Friday, April 18, 2014

Elephant Rock

Two hours north N'Djamena is a cool rock formation known as "Elephant Rock."  The road to the rock formations is paved to the quarry but at that point you have to drop into 4-LOW for the deep sand to the base of the rock formations.  The rock shapes and fractures remind me of volcanic rocks in the US like Devil's Tower in Wyoming or other places in Idaho.

I camped out at the rock three years ago on my first trip to Chad and it was great to finally get back to the rock.  The only difference that I could see was that the quarry located next to the rock formations had expanded and had started to extract rock closer to the Elephant.  If I end up staying in Chad much longer I may have to bring my ropes and climbing gear to get on top of the elephant!

All the kids and eventually many of the adults from a local village came to check out the Americans climbing up to the rock.  A group of kids that spoke decent French adopted us and one became my guide and helped me climb up and down the rock by pointing out the best route and routes to avoid.  Turns out that the wide cracks that I would usually ascend are used by many of the locals at toilets as (of course) none of the locals had toilets or running water.

Our guides coming from their village
As we were climbing into our vehicles for the ride back to N'Djamena giant herd of cattle passed by the base of the rocks.  They went straight to the shade of the thorn trees for some relief from the warm 40*C day.  The cattle were herded by nomads on camelback who at noon were also in the shade of nearby trees.  Not much happens in the heat of day during the hot season in Chad.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Return of Bozize? A Question of Sovereignty

Self-proclaimed President Djotodia has now left office leaving the world to wonder who should take over until elections can be held later in 2014.  One answer is the deposed former President Fran├žois Bozize.  Although Bozize came to power through a coup in 2003, he won elections in 2005 and 2011 and was the presiding over the country until he fled rebels in March of 2013.  Seeing that the job is vacant again and he was the last one elected and recognized as the leader of the Central African Republic, shouldn’t he be restored to his position?

The selection of the next leader of CAR is a decision that will upset some group or another in a country that has been destroyed by violence.  Former Seleka rebels may increase attacks on peacekeeping troops as their former Chief is no longer in charge, but they were already fighting peacekeepers.  There are more security forces in CAR now than any other time in recent history and more are preparing to enter the fray so they should be able to handle rebel fighters.  The bottom line is that even if some other person was selected to be the transitional leader there will be opposition. 

Is the international community enforcing the idea that the quality of a sovereign leader should determine if they stay in power?  In that case leaders from many different countries should be deposed and new leaders selected.  Bozize may not have been the most capable or effective leader for his country but he was internationally recognized as the sovereign.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Where have all the trees gone?

In many African capitals the ancient trees that once shaded colonial boulevards are being cut down, often for stated "safety" reasons, but usually the easy answer is not the true answer.  As recent conflicts in Africa demonstrate, the national government doesn't have to control the entire country to be the internationally recognized head of state, just the capital.  In many places the national government doesn't really try to govern border regions.  However, the capital is sacred and must be protected at all costs in order to preserve the head of state.  In the Central African Republic a "red-line" was drawn to keep the Seleka rebel coalition out of the capital, but the rest of the country was left at the mercy of the rebels.

Often roads are intentionally left in poor condition to slow the advance of rebels towards the capital so the military would have more time to react.  Checkpoints line the roads to the capital and slow movement.  In the cities, trees are cut down that could potentially hide snipers or provide protection from rebel troops.  Trees along the road also can limit the maneuverability of tanks and other armored vehicles.  The leafy green foliage that keeps the dust and temperatures down in the concrete jungle also obscures people on the ground from hovering attack helicopters.

With advances in air conditioning in vehicles and buildings its less essential for the more fortunate to have trees.  The more fortunate also have generators to power the climatized spaces so electricity isn't a problem.  Unfortunately, in the places where the trees are cut down the general population usually don't have access to affordable reliable electricity.  But if the leader only sees his people from behind bulletproof glass does he care?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Kiliss: Chadian Street Food

Kiliss: A Chadian Specialty
Today while we were running errands around town my co-worker spent 4,000 CFA (roughly $8 USD) and bought us a couple handfuls of what he called a traditional Chadian food: Kiliss.  What we got handed to us wrapped up in a folded up rough brown paper (like a paper grocery bag back in the US) was a red coated meat and a couple slices of onion.  My coworker said it was some kind of meat that was dried in the sun and covered in ground red peppers.  The strolling vendor broke our meat off rigid long sheets of meat that he carried in a bucket on his head.  My coworker said it was good to eat Kiliss this time of year as the peppers and onions helped protect against the cold/flu that has been going around.  The expat community has been hit pretty hard lately with 15-20% unable to come to work.

