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

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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

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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.

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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

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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
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‘Life is misery’, Ismael alias ‘Izmo le Rapologue’

DSC_2583Cameroonian music is famous in West and Central Africa. The Makossa rhythm makes one dance so well. Rhythm is like beer, and still the hunger for freedom. Dance makes man feel free. Dance and music hide the illusion of freedom. Music and beer are allowed as long as they are not leading to criticism about the regime. But songs can bite! The recent death of artists tells a different story. We meet George in Douala. He is one of the ‘combatants’, member of the opposition party SDF, critical about the regime, critical about the role of France in Cameroon. ‘They keep the regime going’. He follows the critical music scene and relates the last suspicious deaths of artists: La Pirogue de Banga was imprisoned and died later in the USA where he was given asylum. It is told that he died of the maltreatment of his cancer in prison, or that he was poisoned. And the writer Charles Atena Eyene died a few weeks ago, also under suspicious circumstances, and Prof. Pius Ottou, and Pius Njawe…. Being an artist in Cameroon is not safe.

P1210300Izmo was present at the SLAM festival organized by Croquemort in N’Djamena a few weeks ago. He is an experienced artist, a rapper-slammeur. He is a good friend of Croquemort whose music he adores, and whose vocation he shares. In N’Djamena we spent some late night-hours together in the popular disco in the neighbourhood Moursal. He was drinking his beer, while I was dancing. We exchanged some words and sympathized. He is a giant, 1 meter 98 centimeter, with Rasta hair, and a very charismatic personality. His voice is magic. As he explains: ‘my voice is just there’, no schooling. He holds a BA in Law that did not give him access to a job. Since eight years he is into song-writing and music composing; he is now 30 years old.

Rotary members from Congo
We met again in Yaoundé on 8 April and he invited us to Emergence, a bar with life music. A small band was playing all kinds of songs, both African and other, not per se his nor my taste, but technically well done, which is enough for the techno musician he is. Being there also seemed an anomaly. The visitors to the bar were the relatively, sometimes ugly, rich who Ismael considers with a certain pity. Next to us a group of Rotary-Congo members were enjoying their evening. They were in Yaoundé for a Rotary meeting, spending money on poverty, and coming to these chique bars to dance with the Cameroonian girls they invited. These girls seemed rather non-interested in the fat men from Congo. Izmo does not need their money. He considers them part of the problems his songs are about.

Banal, shocking deaths
The next day we visited Izmo in ‘his quarter’, where he and his friends have a studio. It is here that he creates. These days he has been occupied with composing music for the new CD of Croquemort that will be launched mid-May.
Izmo is born out of wedlock. At the age of seven, he had to accept the death of his father. His father left Izmo three half-brothers from the marriage with his legal wife. These three brothers all left for the USA and it has been years since he heard from them. Izmo admires his mother, who tragically passed away a few years ago. During her working life as a nurse she took care of psychiatric patients. After retirement she turned mad herself, which became her death. She (also a giant, 1,84 meter) ran on the street in Douala, foolish and wild, people attacked her and she was killed by the mob. At that moment Izmo was in town for a concert. He found his mother’s body in the street, still warm. A shocking death of the woman he loved most in his life.
His daughter too died a tragic death in 2011: she needed urgent help in the hospital, but the main roads were closed because the president was passing. A sick child was no reason to let them cross. His daughter died in his arms.
Banal deaths are still common in Cameroon, but these deaths should not be forgotten. Izmo’s songs make us ponder.
These events have informed Izmo’s life, and music that talks critically and emotionally about the present day, the everyday tragic that is so common for citizens in the shadows of the world. His explanations about life and the injustices in his neighborhood, country and the world in general, are inspired by theories that embrace anti-colonial ideas, a form of Marxism, and foremost anger. It can be summarized as a sincere vocation of youth without chances.

DSC_2586Movement of musicians
Ismael wants to reach out to the wider Cameroonian, African and why not global public, preferably to the youth; youth that should be the backbone of uprisings and revolution, of protest. But how does Izmo relate to the other youth, who are oriented on consumption, who long to go to Europe or the US, and imitate the soaps on TV? They come on holiday in Cameroon and show off their bling bling. ‘This can be considered another form of protest; despite all uncertainty they have been successful and survive well materially. Showing bling bling is also a protest against their subordinate condition.’ In fact Izmo and his friends and these bling bling youth send out the same message.
‘Masters of the Game’ is a label of music producer Alain Balibi, alias Faucon. The label is like a movement and unites engaged and radical musicians, like Valsero and Izmo le Rapologue. In contrast to Chadian musicians, these artists do not receive funding from the Centre Culturel Francais, instead they receive threat messages from the Government and some of their songs are forbidden on radio or TV.
Izmo is tired of it. He feels that after twelve years of hard work he is still caged by the Cameroonian state. He has been in contact with several Europeans who were all delighted by his music, but never helped him make a career. His friend states over and over again that his talent is ‘dying’ here…

He deserves a much broader audience.

Chanson: CARINE

Refrain:
Carine n’a que 16 ans et déjà meurtrie dans sa chair;
il parait qu’elle souffre d’un cancer ; chaque jour elle se rend
chez le médecin et reçoit des coups de bistouri dans le sein.

Première couplet:
Pour elle ce n’est plus qu’une histoire de secondes;
le temps se compte c’est une course contre la montre;
elle a perdu l’éclat de son tendre visage comme si on retirait un soleil à un paysage;
une tumeur lui vole sa jeunesse, ronge sa chair;
impossible de lui passer une caresse, son corps est une boule de feu comme dit Kery:
il n’y a que la tristesse que tu peux lire dans ses yeux.

