‘Les cicatrices c’est notre passeport’, Disappearing histories in Southern Chad


Roro: a market where three countries meet @Mirjam (2017)

The taxi driver who brings us back to Sarh from Kyabe is a young man. He wears the signs of his family on his face. He is Sara-Kabba, an ethnic group that has its main living space around Lac Iro in Central Chad. He shares a story with us: He once searched adventure in Yaoundé, Cameroon. He went without a coin in his pocket and was wandering the streets of Yaoundé when a person talked to him, asking where he came from, pointing at his scars. They were from the same region and same ethnic group, brothers. Hence he found his place to stay. You see, ‘les cicatrices, c’est notre passeport’. But he adds that this is also the past. It has not much meaning today.

Forgotten cultures
We are travelling to Southern Chad, through Moundou, Sarh to Kyabe and final destination Roro, the region of Lac Iro. We enter a forgotten land, not flooded by NGOs, where the state’s social services are almost absent. The few health centers that we see are equipped by religious missions of various denominations. There is one ethnographic work on the region, written by Claude Pairault (1923-2003)° and based on research done in the 1960s.

During our trip we meet Yaya Sarria, a dancer from Chad. He is travelling the region for a month to find out about songs and dances that are at risk of being forgotten. ‘All artists should know this’, he exclaims. We listen to the songs he and his friend gathered: beautiful stories told on rhyme, women singing at funerals, and so much more. Almost everything they have recorded is the art of old people. Young people do not learn these songs any longer. They also recorded interviews with people who relate about their traditions and lifestyles that are in danger as a consequence of subsequent wars and new religious forms.

Loss of resources
Southern Chad has been suffering – like all other parts of the country – from more and less intensive periods of wars and rebellions. The main heritage is non-development. Conflict and war eat resources that are hence not invested in the country for infrastructure or other purposes. The exploitation of oil during the past decade did not


A ministry building in Sarh, renewed colonial building @Mirjam (2013)

change much, apparently. Even though the road from Moundou to Kyabe was built by means of oil money, after Kyabe the road stops altogether and, so it seems, all other things we see as modernity as well. The recent developments in the region can be summarized around issues of land and refugees, partly the result of conflicts in neighbouring countries. Add to this the kleptocratic character of the state’s ruling clan and the recent crisis that has hit Chad and one can imagine that the relative stability of the past ten years, including the oil money, has not changed much to the conditions of the people in this region.

However, the market in Roro is a space of encounters, here the three countries (Sudan, CAR and Chad) meet and the people from the region come to sell their cattle, food, and Kalashnikovs. It is an impressive market. Roro is a far-away place for those who come from N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, but a central place in the region. It’s also a place where the government receives a lot of tax income, but these revenues cannot stay in Roro, as it depends on Kyabe, the district capital, where the money goes to. The money flows somewhere but not back into this region.

Identity and belonging
How does the population in this region relate to recent history? What are their points of reference? Where do they belong to? In a recent study Souleymane Adoum a Chadian historian, explains about the lack of archives in this region. All archives in Sarh-region have disappeared in fires or pillage or have simply been destroyed by the rains in the dilapidated houses. During the various rebellions people were also forced to abandon their ‘modern’ objects, as those objects did not fit the rebellions’ anti-Western ideology, hence all letters and pictures or other objects that are reminiscent of personal histories are gone. For his research Souleymane depended almost completely on oral histories and life stories.


Cailcidrat, colonial trees through the ruine of Hôtel de Chasse @Mirjam (2017

In Sarh we come across a small museum. It has no money to buy objects. Hotel deChasse, a colonial legacy, was burned down ten years ago – an accident. However, the state did restore the colonial buildings in this town. It seems a strange contrast to me that the colonial legacy is conserved, while the region just outside Sarh is lacking all social services. The museum could have been an important point of reference for young and old people to discover their identity. But it is visited only rarely and contains so little objects that it feels as if the country has no history nor memory.

