Friday, January 6, 2017

Chad - The Reality of Africa

This is a review of Ambassador to a Small World - Letters from Chad by Christopher E. Goldthwait, Vellum, Washington, D.C. 2015. Note that I did two stints at the U.S. embassy in Ndjamena, so can readily attest to the validity of this memoir. 

In this memoir Ambassador Chris Goldthwait recounts his nearly four years (2000-2003) as the U.S. envoy to Chad.  Among other things it is an interesting recitation of travels to exotic locations, often over difficult roads, in one of the world’s most out-the-way nations.  However, wherever he went - and he apparently went almost everywhere one could go in Chad - Goldthwait encountered friendly hospitable folks who always offered refreshments and food. He went to the stark northern deserts, to nomadic enclosures near Lake Chad, to Zakouma Park, to the far eastern border (before the area became inundated with refugees from Darfur) to the impoverished, neglected (but better watered) south, and to the oil fields both before and during exploitation. Goldthwait describes the protocols of ambassadorial travel in Africa - official calls on prefects and chiefs, meetings with elders, meetings with communities, meetings with civic groups - all replete with endless rounds of speeches, explanations and requests for assistance.  Goldthwait notes that the objective of such travel was to learn about the hinterland, about the people and their problems. He accomplished that, but a key impact of his visiting was simply for an American ambassador to be present.  Presence alone demonstrated that the wider world recognized the struggle of life in rural Africa and validation of the hopes and aspirations of its inhabitants. 

Goldthwait also provides wonderful descriptions of the capital city of Ndjamena and its residents ranging from the most distinguished to those of lesser means.  Additionally, through Goldthwait’s eyes the reader gains solid insights into Chad’s turbulent history, its relations with France and with neighbors, its troubled internal politics, and its near constant state of conflict and rebellion.  Despite faltering, the ambassador saw some progress and more avenues for additional progress as Chad slowly sheds its provincialism and emerges more fully into the modern world. 

While the memoir describes the life of an ambassador - and Goldthwait made clear that he disliked some aspects of the job - it does pose and ponder a number of questions related to American policy toward Chad, whether democracy objectives are obtainable, whether international oversight of Chad’s oil revenues is workable, and whether western development assistance is the right approach to the pervasive problems of poverty.

The memoir is constructed by juxtaposing a series of letters that the Ambassador wrote to friends back home.  Although while taken together the letters provide a cohesive portrait, they appear in the book in a non-chronological order. A reader can get confused about what happened when. Also there is a bit of redundancy as various letters re-plow the same ground.  That being said, the book is a must read for any outsider on his way to Chad, but it is also relevant to those who want to understand Africa and/or the roles that United States ambassadors play there.

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