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POPULATION: 10.1 million
LANGUAGE: French,Arabic (official languages); more than 100 locallanguages
RELIGION: traditional African religion, Islam, Christianity


The peoples of Chad possess a rich, ancient past dating to prehistoric times. If the mysterious Anasazis of the southwestern United States immortalized themselves in their 14th century rock art at Canyon de Chelly, so too have the unknown peoples of the northern C hadian desert (Ennedi Region), whose rock paintings date to 7,000 bc. This region's claim to be humanity's cradle recently was supported by linguistic research indicating that three of the four sub-Saharan language groups originated between Lake Chad and the Nile Valley. Many more discoveries undoubtedly will be made, because Chadian archeological sites of great potential remain unmapped and unexplored.

An era of empires marked the central Sahelian zone of Chad from around ad 900–1900. Their economic basis was the control of the trans-Saharan trade routes passing through the region. The survival of kingdoms depended on their ability to fight, which they did with cavalry. Two of the strongest and most durable of these were the Kanem-Borno and the Baguirmi and Wadai. The Kanem-Borno was situated to the northeast of Lake Chad and was formed from a confederation of nomadic peoples, who regarded their leaders as divine kings. The influence of Islam in the 10th century caused dissension and factionalism among those who saw the advantages of conversion and those who resisted in favor of their traditional beliefs. Strategically-spaced wells and oases favored the south-to-north trade of natron (sodium carbonate), cotton, kola nuts, ivory, ostrich feathers, perfume, wax, and hides, and foremost, slaves. From the north came salt, horses, silks, glass, muskets, and copper. The kingdom succumbed to invasions from eastern Sudan in the late 19th century.

The demise of Kanem-Borno coincided with the arrival of French dominance in the region, which was secured after considerable effort at the Battle of Kousseri in 1900. Chad was the lowest colonial priority for the French, and they made only halfhearted attempts to unify, administer, or develop it. In fact, the French ruled through sultanates in much of eastern Chad. In the south, where the French established missions and schools, the Sara peoples resisted forced labor, resettlements, and French-imposed prices for cotton. Under lieutenant-governor Félix Eboué, Chad supported the Free French under Charles de Gaulle in World War II. This act gave Chad greater, though still very limited, recognition and resources from France.

Since independence in 1960, ethnic, political, and religious factionalism, mainly between forces of the Muslim north against the Christian and animist south, has created much political and economic turmoil. Under authoritarian President Tombalbaye (1960–75), Chad experienced a general economic downturn and repressive government. Labor policies favored the more Westernized southerners, leading to ethnic conflict and rebellions in eastern and northern Chad. Mutineers killed Tombalbaye in 1975, which ushered in a period of civil war lasting until 1982. Two of the rebel leaders, Goukouni and Habré, came from competing Toubou clans in the north, and were bitter rivals. In 1980, under the transitional government of national unity (GUNT), units of five separate Chadian armies patrolled the capital of N'Djamena. Habré gained power in 1982, but his government was subjected to Libyan attacks in support of Goukouni. In 1990 a former military commander in chief, Idriss Déby, invaded from Sudan and took tenuous control, fending off several coup attempts and military insurrections. Lawlessness, strikes, and civil disorder have characterized the constitutional transition begun in 1992 and dragging on throughout 1994. In July 1996, Déby was elected president under the new constitution, and formed a government that included several opposition members.

In June 2005, a controversial national referendum removed constitutional term limits and paved the way for a third five-year term for Déby. Subsequently, Déby abolished the “future generations” provision in the oil law, which had been imposed by donors to set aside a percentage of oil revenues for future Chadians. Since 1998, Déby and his ethnic minority have continuously had to stave off rebellions, the most recent of which laid siege to the capital in early 2008.


Nation-building in this country of about 10.1 million has been complicated by factors of geography, religion, ethnicity, and linguistic differences in Chad's diverse population. Some 200 ethnic groups speak more than 100 distinct languages, which has enriched Chad culturally, but made the creation of a national identity and unity virtually impossible. The mainly Muslim populations of the north are nomadic or semisedentary herders and livestock breeders. The sedentary Sara groups in the south traditionally practice animism, but some have adopted Christianity. Population density is extremely low, from 0.15 per sq km in the Saharan zone, to 13 in the southern zone, where 45% of the total population lives. Only 22% of the population lives in towns and cities. N'Djamena, the capital, is by the far the largest city with a population estimated at 721,000 in 2005.

