de Electricite et des Eaux).
The next, Ecole Adventiste, was a private school, though little better, with 1,000 students.  There was no city water available.  The classes were smaller, with about 66 in each, and the children at least sat on low cement walls as benches.  These private school pupils pay about 5,000 CFA (Central African Francs, about 600 to 1 Euro) per annum, or about US$ 12, compared to 1,000 CFA, just over US$ 2 per annum, at the public schools.
Ecole Doumbeir had 3,800 students, down from 4,000 a little while ago.  The buildings here had been financed by World Vision, Australia, but there was little else.  The City of Poitiers, France, had paid for installation of a water connection for another 4,000 student Lycee, but the water was too expensive to use and no provision had been made for waste and sanitation.  Another 500 student school had no buildings at all, only straw huts, including the office of the formidable director, a strong and very determined lady, whose school was in use by two separate lots of students and teachers, one in the morning and one in the afternoon because of lack of space.  At least classes here numbered only 50-60 children each.  Lastly, Ecole Djarabe, with 4,000 pupils, was the only school with latrines, furnished by the French Red Cross.  However, the water was rust colored and needs investigation.  Two other buildings there had been financed by the City of Poitiers and the World Bank.
At the end of the day we attended a ‘town meeting’ of concerned citizens in the 4th Arrondisement, or district, a community of about 40,000 where our ID friends are focusing their work.  It was attended by a couple of hundred people.  Richard gave a motivating speech on the need for citizenry involvement and Bertrand explained our role and the work of Green Cross.  An association is being formed, at its core the 143 volunteers who have committed themselves to organizing others in their communities and getting the word out for the next meeting, May 3 at 16:00 hrs.  The Mayor of Mountou has promised 10,000 bricks and others are donating gravel, etc.   A total of CFA 114,000 has been collected by the community to-date.  The next step for the association is to elect committees, one for directors, one for security and verification, and delegates from each quarter of the district.  We believe we can be helpful in setting up a workable organization and will discuss this with them when we meet tomorrow.  I’m having trouble keeping my perspiration off the keyboard, so it’s time to sign off for today!
Chad, 25 April 2007
A day of less exciting bureaucratic meetings, but just as important if not more so for the success of our mission.  Without the support of these officials nothing can be achieved.  We started with the Rural School Inspector, M Baker, more as a courtesy, since our first projects will be in the urban schools of Moundou.  Sitting in his office in Mondou, he has a team of inspectors who go out in the field and report back to him.  We will have a chance to visit a rural area, and a school there, on Friday.
In our meeting with the rather more dynamic Moundou director of the National Education Delegation, Bertrand brought up the fact that 2008 will be the UN designated Year of Sanitation, and that it is incumbent on us to correct sanitation problems in the Moundou city schools.  He explained that water has been recognized as a Human Right and that therefore the deplorable condition of the prison should also be addressed as a matter of human dignity.  I asked whether new schools were planned for the increasing number of inhabitants that we had heard about, as this could open an opportunity to incorporate water and sanitation properly from the beginning, and provide us with a model school to copy elsewhere.   New schools are indeed being planned; our DI friends will be including this in their fact finding 5 Oct work and we will investigate further.
We asked which schools in Moundou had the worst water and sanitation related problems and were given the names of four, 5 October, Docab, Lujatab, Ecole des Taillees).  The director explained the recent government declaration on free schools, with the idea that the money saved by parents would be used for other necessities, including water at their children’s schools.  He gave us a good run-down of the overall elementary school profile in Mondou.  There are 18 public schools, 27 private, and 4 community schools, for a total of 49.
At our next meeting with the director of I.E.B. du Lac Wey, more detailed information was available, showing that the total elementary school population was 23,675 students, with the bulk in the public schools and only 6,667 in private schools.  We were impressed by a lady working independently as an educational consultant who stressed the importance of continuity with project teams.  She had worked with UNICEF, which has a representative office in the capital and had experienced projects where the foreign partners had disappeared.  She was of our opinion that follow-up should include sanitation care in the schools’ curricula.
