The Life of a CRS Man

Patrick Oberst is the representative for Catholic Relief Services in the arid and impoverished African town of Abéché, Chad.

It’s a harsh assignment, CRS information officer Lane Hartill reports in this article posted at The Huffington Post:

Abéché is a town as dry and brown as burnt pie crust, its mud houses constantly blasted by a hair dryer-hot wind. During winter, it cools down to the mid 80s.

But it’s the peak of the hot season now. And 122 degrees — the temperature of glue guns and a good cup of hot chocolate — is common. Patrick, a 30-year-old Nebraskan and CRS’ lone American based here, grew up on sweet corn and Omaha Steaks and Husker football. Lincoln, he says, never got this hot. No place he’s ever been got this hot.

“Go to your oven and turn it on to, say, 350 degrees,” he says. “When the oven reaches that temperature, go open it while your face is really close. The blast furnace that you feel is pretty close to what 122 degrees feels like. Only it does not dissipate.”

CRS’ international workers are usually based in capitals. A strong cappuccino, Wolf Blitzer, and an imported bottle of Chanel No. 5 are never far away. Even the cities that ring with danger —Islamabad, Kabul, Beirut — have pockets of luxury. When your sanity is threatened by stress, you can lie down for a deep tissue back massage, the kids can sip Shirley Temples, and there’s always someone with that familiar, granular American accent. Not here. Not in this dust-blasted wasteland on the far edge of nowhere.

Despite the numerous hardships Hartill recounts in his article, including rampant theft and violence and, perhaps most dangerous of all, the driving techniques of locals, Oberst says it’s worth it in order to help provide aid to refugees from Darfur who live in camps near Abéché.

But for now, this is his life. And he can stomach it. He believes in the work he’s doing, albeit behind the scenes. The heat, the monotony, the culture; none of that bothers him. What does is trying to describe his life to people who have no point of reference about Africa. Soldiers returning from Iraq, he says, go through the same thing. You don’t know what it’s like, he says, and you’ll never understand Abéché unless you’ve lived it.

“The isolation aspect arises when I try and relate my experiences to people stateside,” he says. “They ask how Africa was, and I am like, ‘Well, do you have a few hours?’ Their eyes glaze over quickly. So I boil it down: It’s Africa, the roads suck, and it’s hot. I know this is lame and stereotypical, but it is too fatiguing to try and describe and nuance the experience here.”