Refrain (2x)

Deuxième couplet:
Ce matin, un brin de sourire dès le réveil, elle a le soutien de toute la famille à son chevet, sa situation n’a pas du tout changé;
déjà habituée au piqure de seringue après le déjeuner, Carine s’inquiète de la fortune qu’elle coute à ses parents, car l’instituteur a renvoyé son jeune frère de l’école hier faute d’argent;
tout se dépense entre les médicaments et les poches de sang. Souvent sa maman se cache pour pleurer, entre le docteur et elle il n’y a plus de secret. On se rapproche du jour J, puisque la petite étoile va s’ éteindre comme la flamme d’une bougie.

Refrain (2x)

Troisième couplet:
Aujourd’hui nous sommes une matinée du 15 Juin, et désormais la petite Carine se compte parmi les victimes du destin;
c’est la consternation après constat et avis du médecin. Dans ce monde il n’ y a que les anges qui laissent leurs plumes, tu as été si vaillante jusqu’à la dernière minute, va puisqu’on est juste des traces du temps si fragile et si frêle telles des feuilles balayées par le vent.

Refrain (3x)

Translation of CARINE

Chorus:
Carine is only 16 years old and already dying in her body
She is ailing with cancer, every day she goes to
the doctor and receives ‘shots of scalpel’ in her breast

Verse 1
For her it is not more than a history of a few seconds
Time is short; it is a race against the clock
She lost the brilliance of her tender face, as if the sun was removed from the landscape;
A tumor steals her youthfulness, and eats her flesh
It is impossible to caress her, her body being like a fire ball; as Kery told: there is only sadness that one can read in her eyes

Chorus 2X

Verse 2
This morning starts with a little hope, a little smile since awakening, with the support of the whole family at her bedside; her situation has not changed at all.
Already used to the bites of the vaccination needles, after lunch, Carine is worried about the fortune that her parents spend on her, while the teacher sent her younger brother away from school; Lack of money to pay the fees, because of the high costs for medicine and sacks of blood.
Often her mother hides crying.
Between the doctor and her there is no secret, instead they come closer every day, the little star will extinguish like a candle flame.

Chorus 2X

Verse 3
Today we live in the morning of June 15, when the petite Carine belongs to the victims of destiny;
In the dismay after the conclusion and advice of the doctor, in this world it is only angels who leave their feathers behind. You have been so brave, until the last minute, go…, we are just traces of time, so fragile and brittle like the leaves that dance with the wind.

Chorus 3X

SLAM Scene in N’Djamena

Chad’s nightlife shows a different reality… does it? Is it in the boîte de nuits where the ethnic groups unite? The music imported from elsewhere, full with DJ’s beats, work as a drug for those who dance. Danse is the ‘medicine of the poor’, as an older man and artist said at a conference about ‘la danse in Africa’. He is right: for the youth dancing (and music) is like a medicine. To forget? Or to get energy, to unite and to be? Is it their quest for identity? And what role do the Jokers that we follow on our journey play in this quest?

Croquemort
The search for the Jokers brought us in contact with Croquemort, a famous SLAM artist in N’Djamena, Chad. He is part of the African SLAM scene. We participated in the SLAM festival he organized in N’Djamena: ‘N’djam s’enflamme en slam’. SLAM is a form of expression, musical poetry, poetry on melody. The words sing and flow into a blossoming rhyme that contains the critiques and emotions that are so much part of everyday life. It is a style that comes close to the ordinary person, it phrases experiences that may be horrific and therefore almost comic. There is no dance but there is rhythm, rhythm of words, that become sentences, that become poems composing a story for those who want to listen.

slammer-smallMedicine student
Croquemort’s success is probably mostly due to his open character and ways of connecting to others. He is not a poor young man, rather a middle class medicine student with a destination as a psychiatrist, who loves to make (protest) music. As a baby he already showed his rebellious character, refusing the mother milk from the start. His mother was very sick when he was born in Pala, Mundang country. He shares this start of his life as it explains his ‘being’. That is how ‘it’ started.

Being disciplined
It was not easy for him to become part of the music scene. First there were his parents to convince: his mother accepted it, but his father was ferociously against, until he understood that the music would not stop Croquemort from being a good doctor. He sent his son to a boarding school, to be disciplined. It conversely deepened his consciousness of inequality and the violent realities of social exclusion.

Free expression
The boarding school episode made him more determined to make music that could change and allow him free expression.  First he made modern urban youth music, freestyle and hip hop, until he discovered SLAM. The raw Chadian SLAM poetry became his passion and brought him into contact with Preston, a producer of music, film and clips, who pushed the creation of an album, a few years ago – album making is the basis of the hierarchy in this scene. Subsidized (partly) by the French Institut de la Francophony au Tchad,  Croquemort became the star of N’Djamena and his music the SLAM of the youth. He joined festivals of SLAM Poetry all over Africa and in France. This year his travels are cancelled, he doesn’t like the slow and bad organization of most of the festivals. He will soon travel to Cameroon but that will be for family reasons. Croquemort has a child-son and a Cameroonian wife.

Useful
His determination to make himself useful for his people and the quarter he lives in, ‘Chagoua’, is strong. As strong as his partly authoritarian character, that is in such contrast to the timid and modest young man he shows as well.

In Chad SLAM is of recent and people are not yet relating to it that much, but there is a future. SLAM allows the youth to express their frustrations. The former minister of Culture assured us that the Chadian government will let them do (…) as long as they do not become too influential. The Chadian governance structure, a rhizome creeping into every corner of society, will not allow them to become that influential; their open attitude will either be co-opted, or silenced violently.