The colonial borders created a landlocked country, far from oceans and seas. Chad borders Libya to the north, Sudan to the east, the Central African Republic to the south, and Cameroon, Nigeria, and Niger to the west. With an area roughly equal to Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona combined, Chad stretches over 1,100 miles from north to south, and covers three climate and vegetation zones. Rainfall diminishes from 1,200 millimeters in the south to negligible amounts in the northern Sahara. In the middle lies a semidesert band called the Sahel, which has a long dry season and is subject to creeping desertification. Temperatures here regularly exceed 100°f in April and May, the hot season. From Lake Chad, an inland delta and the fourth-largest lake in Africa, the land gradually rises. Magnificent sand dunes cover the land in the north, and great, isolated piles of rocks interrupt the landscape in the eastern and southern regions. Oases with their date palms dot the northern desert. Mountain ranges cover stretches of the southwest, east, and far northwest. Emi Koussi, a dormant volcano, crowns the Sahara, reaching over 10,000 feet in elevation.


French and Arabic are Chad's official languages, but more than 100 local languages are spoken. These fall into 10 major groups belonging to three of Africa's four major language families. Chadian Arabic includes more than 30 dialects, which people throughout the country use to communicate with each other. For example, in a radius of 10 miles around Lake Fianga in the Mayo-Kebbi Region, people speak Toupouri, Moundang, and Fulfulde, which requires them to find a common language of communication.


Given the plethora of ethnic identities in Chad, it is difficult to name a specific national hero or myth without neglecting another. However, many Chadians revere Félix Eboué, in whose memory a magnificent monument in N'Djamena was erected. Many Chadians are familiar with the Sao, the earliest people known to have inhabited the region surrounding N'Djamena. Legends held that the Sao were giants possessing great strength. They could run long distances in just hours, and pull up trees like blades of grass. Sao women could lift huge ceramic granaries holding an entire year's harvest with a single hand. At independence, French history was parodied, when a famous speaker, André Malraux, supposedly declared, “Mister the President, the Saos are your Gauls.”


In Chad, the religious and social spheres are closely intertwined. Nominally, Chadians profess one of three religious traditions: traditional African religion (35%), Islam (55%), or Christianity (10%). In fact, percentages can be misleading because religion seldom exists in pure form. Muslims and Christians tend to incorporate a number of traditional beliefs into their faiths.

Traditional religion, referred to as animism because all things are thought to have life force, focuses on ancestors and place, but is specific to ethnic group. In general, animism holds that a supreme being created the world, then retired from active intervention in it. In order to maintain harmony in the world, recently departed ancestors intervene between the living and their earliest forebears. When misfortune strikes, ritual acts that include prayers, sacrifices, and libations are performed in order to restore balance. Two examples illustrate this concept in Chad. Among the more centralized societies, such as the Moundang, rulers are associated with divine power and therefore intercede with supernatural forces to maintain equilibrium in society. The Mbaye, a Sara cultural group, believes that spirits inhabit places and natural phenomena such as water, lightning, and the sun. Because the sun spirit can render good or cause harm, it must be pacified. Diviners and sorcerers are thought to possess the ability to communicate with spirits, for good and evil purposes respectively.

Islam came to Chad well before the 1300s, and spread throughout the two northern tiers. Islam mixed with traditional African religion, but in some beliefs, Chadian Muslims are very strict. For example, during the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims fast and do not swallow their saliva from sunrise to sunset.

Catholic missionaries arrived in the 1920s and 1930s, and because of French and Italian political differences, the Vatican delayed establishment of a vicarate within Chad. Catholics are mostly concentrated around the Pala diocese in Mayo-Kebbi, whereas Protestants are spread more generally throughout the south.


Secular holidays such as Independence Day hold less interest in general for Chadians than Muslim and Christian holidays. Traditional holidays having to do with seasons and harvesting are festive occasions, too. For example, in the Mayo-Kebbi region, the millet harvest in September–November and the New Year in December are marked by the coming out of the Toupouri chief who, prior to that, is confined to his lodge for an entire month. In his royal dress, the chief marches slowly and regally, accompanied by dignitaries. Musicians playing long calabash horns salute him, as do dancers and a line of bare-breasted maidens. Afterwards, the local hosts serve a sumptuous meal of grilled goat meat, rice and stew, and boule to visitors who come from great distances (with cassette recorders and video cameras) to witness this annual event.


Knowledge of the world and its processes is passed to successive generations by males in Chad's predominantly patrimonial societies. The greatest transformation occurs from childhood to adulthood, and requires that children be prepared to assume social responsibilities. In the south, the Sara yondo, a male initiation ceremony, illustrates the significance of passage rites in Chadian society. Elders gather with boys in designated sites every six or seven years for several weeks during school vacations. Prior to Western schooling, the ritual lasted several months. During the initiation, the elders transfer authority. Having thus assumed manhood, the sons and brothers no longer associate with their mothers and sisters as before, and must eat and live separately. Similar ceremonies for girls teach them household responsibilities and respect for male authority.


