By Annigje van Dijk*
This post was published on Facebook on 9 June 2016, about five weeks after I had returned from my fieldwork in N’Djaména, the capital of Chad, where I stayed from 6 February to 30 April 2016. Didier addresses with irony the country’s ‘problem’ with alcohol, made explicit in the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) statistics on alcohol, which showed that an average Chadian drinker consumed 33.9 litres of pure alcohol a year in 2010, placing the country at the top of the world list of alcohol consumption (World Health Organisation, 2014, p. 98). This statistic and, more generally, references to Chad having a ‘drinking problem’ arose several times during my stay in the country—and not only in the centre that founded the ‘bar without alcohol’ that Didier refers to (the bar displayed in the photograph), the practices of which were the main focus of my Master’s research. I also spent many evenings in ‘regular’ bars, drinking and talking. The people I was with would often make fun of me and joke about their drinking: ‘We are alcoholics, don’t you see? Why don’t you study us? Why do you spend all your time in the bar sans alcool?’
In such jokes, Didier’s Facebook post, and other accounts, people seemed to acknowledge and sometimes critique the normality of ‘heavy drinking’ in Chad. In travel accounts, for example, Chadian friends told me that when they were in other countries, or while on the airplane, they noticed how much they drank compared with people they met. One Cameroonian friend joked that whereas in Cameroon (a country also notorious for its alcohol consumption) he counted as a heavy drinker, in Chad he was always the first to fall asleep. Another person told me that he had remained almost abstinent during his studies abroad but had resumed his old drinking habits once he was back in Chad with his friends.
The observation that Chadians drink more than other nationalities was explained in different ways. Sometimes people would shrug (‘that is just the way things are in Chad’); other times, they would ‘blame’ human solidarity and the necessity to be sociable around alcohol. Bars are important social spaces where people not only drink but also watch football and discuss their lives and opinions with friends, all over the sharing of drinks, which takes place in an atmosphere of solidarity that I myself experienced. On several occasions, I was only halfway through my first drink when two unopened bottles—despite my protests—already magically ‘appeared’ on the table. It took me a while to discover the ‘rules’ that underlie an evening of drinking together. Drinks are usually ordered in rounds, for which the individuals assembled at a table take turns. Individual bills are kept based on these orders, updated by the bar personnel, and paid for at the end of the evening. Not drinking requires an act of refusal that is not easily accepted. Drinking, as a man I interviewed remarked—he had decided to quit drinking approximately one year earlier—was also noted as a way to make and retain friendships:
We drank now because you should drink. To have fun. And sometimes, well, when you see someone who does not drink, he does not have friends. […] Here in our environment: you don’t drink, you don’t hear anything. For 90% it is in drinking places that people communicate.
Moreover, on several occasions stories about drinking would turn political. One of the commenters on Didier’s post, for example, stated that ‘war, corruption and alcohol’ are three things that Chadians are good at: ‘Let’s just go for it’. On some occasions, people told me: Nous sommes obligés de boire [‘we are obliged to drink’]. People reasoned (not always in relation to themselves) that in Chad, there is no work and there are no places other than bars to get out of the house and meet your friends, so people drink a lot. And although they are aware of it, they see no motivation to change their behaviour. Some people blamed the lack of alcohol policy implementation by the government, even suggesting that it was a strategy to keep people submissive, providing ‘an easy way out’ of difficult conditions without people resorting to protest. Alternatively, on one occasion, when I was invited to go to a bar with government personnel, the conversation about alcohol turned into a celebration of Chadian solidarity and a critique of ‘cold’ Western societies where such solidarity is supposedly absent.
