One of the highlights of going back to Gabon this past month was to share the experience with Jack Atkinson who was one of the original Peace Corps volunteers who built the school in Abam Eba in 1964. Pretty sure that if Mick Jagger showed up in Abam Eba, he would have had to take a back seat to Jack.
It was the first time Jack had been back to the village since returning in 1969, but he managed to meet up with friends he had made in the 60s and their children. One was Felicien Mendene, the son of the village chief in Abam Eba who went on to become a university professor. Another was Emil Sima and Marcel Ekwa whose many family members Jack was able to meet au village.
Word of Jack’s arrival and stay spread quickly. One day, Jack and Bob were stopped at a police checkpoint on the road to Oyem, the capital of the province. One of the policemen looked in the truck and asked if either of them was Jack. When assured he was speaking with THE Jack Atkinson, he called his colleagues over, and then they sent us on our way.
So many people remembered Jack, even those who admitted they never met him said they had heard of him as they were growing up. Jack gave a few very emotional speeches at meetings in Libreville and in the village when people came just to see and hear the man who had been there so many years before. Jack kept saying he thought people were morphing his entire team of Tom, John and Manni into just Jack. He even brought photos with him to show the villagers the whole crew.
The rest of us remember Gabon from the 1970s and 80s, but Jack could reach back to the first years of the country’s independence, to meeting Albert Schweitzer at his hospital in Lambarene, of driving along dirt roads and recognizing even signposts from so many years ago. He visited some of the first schools built, even before Abam Eba, and regaled us with stories of conditions that were very different just ten years later.
We are all of a “certain age” but perhaps Jack a little more so. Still, he was not comfortable standing on the sidelines, and was always at the worksite, painting, repairing the pre-school desks, documenting the work and attending the anti-malaria trainings.
When it came time for the end of project ceremony, of course, we wanted Jack to be our representative in handing out the medals and in inaugurating the finished school.
Jack’s presence underscored the importance of a program like the Peace Corps that reaches out beyond the capitals and the elites in countries, and puts Americans in touch with people to share, interact, learn, exchange and work and play together. These trips back remind us of the impact we had, even as we knew the impact those years far away had on us.
We have finished the project, but it will take a couple of days to gather our thoughts on the grand finale we enjoyed, coinciding with Gabon’s independence day.