Foley: Traveling through the heart of Africa

T.R. Foley

5/3/2013
T.R. Foley, InterMat Senior Writer
foley@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @trfoley

Let me first apologize about this week's mailbag. The Internet in Chad (Africa) is in-and-out, which makes it difficult to do the research necessary for a good mailbag. Being on location also limits emails with coaches and phone calls. Again, I apologize, but don't worry, all your questions will all be answered next week.

In lieu of the mailbag I wrote this little travel adventure from my time here in Africa. I'm a wrestler, and therefore a sucker for people and cultures that struggle. Chad is no exception. The people here are warm and kind, and this story is an honest account of my arrival. Since then we've competed the first day of the African Championships which were well-managed and exciting, with Chad winning its first-ever medals in Greco-Roman. You can see photos of their celebration on my Instagram, and the video will be uploaded to FILA.

It's important to note that no travel story can give you more than a sliver of self-selected insight into what is always a complex and vibrant society of individuals. Below is just my first impression of Chad, and some of the complications were based on my mistakes. I've also had some great experiences, all of which you can read about on the FILA Facebook page this week.

In Wrestling,

Foley



Like all impatient travelers, I ran to the front to the front of the immigration line.

An Ethiopian man impresses with his ability to carry passengers to work as he also transports a few dozen mattresses ... Foley spent two days in the capital city of Addis Ababa hustling to earn a visa to Chad
The N'Djamena airport in Chad is about the size of a high school basketball gym in Indiana. There are two processing windows for international passengers, a police/doctor's office and single baggage turnstile. If they wanted to wow their guests with grandeur, they fell several sand dunes short.

I'd spent much of my previous 48 hours shuttling around Addis Ababa in effort to collect the right letters and earn the right stamps to be approved for a Chadian visa. Though a chronically poor and violent country in the middle of the Sahara desert, a recent influx of money from mining and oil operations positioned the country to make the best bid for hosting the 2013 African Championships. That meant I needed to be on the ground no later than Wednesday, and I needed the visa before I could buy my plane ticket. After some intense haggling, a self-addressed but notarized letter, and a crisp $100 bill I was approved for my flight to Chad.

Cash flow into a poor economy typically creates more crime and less stability. Just today the Chadian President Idriss Deby squashed a coup attempt. Petty criminal activity is rampant in countries where there is a significant gap between the wealthy and poor, and under those circumstances, the corruption of officials is an unshakable leach on the system.

Despite the country's criminal adolescence I was pleased to be in Chad. I'd paid the fee for my visa, purchased a flight and had even reserved a hotel room. Just beyond customs I knew that there would even be a driver sent to pick me up and deliver me safely to my hotel. At the moment I was happy to be in Central Africa.

All guests of Chad are fingerprinted and made to stand for a photo. No problem, I thought, I certainly have nothing to hide (besides being a journalist). As they process my fingerprints I notice another, more informal passport check being held just beyond the immigration stand.

Approved, I walk to the luggage area to get my bags. The older man I'd seen checking passports stops me, and I gladly hand him my passport, happy with myself that I'd managed to secure this impossible-to-find document in only 12 hours of hustle.

The man's wearing a white, filthy, full-length lab coat. He points to a yellow slip of another passenger, and then points to me. Chad is a former French colony so the man spoke in broken Frenglish, "Immunizations. You. Shot record. Where?"

Jiminy Christmas. I had read online that travelers were supposed to have proof of Yellow Fever vaccinations, but the wildness of attaining my visa had seemed like a sufficient to justify admission to Chad. Besides, the consular never asked me about the shots, and the airline certainly didn't request my little yellow book.

"Don't have one. It's OK," I said. "No fever. I go now."

The man, who I now believe to be a "doctor" takes another glance at my passport, now latched in the grip of his long fingers, and asks me again for the vaccination. I respond once again that I don't have one, and he slips my passport into the pocket of his lab coat and turns his back.

"No, no, no, no. Not happening. I'm going. Passport. Now."

"You stay."

"No. I go. I go now."

"Where is shot record?"

"American. Don't have Yellow Fever ... Had shot as baby ..."

"No. Cannot enter."

"You ... I'm ... "

Anyone who has seen videos of an airlift from an Embassy can understand that your passport is your get-out-of-danger-this-second card. Lose those precious pages and you'll be the guy outside the gates of the Embassy while the city burns and rebel forces practice their short game with your baby blues. Understanding that, it also bears repeating that President Deby suppressed a coup attempt against his government TODAY.

Dr. Evil stands guard over Foley as he scouts the crowd for others who've violated his policy towards Yellow Fever vaccinations
The doctor makes some mention that I'll need to wait for the line to clear (150-plus people) after which point we'll "go to his office and take care of things." This is more worrisome than armed revolt. Chad is like a central processing plant for deadly, communicable diseases. The chances of me being infected by a needle used by the airport doctor -- a man who looks as competent as the kid who fills my Dairy Queen order in Stafford -- seem way too high for me to oblige his command. I make up my mind that under no circumstance will I be heading into the back room of the airport to have Dr. Evil inject me with some unknown, untested syrup from what could be a previously used needle.

