Anja remembers the first time Brahim read—and understood—a joke in his own language of Teda.
It took place in the cultural center library of Bardai, the central oasis in the Tibesti Mountains in the Sahara
“He laughed so much because he could understand what he was reading,” Anja describes. “His eyes were like… wow! He had to tell everyone. ‘Read that! Read that! Listen!’ He was so excited. It’s something amazing when you are able to read and understand what you’re reading in your mother tongue.”
Brahim was 25 at the time.
It’s rare in this part of Chad for a Teda adult, teenager, or child to read his or her own language. Schools teach in French, and Arabic is the language of Islam, but both are second languages to these people and few are literate.
The Teda people group reaches across three countries: Libya, Niger and Chad. In Libya, to the north of Bardai, Gaddafi banned the Teda language for decades. When he was overthrown in 2011, life changed for the Teda people of Libya who joyfully spoke their language in public again and proudly asserted their linguistic identity by opening a center to teach Teda, and publishing journals and newspapers in their language. The Teda of Chad were much slower to accept the value of literacy, believing the Arab propaganda that reading your mother tongue would turn them into a Christian. But thanks to the example of the Libyan Teda, and the classes offered at the Mosko Hanadii-ĩ cultural center in Bardai, children and adults like Brahim are now learning to read and write in their mother tongue.
A Desert Adventure
The story began in 2012 when Simon and Anja, a Swiss couple, first visited Bardai after working at a primary school in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena for a year. They craved a desert adventure and asked Mark Ortman, who had worked with the Teda for 20 years translating the Teda oral language into writing, if they could join an overland trip to Bardai in the Sahara where he had spent 6 years. He responded with a yes on the condition that they consider working there. They agreed.
Mark’s Teda colleague Ôyi, a native of Bardai, had the idea for a ‘cultural center’ but they needed someone to start it. Simon and Anja seemed a perfect match. The couple decided to stay until their money ran out – eight months. “We wanted to work somewhere where our abilities would be needed,” Simon explained. “Starting up the center was the perfect job for us. We really loved it.”
Mark and Ôyi thought they might get four or five people to join the center when it opened. To everyone’s surprise, the response was tremendous. The evening Simon and Anja arrived in Bardai, people started signing up for the English and Computer courses. “By the time we started the first course, we already had a waiting list for the next one,” Simon describes. “It was way more positive than we ever expected.”
They taught 10-12 courses with an average of six students per course that included computer and English classes, both designed to raise interest in the mother tongue for the Teda. Simon and Anja then moved on to informal Teda language reading on Saturday afternoons. Once again to their surprise, people came.
Soon it became clear that learning to read wasn’t enough. They needed to write Teda as well. “With all this reading, it meant, thinking long term, that we (as westerners) would always have to write the books for them to read,” Anja explained. “We needed to change that. They needed to do it themselves, to take over, because it’s for them, not for us.”
It started with the couple encouraging students to just write anything that came to mind. So they did. “How I make my sauce. I put in salt. I put in tomato…” It was a start. Then came the idea of a writing contest with a monetary prize as motivation. It felt like a natural step. Before the couple moved back to Switzerland at the end of eight months, the team had organized two small writing competitions.
Two and a half years passed before Simon and Anja returned to Chad. In Switzerland they had each lost their jobs, through no fault of their own, on the exact same day in April 2015 following months of discussion on possibly moving back to Bardai. It felt like a sign from God. Mark Ortman suggested they split their year between Switzerland and Chad, exactly what Anja had silently hoped for. In Switzerland they could work on a dictionary, cartoons, books, and other material that was hard to produce in the middle of the desert.
The couple stayed 10 months in Bardai followed by 11 months in Switzerland, longer than planned due to a the birth of their second child. MAF Chad had provided many flights to and from Bardai for Simon, Anja, and their young daughter in the past. In May 2017 their eight-week-old son joined the family on his first MAF flight into the Sahara.
The first writing awards program in 2012 transpired as a simple ceremony with a small group of participants and relatives squeezed into a simple shade structure attached to the one-tiny-room of the new center. Fast-forward to November 2017 and the ceremony now takes place in the open-air courtyard where attendees fill rows of seats with extras packed tightly along the back wall. Special guests have driven down from Libya and flown up from N’Djamena, the capital, a 5-hour trip on MAF’s plane. The regional governor now attends and presents the highest award, this time to 20-year old Amina Moktar on her first attempt at an essay.
Amina was raised in Libya by her grandmother, speaking, writing, and reading Arabic in school while speaking Teda at home. When she moved to her mother’s home in Bardai as a teenager, she had no knowledge of French, the language of instruction, and the Latin alphabet and thus landed in first grade at the governmental French school. After several years in primary school, she took her first course at the cultural center along with 20 other eager students, learning to read and write every Friday and Saturday for six weeks with extraordinary earnestness and zeal.
“She barely knew the Latin alphabet, but during this course she learned how to express herself in the mother tongue and write an essay. It was only one page but a big step,” Anja says.
For the first time she could understand the words and phrases, as if decoding a message. After the first few weeks of the course, she began reading short stories to her nieces in her mother tongue. “And suddenly she could write as well,” Anja describes. “She, who still barely made a sentence in French, wrote an essay in her native language and won the prize.”
Each competition presents a topic for the students to write about. This year’s came from their national co-workers: Why do the Teda no longer give their children Teda names? Why do Teda women no longer practice traditional songs and dances? How do you feel about this?
Amina made her position clear, understanding what is at stake for the Teda. “A zondu. Yunu a budi zondu!” “This is bad. That's very bad…if we throw away our traditions, what is left for us?" Amina concluded her text with an appeal. "Teda, wherever you live, in Libya, Niger or Chad, do not throw away your culture…you are Teda!"