Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Welcome to Chad

"You don' live like a refugee." -- Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

So Tuesday was our first real start of Chad week, and we began with what we thought of when we thought of Central Africa -- refugees, subsistence rations and so on.  The family from Chad detailed in Hungry Planet is actually from the neighboring country, and living in a refugee camp in Chad, where they subsist on millet provided by aid agencies, and not much else.  Over 350,000 people currently live in refugee camps in Chad, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency, and 541,000 people are assisted by the UNHCR.

The acute malnutrition rate in the refugee camps is around 12%.  There is not enough water.  The majority of camps lack enough latrines.  Movement to and from the camps is restricted due to attacks by roadway bandits.  Women are raped in the camps.  Regularly.

That is right now.  In 2010.  While my children play at their grandparents' house.  While I sit in an expensive office chair and put a blog on the internet.

If there is a bright side to look at, the U.N. has a $161 million budget to try improving the situation.  The "general health condition" in the camps is "acceptable."  Most amazing to me is that school enrollment in the camps is at 80% -- in stark contrast to my son, who would skip school for a hangnail if he could.

So with that bleak background, last night we set out to make aiysh, a congealed porridge of ground millet.  I think most people in America are familiar with millet -- it's the little round seeds in birdseed.  Chadian refugees are given a ration of millet seed, and either take to a mill to be ground into flour, or they grind it themselves with mortar and pestle -- or rocks.

Millet, Granite and Rocks

So, we found and purchased millet seed and some millet flour.  We measured out a pound, which would be the ration for a family of six.  I found and washed a couple of rocks from our firepit, and a couple pieces of flat granite that I had lying around, and took them out on the deck. And we ground our millet into flour.  Our deck is on the west side of the house, and in full evening sun.  Yesterday was an 85-degree day, so the kids almost immediately started complaining that they were hot.

Millet to be Ground

"Yes, it's hot," I said.  "Just like Chad.  In fact, it routinely hits 100 degrees in Chad, so this would be a relief for them.  And they can't just duck into the kitchen to cool off like we can."  I think they got it.

Evie Grinding Millet

First, we put some millet in a Ziploc bag and tried to grind it, to keep from losing any.  We didn't do much but rip the bag.  Next, we sprinkled some on a granite slab and rolled the rock on it, and that ground the millet nicely, but was slow.  Lastly, we put another granite slab on top and rubbed back and forth, which was quicker, but ground less finely, and also spilled a fair amount of the seed on the deck, and on that point we told the kids of the women who will spend hours sifting through the sand where the millet is distributed to pick out individual grains so their children have another mouthful.

Grinding Millet

Lastly, I told the kids how if we were in Chad, I wouldn't even be there.  "I would've been killed three years ago when our village was raided."  And I went off to mow the lawn.  Angel says they got through about half of the millet before they were all fed up, and she used flour to fill out the rest of the pound.


The porridge itself wasn't actually too bad.  I thought it was rather like Cream of Wheat cereal, with no cream or sugar in it.  Angel likened it to rice, with the consistency of mashed potatoes.  Gable liked it as-is.  The twins did not.  Evie started out liking it but quickly turned to thumbs-down.  I found much the same started out okay, but started leaving a mildly acrid residue in my throat and I needed a glass of water.  Regardless, aiysh is very filling and at least palatable, if not scrumptious.  Actually, in the end I added butter and brown sugar as if it were cereal and everyone but Gabe liked it more.

As a final aside, we were all pretty darn hungry again by 10:00 p.m.  It doesn't take much empathy to understand how full one would NOT feel from eating this every day, three meals a day.


  • 1/2 coro (approx. 1 lb. millet flour
  • 1 coro (approx. 2 qrt) water
  • vegetable oil (enough to coat aiysh) 
Bring millet flour to mill to grind.
After obtaining ground millet flour, light fire and bring water to a boil in a pot.
Add millet flour in small amounts until it begins to thicken and bubble. Stir constantly, pulling mixture toward you in the pot until it holds together in a gelatinous mass.
Press mixture into an oiled bowl to make a round shape. Invert onto serving plate or tray.

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