My Lessons in Desolation

A few years back I was working as an aid worker in the eastern Chadian town of Abeche, on the Sudanese border. I was seeking to prepare the ground for the Sudanese refugees who were fleeing the Janjaweed militia. Abeche is a miserable Saharan village, where I arrived after a grueling 16 hour drive across the desert; almost losing my way several times upon the sandy ‘superhighway’. In the center of the town stands an old French prison and a two-story public utilities building (the nicest building in town – insert irony here). There are no paved roads, no electricity and no water.

As I went to work about my task of building a program, I developed a feeling of isolation and intense vulnerability – a feeling that has never really gone away. That place was not a place to live, it was a place to die. There was no ice for cooling; something I learned after getting a combination of heat stroke and food poisoning which kept me curled up on a dirty mattress under the only tree in the town for three days. There were no medical facilities; something I thought about with anxiety after seeing the UXO sitting half-buried in the sand, a reminder of the long Chadian civil war. There was no food, something a cursory visit to the tragic market confirmed. After recovering I began working, connected to my BGAN (satellite internet) and my Iridium phone; my tiny generator powering only my computer. Chatting with my friends on MSN Messenger, I realized just how tenuous was that spider-thin connection between our worlds – theirs of plenty and mine of need. They could not protect me from the hunger, the disease, the violence, or the desolation. But they could hear about it – an active witness to any misfortune that would befall me.

After my short time there, my work done, I left. Relieved to be leaving that horrible place, as I was driving out of town I passed by a blind Muslim woman begging – dressed in her full black burka under the pounding Saharan sun and led by a little boy. I was hit with the full force of guilt – I could leave, this woman could not. As I write this, a decade on, I realize she is probably still there, begging in the hot Abeche sun. The desolation and vulnerability, for me a passing frustration and risk, is her whole world.

Moving on a few years takes me to Venezuela. This time I am on the other side of a different and more sinister desolation. After years living and working among so many friends there, I moved on – following life’s paths. Not so the Venezuelans who are trapped in their ‘sea of happiness’ (Hugo Chavez’s words, not mine). The desolation of Venezuela is even odder and more tragic than that of Chad. There they have skyscrapers, movie theaters, state-of-the-art shopping malls and fantastic hospitals. A tourist arriving (not that any tourists arrive these days) would, at first glance, see all the vibrancy and power of a sultry South American nation. That is until the tried to buy something – anything.

Thanks to Bolivarian economics – a wholly self-induced isolation has seized that country.

If they get sick, while there are doctors and surgery rooms, there isn’t any medical equipment or materials – and no medicine, even if there were electricity (which is also intermittent, I’ve heard stories of surgeries being finished by the light of a cell phone – blackouts a product of Bolivarian management, not underdevelopment). Neither is there any food, as the 12 hour lines that form upon the whisper of bread or milk prove. There is also no work, even if you would want the $20 monthly minimum wage jobs. The pharmacies are empty, there are no cleaning supplies or industrial goods or spare parts when something breaks – much less luxuries like food and care for the pets of a formerly dog-loving country. And there are no rights – subject as the people are to their narco-overlords in government. The land that I knew has become a wasteland of pre-modern desolation nestled amid the cadavers of formerly great works of engineering that are now disintegrating in the tropical heat; the empty echoes and naked stares of the street urchins reverberating through the abandoned malls and unfinished buildings.

Their tenuous link to the outside? Twitter. And this time I am on the receiving end of the despair (made more bizarre because I am back in West Africa where we have things that the Venezuelans can only dream about). This time I hear the pleas of friends as they hunt for medicine or milk for a sick infant; as they suffer the injustice of hunger and the impunity of poverty in a land where they had plenty. Like the blind Chadian woman, they are also trapped – very few have the money necessary to move, even if they had the paperwork. The desolation has become their world, and despair their constant companion.

Yes, I have seen the desolation and it is an abomination.

As I travel around – making common cause with the desolation – I reluctantly admit to myself that I have probably lost that feeling of invincibility that accompanies so many westerners. Those of us who have faced the desolation know that it leaves a permanent stain upon the soul. And as I finish writing this, I look up into the eyes of my son, and hope and pray – as all fathers do, be they from Chad or Venezuela – that I will somehow be able to build a cushion around him to protect him from the creeping desolation.

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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2 Responses to My Lessons in Desolation

  1. Lino Miani says:

    Joel, I also worked in Abeche. Different industries perhaps but I just blogged about it…Check out Project Stranger, my blog/book project.


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