Chinese art


Place de la nation: N’Djamena (internet picture)

What then is the orientation for the youth? The ethnic markers? As the young taxi driver continues, referring to his scars: ‘These are now remnants of the past. We no longer do this; things are changing’. Many people from the region Sarh now live in N’Djamena. The search for a little income cracks up most youth; the university is on strike all the time, surviving in the city is difficult. The image they develop of the world is a polarized one, due to differences with Europe and the USA but especially due to the differences within their own country: between the rich who flourish well and the poor who are denied a normal subsistence. The president promised a ‘renaissance’, but this is only captured in symbols created by Chinese artists, such as the Place de la Nation in N’Djamena, or in the restauration of colonial remnants in Sarh. Are these really meant as new symbols of identity? In Chad people cannot choose their own symbols of belonging. Their symbols of history and identity have disappeared and the replacements are empty.

Yaya Sarria’s art project should be continued!

°Claude Pairault, 1966, Boum-le-Grand,, village d’Iro, Paris, Institut d’ethnologie, collection Travaux et Mémoires LXXIII. ;  Claude Pairault, 1994, Retour au Pays d’Iro, Chronique d’un village du Tchad, Paris : Karthala

Whose minds need to be revolutionised?

Guest author: Catherina Wilson, PhD researcher in the project ‘Connecting in Times of Duress’, www.connecting-in-times-of-duress.nl, for which she travels the borders between CAR and DRC.

Sapin behind the easel at Libenge’s main market’s corner.

Sapin behind the easel at Libenge’s main market’s corner.

An artist, a historian and a researcher

Sapin is a Kinshasa based popular painter. Popular painters are mostly innate, self-taught artists who learn the art at the ateliers of more experienced painters. Since childhood, Sapin used to make sketches for his friends at school. He often recalls the anecdote of how he, at the age of ten, used to shape a crocodile out of sand each evening. The neighbourhood kids baptized this reptile the wild animal. Sapin would have liked to go into university or to study arts but was not encouraged to do so. He points to the neglect of both his parents. His father was even against the idea of an artistic career, forcing Sapin to finish his secondary school in electricity instead.

At the age of twenty, Chéri Chérin, one of Kinshasa’s famous popular painters, took Sapin under his wing. Sapin started developing skills and meeting people. Through his art, Sapin has befriended many mindele (whites). The relation with researchers like us who visit Kinshasa, is partly linked to his art, and to the knowledge he has of his city; walking with Sapin in Kinshasa is like walking with a living encyclopaedia, one that jovially mixes historical facts, personal anecdotes and lyrics of anciens succès (Congolese ‘golden oldies’). Sapin is a great storyteller and entertainer. On a deeper level, Sapin’s relationship with researchers finds its roots in an innate thirst for knowledge.

Observing Sapin has taught me that he is not just an artist, but also a researcher and a historian at heart. Curiosity is the first prerequisite for being a good researcher. Sapin is curious and has showed at several reprises an urge to delve into the past. Experience is another asset in the researcher’s repertoire and it has taught Sapin. As mentioned before, Sapin has accompanied researchers at various occasions during their data collection; instead of standing by idly, he observes and participates, he notes down, he asks questions and makes interviews, he pushes the researcher to think. It was Sapin who first came up with the idea of what would later be called a ‘painting performance’. When I asked him what a researcher is, he responded: someone who understands something in order to share it with others. What he most admires in the researcher is the latter’s courage. Sapin’s lack of studying has become a weight on his shoulders, a hindrance, however, by meeting up with researchers he has learned to be courageous too. He now dares to ask questions himself, he dares to know, and thus to quench his thirst.

Papa Henri’s project in Libenge: An incentive for the imagination

A couple of months ago, I told Sapin the story of Papa Henri in Libenge, where I did research. Libenge is an awkward little city is the northern Congo, along the shores of the Ubangui river, at the border between Congo and the Central African Republic. On the one hand it is a jewel in the jungle – old colonial houses, roads bordered with ancient mango trees, and home to Congo’s first international airport. On the other hand, Libenge is a thorn in the heart. Decay and forlornness have become too painful to observe. The best example of this are the carcasses of what was supposed to be the Panafrican University, built during Mobutu’s reign: 25 auditoriums, eleven student homes, an autonomous electricity central… all looted, forgotten and eaten by the jungle.

