24. Pretty Pebbles
I want a Porsche. There’s no way around it. Ever since I was a kid cars have fascinated me, the power, aesthetics, speed, engineering. My jaw kind of drops when I see one, and has for many years. I’ve had my eye on an early 90s 911. More specifically, the 964 C4S or the turbo. The guy who designed this car, Erwin Komenda, is a genius, inspired by turbulence reduction, drag coefficients and rocket ships. And, at the risk of being improper, rudimentary polling indicates that the golden number for the price of women’s “must have” shoes hovers at $300. Listen for the choir: “more for boo-oots!” Whether or not one actually buys these things is not the point. What I’m trying to do is reconcile such desires with where I am.
The pen in my pocket (easy fellow Freudians…) is a Uniball extra-fine. Black, made in Japan, a triumph of mass production and injection-molded plastic. In Canada, it costs about three bucks, which, incidentally, is about a days labour for an unskilled tradesperson in Farchana. It is also the price of a beer here, of which you have your choice of two local brands or a bottle of Guiness. How’s that for distribution networks? Kids here ask for money occasionally, but most often ask for a cola or a pen, the latter being called a “bic.” Pens have currency; this is a place where most people do not have one. Where the “prized seat” is a plastic garden chair, even when dealing with the highest levels of local official. In the capital, N’Djamena, there are five-star hotels, a parliament building, and a court-house (that’s in construction). Otherwise, it is shanty-town. On the same block, in all directions. From the pool area, you can hear hammers smashing away at fallen concrete structures; people are salvaging the steel rebar inside to sell to scrap-metal merchants.
In Farchana, the people with money have meat in their food and a plastic lawn-chair at their disposal. Those without may forego a few meals. There is no such thing as a Vegetarian outside the expat compound… the idea of passing on meat for ethical or aesthetic concerns is unimaginable. Not that it’s a failure of imagination, it is just unheard of.
Upon arriving in Farchana, I unloaded a few things that I’d brought for the team. Chocolate, some cheese, magazines and newspapers. These things are sorely missed in the field. One of the papers had an insert inside, called “Executive Life.” Inside were such notable articles as “A good butler is hard to find” and a guide to “buying handmade suits.” Advertisements push watches, spas, fancy cars, cologne and such. The same movie-stars that decry global suffering are smiling at the camera with a coffee mug in their hands. And why not? The only thing that makes anything I’ve said less odious than commonplace is their proximity: usually these worlds are kept apart, but for occasional media blurbs that break through. Here, though, such incongruence is as stark as rain in May. It is that colour of high frequency orange that tears-up your eyes. To call it “night and day” does not capture the beacon of privilege and wealth that is an iPod out here. Or a pair of well-made and practical shoes, for that matter. But even as the sand trusts that rain will come, so do the local Chadians trust that more opportunities for conspicuous consumption are around the corner. And they are.
How do I know this? Well, there are hints. Like the fact that most of our national staff have cell-phones, and I see them all over the camp, too. This would not be odd but for the fact that Farchana has not ever had phone service. A truck with a cellular carrier label moving through town sets people scurrying with buzz. Some of the women have three hand-bags, despite having as many changes of clothes. Sun-glasses are becoming more common, and one refugee whom we’ve dubbed “Snoop Dog” walks around in bling and a purple track-suit. Recently, a bakery opened up and now runs seven days a week. It’s early days, but you can get bread in the shape of a bun, croissant or baguette. Calgary couldn’t boast more in 1999 when I showed up there for medical school.
When in Amsterdam, briefing for this mission, I went for lunch in the cafeteria. It’s an open-concept design that is what I imagine a military canteen to be like, without the camouflage and with a decidely more Libertarian bravado. People help themselves from the buffet, sit down wherever and chat with their neighbours. I liked it. One of the persons whom I was fortunate enough to sit near was a fellow named Olaf. A logistician, Olaf was one of the first MSFers to arrive in Farchana, and was part of the crew who planned and built this camp. He mentioned off-hand that when he arrived and started to hire people, many people had never used money before. That was less than five years ago. Since, this village went from having no monetary economy to ten stores stuffed with mostly made-in-China and Nigeria stuffs, not to mention busy market-places twice a week. When last in Abéché, walking from the staff compound to the office, a youngster asked me for a bic. When I told him that I had no pen or gifts for him, he asked me for a Thuraya, which is a satellite telephone. Wha!?
There are good and bad ways to be monied. Having and spending lots of cash is not an issue. But just as you’d hope that being a devout follower of faith makes you a better person in the end, shouldn’t having money make you more likely to be benevolant? At a minumum, it seems fair to say that one has a duty to be aware of and appreciate the options that they have… the options that money brings. Jadedness, or that sense of malaise that sets in when you realize the truffle-flavoured balsamic vinegar does not bring you joy, is a bad quality. Back to benevolance… I don’t necessarily mean donations. The end game of money for many is really the time it takes to earn it. My thought now is how much do I want to pay off that lingering debt, save a bit, and perhaps go shopping? If I do, that means that I’ll have to work, and won’t have as much time to do a second mission in the next year. Doing humanitarian work also has an opportunity cost. I really dislike saccharin questions, but I’ve been wondering at who’s expense excess tolls. Is it good to want things? These echo, whether they should or shouldn’t.
Right now I think the fellow from the article who bought 200 bespoke suits in a year (from his yacht, incidentally) is guilty of a fashion crime, no matter how good he looks in his suits. But what if he also donates 10% of his income to charity? What if donating six months of his time volunteering would be immeasurably less helpful to said charity than the cash he could earn and donate in that time? When faced with a difficult decision, take both.
The Sudanese refugees want stuff. I have spoken here thus far of soap and dignity, but they want luxuries, too. (e.g., Several people asked me to buy them a digital camera when I went on vacation to Tanzania.) But what they really want is to go home, find some respite from the endless threat and actuality of war. For this to happen, more people need to viscerally know what happened in Darfur, what life is like for refugees and displaced persons in places like Farchana. To know how the politics of sovereignty protects despots in their monopoly of violence. Only a fool would discount the value of the dollar, but to get to know this place — these spaces, faces, and stories — and to learn from them, that’s what’s going to do it, if anything. For me, at least, I think that I had to go. To think otherwise would have been a failure of imagination.
Note: For those who have writen comments and they have not been posted, or have had long delays, sorry ’bout that. More than anything else, I wanted this blog to be a dialog, but given the fact that everything written has to be vetted, real-time blogosphere-style stuff is simply not possible. I’m told that there is tonnes of spam that gets shuffled through, so immediate posting is just not done. And if a comment is put in on a weekend or holiday that delays things, too. Patience. As for the regular posts, they’re looked over by no fewer than four people on three continents before being made visible. You know how much a two-second delay on a phone conversation affects the rhythm? Like that.