As in other regions of Africa, greeting and leave-taking are important parts of human relations. Muslims exchange a series of greetings, asking about the other person's well-being, and that of his wife and family, too. After each exchange, one touches a hand to the breast to signal gratitude that it is so. It is an honor to receive visitors and customary to offer a glass of water if not something to eat as a sign of hospitality. In the dusty Sahel, hosts usually offer their visitors water to wash their faces, hands, and feet. In the south, visitors may find themselves welcomed by a large calabash of millet beer, which they must finish before leaving.


Chad ranks near the bottom (170th out of 177 countries) on the human development index (HDI), which measures living standards, education, and life expectancy. In 2008, life expectancy was estimated to be 47 years. Living conditions are very harsh and rudimentary in most rural areas of the country. Travel is difficult and precarious. In the desert-like regions, sand and dirt tracks crisscross in the thorn trees and scrub brush. Overloaded trucks, sometimes with flatbed trailers, move along these tracks at about 20 miles an hour, carrying passengers and goods to remote areas of the country. Trucks often bog down in mud holes during the rainy season. In 2008, Chad had only about 160 miles of paved roads in the entire country.

Medical care is spotty, especially in the northern zones, and patients must travel great distances for treatment. For lack of transportation or familiarity with modern medical care, many simply do not seek treatment in clinics or hospitals. Many Chadians depend on rain-fed agriculture, but civil war, successive droughts, and infestations of locusts render a large portion of the population food insecure. As a result of these factors, about 37% of children between 0–5 years old are underweight for their age. For every 10 children born, one dies in infancy.

In Sahelian towns, Chadian homes typically are built inside walled compounds and abut to the compound walls. Mud bricks held together with straw and camel dung are used to make the walls and the roofs. Houses consist of one or two rooms and are dark, with one or two small windows. Their primary use is for sleeping in the cooler and rainy seasons, and for storage of household belongings. Kitchen rooms are often separate, although meals often are cooked outside in the compound. In the hot dry season, Chadians sleep outdoors. People enjoy sitting under hangars made of reed mats hung upon tree limb frames. Dry pit latrines are typically located in the remotest corners of the compounds. Huts in small villages are round, and less permanent and consist of stick walls and thatched roofs. In the desert, nomads' homes may be no more than temporary frames covered with tarps.

Throughout the Sahel, water must be drawn by ropes and rubber buckets from communal wells over 125 feet deep. In larger villages, water service may be available through local entrepreneurs. Donkeys carry several water buckets per trip in leather saddle bags, one on each side of the donkey's back. The bags open from the bottom to release the water into receptacles in the compound. Unfortunately, about 58% of the population lives without access to an improved water source. Untreated drinking water is a major source of disease and parasites afflicting children and adults.


In Chad, nomadic, semisedentary, and sedentary ways of life affect family life and structure. For example, the main social unit of the nomadic Toubou and Daza of the Sahara is the clan. However, individuals often live with people from other clans in groups of around 100 people. In Toubou families, one often finds a male head of household with one or two wives, the children, and a couple of relatives. Women participate in making decisions. In their husbands' absence they manage household operations, including changing pastures, moving tents, and cattle trading. Camps of families form and disband seasonally. Clan relatives are scattered over the region; therefore, individuals usually find kinsmen in most settlements. Families and clans influence, but do not overrule, individual preference for marriage partners. Marriages between blood relatives fewer than four generations apart are forbidden. By contrast, the semisedentary Arabs of the Sahel identify with the kashimbet, a unit composed of an elder male or group of males, their wives, and descendants. Unlike the nomads, Arabs usually remain with their group of kin.


Clothing styles vary according to climate zone and ethnic group. The sun, heat, and blowing sand in the north require clothing that covers the entire body except for the face. Men often wear light cotton pants under white cotton robes, and a white or red-and-white scarf, which they wrap around their heads in the form of a turban. Women wear robes that cover the entire body except face, hands, and feet. Boys wear simply cut cloth shirts and pants, while girls may wear cotton shirts with wraparound cloth skirts. Everyday clothing becomes extremely worn from hard use and washing. Many nomads and Arabs wear sandals or go barefoot. In the south, people dress like Central Africans in colorful cotton print shirts and pants for men, and wraparound skirts and tailored shirts for women. Chadian cotton is renowned for its long strands of high quality and can be bought from the local factory.

