Michiana Chronicles: Greenhouse Bodies

Mar 25, 2021

Once, I dug a small hole in the ground to bury a distressing experience I could not take home with me, but the ground was already full.

In 1987, Hissène Habré, otherwise known as Africa’s Pinochet, was ruling over Chad. With the substantial backing of France and the United States, his forces were driving Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi to retreat along the Aouzou Strip. Overthrown in 1990, Habré was convicted for crimes against humanity, war crimes, rape and torture, due to the courage and determination of his surviving victims. In April 2020, he was granted a two-month hiatus from prison in Senegal to shield him from COVID-19. His victims have yet to receive any reparations.

In 1987, I won a poetry contest sponsored by the now defunct airline TWA. I was seventeen and a high school student in Provence, France. My father had spent some time in Chad in the 1960s, I was reading the Négritude poets which led me to be curious about the history of a continent that was glossed over in French curricula. “Pick any country in the world, TWA will fly you there,” I was offered upon receiving my poetry trophy cup. I chose Chad. Men were fighting in the North, I was flown to the capital city of N’Djamena, in the South. I met with fervent young writers whose pressing questions introduced me to their reality: “How do you secure a ‘mécène’ [a patron] and how do you evade censorship,” two essential literary activities they assumed I was engaged in too. We strolled to an open-air disco that had “borrowed” a couple of light bulbs from the brand-new traffic-light downtown. We danced to songs of freedom and sang Springsteen on an electric guitar that was missing a few strings. My new friends told me about attending college on and off, when college was open. I witnessed, from far, the return of maimed soldiers from the Aouzou Strip.

Some of Habré’s presidential guards were machine-gun toting, illiterate teenagers who spoke an unintelligible dialect in N’Djamena, where Habré resided. Before I arrived, they had gunned down a car full of nuns who had come to the presidential palace for an audience with the dictator. I was walking alone one afternoon when I was held at gun point by one of those guards who wanted to scare me to entertain his peers from the back of a Toyota pick-up truck. Once out of danger, I forced my body back to the spot where I had been stopped and threatened. “Look here,” I told myself: “this danger won’t follow you home. Dig a small hole in the ground and burry what you experienced there.” When I tried, I found that the ground was already full.

When I returned to France, I told no one of the incident. I asked my father: “How do you talk about Chad? What do you do about some of the things you saw there?” He sighed before offering an answer: “Two undercover French agents have been following your mother because she’s been inquiring about the arrest of the father of a Chadian young man you met. He wants to know if his father is still alive. This is serious, Anne, and there’s nothing we can do.” I imagined the undercover agents sticking like sore thumbs in the middle of our tiny village plaza, among the parents who came to pick up their kids. I imagined the out-of-place operatives picking up nonexistent clues and everyone else, watching them spying on the no-BS school principal that was my mother, watching her noticing the intruders, observing them, staring at them, and finally marching up to them with a smile: “Can I help you gentlemen?” I bet they wished they could have dug a hole in the ground. But that ground was already full too in its own way.

To be sure, there was a permanent, official hole in the middle of the village plaza where the gargantuesque Caramentran -- the straw-filled carnival effigy -- stood every year for its Ash Wednesday public trial, amid a crowd of kids and adults who blamed it for all the ills, big and small, that afflicted them:  the bad weather that endangered the crops, the poor grades, the death of a kin. Above ground, the scapegoat figure was invariably deemed guilty and set on fire, the village sang and danced around the hole in the ground that, once a year, was granted its stake and a festive trial.

I no longer dig holes in the ground. I know already. The ground is full. It needs tending. I see rows of greenhouse bodies meeting above ground what’s grown and growing from centuries-old holes in the ground. I see that what’s been dug and covered up keeps on rising – resolute and strong – from centuries of unsettled holes in the ground.

Credit Anne Magnan-Park

For Michiana Chronicles, this is Anne Magnan-Park. This commentary is dedicated to Jacqueline Moudeïna, a Chadian lawyer, whose fight against impunity contributed to put Hissène Habré behind bars.

Music: “Paroles survies”  by Youssou N’Dour