A letter to my supporting congregations
June 2, 2008, Eastern Chad
I’m writing this from Abeche, a town in eastern Chad that looks like the set of some old film about the French Foreign Legion, yet today the streets are filled with stolen Toyota pickup trucks heavily laden with rocket propelled grenades. Children carry Kalashnikov assault rifles, their desert camouflage head scarves protecting them against the swirling dust. It’s difficult in this land of shifting ethnic and political allegiances to know which is a Chadian soldier and which a Sudanese rebel. The French and other European soldiers here are easier to spot; it’s just not clear whether their job is to protect refugees and humanitarian workers, as they claim, or to make sure the giant old fields operated by ChevronTexaco continue to pump oil to the west.
I’ve come here to photograph the emergency work of Action by Churches Together (ACT) with Chadians displaced by the overlapping wars that plaque the region, and which seem to escalate weekly. I was headed to a place called Koukou Angarana but instead spent the first ten days waiting in N’djamena, the capital, because rebels were moving near where I wanted to go and people feared another assault like that which came close to toppling the Chadian government in February. That in turn provoked a tit-for-tat attack on Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, in May, and everyone has been waiting for the next shoe to drop; ACT made me wait in the capital, which drove me absolutely bonkers. The old shade trees that lined the capital’s main street were cut down in February to make it easier to shoot the attackers, so today the decrepit facades of the former French colony seemed even more forlorn and dysfunctional than ever. I quickly finished the two novels I’d brought with me, caught up on some writing, watched lizards in the patio and walked once every day to a Korean-owned internet café with a maddingly slow connection.
Once things seemed calm enough to let me travel, it took me two days on United Nations flights to get to Koukou Angarana, a village near the Sudanese border surrounded by thousands of displaced farmers, people for whom the word “poor” hardly suffices. Driven from their hardscrabble villages in the desert by a storm of ethnic violence, they sought refuge on the edges of the town where the UN High Commissioner for Refugees could set up operations and give them a tarp or a tent. International humanitarian organizations such as ACT joined the UN in keeping them alive, digging wells for safe drinking water and providing a cooking pot and a little bit of food. Mosquito nets. A few seeds. Not much else.
Over the last year the families have replaced most of those original tents, which didn’t last long in the desert sun, with small huts of sticks, dried mud and thatch. Similarly to the displaced in Darfur, they cannot go far from the relative safety of the camps lest they be assaulted.
I was in Koukou Angarana when the first real rain of the wet season fell, and the next day the women–in this culture they’re the ones who do all the work, with the exception of making war–were excitedly planting sorghum seeds in the spaces between their huts. When the rain came again they huddled in their huts, and I was invited in out of the rain, ducking into the darkness as children giggled about the kawaja–the local Arabic term for a white person. What struck me about their huts was how they had almost nothing inside. A woven mat sometimes served as both flooring and bedding. A couple of buckets, often branded with the name of the NGO that provided them, served as cupboards for the little food they had. They often had no clothes other than what they wore. If they were slightly better off, there’d be a goat in the corner.
In February I was in the Philippines, and while working on a story about Filipina women who had gone abroad as domestic workers, I visited a family early one morning in Baguio, in the north of Luzon. I wanted to photograph the husband and two sons of a woman working in Hong Kong who had sought refuge in a United Methodist Women-sponsored ministry there after being severely mistreated in her job. The ministry was helping her demand back pay from her employer. Meanwhile, back in Baguio, her family was having a hard time without her remittances. The husband’s earnings as a porter in the market didn’t even pay the monthly rent on their small two-room shack.
I was planning to interview the mother later on in Hong Kong, so I arranged ahead of time to come really early one morning to photograph the father and boys in their normal routine. After breakfast at the hotel, I hiked with my translator up through the shacks that line the mountains on the edge of Baguio. I arrived in time to photograph the boys getting out of bed and getting ready to go to school. I then said it would be good to have images of the three of them eating breakfast before the boys went off. They must do that as part of their normal morning routine, right? But the father looked troubled by my request. He and the translator talked for a minute or so, and then a neighbor, who’d been standing at the doorway observing us, said something to them and then disappeared. The translator finally told me that the family had no food for breakfast, and when I said I’d gladly buy them some, he explained that the neighbor had already volunteered to go get something for them to eat. He came back a few minutes later with some crackers, saying the nearby store was all out of bread. So the father and sons sat down at a rickety table in one room and ate their three small packages of crackers while I photographed them.
My favorite table grace in Central America is a song in Spanish that asks God to grant food to those who hunger, and hunger for justice to those who have food. It’s not an expression of cheap grace that asks God to magically feed the hungry–an ever more challenging task these days as food prices soar around the world. Instead, it recognizes that it’s the task of the larger human community to insure that all have enough, and that ultimately only justice will bring food to all those who hunger.
I give thanks for our communities of faith, which all over the world fight misery while also proactively struggling against the systemic evil that exploits the poor, champions greed, and breaks families and communities apart with violence. Whether it’s where you live or the desert of eastern Chad, as we continue to celebrate Pentecost, we say “Come, Lord Jesus,” knowing he brings us both mercy and justice.