Balancing between glory and forlornness, Libenge is a historian’s paradise and Sapin’s enthusiasm motivated me to conduct a joint project around Papa Henri. In the past, Sapin had worked around a student insurgency that took place in Kinshasa in the 1960s. This experience motivated him to relate important yet unknown stories of his country to his compatriots. Now it would be Papa Henri’s turn to, perhaps, enter history. Papa Henri’s passion for his work inspired Sapin: “He is irregularly paid and works in a dead airport, yet despite of his age he fosters a love for his job. Why is he still working? And what has become of the first international airport on Congolese soil?”.

Sapin started his painting at the premises of the Libenge airport.

Sapin started his painting at the premises of the Libenge airport.

Sapin considers himself as a big absent of the past, a missing witness. His imagination was triggered by the airport’s history. Libenge received Congo’s first international flights. It was here that the first airplanes from Brussels landed, and it was here that, for instance, in 1960 Kasa Vubu, Lumumba, Tshombé and others took the plane to attend the famous Table Ronde in Brussels, announcing the eve of independence.

 30 June 1960, then Congolese delegation (L to R): Kasa Vubu, Lumumba, Bomboko and the Belgian King Baudoin at the Brussels airport. Did the plane at the back pick up its passengers in Libenge? Source: http://www.lecongolais.cd/quavons-nous-fait-de-lindependance/

Congolese delegation (L to R): Kasa Vubu, Lumumba, Bomboko and the Belgian King Baudoin at the Brussels airport. Did the plane at the back pick up its passengers in Libenge? Source: http://www.lecongolais.cd/quavons-nous-fait-de-lindependance/

For the occasion, African Jazz wrote the celebrated Indépendance Tcha Tcha, one of Sapin’s favourite ancient succès.

Alternative methods, alternative ways of ‘writing’

The purpose of Papa Henri’s project was to collect data in an alternative way, through a visual method. A painting elicits conversation and discussion among people. Discussion can be fruitful for understanding. A painting performance allows those who do not normally take part in the discussions to participate, for instance children. It was a way to share this great episode of history with Libenge’s own children, both young and old.

Research is often presented in written documents. Being able to write well (implying: proficiency of language in terms of spelling and grammar, but also access to computers) is another requisite for good research. Writing empowers the researcher to analyse, to understand and to share with others what s/he has collected in the field. But what does writing mean? There seems to be correct and erroneous writing systems. Moreover, writing is institutionalized and politicized. The Congolese educational system is in crisis, making writing dysfunctional. Does this imply that many Congolese are excluded from a life as a researcher? Are there other semiotic systems through which knowledge can be shared? Is our Western vision on how data should be analysed global, encompassing and fair?

During our visit to Libenge I gave an introductory course on anthropology, which consisted of a theoretical and a practical part. During the practical part, Sapin posed his easel in front of the students and painted, as he had been doing elsewhere in Libenge. I asked the students what type of data one could collect through a painting performance that one could not through an interview? To which one of the them replied: “In short, we can conclude that painting is the monument of speech. Painting materializes what speech expresses ephemerally. Words are carried away but that which is written (painted) is kept.”[1]

Through painting Sapin shared our research with others, mixing historical facts to social commentary. He ignited conversation, he ignited thought. A painter is a popular igniter. In the case of Libenge, he ignited conversations on how the country was and how it is today. But in me, he ignited more than that. Sapin ignited the question of the various possibilities to display research, of which writing is only one…

[1] “Bref, on peut conclure que la peinture est le monument de la parole. Elle matérialise en concrétisant ce que la parole exprime par l’air volatif comme on a dit tantôt : La parole s’en va mais les écrits (peintures) restent.”