We then met with the local Director of Public Health where our discussion focused mainly on the problem of garbage dumped in school grounds and the recruitment of trainers for teacher training to impart proper sanitation to school children.  On his wall was an interesting poster, that we had seen in other school offices, which gives a good insight into the strength of the Chadian character.  Roughly translated:  “Don’t ever cry.  There’s always someone who wants to see you cry.  If you cry you are done for.”   We went on to discuss the need for good wells.  We had seen schools where the well walls rose barely 10 inches above the ground, which were not only a danger for the children (yes, the principal told us, they do sometimes fall in, down a 20 meter shaft), but also subject to flooding in the rainy season, and resultant contamination as the polluted surface water mixed with the well water.  In cases of such pollution, granulated chlorine has proved effective, but not everyone has access to it.
Lack of funding is an ongoing problem.  The Public Health Director pointed out that the Mayor’s Office had no garbage compacting truck.  He advised us to seek schools which are in areas where there is already a certain consciousness of proper garbage disposal.  This would encourage other communities to follow suite in order to obtain the same assistance for their schools.  The Director will use district and block leaders to find out which schools are in such relatively clean areas and let us know.
The last meeting of the day was at the office of the Director of Hydrology, who is also the local representative of the Ministry of the Environment.  Bertrand explained that we planned to work on as many schools as possible, as well as the prison, reinforcing water as a fundamental human right.  We would need the help of the director’s technicians and administrative machine. Thinking ‘outside the box’, we also raised a number of other possibilities, such as micro-credits for entrepreneurs to buy carts to haul away garbage and create mini-businesses to make compost of biodegradable material, for fertilizer and perhaps, biomass power generation, working with the City of Poitiers for garbage compacting equipment, and even using the voluntary prisoner work as a matter of social and public interest to haul the garbage from school grounds.  The director encouraged us to bring him details of concrete projects, also with a view to include sanitation training and environmental education in the local school curricula.  He advocated the planting of trees on school grounds, combined with the rainwater harvesting we suggested.  Altogether another fruitful day.
Chad, 26 April 2007
We started with a visit to the Mayor’s Office, a must.  We met with the City Secretary, as the Mayor himself was still recovering from an accident.  Bertrand mentioned that he met the previous Mayor of Moundou during an official visit with the Poitiers delegation in 2005. It was enlightening to hear that there had been three Mayors of Moundou after him and before the current Mayor, which might help to explain why so little progress has been made to the city’s infrastructure.  With the appointment of a new mayor, as opposed to election, he or she is under no obligation to answer directly to the needs of the people or follow policies of a predecessor.  Furthermore, it was pointed out to us that infrastructural projects in the whole of Chad had been delayed as a result of the influx of refugees from the crisis in Darfur, which directed resources instead to this north eastern area of the country.
The City Secretary promised the support of the Mayor’s Office, including a letter in about 10-15 days’ time when the project is more precisely defined in summary form.  A letter of support will also be obtained from the City of Poitiers.  The detailed proposal for the overall project, including water provision and sanitation for the schools, the prison, centers for handicapped people and certain other public places, must be submitted to the French government and private donors by the end of May.
Our meeting with STEE, the state-owned water and electric monopoly, was enlightening, in as much as it helped explain the poor sanitary conditions and lack of investment.  The company receives no payment for sewers or the maintenance of existing infrastructures, and has not increased water tariffs since 1985!!!  Nor do they receive any payment for, or have any part in maintaining, the many privately dug wells.  In some cases, expensive equipment furnished by the World Bank and others has become unusable for lack of maintenance.  The gentleman with whom we met, a hydraulic engineer trained in Germany, is the only permanent technical engineer, but he has five what he called ‘permanent temporary’ assistants, who are paid on a daily basis.  Despite all this, STEE does supply about 100,000 cubic meters of drinking water per month, clearly providing a public service in line with its respect for human rights, an important consideration in the quest for French city and government funding.
