Africa hits me like a wave on the beach the moment I step out of the airplane. The oppressive heat washes over me despite the midnight hour. My first breath of African air leaves my teeth feeling gritty and my throat dry. I make my way down the shaky steps that lead not to an air-conditioned terminal with a smiling airline employee, but rather to the broken black asphalt of the airport tarmac with a rigid solder staring at me with his machine gun casually draped across his shoulder. Ahh, I'm home.
As the other passengers pause to adjust their luggage and strip layers of clothing, my sisters and I begin sprinting. We run because we know. We know that on the other side of this dark expanse of pavement lies the cattle stable known as the international arrival room. Shuffling lines of tired, hungry and dazed passengers await the slow; the speedy might get out before the mosquitoes start biting. It's a mad dash I've performed each time arriving back to this desolate country and no strange look from an already-exhausted aid worker will change my mind.
It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the fluorescent light flooding the brown cement "welcome" building. It's almost as if the Chadian government set it up to give people one last chance to change their minds. The cracks in the wall whisper doubts: are you sure you want to come to Chad? This is your last chance to turn back, murmurs the rusted ceiling fan swirling weakly overhead. Moving into a line, the room quickly fills up behind me. Peering past the kiosks where grumpy men look for every excuse to stall our progress with pointless passport inquiries, I see my parents. Thin, dusty and radiant – excited that their children are back safe from a semester at boarding school.
The soldier looks up and motions me forward across the yellow line. I step forward and hand him my passport, but I pause right before it lands in his hands. "Asalam Alek," I say in the local Arabic dialect, greeting him in is native tongue. A smile breaks the rough surface of the face and he responds, intrigued by the white teenager who knows the language. I eagerly chat with him to let him know that I am different, that I care and that I know his country well. Hope that this will give me the upper hand becomes true as the words work their magic. After a cursory glance at my paperwork he waves me through, past another rigid guard and into the chaos that waits me on the other side of the blue boundary line. Victory; I am back in the land I love.