Stories about ‘drinking’ were sometimes a vehicle for voicing political critique. When I attended a concert of Ray’s Kim, a socially engaged hip-hop artist who sings in Bunda, the language of street children (see video below), I was struck by his stage décor. It was a reflection of Dembé market, one of the largest markets in N’Djaména. On the left and right side of the stage were a woman selling vegetables and a small boy selling soap. In the middle of the scene, there were two other elements: cabaret ‘sans soucis’, manned by street children seated on wooden benches and on the floor, drinking from calabashes; and alimentation ‘ma jeunesse’ [An alimentation is a bar where one can buy industrially produced beer], where nicely dressed-up youth were sitting around a table with many beer bottles. When I asked Ray’s Kim after the concert about his stage décor, he explained that it reflected the situation of Chadian youth. One part lives in absolute poverty, does not own anything, lives on the streets, and drinks away their worries in local bars—hence cabaret ‘sans soucis’ (‘without worries’). Another part is educated, but they cannot find work or money for further education. They have nothing to do besides drinking; they spend their time and the little money they have (from family) in bars. By choosing this ‘everyday image’ of Dembé market as a scene for his socially and politically engaged concert, Ray’s Kim problematized the ‘normal’ drinking behaviour of youth and used it as a metaphor for and a critique of the current social, political, and economic situation. In his lyrics, he called upon the government as well as the Chadian population to take up responsibility (personal communication with Ray’s Kim, field notes, 15/04/2016).
I thus encountered multiple narratives around alcohol in Chad, derived from and reinforcing perceptions of the current political and social conditions in the country as an ‘abnormal normality’, narratives which are used in different ways to convey a message about this situation. I specifically investigated one narrative, which I found at the centre that owns the bar sans alcool, where I spent almost every day as an ‘intern’ and participant observant. The centre’s ‘fight against alcohol’ (la lutte contre l’alcoolisme) took place in different arenas. There was the hospital where they organized a ten-day ‘detoxification cure’ every month. Sensitization sessions were organized in different locations across N’Djaména (e.g. schools, churches, prison). Various other activities, talk-and-support groups, individual and family therapy, movie nights, discussions and more—all took place in their ‘headquarters’, the same building in which their bar sans alcool was situated.
With the arrival of the current directress, a French soeur trained as a psychologist, the centre’s staff had begun to integrate psychology into their treatment of alcoholic individuals. This integration of psychology allowed for the formation of a narrative that criticized the socio-political situation in Chad in yet another way. In the field of psychology, trauma, as the embodied memory of violence, has been linked to alcoholism in numerous studies. As such, the ‘real cause’ of alcoholism—although alcoholism is also a disorder in itself—was seen by some of the centre’s staff as residing in the experience of traumatic events or in an accumulation of traumatic experiences, made possible by the embeddedness of violence and insecurity and periods of explicit ‘war’ in the Chadian context. In an interview, the directress stated.
One way to internalize violence is banalization and to think that it is normal, so we talk of … eh … why do you think something is normal, but in fact it is an enormous suffering! […] there is no doubt that they took alcohol to attenuate all that. Yes, I see that a lot in the Chadian culture […] they have lived in the proximity of so much violence and they have banalized …’
In this ‘psychological narrative’, the suffering of alcoholics who end up at the centre was not seen as ‘exclusive’, but connected to the collective, partly unconscious suffering of all Chadians, one of the results of generations of living with violence, leading to an accumulation of trauma and intergenerational trauma. As such, drinking practices have become an embodiment of Chad’s history, a collective memory of violence.
Annigje van Dijk is the author of the MA Thesis ‘Is violence hiding behind bars? Encounters with ‘trauma’ in the fight against alcoholism waged by beneficiaries and staff members of a small detox centre in N’djaména, Chad’. Annigje van Dijk is a first-year research master student Cultural Anthropology at Utrecht University. In 2014 she completed her bachelors in Neuroscience and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. She is trying to combine these interests in different ways. After a gap year (in which she did a part-time internship for the International Institute for Communication and Development) and an, maybe fortunately, unsuccessful attempt to apply for a masters in neuroscience, she decided last-minute to enrol in the MA Conflict Studies and Human Rights at Utrecht University. For this program she did ethnographic research in N’Djamena, Chad, on alcoholism, trauma and on how narratives did and did not connect these two phenomena. Annigje is currently preparing a research on psychiatric practice and the use of psychopharmaceuticals in West-Africa.