We spent the afternoon with our DI colleagues, working out the details of the program going forward, including estimates for fixed and variable costs (manpower, offices, transportation, etc.).  We are trying to keep overhead as low as possible for this sizeable project, which will nonetheless require several studies, a Project Manager, hydraulic engineers, waste management experts/resource and public health protection, public outreach specialists and administrative and accounting expertise.  After comparing cost estimates with those of other local partners, such as the Handicap Center, we will continue to refine our proposal further.  We did not forget that April 26, was the anniversary of Chernobyl, or that it was Bertrand’s birthday, for which we were invited to a local family at the end of the day.
Chad, 27 April 2007
A day in the country – appropriate for our last day of work this time round with our ID associates.   We didn’t actually go very far.  A long bumpy ride along winding dirt tracks, many of which were unrecognizable as tracks to us, and numerous small villages took us about 20 kilometers due north to  Koro-Kaga.   This is really the name given to 10 villages in the immediate area, with a total population of about 8,000.   Two schools there, one community school and one public, serve 1,300 children.   Appropriately, in the local Gambay language, Koro means a place without water, and Kaga a type of forest, which had indeed existed there before but, as in many areas, the trees has been chopped down and the wood used for charcoal for cooking.
The main purpose of our visit, together with most of the doctors from the Handicap Center, was to attend the laying of the corner-stone for a school building, no more than 12 feet by maybe 18, to house the small office and ‘library’.  The 15,000 bricks necessary had been donated by the population, and were being assembled, by the local villagers, under the watchful eye of Marie-paule Dautel, ID volunteer responsible for rural aspects of Moundou’s educational program.   The ceremony was attended by a good 100+ adults, including several village and community dignitaries and uncountable children, which I hope the photos will show.
In her speech, Marie-paule credited the local population for their great dedication to educating their children and said that next year’s focus for the two schools would be water, sanitation and the environment.  Good fit!  Although our larger project focuses on the urban Moundou area, the need is so great and the goodwill so strong in these villages that we felt they were deserving of some help.  There was a water trough for children to wash in, if they had had water.  This trough was not connected to anything, so buckets of water have to be carried long distances to use it.  There is a well, but no pump, and of course no enough money to buy one. The cost of other sanitary improvements, really installations as there is no sanitation, still need to be calculated.
After a visit to Moundou’s ‘house of the blind’ with Pere Michel, where we checked on a water pump which was not functioning properly, we returned to ‘camp’ and again met with our ID colleagues for another round of discussions on the project.  We are making good progress toward finalization.  It will be an exciting and figuratively bumpy ride to achieve everything for this ambitious two-year project, but we are all grateful for the opportunity to do something truly worthwhile.
The day finished with an unforgettable send-off from the Handicap Center.  Many of the children and adults who had been successfully operated on during the two weeks of the French doctors’ mission were there, some on crutches and some in hand-made wheel chairs.  They formed a choir, and while chanting rhythmically gave us all individual presents.  Mine was an embroidered table cloth, which must have taken days to make, and the cost of the material alone must have been a burden.  A truly moving experience.  With the medical team leaving tomorrow, it will be quieter.
Chad, 28 April 2007
A morning to catch up, then a meeting in the afternoon with M. Etienne, the Moundou representative of Red Cross Tchad.  We hope to meet the Chief of Mission of Red Cross Tchad in N’djamena on Monday.  M. Etienne confirmed that poor drinking water was the major source of many illnesses, including cholera.  As expected, the Red Cross here focuses on health aspects of the overall water problem.  They tend to work with schools in the outlying regions of the city, particularly those without water, or low water pressure.  They also strive to teach children about sanitation in general with ‘animators’ trained by them that visit each school class frequently.
During our school visits earlier we saw a school, Djarabe, where the Red Cross had built latrines, the only school to have them, and made a point of following up.  Their plan was to work on four schools altogether, the first being Djarabe, which was completed in 2006.  The second is being worked on now, while the third and fourth are held up for lack of funding.  As we have already heard several times, top priority is being given to ameliorating the problem of Darfour refugees in the north east of Chad.  Because of the Red Cross’s expertise we will examine possible collaboration.