Chadian women adorn themselves with interesting jewelry. Toubou women wear silver nose rings, while Arab women wear copper and bronze wrist and ankle bracelets, and heavy earrings that cause large openings in the lobes. Many ethnic groups distinguish themselves with decorative facial and body tattoos. Women commonly wear leather amulets to ward off evil spirits. Others wear necklaces containing colonial coins. Among the older Toupouri and Massa women in the south, one finds lip adornments. These are metal or wood plugs that pierce the upper and lower lips to indicate marital status.


Despite the harsh climate, Chadians grow a large variety of food. The staples are sorghum and millet. They are harvested and stored in huge ceramic or round thatched granaries, with conical thatched roofs, raised a few feet above the ground. The grains are put to versatile culinary uses, including the noonday meal. The millet is pounded to flour by using a mortar and pestle. Often two girls will share the task, taking alternating strokes. From the flour they make a round, ball-like dough (boule) by adding boiling water. It is similar to gozo in the Central African Republic and fufu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and is eaten with the right hand. In the Sahel, Chadians are fond of okra and meat sauce. Sauces are flavored with onions, tomatoes, garlic, salt, and hot pepper. Men and women typically eat separately, and men are served first. Millet also makes a delicious porridge, which is sweetened and eaten to break the fast during Ramadan. A fermented version of millet (bili-bili) is the most popular item on market days in the south. It is served from large calabash gourds and poured into calabash bowls. The sudsy brew has a sour, smokey flavor. Cal-abashes must be emptied completely before the drinkers retire. As proof that no beer remains, the calabash is tipped over on its side.

Chadians supplement their diets with many other foods such as squash, beans, peanuts, sesame seeds, and cucumbers. In the north, fruits include limes and dates, whereas one finds guavas, bananas, and mangoes in the south. Travelers find grilled goat meat with dried hot pepper, and freshly squeezed lime at “truck stop” eateries in Sahelian roadside villages. It is especially delicious when fresh-baked French bread is available. Chadians also enjoy many kinds of fish. Huge river perch, known as capitain, are taken from the Chari and Logone Rivers. They are so named because French officers always demanded the largest of the catch, so naturally they went to the captain.


Formal Western schooling only recently came to Chad. Protestant missions began establishing primary schools in the 1920s, followed by Roman Catholic and state schools. Until 1942 Chadian children had to go to Brazzaville (Congo) to attend high school. Nowadays, primary school is compulsory, although only one in four children actually attends. There are far more elementary and high schools in the south than in the north. Students who make it to high school attend either a four-year program (collége) or a seven-year program (lycée). To get a diploma, students must pass a state exam, the bac, which has a 36% pass rate. Future elementary-school teachers take four years of general subjects, followed by two years of teacher training.

Ten years after independence, Chad opened its first university for the 1971–72 academic year. In 1983–84, the university had an enrollment of 1,643 students with 141 teachers. Unfortunately, civil war disrupted education at all levels, and university archives were looted during battles in N'Djamena in 1979 and 1980. Besides the effects of the war, limited financing, overcrowding, and the classical French curriculum have made it difficult for Chadian children to excel in school. Model schools now are switching to teaching French as a foreign language. A surprising statistic is that despite a combined primary, secondary, and tertiary enrollment of only 37.5%, almost half of the population can read and write in French or Arabic. This result may be attributed to high attendance at Quranic schools where children learn basic Arabic and recite the Quran.


Many Chadians express their cultural heritage through ceremonial dress, music, and dance, which link the material and supernatural worlds. The Chadian national folkloric ballet is particularly famous. Chadian craftsmen produce instruments of extremely high quality using materials such as wood, animal gut and horns, and calabashes. Among the principle instruments are tam-tams, pottery drums, goat-horn whistles and flutes, and gourd-calabash horns. The latter often are stained, burned with intricate designs, and decorated with animal hair. Chadians also excel at making five-stringed harps and balafons, which are similar to xylophones, and consist of a several resonant wood bars, each sized and sculpted to give the desired pitch, and lashed to a frame. Beneath the wood keys are gourds, which amplify the sound. Village headmen still maintain specially designed drums in their compounds, used to send urgent messages, such as announcing the death of an important person, to the people of the local and neighboring communities.