The meat didn't have much flavor or if it did I couldn't taste it over the raw onion or the red peppers.  It was kinda chewy, like a beef jerky, and I couldn't stop eating it.  I kept coming back to it over and over again and by the end of the day I had eaten most of it (I also shared with my coworkers but most Americans were too afraid to try it).  I enjoy most Chadian foods, especially la boule (millet ball with a sauce) and usually eat my bowl of Chadian soup for breakfast each morning- today was beef in a tomato sauce with lots of peppers, veggies, and bit of extra piment.  We'll have to see how I feel in the morning to see if all the Kiliss I ate was a shock to my system!

Not found in Chad but a fond memory from my last trip to Germany

Monday, November 4, 2013

Germany Bound!

After 7 months straight in Chad I got to go on a trip to Germany for a conference!  Getting to Germany wasn't easy at all as my reservations for the direct flight from N'Djamena to Paris were deleted and I had to take the CamAir flight down to Douala to get a flight to Paris. Due to computer problems we had open seating all the way to Paris on completely full flights, so it was a free for all in getting onto the planes.

Unfortunately our CamAir arrived in Douala the same time as the Air France and Brussels flight and only one baggage carousel was working.  Naturally CamAir was the last to be circulated after an hour of watching other peoples baggage fall off the carousel in a packed hot humid room.  By the time by bag arrived I was completely sweat soaked and dehydrated.

Thankfully once I got past the vendors selling Eto'o jerseys there was an open breezeway where I could cool off.  As I was waiting for my flight to board I met a couple American doctors who had just wrapped up six-weeks volunteering in northern Cameroon.  They had fun stories of hanging out in the villages and the amazing diseases and problems they had only heard about in medical school or seen on the TV show "House."

Once aboard the flight to Paris and every seat was filled it was announced that there would be some minor delays, that ended up lasting two hours.  This delay in departure resulted in arriving in Paris two hours late and missing my connecting flight.  Once I got through another 45 min line to talk to the Air France representative about a new flight they informed me that they had no record of my next flight in the system, even though I had a copy of my tickets.

An hour later they finally straightened out my ticket and told me "we got you onto the next flight, but they have already started boarding.  If you can hurry, you can make it.  Don't worry about your checked bag, we will make sure it gets to Germany with you.  Your gate is just up the stairs and down the hallway." Down the hallway ended up being a 15 min scramble through the airport, up and down numerous stairs, and through two customs points.  I was almost the last one on the plane, but my bag didn't make it.

Upon arrival in Germany Air France called my name over the loudspeaker in baggage claim saying i needed to report to the representative.  The representative informed me that my bag didn't make the flight and they would forward it to me.  Again.  The last time I took Air France out of Germany my bag was lost between Paris and Germany and it took three days for them to deliver it to me.

The cool next part of my trip was taking the ICE train from the airport to Stuttgart and zipping along through the Germany countryside at 200km per hour.  The train was packed by Germans with suitcases and at every stop more got on.  It seems that the Germans were all going to Munich to celebrate the holiday weekend.

I really enjoyed the train ride through the countryside with the cool mist, green fields, and light breezes.  I am always amazed at how clean and organized Germany is, especially after extended periods on the continent.  I am so looking forward to the german food...

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Back to Faya

Last night my friends flew into town again and offered me a quick trip to Faya since they had to deliver some equipment and had space for an extra passenger on their plane.  Of course I jumped at the chance to return to Faya and was on the ground for a couple hours this morning.

In the few weeks since my last visit the N'Djamena area appeared significantly less green from the air but Faya was still exactly the same- an oasis in the middle of orange sand dunes and baked mud plateaus.

While in Faya I was told of the gold rush in the nearby hills which had brought hundreds of people to the region and have rented all the locally available SUVs.  A lot of provisions were in short supply and needed to be brought in from N'Djamena by air. Near the center of town at a large spring 30-40 men were resupplying with water and washing clothes before heading back into the desert.  

