The day sixty military and two government ministers came to Guinebor II Hospital

Last weekend started out like any other.  I relaxed at home on Saturday morning after a busy week at the hospital.  Then I went to a friend’s house to have lunch and watch a film.  Lunch included some bacon that I’d stored in my freezer since February.  Yes, you read that right!  Bacon isn’t available here, so I’d squirreled it away when my Mum and Dad brought it out when they visited in February!  I returned to my house on the hospital site around 6pm before it got dark.

I was just thinking about what I was going to eat that evening and how I was going to continue my relaxed weekend, when my phone rang.  It was Allain, our hospital administrator. 

‘Claire, I just received a phone call from the (network cut out and I didn’t hear title of person) at the ministry of health.  (Network cut out) is coming to the hospital tomorrow at (network cut out)’

I go next door to my Cameroonian colleague Kalbassou’s house and together we call Allain back.  Turns out an inspector at the ministry of health had called Allain, at 7.30pm on a Saturday evening, to say that the first lady of Chad was going to visit the hospital at 7am tomorrow (yes, Sunday!) morning.  It was all part of ‘citizenship week’ that ran from 13 – 19 August here in Chad.

We ask Allain to ensure he’s at the hospital before 7am the following morning and then go up to the hospital to make sure things are as clean and tidy as possible.  We all knew *something* was going to happen on Sunday morning, but we weren’t totally sure what.  Or exactly when.  Or even if the first lady *really was* going to turn up.

Sunday arrives and I must admit, I had to drag myself out of bed to go up to the hospital for 7am.  Allain, Kalbassou and I continue cleaning.  I’m looking slightly overdressed for the task, having decided to already wear my ‘special clothes’.  Kalbassou, being more culturally aware than I’ll ever be, knew that nothing would actually happen at 7am and turned up in house clothes to do the cleaning and then went home and got changed!  As the first lady was supposedly visiting, I decided to wear my ‘women’s day 2018’ outfit.  It was nice to wear it to a special occasion, because I was ill on women’s day itself (8th March) and didn’t get to wear it then.  I thought it would look good to wear this as I heard that the first lady helps design the women’s day fabric each year.  I may be wrong on that.  But hey, I thought it would show female solidarity with the first lady, in a male-dominated society.

8am arrives and Allain comes looking for Kalbassou and I who’ve returned to our homes, somewhat dubious as to whether anything was actually going to happen.  ‘Come, quick, the military have arrived’ he says.  Kalbassou, in his freshly pressed smart outfit, emerges from his house as I pass by and the three of us go to greet the military.  There were *loads* of them.  We shake hands with the more senior looking ones and they tell us that, as part of citizenship week, they’ve come to ‘clean the hospital’.  What they actually meant by this was that they wanted to pull up all the grass and anything else green they could see.  Because, according to them, it’s not good to have grass around the hospital as it attracts mosquitoes.  We white people quite like the grass to be honest, as it’s only here for 3-4 months in rainy season and then it dies and the ground is brown again.  I thought it was a bit ironic though, that 30 minutes after the army general told us it wasn’t good for the hospital to have grass as it attracts mosquitoes, about 10 soldiers are discreetly smoking cigarettes……
Some of the military vehicles outside the hospital

There must’ve been at least 60 military in the hospital grounds, armed with shovels, wheelbarrows and rakes.  They set to work ‘cleaning’ the hospital and making it look tidy and brown again.  At this point, I must interject and tell you that our hospital groundsmen mow the grass that appears in rainy season and generally attempt to keep the place looking tidy.  It’s not like the grass was 6 feet tall and looking a mess!

The soldiers starting work

More soldiers starting work

After finishing the first part of the work they did

Selfie with military in the background.
Decided there’s unlikely ever to be another time when I can
take this kind of picture without having a gun
pointed at me or my phone confiscated!

Allain is told by one of the generals that he’s waiting on a call and maybe the first lady *and* president are coming.  I’m thinking that that’s a bit far-fetched but, this is Chad, anything can happen.

After the military have ‘cleaned’ the main area in the hospital, they decide it’s time to plant a commemorative neem tree.  Where should they put it?  All eyes are on me.  I remember that we had to uproot a small dead tree next to the men’s ward a month or so ago and so decide we can plant the new tree there.  They all want the nasara (white person) in the photo of the planting of the commemorative neem tree, so I oblige, under some duress, to show willing.

Planting the neem tree (photo taken after I’d already
posed near it, pretending to help plant it)

Selfie with Allain (left) and Kalbassou (middle) while
the soldiers took a break

After a snack and water break, the generals then get wind of the fact that we have a caregiver village and so decide they want to go and ‘clean’ out there too.  To be honest, this was actually a great thing they did because the grass does get a bit unruly out there.  The military get started and around 11am the call comes in to one of the generals.  The minister of health and minister of defence are on their way (so no sign of the president or first lady, after all).  The military continue to work hard clearing the grass and weeds, watched by some bemused caregivers, who are there preparing food for their family members who are inpatients at the hospital.  Thirty minutes later the call comes in that the ministers are two minutes away.  The generals, Allain, Kalbassou and I all go to meet them at the main hospital gates.

Ministers’ convoy arriving

We shake hands and are introduced to the two ministers.  The generals then give a whistle-stop tour, literally, of the hospital.  None of us who work there are actually asked anything about the hospital and the generals just lead the ministers around the buildings, showing off all the brown they’ve created, the rest of us trying to keep up. 
Start of the whistle-stop tour with the Minister of Health
(in the middle with white t-shirt) and the Minister of Defence
(almost out of shot on the left next to Kalbassou)

We arrive out in the caregiver village.  The rest of the military are still there finishing off.  The generals and ministers punch the air in solitude with the soldiers and as a way of demonstrating their appreciation.  The ministers are then photographed wheeling a wheelbarrow of pulled-up weeds, which they promptly empty outside the hospital gates, in a puddle, to try and ‘dry it up’.
Minster of Health helping with the tidy-up

We then pose for a photo with the ministers before they drive off again, no more than 15 minutes after arriving.
Allain, Kalbassou and I with the
Minister of Health (in white t-shirt next to me)
and the Minister of Defence (next to Minister of Health)

The military, who by now have been at the hospital for four hours, are still going for it and are in good spirits.  After another thirty minutes they decide they’ve thoroughly ‘cleaned’ the hospital and are ready to take off.  Not before, however, we pose for yet more photos.  Then a small group of military form a circle around yours truly and ask for a speech.  One of them is pointing a mobile phone in my face, ready to film.  I look at Kalbassou, who knows I’ll be slightly panicking inside (I was a tiny bit, but not as much as I would have been when I first arrived in Chad 2.5 years ago.  I guess I’m learning to expect the unexpected).  He tells me to just say thank you and that we’re grateful that they came.  I did just that, even saying some words in Arabic (it didn’t seem to impress them though).  The military all seemed happy with my short speech.  As we waited for them to load up in the back of their Toyota pick-ups, I quietly asked Allain if what I’d said was ok.  ‘It was ok’, he said, ‘but a bit short’.  Thanks for the encouragement Allain!  I say to him that I’m not great at giving impromptu speeches.  He told me that I need to always be ready to give a speech.  Great.  I’ll bear that in mind for the next time……

We stand at the hospital gates and cheer and wave the military off as they drive away, swerving around the puddles of water that are a feature of the roads here right now.

A crazy but kind-of fun morning.  In all honesty, overall, it was a privilege to have the Chadian military and government officials here at the hospital.