My contract started January 30th. That’s the day I started traveling for this assignment. On February 7th, I arrived at the project site in Moïssala. My week-long trip across nine time zones served to both ramp me up for jumping into a nine-month mission as the head of logistics in the field, and to slow me down onto the concept of African Time.
Things happen at a different rate here than on the rushing streets of San Francisco, New York, and Paris. People move at their own pace, conversations happen so they can be remembered, and meetings allow for everyone to be heard. One of my staff was walking with me between compounds, and he commented on how quickly I walked. I told him I was just getting from one place to the other. He told me I didn’t have to do it so quickly; it’s hot out. Strange, that was my reason for getting there quickly…
I left San Francisco on Thursday, just one month after returning from my first mission in Malawi. I went through New York, both for paperwork and associated briefings, and for the operational briefings with the core group of people who oversee the project I’m working on (our Desk). Except everyone from the desk was in the field. This desk had the luck of covering South Sudan, Chad, and Ethiopia. I hope Ethiopia stays quiet, but take a look at South Sudan. And if you’re familiar with what’s happening in Central African Republic, take a peek at a map to see who the only stable neighbor happens to be. Our poor desk…
So a day to go through the empty New York desk, then a flight late the next day (Extra day in New York!! Last day in the US until November!! Choices! Freedom! Pressure…), putting me in Paris for a unique 4-hour layover. Usually, everyone (I work for MSF-France) passes through Paris for a day or two, since most desks are in Paris. I didn’t leave the airport, this time around.
Twenty-four hours of time-warp travel (my body thinks it’s 8AM!!! Wooo!! Good thing it’s 10pm!) left me in Ndjamena, the French-speaking capital of French-speaking Chad. They speak French there. I technically am ‘conversational’ in French, if you ask my resume. The driver kindly did not ask my resume, and we proceeded to have an extremely pleasant one-sided conversation where I answered everything with a vapid smile and a head waggle.
A full three days of briefing in the capital followed (there are only three flights a week to Chad from Paris, and only two flights a week from Ndjamena to the south of the country to go to the projects), which gave me plenty of time to practice my head waggling. I took copious notes on how little French I actually remembered from Mrs. Smith’s class in high school, and latched on to any piece of paper handed to me.
It was finally time for a two-day journey into the field, with a Humanitarian Flight on Thursday (I love saying Humanitarian Flight. Did I mention it was special for humanitarian aid workers? I still had to go through security though. Who do they think I am?), then an overnight in a hotel along the 4-hour route, since we don’t drive at night.
Mid-morning Friday saw me pulling up to the office, then the housing compound, to acquaint myself with my new home for the next nine months. I was full of a week’s-worth of energy from sitting still (no matter how much African Time I am exposed to, I’m still an American at heart), fatigue from nine time zones’ worth of jet lag, and heavy trepidation about meeting my close-to-50-person team who all were a lot better at speaking than I was.
And all of a sudden, boom, I was here.
Top image is an archive photograph of Chad viewed from the sky, 2006.