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Chad Oil Boon
SEPTEMBER 2005
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Video: Why We Chose Africa
In some cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.
Photograph by Pascal Maitre



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Chad Oil Boon






    The world is divided along all sorts of lines, but one of the most mysterious is between societies that can make a decent croissant and societies that can't. OK, there are more important criteria for deciding whether a country should get a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. But I'm always happier when I'm in a place where a shop sign that reads "Patisserie." It has an instant impact on my taste buds. A strong French connection—for at least a period of your national history—is a big asset. Chad is in that category, although it's been more or less independent since 1960. But the colonnaded central shopping street is still called Avenue Charles de Gaulle, and that's where I found L'Amandine, reputed to be the best patisserie in town.
    I stepped across the threshold, breathing in the seductive scents of fresh loaves, cakes, and fruit tarts. A small pile of croissants and pains au chocolat demanded to be purchased. I explained to one of the elegant assistants that these precious delicacies would have to be protected against a 24-hour journey back to Johannesburg, a great city without a croissant culture. They made it home, their freshness sealed in silver foil, a little misshapen but a mouthwatering reminder of faraway places.
   "Hi. Your approval will be faxed to the embassy tomorrow.Congratulations." Three months after my hunt for a visa had begun in Washington, D.C., with a top-level letter from National Geographic to the Nigerian ambassador to the United States, the application had finally been approved. I had bitten my lip through a score of e-mails and phone calls to Abuja, Nigeria's capital, and badgered officials high and low. I had escalated my case to the presidential press secretary and fulminated about my treatment to any of my foreign press colleagues who cared to listen. They were unanimous that my mistake was to have written on my application that I wanted to report about Nigeria's oil industry and goings-on in the delta region, its politically unstable and environmentally damaged hub. They were probably right. But having lived in Nigeria for two years in the 1980s and reported from there many times since, I was convinced that honesty was the best policy. I felt mildly vindicated when one of my regular interlocutors in Abuja e-mailed me his enthusiastic OK. The problem was I'd already had to abandon my Nigerian plans. My African oil story—about Chad—was done and dusted.
    The man was parked in the shade outside the red brick cathedral in Doba, a little distance from the other invalids and beggars. I assumed they were there every Sunday morning, waiting for mass to end and for the congregation to emerge. Alms would be distributed, but they would be coins rather than notes. I'd already been inside the church, savoring the cool and trying to tread noiselessly on the polished tiles. I counted at least 600 people squeezed onto wooden benches. You could see from their clothes that they were very poor. Like almost everyone in southern Chad, they had yet to taste the material benefits of the region's new oil boom.
    Back outside, the disabled man in his tricycle wheelchair looked me up and down. His body was shriveled and bent but his arms were muscular and his eyes were burning with a kind of angry energy. I had to be one of the wealthiest people he was going to meet that day, but he clearly wasn't interested in my money. We started talking, and I asked him what he thought of the oil that was supposed to transform his country. "Oil? That's all rubbish," he said. "All the money is being stolen by that bunch of illiterates you Westerners keep in power."
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