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The many faces of N’Djamena City

By Joe Ombuor | May 31st 2015 at 12:00:00 GMT +0300

N’Djamena washed me with heat like I have never known the moment I disembarked from the plane at Aeroport International Hassan Djamous (Hassan Djamous International Airport), sending me sprinting across the hot tarmac to a waiting shuttle bus.

My fingers were pressed across my brow to mitigate the effect of the rays that hit with the intensity of a laser directed light.

It was the anticlimax of what I had yearned for after a long flight — a rest as the name of my destination suggested.

What miffed me to the core was the resilience of the locals, moreso my hosts who came dressed in designer suits and ties, mindless of the sweltering heat and not a film of sweat on their faces.

You would think they were cold blooded. These were people perfectly adjusted to the fiery climate from birth, I silently concluded as we exchanged greetings.

N’Djamena, which means the place of rest in a local Chadian dialect, is reputed to be among the hottest cities on the planet.

The city of two million is within the Sahel, hardly five kilometres away from Chad’s international boundary with Cameroun.

Another shocker was the sight of a large river as our pilot manouvered to touch the runway.

It had never occurred to me that the Chari River I knew from geography lessons was that huge and, going by what I could perceive from the air, a lifeline in its own right.

The riparian flanks are a study in agricultural activity, panning as far as the eye can see.

I was later to learn that the farms existed only during the dry season and disappeared with the advent of the rains, submerged by floods waters.

But I could not pick out Lake Chad.

I had my face glued on the cabin window to pick out the lake, only to be informed that it was nowhere near N’Djamena.

River Chari which I was seeing rises from the lake 152 kilometres away and flows on the shoulders of N’Djamena to join the Ubangi River from the Central African Republic.

The N’Djamena of my imagination existed at the airport — primal, tumbledown and manifestly temporary.

Out of the airport, the city that spread out before my eyes was the opposite of what I had envisaged, with well-paved roads complete with sections featuring over passes and under passes.

It has a well-planned regime of street lighting and plush commercial, office and other edifices that house banks hotels and restaurants.

Hotel Kempinski reminded me of a similar facility on Nairobi’s Chiromo Road.

Hotel Novotel, an international chain yet to have a footprint in Nairobi is here too.

Traffic gridlocks are absent, thanks to the small number of cars.

Motorcycles dominate the transport scene and matatus, the type that are a throwback to a past era in Kenya when passengers sat facing each other are few, thanks to a public transport system of spacious coaches that carry both seated and standing passengers.

The long, wide-bellied buses with doors at the rear and the front reminded me of the era of Kenya Bus and Stagecoach that disappeared  from Nairobi and opened a floodgate of confusion that are Nairobi’s matatus as we know them today.

Hawkers take positions on street sides in the evenings, selling various wares including fish which is aplenty here.

Unlike their counterparts in Nairobi, N’Djamena hawkers sit pretty, not worried about getting stubbed from the back by brutish city askaris who are ever ready to knock them unconscious as they kick and scatter or cart away their wares.

Urchins and street families are a rarity and muggings are unknown.

In the evenings, makeshift kiosks stocked with wines, spirits, cosmetics and other items imported mainly from France at rates cheaper than in conventional shops, spring up.

Mututho Rules or their equivalent are virtually unknown in N’Djamena, but what fascinates most about drinking habits is the abandon with which people bend their elbows.

They drink in the open, by the roadside or outside shop verandas. The local lager, known as Gala, in large 750 millilitre bottles is the most popular.

The skies over N’Djamena are not scraped by tall buildings. Hotel Kempinski, the city’s tallest building rises just nine floors — and is 41 metres tall.

But a visitor cannot help getting carried away by the many monuments that dot the city. Whereas the railway line arrived in Nairobi in 1899, N’Djamena, which is almost as old as Nairobi, has never known a railway line.

Well over a century later, two standard gauge railway lines are proposed to run South and east from N’Djamena — which was founded by a French explorer in 1900 — whereupon the south leg will cover 528 kilometres to Moundou and Koutere on the border with Cameroun.

Eastwards, the line will run 836 kilometres to Abeche and Andre on the border with Sudan.

Most prominent of N’Djamena’s myriad monuments is the one opposite the Presidential Palace.

It depicts the state of the Nation (Place Du la Nation) and illustrates the pangs that had to be overcome from the colonial days and through the civil wars to the present day peace and prosperity.

The statue of the warrior wielding a spear on a horse amply demonstrates how horses came in handy in the struggle.

So popular are horses in Chad that the equines are the ones that pull carts in N’Djamena.

While Kenyans are used to purchasing meats in butcher shops, in Chad, they are sold in the open alongside vegetables, grains and other odd items.

That is rather unsettling.

The common denominator is that meat is inspected to determine if it is fitness for human consumption.

My narrative of N’Djamena would be incomplete without mention of the Chadian unique style of welcoming distinguished visitors with a full roasted goat, its head and legs intact.

The entrails are removed to create room for stuffing with vegetables and other food items, to make it a complete meal.

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