You actually can go home again. Not saying it’s easy but it is possible.
To start, it’s important to admit guilt for leaving the work unfinished in Sam with Drew, Claire, Henk, Virginie and Mary. Guilty of abandonment.
Charlie and I (John) set out Sunday to try to make our way back to Ogooue Lolo, where the two of us had been assigned as volunteers 40 years ago.
To go from one small village in the north of Gabon to another small town in the south is an exercise in planning, coordination, luck and above all, a good network of contacts.
Sunday morning Virginie (thank you) drove us to the bus station 90 minutes away to catch public transport to our next destination where we could catch a train, then hopefully meet up with a driver arranged by a friend who could take us the last six hours of the journey. Sounds clear??
We crammed into the public bus for the three hour ride where luckily I fell asleep for half of it perhaps and had just enough room to shift my long legs once.
We arrived in Ndjole for what we thought was an 11 hour wait for the train. Very hot, we chanced upon a small auberge and convinced them to let us have a dayroom with air conditioning.
After lunch, nap, a shower and time to hang out, we headed for the train station and were lucky enough to purchase the last two seats available. We thought we had to kill four hours until the train arrived. To make a long story short, we actually had another 15 hours to wait which meant sleeping at the station. Don’t ask.
The next morning the train finally arrived and by that time we had become friends with everyone else traveling. We traveled second class and it actually was quite comfortable. The delay meant we were able to see the countryside, which also meant that by chance, as we traveled through Lope National Park, I was able to spot two elephants.
The network of friends entered into play when the train arrived in Lastoursville and a ride was waiting for us. First, two former students came to drive us into town and from there another truck had waited through the long delay to get us to our final, furthest destination, the town of Pana. This was where Charlie left his heart as his one year teaching English here turned into a full, deep immersion into the local Banjabi culture, principally through his relationship with Bipolo Adele and her family.
They met us when we arrived at 10pm, an emotional encounter for all involved after 39 years of absence. Shouts, hugs and undoubtedly more than a few tears expanded into several hours of catching up and sleep only after midnight.
The next two days a steady stream of people stopped by the house to greet Papa Morrison and hear he had not forgotten the local language he had picked up so long ago. Former students came up and sang the songs he had taught them. Others who he hunted with, who he fished with and hiked through the forest with came by.
The town was much bigger, with multiple shops where there had been one, with a daily market, with electricity and even running water at the hotel (yes a hotel). We made the rounds of introductory calls and many were interested in our projects we were completing on the other side of the country.
When we departed just two days later, it felt as if we had been there much longer, having packed so much in and really taken the measure of the changed town. Sad for Charlie to say goodbye but with the knowledge that a return trip was possible.
Did I say I lost my phone? Pulling into Pana I panicked as quick searches of pockets and the pick-up’s cabin came up empty. Remembering that I had hopped out of the car at a roadside water pump a long 30 kilometers earlier, I feared the phone had fallen out onto the road.
Our driver, now friend, became my personal savior that night as he launched his personal network into action to find someone who lived close to the pump and could check out the road early the next morning. Fortunately, the road is the proverbial less traveled road and fortunately the rains chose to hold off, and by 6am the following morning the right person had gone to the right spot and found the phone in the road. We picked it up on our way back two days later, which meant, unfortunately, no pictures from Pana.
Our trip took us by a trail of Peace Corps schools, and we managed to stop in each one. At each site, people emerged when they heard a car stop: teachers, workers who had helped build the schools and assorted villagers who spoke of John and Jeff in Nzela, of Jim and Mike in Koumbi, of Rick, Randy and Mike in Lebagny, of Paul, Bill, Dale and Dennis in Roungassa. We took photos at each site, too many to include here.
After a brief stop in Koula Moutou, we made it back to Lastoursville by nightfall and proceeded to collapse after a nice meal in a hotel. That’s right, a hotel.
We spent the next day wandering around town and bumped into former students who also remembered teachers who succeeded me like Diana Fillmore and Lynn Lewis. We toured the old sites, another school building completed by Dick and Jeff, Mark and Cliff, my old house and the stream where I washed daily, the school which has expanded from a three building junior high school to a high school with over 1000 students on a campus with easily 15 buildings.
Everywhere there were changes. Many more merchants from West Africa, electricity and television, and even some running water. We could find the old street patterns but new buildings, churches, schools, pharmacies, restaurants had changed the landscape. All yo be expected as it has been 40 years after all.
Not so expected was the warmth in the personal contact with people we knew, sharing the memories, impromptu singing of the songs we had taught in the classes. Inevitably, we learned of people who had passed away, but also of those who had become teachers and politicians, nurses and engineers, accountants and bureaucrats.
Finally, we also made new memories, chancing upon a local band practice or talking with current students. It seemed when we made our introductions, though, there was always someone who said, “I was your student. C’est moi.”
We always knew the impact these years had on our lives but had no idea of the impact on those we interacted with. We had our memories but never imagined we left memories as well. This trip home helped us see the experience wasn’t all one-way.