Words in the Desert - Chad

Written and Photographed by Robert Johnson

After a night in the desert and with nearly five more hours of travel to reach the village where they are opening a new school, Rivers and two teachers warm themselves by a fire before climbing back on a truck.

After a night in the desert and with nearly five more hours of travel to reach the village where they are opening a new school, Rivers and two teachers warm themselves by a fire before climbing back on a truck.


I was trying to find a comfortable position to sleep between a 50-pound bag of beans and an equally large sack of powdered milk.


The sun had set hours ago, and the night air grew significantly cooler. The dirt tracks we were following swayed our army-green Mercedes lorry back and forth like a diesel yacht on an ocean of sand. The only reminder of my home in the middle of the dark, semi-arid Chadian Sahel was the Chicago Bulls sticker on the front bumper.

Momentarily lulled to sleep under a thick blanket, I was slapped back to reality by the sting of a tree limb on my face. I was sitting too close to the edge of the truck, but there was nowhere else to go. The truck was full of building material for a new school in a tiny village 12 hours north of N’Djamena, Chad’s capital city.

Rivers, a TEAM worker, sat opposite me in the back of the truck, and his friend Mohammed sat in the cab. Together they were responsible for gathering the building materials and hiring the three newly trained teachers who sat around me with their personal belongings beside them. They were moving to the village to teach in the new school.

Our driver stopped the truck at around 11 p.m. We camped out on the desert floor until the first signs of light the next morning. The village was still five hours away.


From Words to Books

Rivers and his wife, Becky, arrived in Chad in 2008. “We wanted to work with nomads,” Rivers said. “We thought we’d have a camel and we’d be traveling with them on camels. And we wanted to do orality.” Orality involves using just speech for storytelling and communication, in contrast to literacy, which focuses on education through reading and writing. “Instead, we have come and we’ve lived in towns with them, or villages, and we do literacy.” 

While in language school, Rivers and Becky prayed they would meet a family in N’Djamena so they could begin learning a local Chadian language. “I just had in my heart to reach people,” Rivers said. “I didn’t know how I was going to reach them, what I was going to do. I just wanted to reach people.” 

With the help of veteran linguists, and building on an alphabet that had already been created, Rivers uses pictures to help people learn the sounds of letters and the meaning of words. This banner hangs in a small room where he trains teachers and develops curriculum.

With the help of veteran linguists, and building on an alphabet that had already been created, Rivers uses pictures to help people learn the sounds of letters and the meaning of words. This banner hangs in a small room where he trains teachers and develops curriculum.

Those prayers were answered when they moved into a home that had a 25-member family from a northern desert tribe living in the yard. “We lived in the city, but our house was like the village,” Rivers said. “Every day we’d walk out our doors, and there we were in the village. We had the most amazing opportunity because we were immediately welcomed into their family.”

Though they were quickly welcomed into the family and were invited to events such as funerals, births, and even reconciliation meetings between feuding tribes, Rivers found it odd that they weren’t immediately introduced to others at these events.  “I just thought to myself, why can’t he just say, ‘This is the white guy I live with?’” Rivers said. “I [felt] like an elephant in the room. He wouldn’t introduce [me] — no explanation, no questions — and I found out later it was because he didn’t know what to say.”

Rivers later learned it would have been culturally inappropriate for anyone to ask questions about who he and his family were, and it was even more shameful for the head of the family to be asked questions that he couldn’t answer. He didn’t know why Rivers and Becky were in Chad.

Rivers realized that he needed to have a reason for being in the country, something that was easy to explain. It came in the form of a small booklet Rivers had written and published that introduced letters and simple words in French and the family’s tribal language. Suddenly, the family leader was introducing Rivers to everyone. “This is the guy who makes books in our language,” he would say, according to Rivers. “I realized as I made a book, and I kind of put my first foot into literacy, God was already blessing it, and I saw immediately some positive, fruitful results,” Rivers said.

This little book, a picture vocabulary book with the tribal language and French side-by-side, was built on the hard work of linguists who had been in Chad for many years. A linguist named Mark, who was developing another major people group’s language and had seen the impact a vocabulary book could have, suggested that Rivers create a similar book. It would be something concrete to help explain to others why he was in Chad and what type of work he was doing there.

Mark and his wife, Sheryl, had worked in linguistics for two decades and always focused on literacy, first while living in a city in the far-north desert area of Chad, and then in N’Djamena. In their early years of service, word spread that if anyone worked with Mark and Sheryl they would be “Christianized.” So, under the cover of night, sympathetic villagers would show up to help them learn the local language. Mark and Sheryl created a number of books using that tribal language and alphabet and waited for the right time to start literacy classes. The opportunity came 12 years later, in December of 2010, in a little town in Niger.

Fast forward to 2014, and Mark explains the literacy movement among this major people group is starting to take off. Just two years ago, in the country to the north, it was illegal to have written material in this native language. But following political upheavals and changes in government, the alphabet developed by a group of linguists is now used for newspapers, magazines and government-sponsored education in the school system. “We did all those books, dictionaries and everything else for all those years waiting, and all of the sudden, when it was the Lord’s time, he blew the door open,” Mark said. “Right now, [the parliament in this country] just passed a law that they will teach these native languages in the schools at government cost. If we hadn’t had all these books, they couldn’t be teaching anything there. It’s our primers that they are using and will use. They are even moving to make it a constitutional right for these people to have the right to their native languages. If they didn’t have literature to be able to show ahead of time, it wouldn’t have worked.”