I react in the manner fitting of my stress level, "United States Embassy, now. I go there for Doctor."

No response.

"United States Embassy. I go there for Doctor. I go NOW."

Again, silence.

The French Embassy runs a well-known, top notch clinic for white people in N'Djamena (Thanks, Wikipedia!) and since Chadians speak French, maybe an appeal to see their embassy will give him the message that I don't intend on letting a needle anywhere close to my arm. Pleas for help don't affect Dr. Evil and the more I chat, the more he flips through the passports and vaccination cards of Chinese workers.

As the minutes pass and the number of passengers dwindles, I grow more nervous about Dr. Evil's overwhelming confidence in his plan. If not, this episode ends with me fighting off armed Chadian soldiers. But I'm confused on what to do. What are my rights? What is standard procedure?

I assess my choices.

My first option is to lift the passport from the doctor and sprint through the doors. The only problem is that I don't know how to get to my hotel and I have no idea what is on the other side of the doors. Chances are I won't make it far, and will likely be shot dead by a narcotics-addled soldier (Google: Khat). Of course, I may only get arrested, in which case I'd be the star character in the 2015 iteration of Locked Up Abroad. "If I knew what would've happened I never would've punched that soldier ..."

The second option is to allow the doctor to prick me with an unknown needle in order to give me the vaccination. The only problem with that plan is that I can't afford a lifetime of medication for yellow fever, or worse, HIV. Chad has one of the highest rates of infection in Africa.

My final choice, which I know is equally risky, is to make a scene.

I know this makes me some type of uncultured jerk, but I feel confident I know when it's appropriate to pull the "I'm an American" stunt. Typically, you won't find me lowering my head and knocking over small Asian men on sidewalks, and I don't (often) yell during dinner conversations. However, when threatened by the comically evil doctor, I do utilize my best and only weapon: The Stars and Stripes.

I need to secure my luggage before I can make a scene. I bully past the female security officer and grab my checked luggage from a pile being minded for tips by random Chadians. One of them grabs at in the hopes I'll pay him for his efforts. It takes physicality, but he lets go of my bag.

Bag in hand, I walk back into the processing area and throw my stuff on the ground. I walk over to the doctor and place myself in his "personal space," to begin a floppy-armed diatribe about my rights.

Stuck on words to say in French that might charm him into handing over my passport, I start repeating the President of Chad's name, along with the word "lutte" which in French means "wrestling." By now the passport line has shrunk significantly, and in ten minutes I'll be taken to the back room, and forced to play Chadian Roulette.

Dr. Evil hasn't responded to my rants, so I increase my animation and the LEVEL OF MY VOICE. Still nothing. I block the exit with my body to prevent more passengers from leaving the room and raise my voice again, this time to the octave that says, "I'm prepared to be arrested."

I'm swarmed by police.

It might read like I was willing to be incarcerated, but I knew that the more self-important officials that became involved in this affair, the more the chance that one of them could be rational. At the very least I hoped that one of them would outrank needle-happy Dr. Death.

A chubby cop in civilian clothes pulls me aside and tells me he's sorry, but I'm headed back to Addis Ababa. "You need shot," he points to a sign. "No shot? Back to Ethiopia."

"No. I'm staying. Give me back my passport RIGHT NOW."

My thought at the time was that if I keep up the theatrics, and continue to be difficult, this bozo would have to quiet me down. He has the upper hand -- you DO need a yellow fever vaccination to enter Chad -- but if he thinks I'm bullheaded then what was about to happen wouldn't be as painful.

"OK, OK, let me see your pen."

Here it comes.

Common roadside scene in N'Djamena
Fatty takes a blue pen from my shirt and writes "$100" on the thumb of his left hand. "I talk to doctor. Maybe he says "yes," maybe he does not."

I don't budge. I'm not going to collapse in capitulation at the start of a bribe. He'll just come back and ask for more.

Fatty doesn't like my tone and with wide-eyes he points to the sign describing the policy. I know he could ask for $300 and I'd pretty much have to pay, so with a win close at hand, I pull out my wallet and show him $80.

"No," he tells me.

"Oui."

We stare at each other. He has got a pudgy little face, cheeks plumped from thousands of bribes just like this. He's the worst type of public official, a man with a modicum of power who extorts cash from tourists while his countrymen, sweet and endearing to a man, are made to suffer.

Traditional Senegalese wrestlers battle in out in Dakar. In addition to freestyle, Greco-Roman and women's styles, the African Championships are also hosting a traditional tournament as a way to help draw in more teams
Fat boy breaks eye contact, "OK, OK. One minute."