By world standards, Chad is one of the most undeveloped countries. More than 80% of Chadians are engaged in subsistence farming, herding, and fishing. Prior to exporting oil, cotton, the biggest cash crop, provided more than 50% of the country's foreign earnings. Most industrial jobs are found in light industries including textiles, meatpacking, beer brewing, and the manufacture of natron, soap, cigarettes, and construction materials. In late 2003, ExxonMobil's consortium began pumping oil in the southern region of Eastern Logone via a 650-mile pipeline through Cameroon to the port of Kribi on the Gulf of Guinea. But owing to corruption and diversion of proceeds to arms instead of infrastructure, Chadians have yet to benefit from the jobs and economic growth that the oil boom was expected to generate. In the foreseeable future, Chadians likely will continue to make their livelihoods mainly in the subsistence sector.


Coping with natural hazards and political upheaval has not given Chadians much time for recreational sports. While hunting and fishing may provide leisure sport activity for foreigners, Chadians hunt and fish out of necessity. Children and young people do play organized soccer, European handball, and basketball. In the cities, soccer club teams compete with one another, and the game is played wherever space permits. Apart from these, horse racing is practiced in makeshift hippodromes in the Sahel, northeast of N'Djamena. Arabs and certain other groups are excellent riders, have fine race horses, and organize races each Sunday throughout the dry season.


In contrast to American teenagers, most Chadian young people never have gone to the movies or watched a movie on a video cassette recorder or DVD player. Many have never seen television. In 2008 there were only six radio stations and one (government) television station in the country. The total number of Internet users was well under 100,000. It is safe to say that with the exception of a small urban elite, Chad remains one of the few places in the world insulated from American and Western pop culture. To the extent that Chadian entertainment exists, it consists of social and cultural events and ceremonies, which include dancing, drumming, and musical performance (see Cultural heritage ).


Traditional folk art in Chad serves aesthetic as well as functional purposes and has a long history dating to the iron age. Artists and craftsmen belong to castes, which are select groups of people who once married only among themselves. They have learned, mastered, and passed on the traditions and techniques of their manual craft to sons and daughters. In ancient times, a mystical, religious quality characterized blacksmithing. Kings wanted to monopolize the magical process of producing weapons such as arrow tips, spears, and daggers. They also recognized the usefulness of iron household, farming, and hunting tools such as knives and hoes. Having descended from this heritage, Chadian artists still produce a wide range of articles of genuine artistic merit and practical utility. These include musical instruments, masks, jewelry, ceramic pots, and bronze statuettes and figurines. Craftspeople spin cotton fabrics and weave strips of cloth that are sewn together to make durable garments. They also fashion leather goods from sandals to amulets. Of particular note are the practical and attractive gourds and pyroengraved calabashes, whose designs can be traced to ancient Babylonia. The gourds serve as kitchen utensils, measures, and food and drink receptacles.


Chadians have endured political anarchy, lawlessness, rebellions, and civil war since independence. They now live with the oil resource curse. In 2005, Transparency International ranked Chad along with Bangladesh as the world's most corrupt country. The southern oil fields produce more than 160,000 barrels of oil a day, yet four out of five Chadians live below the poverty line (less than $2/day).

In addition to coping with poverty, Chadians along the eastern border with Sudan have been subjected to cross-border raids. Refugee children are recruited to fight in rebel groups from both Chad and Sudan, and some 200,000 internally displaced people have been forcibly moved several times owing to inter-ethnic attacks. The violence and disruption have increased the number of orphans and caused additional stress on caregivers. The hosting of some 230,000 refugees from Darfur and more than 40,000 refugees from Central African Republic also has increased pressure on land and local communities, speeding the pace of environmental degradation. Competition with local people for wood, water, grazing land, and goods and services has led to anti-refugee sentiment. Prostitution has become particularly rampant in the southern Dabo oil fields area.


While the law prohibits discrimination based on gender, and prohibits rape, prostitution, and domestic violence against women, Chadian customary law and society inherently favors men. Wives traditionally have been considered property of their husbands, and have limited recourse to justice under the law. Husbands may also at any time enter into a polygynous relationship without their wives' consent. Although the first wife has the right to request that her marriage be dissolved, she must pay back the brideprice and other marriage costs. While French code provides for the right of women to own and inherit property, in practice most inheritance cases are adjudicated in favor of men. In rural areas women do most of the agricultural labor, household chores, raise the children, and enjoy little free time. Gender bias will continue to be an issue in the future as only 31% as many females as males are literate, and only 60% as many females as males attend primary, secondary, and tertiary schools.


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Chad: The True Picture. Boulogne: Editions Delroisse, n.d.

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Decalo, Samuel. Historical Dictionary of Chad. 3rd edition. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1997.

Tubiana, Joseph, Claude Arditi, and Claude Pairault, ed. L'Identité Tchadienne: L'heritage des Peuples et les Apports extérieurs. Paris: Editions L'Harmattan, 1994.

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—by R. Groelsema and M. C. Groelsema