Disaster Relief Journal: Day 6

Disaster relief in an IDP camp
A young girl waiting for disaster relief by a clay pot called a Dabanga used to store grain

Last night, after 2 very short nights, I slept soundly for 12 hours and woke up without a fever as the guys were coming back from church.  It would really stink to spend a bunch of my limited time out here being incapacitated so I’m really trying to rest up today and kick this bug before I really dive head-first into the disaster relief work in Chad.

While lounging around today, casually washing out a few bits of clothing, reading and listening to my MP3 player, I started thinking about yesterday with more and more satisfaction.  I’m weird and get my thrills in weird, obscure ways.

After visiting various projects, on the way back to town, we passed a hut with a very large, newly-made clay pot on its side.  I recognized this as a traditional way people in the Sahel store their grain.  They stand it on end, pour their harvested grain into it, then seal the top with mud to keep pests out and moisture in.  It is a great system that works so much better than sacks and doesn’t require harmful pesticides.  But when people are feeling insecure (like when a disaster is about to happen), they will use sacks so they can run away with them or hide them if they’re attacked.  So I was thrilled to see the dabanga, as it is called.

We stopped to chat with the family.  Only educated people speak French here, so Nick and I spoke with them through one of the staff who translated for us.  In the heat of the day the sun here is really scorching, so women usually collect on mats in small groups in the shade with their smallest children and neighbors to do small hand-tasks until the worst of the heat passes.  The men are usually either off in the market or snoozing in their huts.  It’s a mellow time, a time for catching up on what’s happening and gain strength for the afternoon and evening chores.

Woman in need of disaster relief in Chad Africa
Woman in need of disaster relief in Chad Africa

This is the best time to sit and chat with these busy, industrious women.  I thank my stars that I’m a woman in this job because I can often sit with them and they’ll be at their ease, telling me all sorts of stuff about how they get on in life that they’d never tell a man.  This is critical for knowing what sorts of disaster relief type help they need.  It was about 3pm and three women and a couple of small children at this house were still hanging out in the small asylum of shade afforded by a grass platform.

By normal standards, this dabanga was a bit smaller than you’d see in a village, and they’d often have several of them as well.  This tells me they had a smaller harvest this year than they would have had before the crisis and therefore not nearly enough to carry them through the year – though still a fair amount.  But the very fact that they had been able to find land on which to cultivate anything, that they’d had the confidence in the level of security to invest in planting, and that they’d been able to plant enough to warrant a dabanga was all very positive.  They said they had come from a village about 50km away but still didn’t feel safe enough to live there full time.  Since they were able to get hold of a field nearby, they didn’t risk cultivating their fields in their villages, but they said some others did risk the trip.  As we carried on back to town, we noticed quite a few other dabangas around that camp.  This was such a positive sign it really made my day even with my descent into the flu.

Children who need disaster relief in Chad
Children who need disaster relief in Chad

It made my day because I remember when we first came out to Goz Beida in February last year (2007).  Some people had already been in the camps for 3 months without any help from people providing disaster relief.  They were all but starving.  Several families would share one cooking pot to cook the small amount of food they had.  Few had more than the clothes on their backs.  They were living in very small huts made of grass tied together.  Sources of water were very few and very far.  It would take about 8 hours to get one container of water at a very muddy well.  Whole families were drinking and cooking, living on less than a gallon (4 liters) per person per day in temperatures above 100F (38C), about 1/3 the minimum recommended amount of water.  Sanitation was abysmal.  People were living from day to day, even hour to hour.  There was an outbreak of hepatitis due to the poor sanitation and bad water.

Now, though the food they get from aid is erratic, they are starting to rebuild their asset base and get themselves back on their feet.  Wells and latrines installed by other agencies have addressed the water and sanitation issues, but we had a very large role to play in their recovery at the household level.  Although we are only one of about half a dozen humanitarian organizations working here, our activities have directly benefited these families.  We have directly provided over $1M in direct cash wages to people in the camps over the last year and a half.  This money helped them to buy the basics when the UN rations didn’t materialize and helped them to buy the tools to cultivate, the medicines for their remaining donkeys, clothes, and to give them the hope to plant again.

A dabanga may just be a giant clay pot to some people, but to me it is a sign of hope and encouragement, it is a first sign of a return to some small sense of recovering a lost life.

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