In the early morning we travel eastwards in two vehicles from N’Djamena to Abéché. Nine hundred kilometers on a road that is not exactly a highway, but nonetheless is decently paved for much of the way.
The trip takes twelve hours. The team is seated in one vehicle. I sit in the other, a Japanese-made pickup truck with a four-wheel drive. The back of the truck is loaded with plastic bottles. We have take our own water with us for this trip. The driver’s name is Mohammed and he is about thirty years old. His facial features, the eyes, the large beaked nose, the lower lip, all point gently downward, and on his chin there is a straggly little beard. He could be right out of a film about Bedouins. His French is difficult to understand, just as mine probably is for him, but nevertheless I manage to find out that he has three children and comes from the northern part of the country. He has the habit of moving his lips in silence. But occasionally I hear faint sounds. Twelve hours of driving with two rest breaks, yet this silence and his quiet murmuring – which will later be explained – make for a wonderfully meditative drive through this far-off country.
The journey takes us first through N’Djamena, the capital. This city with a population of about a million is fairly small, not like one of those African mega-cities such as Lagos, Johannesburg or Kinshasa. And it is very clean, which particularly strikes our German friend. About ten million people live in Chad. A land that is three and a half times the size of Germany and is considered to be one of the poorest countries in the world.
In the city center, the usual sights: modern buildings, in which banks and a number of foreign companies conduct their business, and the impressive new government buildings. Why is it that all across Africa, even in the very poorest countries, you find these expensive monumental government buildings? Why such ostentatious display? Perhaps they serve as a visible symbol of national strength and independence for those on the outside.
When I was able to return to Namibia once it had gained its independence from South Africa – I had previously been banned from entering the country by the apartheid regime because of my novel Morenga – I noticed that a hill in the center of Windhoek had been flattened. On the site there now stood a giant billboard with a model of the presidential palace that was to be built there. Oversized and overblown. A number of members of the opposition had protested. But, despite major national financial problems, the palace had been constructed anyway and as the locals could not be trusted, workers from North Korea were brought in to do the job.
On both sides of the road that goes east from N’Djemena, there are apartment buildings encircled by walls topped with rolls of barbed wire; then the road gradually reaches the open countryside. The first little houses built by the local people appear along the roadside, and workshops as well, with cars and motor bikes being repaired out front. Long, very long lines have formed at one of the few filling stations we see. Gasoline is scarce and expensive. Now we enter the savannah, dusty dry earth, gray-brown, scattered with thorn bushes and a few acacias. The first round mud huts appear, with pointed straw-thatched roofs, surrounded by thorn bushes from end to end. The simplest hedges imaginable, which in all likelihood are meant to keep out intrusive goats, and not the lions – and this perhaps is an African myth – that might still turn up from time to time. Cattle and sheep are tended by children, larger flocks by herdsmen who carry long poles over their shoulders, gripping them as if they were pressing an invisible weight over their heads. This might well explain, in part, the straight-backed posture of even the old men. The donkey is the most important means of transport, and one is continually astonished by the towering loads that these animals carry on their spindly legs as they trot along especially as, in addition, there is usually a man or a woman sitting atop the baskets, sacks and bales. The obstinacy usually attributed to these animals is much more likely the result of their objection to being overloaded: maybe they simply go on strike.
After about three hours of driving we take a break in a village. The adults take no particular notice of the white people, only the children who gather around our team. The street is bustling with activity, as are the improvised stalls set up in front of the little houses, on which the modest remains of the stream of goods from Europe are finally disposed of: batteries, screws, cans and tubes, music CDs. At the roadside, there is a stone oven with a burning tree trunk poking out and that can be pushed in further, if need be. The huge iron racks on the grill look like little music stands. The baby goats that have been prepared will be roasted on them. Two sheep that have just been butchered in the street are being gutted. Their severed heads lie in the sand. Every bit of the offal is offered for sale, as are the eyes, which at first I thought they were glass marbles. That’s how far we are removed from the animal world, Brother Sheep and Sister Goat. Nothing here is thrown away. The contents of the intestines are pressed in the pot along with the blood. A good boudin, or blood sausage. The kidneys, liver and lungs that are for sale are scattered on the ground. Next to them, neat little heaps of millet, beans and peas lie on plastic sheeting, together with cigarette lighters, small tins of gasoline, oil, cassava. A boy is selling a bundle of wooden catapults, simple forked little branches, some with delicate decorative work carved into the handle. Everything is focused on utility, nothing is unnecessary, and the whole scene reflects an enviable form of sustainability. Excess and special eating habits lead us to heedlessly do away with animals. Pieces of chicken that target specific customers: chicken legs for Americans, breasts for Germans. What is left – this is perverse luxury – is destroyed or sold cheaply to Africa, like all the other agricultural products that are exported to Africa with the help of huge subsidies from the EU. There they are sold at almost half the price of locally-produced commodities. This policy is ruinous for the farmers. The end result that more and more impoverished people keep joining the flood of those desperate to reach Europe.
As we drive on we finally pierce the mystery of the driver’s murmuring. He suddenly switches on the radio. A voice is reading aloud from the Koran. The previously unintelligible mumbling becomes louder as he recites the text along with the speaker. I do not understand what the gentle voice coming from the radio is saying and yet at the same time I do understand, through its melodious quality, its rhythmic patterns and repetitions, in which numerous references to Allah can be discerned, and also through the short incantations quietly sung. It is a confession of faith, the evocation of protection and the assurance of an all-embracing transcendent meaning. After an hour the driver switches off the radio and retreats back into his silent murmuring.
Evening comes, and as each time it does, a person like me who comes from Central Europe experiences the sudden onset of darkness as something wondrous. The last rays of the orange light change into a deep brown with a light touch of gold, and then abruptly into black. After that every once in a while you can see a fire in the distance, a sign – people live there.
My view of the countryside is romantic, I know. And yet it is a real one, one of life at peace with itself, and one that is particularly peaceful right now. A life which is based on self-sufficiency and a respect for nature. It is a simple life, unlike that of the huge cities of West Africa, ruled by hunger and crime. The people who sit here in the darkness by their fire probably would like to have electricity, water that comes from a tap, easily available medical care. However, when they are not being harassed by marauding gangs, they do have a harsh but tranquil existence, which may offer them greater happiness than the fast-forward pace of the happiness machine in our consumer society.
But we haven’t reached our destination yet.