Chunk walks over to the doctor, whispers a few words and completes the bribe. "No say anything about this," he whispers to me with my passport floating in mid-air, a half-extended gesture meant to have me exchange obedience for my passport.

"No chance, big guy."

I walk through customs and find the driver sent by the hotel to pick me up. We wait 30 minutes for another hotel guest to arrive, and in that time I see dozens of customs agents taking money and goods from the Chinese workers pushing their bags through a non-operational X-ray machine. The sweeter the Chinese act, the more the officials extorted.

Finally ready to leave, the driver walks me to the front of the airport and opened the door. The 110 degree heat slams against my face. I hobble down the staircase with my bags looped over both arms and swinging wildly.

The commotion catches the attention of a soldier at the bottom of the stairs. He's wearing a black beret and blue and white camouflage. Tall and well-built he makes eye contact -- his eyes are bloodshot and glassy, mine are wide open. On his cheeks, a matching set of thin scars running vertical from his eyes. In his left hand he holds a burning cigarette. In his right, a double barrel shotgun.

"Welcome to Chad," says my driver. "This is my country!"

Comments

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vikcheema (1) about 1 and a half years ago
Whoa! Reminds me of traveling through South Asia, but way WAY more sketchy! Wonder what would have happened if you had to go back to Ethiopia. Good call on staying away from needles over, lab coats are all over the place these days. Can't wait to read the rest. Excellent writing sir.
mcaroten (2) about 1 and a half years ago
Thanks for the story as I look forward to reading the rest of your coverage of the African championships. I also appreciate the introduction to your piece that hints at the complexity of the situation overall.
However, as someone who teaches African history at the university level and researches wrestling in East Africa though, I caution you in starting your coverage of this event with the scene at the airport. While I'm sure you were frustrated by being held up at immigration, you do note that you were trying to enter the country without proper documentation. The tone of the article overall also falls dangerously close to a colonial travelogue "Heart of Africa/Darkness" and the common media stereotype of the world's second largest continent with a focus on violence, disease and poverty as the single defining story. In the west, most readers of mainstream media here nothing positive come out of the African continent even as sub-Saharan Africa contains some of the world’s fastest growing economies.
I hope you can concentrate the rest of your coverage on the competition itself and get a sense of the ways wrestling appeals to a variety of African communities across the continent. From my research in East Africa I know styles like beach wrestling fit perfectly with traditional forms of the sport and with a little help and publicity have great potential for growth among the youth.
Thanks for the coverage of this important event as I think it will only help the larger movement to save Olympic wrestling and expand knowledge about the sport's global reach.
trfoley (1) about 1 and a half years ago
Thank you for the comment and explanation. I agree that Beach Wrestling might be perfect for the growth of wrestling in Africa.

I never intend to sound like the White in Shining Armor, or mock the traditions and values of another culture. As you may know, I've established the non-profit Wrestling Roots Foundation to help document and promote the untold stories of wrestling cultures around the world. I'm also headed to South Sudan in December to promote a wrestling for peace event in partnership with another non-profit. I've also put several projects and my personal life on hold to travel to Africa and cover these Championships.

Sometimes the story is just the story, and though I admit to not possessing the appropriate paperwork it would be somewhat dishonest to not mention the ongoing corruption and violence in Chad. Just yesterday there was a coup attempt, which played out on the street between hotel and the airport. This is in addition to the several payments I've had to make to ensure passage even with appropriate paperwork. Again, I think this was an accurate and honest account, and a way to engage readers before the tournament begins, but I can understand your desire to express concern about toeing the line with exploitive, shock writing that re-solidifies negative stereotypes.

Please be sure to follow the FILA Facebook page and you can read the rest of my stories from N'Djamena. I'm sure you'll agre that I'm working hard to promote the sport of wrestling on the continent of Africa.

Also be sure to check out WrestlingRoots.org and if you ever have articles to share, or essays to submit, we'd be glad to run them on the site.

In Wrestling,
Tim
mcaroten (1) about 1 and a half years ago
Certainly corruption and an attempted coup are important stories to tell. My concern is that these are quite complex issues to deconstruct and that they could easily drown out the coverage of wrestling itself. Given your excellent reporting from other parts of the globe I'm sure they won't.
I'm also a fan of your wrestling roots website and do appreciate the effort to help promote wrestling around the globe. I may be in touch regarding the state of wrestling in Kenya once I get back from East Africa in June.
Wish I could be at the African championships as well as it will certainly be an exciting event to watch.

Enjoy,

Matt Carotenuto
St. Lawrence University
trfoley (1) about 1 and a half years ago
Thanks, Matt. Really appreciate your note. Safe Travels -- I look forward to reading your work!

In Wrestling,
Tim
SetonHallPirate (1) about 1 and a half years ago
Wait...did you ever get your passport back?
timx (1) about 1 and a half years ago
Tremendous photo of the wrestlers. Did you take it?