Death and resurrection

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Hands1One of our staff died today. The rest of the team has gathered from the South of Chad to N'Djamena for training, and we get a call around 8am. He has passed away with first light. He has been sick for a while, and so the news is not unexpected, although still shocking. We sit in silence, stunned.

After a few minutes I leave our offices to head to the World Bank. By the time I arrive in my boss’s office I am sobbing. This is the second person out of twenty that we have lost in the past six months. Our first colleague was killed in a car accident coming back from Cameroon, and now our second colleague has gone after a long illness. We have started to grow close, this is too much loss.

We talk about what to do: call the training off, send a delegation, contact people we know in the South to provide money for the funeral. Now we need permission to travel: in the middle of death we make phone calls to track down managers in Johannesburg and Douala to expedite trip approval in SAP — the Bank is an odd place...

We finally reach someone, I dig a wad of cash out of a chest in my home to travel with, we pack to head south.

I go back to work to sit with the team and say goodbye, and we get another call. "Praise God, he's not dead, he's back to life." I understand nothing. His parents say he's awake, and then he even calls himself. At first I think this is some kind of joke. So he didn't really pass away then? What's going on?

This happens all the time people say, especially in villages: why do you think it's someone's job to declare death? My staff explains to me, people sometimes end up knocking on the lids of their own coffins. A colleague tells me that as a kid he went to the cemetery to bury a man wrapped in a white sheet. The man is laid on the ground, prayers and blessings given, and a minute later he bolts upright. Half of those gathered scream and run away.

The line between life and death is not as clear as you think Alex. You can never tell, my staff says, the heart can slow to barely a murmur, a man's breath won't even stir the dust in the air. Life and death are very, very close. I should perhaps know better, I've been sick for months — parasites, malaria, other woes. But somehow I still think this is just a strange exception that will soon pass and I can go back to normal life.

In the late morning I go back to the training at the Chamber of Commerce and my whole staff is still there around the table. What do we do now? We go on they say, he’s alive, we pray for his recovery. OK I say, if this is what you want, OK. I want to leave, but instead I continue with a session on Excel. The room is silent; they are amazed as I show them how to create spreadsheets. Instead of pages done with pencil and paper, they now have formulas that will link, calculate, and generate figures for their business plans. I tell them if they make a mistake, just click control z and it will reset everything. There is something so odd to me about the ability to create and dissolve powerful formulas with the click of a button.

That night I fall into bed. The next day we finish the training and decide to keep our dinner together as planned. He was better during the day, but during the night has worsened, although he's still alive. That night at dinner the food tastes particularly strong, we eat chicken with onions and plantains. After dinner, half the team leaves, but the rest of us stay, talking our way into the night. I don’t want to leave, but I have a flight to catch. I give a staff member a ride home on the back of my motorcycle through the dust and heat of the night. I fly off to a frozen Europe.

Postscript: This blog entry was orginally written on March 15th. Since that time, Sylvestre Yaldé, a Training Support Officer at IFC's Chad Enterprise Center, has passed away.

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