With the working day over, on a point of personal interest, I had hoped to see some of the local wildlife over the weekend.  But unlike neighboring Cameroon, which has not experienced recent wars and has thriving national parks, Chad has sadly lost most of its wildlife as habitat loss and war have taken their toll.   The closest, Manda, technically a reserve and not a park, used to be rich in many species, until 300 soldiers were stationed in the reserve for two years, 1979 and 1980, without food or pay, only weapons.  The main national park in Chad, Zakouma, created in 1963, is reportedly little better, again because of military bases there during the civil war – it is not safe to go there now because of ongoing political violence and fighting.  Nonetheless, we had hoped to see some hippopotami at sunset this evening.
As planned, we set out to see what remains of the previously large number of hippopotami in the lake nearby, Lac Wey.  Unfortunately we got there a bit late, as the sun was already setting.  We were told that they tend to stay in the water during the hottest parts of the day to keep cool and only come out towards the end.  We’ll just have to believe the fisherman who said there were usually nine of them, with some young.  Tomorrow, Sunday, we head back to N’djamena.  We’ll have final meetings in the capital on Monday before heading back that evening to Paris and home.
Chad, 29 April 2007
The drive from Moundou to N’djamena took seven and a half hours yesterday.  That did include a short stop at another nunnery in the village of Lai, where we happened upon a lively Sunday Mass, complete with drums and local chanting.  I didn’t count the number of times we stopped for cattle crossing the roads, and goats, and toward the end of the trip camels (strictly speaking, dromedaries, as they have only one hump.  Exhausted, we retired early in the sweltering heat (mid 40s C) at the nunnery, again without fans or lights due to power outage.
Chad, 30 April 2007
Thankfully, the power came on around 5:30 a.m., and the fan started a welcome whirl.  Before our flight we had time for two very good meetings.  The first was with the Minister of the Environment, Mme. Dr. Haoua.  She greeted the Charriers as old friends – as Minister of Water before her present charge she had had frequent dealings with Green Cross and met President Gorbachev in Rennes, France during an international conference on Water and Decentralized cooperation The Minister had made it a point to keep up with developments on the water area in her dry country.  For both water and the environment, she believes the most important thing to do is to bring awareness of the problems to the population, through extensive outreach, starting with the schools.  This, she thought, was easier to achieve in Moundou than N’djamena, which suits our program!
I mentioned the exposition on Chadian elephants currently at the National Geographic in Washington DC.   She had met with the National Geographic team while they were hereThe Minister is very aware of the health and environmental problems posed by the absence of garbage collection throughout the country and is currently examining alternative solutions.  We also discussed recycling of plastic bottles, which has taken place in N’djamena on a small scale, for use in roofing materials.   Bertrand mentioned the usefulness of sister city connections, such as Poitiers with Moundou, and Toulouse with N’djamena, which has already resulted in gifts of garbage trucks.
Our last meeting was with Benoit Lebeurre, Director of the Groupe Agence Francaise de Developpement (AFD) the French aid agency, Over a good one and a half hours he gave us a very detailed briefing of their work in Chad.  The team consists of three resident French citizens, eight research assistants, for a total of twelve.  They tend to look at issue on a regional basis and are careful not to favor one location over another.  For this reason, they are diversifying from their earlier focus on Moundou and the south, helping with hospitals in more distant populations, not the city centers. In the health area they have only one small project at the moment but are planning on a bigger one.  In education, they have been active in N’djamena with AIDS education, and in Moundou with mother-child health issues.  In both health and education, Mr. Lebeurre says that the biggest problem is that people are not paid regularly.  In terms of their own funding, oil companies play only a minor role AFD has had poor experiences with matching funds from the Chad government, leading to their present policy of working only alone, or with trusted partners.
AFD is particularly keen on follow-up.  Mr. Lebeurre reminded us of the large-scale and expensive Taiwanese project two years ago, where nothing works today.  A huge water tower remains as a reminder.  They also emphasize research to search out the areas of greatest need, and when working with other partners ensure that they have sound management ability.  Poor management has been at the root of most water problems in Chad.  Finally, with their emphasis on whole territories, rather than single problem areas, they try not to ‘create islands of prosperity’ in otherwise poverty-stricken areas.  As the final meeting of the trip, this was a very good briefing on how to go about working successfully in Chad, and what to avoid!

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