 In the low dunes right outside of town we also saw herds of camels being loaded into trucks to be carried into Libya where they will be sold.  The trucks would back up to a sand dune and drop the tailgate so the camels could walk directly onto the truck avoiding the need for loading docks or ramps. Its interesting how camels are still traversing the centuries old caravan routes across the desert but now in the back of a truck.
 Some of the locals were also telling me stories of the nearby (250km away) lakes with hot springs or another 350km away with Nile crocodiles but nowhere near the Nile river.  They said if I had two weeks and would pay for the fuel they would take me to both lakes.  I wish I had the time and the money!

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Anti-Poaching & the CGI

Its great that the Clinton Global Initiative wants to stop poaching in Africa.  I want it to stop too but it takes a lot of money, time, and effort especially as the poachers are often more motivated than the government troops sent to stop them.  For example, some of the poachers in Southern Chad/Central African Republic have been Sudanese military troops on leave who took their gun trucks with heavy machine guns and RPGs to hunt some elephants.  The also had radios and GPS units that allowed them to spread out and avoid the park police and local military units.  In some cases they killed the elephants with an RPG or chopped them up with their heavy guns.  

So will the Clinton plan train and equip troops and put them into battle with heavily armed poachers?  Will it provide air intelligence as in small-UAVs as despite being a dedicated and important asset in the fight against poaching, the Africa Parks Network of aircraft is a small force with limited assets and coverage? Perhaps they have deep pockets like the Clooney network and can provide satellite surveillance but once the poachers are detected can they action troops in a timely manner to catch the poachers in the act?  The areas where poachers operate are vast and the road networks are very poor.  In many places even on the roads you can only travel 30 miles per hour, cross country is much slower.  It will also be hard to distinguish from the air (or space) what is a poacher, rich farmer, local politician, NGO vehicle, or military truck.  Also in some areas the forest canopy is nearly impenetrable except by sophisticated sensors.

Many African military troops don’t get a lot of time on the range practicing their marksmanship.  Ammunition is expensive and a luxury that most regular army troops can’t afford.  Plus in many places ammunition is strictly controlled so the troops don’t run amok and try to seize power in a military coup d’etat.  Some militaries have GPS and high-tech radios but most units don’t have these expensive items, and again it is often in the best interest of the ruling powers to keep the military poorly equipped and untrained so they don’t become a threat to the state.  The units that get all the toys and funding are usually the ones most loyal to the head of state or assigned to protect the government.  

Some of the resources that will be needed will require new export licenses for the sharing of technology that is currently banned due to fears of abuses by the regimes.  For example certain weapons, aircraft, and night vision goggles are prohibited by Congress for export to many African nations.  If new toys are authorized for export or acquired from other sources it is not likely that the toys will end up in the hands of the anti-poaching forces but more likely in the hands of the elite presidential guard units.  Training up other units will upset the delicate political balance in the country where the power is centralized in order to protect the head of state.  If an outside power were to suddenly develop high tech capabilities, advanced marksmanship, and be able to maneuver they would become a legitimate threat to the state as they may be the most capable military unit in the country.

The actual troops that get committed to the fight will likely not be well trained, well armed, nor able to maneuver to engage the poachers.  In which case they will likely be slaughtered if they can find the poachers.  Many elite African military units don’t even have detailed maps of their country where they operate.  

Developing a military force in Africa is a very complex proposition especially in dealing with regional military forces that have basic capabilities.  Social, economic, and domestic as well as international political considerations need to be taken into account.  Everybody hates poaching and wants to do something about it and its easy to take a pledge or make a commitment and throw money at the problem.  There are plenty of people out there who are willing to take money and develop training programs.  However, many of these programs may only absorb cash and leave an ineffective program behind or immature forces that aren’t really prepared for the intended fight.  

The process of finding poachers in the act, relaying the message to troops on the ground, maneuvering them to engage and defeat the poachers is a highly complex challenge.  Given that these poachers operate in forested areas that cover thousands of square miles this mission to defeat poaching can be more difficult than tracking extremist fighters across the deserts of northern Africa.  The US, France, and other western powers have dedicated hundreds of millions in dollars and immense task forces to this mission and have achieved limited success even with using their sophisticated resources and highly trained forces.  

The CGI says it is taking a three-pronged approach to fighting poaching: stop the killing, stop the trafficking, and stopping the demand but I think stopping the killing may be the hardest thing to do.  The easier places to impact poaching is in the international transport/trafficking of the items as they leave the continent and when they arrive at their destination.  But then again, the global war on drugs isn't going so well either.