Getting Noticed

River’s homemade vocabulary books were being manufactured and sold with little notice until one book fell into the hands of a well-known government official from the particular language group with which Rivers was working. “People didn’t care that much, and they weren’t that interested. But all of a sudden, this one important government official got a copy of these books and read through every page, and was floored,” Rivers said. This man had wanted to learn to write his language so that the stories he knew orally would be preserved, but he never had the tools until he came across the vocabulary book. The man wrote down over 20,000 words and numerous traditional stories he had memorized. “He realized immediately that if [they] can write down [their] stories, then they won’t be lost,” Rivers said.

These vocabulary books were also responsible for Rivers meeting Mohammed, a man passionate about education and literacy. When they first met, Mohammed asked Rivers to help him build a school in the village where he grew up. Mohammed was born in Chad, went to school in Sudan, and completed his university studies in England. Now he was looking for someone to help him establish a school in his tiny home village 12 hours north of N’Djamena. Mohammed had already personally sent enough money to build two buildings for the school.

Most schools in Chad are taught in French, one of the country’s two official languages. But those languages aren’t widely spoken among many Chadians, who almost exclusively use indigenous languages. “If you’re going to start a school, you might as well do it in a language that the kids can understand,” Rivers said. “You might as well do it in their mother tongue. Otherwise it’s going to be like all the other Chadian schools, where the kids all show up, [but] they don’t have a clue what the teacher’s saying.” Skeptical of this mother-tongue education at first, Mohammed saw the benefit after some time of developing the coursework and the classes. “This is like liberation. You’re just setting us free,” Mohammed said. “We’re not dependent on French anymore. We’re not dependent on Arabic. All of a sudden, we can write our language.”

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization ranks Chad as the 7th least-literate country in the world, with only one-third of the population considered literate. With a lack of access to education, difficult learning environments, and relatively few financial resources invested in education, it’s obvious why the literacy statistics are dismal. 

“The way reading is taught in Chad is just repetition of the word,” Rivers said. “The kids don’t really understand what reading is because: One, it’s in French — they don’t understand French, and two, the teacher tells them what it is and they repeat it.” There is no explanation around the sound the letters make and what happens when two or more letters are combined. It is simply a repeat-after-me scenario.

“If they never learn to read in their mother tongue, most of the kids will never learn what reading really is,” Rivers said. “It’s just memorizing. ... Zero comprehension.”

According to Rivers, research shows that if you learn to read in your mother tongue, reading in any other language is easier. Schools where instruction happens in the mother tongue have dramatically better results and make it easier for students to later learn Arabic and French.

A School Emerges

The village I visited is no exception to the low educational outcomes found across Chad. But what it lacked in results it made up for in vision. 

We arrived around 10 a.m., as the heat of the sun began overtaking the coolness of a January desert morning. The sound of our diesel engine brought kids running toward a small mud-bricked building swallowed by the expanse of sand and sapphire-blue sky. This was the first room completed for the new school funded by Mohammed. People gathered around the building and the truck, waiting to help unload the pieces of their unassembled dream. Underneath my feet were materials for another large building with three classrooms, wood for desks, chalkboards, food for a meal program and, most importantly, books. 

About 50 feet from the lone building, lying in the sand, was a  growing pile of mud bricks near the site of the new building. Another few hundred feet away, in the valley next to the only water well for a couple miles, sat nearly 9,000 more handmade mud bricks, rectangular symbols of a village coming together to realize this vision of a new school.

Back up by the schoolhouse, the truck sat emptied, and the three new teachers gathered their belongings and sat them next to the mud-bricked building. Just two months before, neither of them were able to read. Rivers and Mohammed spent the last six weeks teaching and practicing with them every day. Now the fledgling educators were ready to take the enrollees through the first year of their kindergarten-level curriculum. Everyone starts with kindergarten, no matter their age.

For many families in the village, it will be their first-ever experience with school.

“All we have to do is have a school that is happening [in this tribal language] and everyone will be amazed. All of a sudden there will be a precedent,” Rivers said. “People are just floored because they didn’t think anyone could do it.” The villagers didn’t think it could work because they had never seen it done before and they feared the ramification of failure. Everything that is done, whether good or bad, will be told for generations to come; it will either be to someone’s honor or someone’s shame. That kind of pressure makes people not want to be the one who sticks out. “Occasionally, you run into someone who doesn’t care. They are willing to lay their reputation on the line and say, ‘This is what we need to be doing,’ and that’s what Mohammed is,” Rivers said. “ Now, the more [Mohammed] is learning to read and write his own language, the more he realizes how important this is to conserving his culture.” 

As we prepared to leave the village, I watched as Mohammed and Rivers exchanged a few more words. “I am indebted to you. Thank you so much. I can’t ever tell you how much this means to me,” Mohammed said. Rivers got in the truck with a broad smile across his narrow face. 

A few months later, Rivers returned to the village to check in. A large, three-room school building stood where the meager pile of bricks had been just two months before. And on the second day of classes, 65 students were in attendance. People arrived on camels, donkeys and horseback to see this school they had been hearing rumors about, expressing hopes of enrolling their children as well. 

“I’m not a teacher, and I’m not a curriculum developer,” said Rivers, whose background as a professional educator extends only to his experiences homeschooling his own children. But he has set out to take the best pieces of a Chadian education system, the alphabet of a tribal language, and a passion for literacy to create what he hopes will be a literacy movement.

Literacy wasn’t in Rivers and Becky’s original plan, but looking at what has developed, they aren’t sure they would change anything. “The Lord hasn’t done it the way that I expected him to do it, and who am I to complain?” Rivers said. “I’m hanging in there — hanging on by the seat of my pants sometimes — but, it’s not my show.”