Last night, we climbed out of the car, unfolding legs and stretching arms that had been cramping up on our 11-hour drive back to Libreville. It was, as much travel by road here is, not without incident, but I get ahead of myself. We were just happy to wallow in Bob’s hospitality and cold beer. Merci
The last day in Sam was given over to wrapping up the small unfinished tasks and cleaning up the work sites. With both latrines painted, we spent the day moving all the materials over to the other school as a contribution to repairs there. Helping us were a small group of enthusiastic primary school boys who hoped for a small gift at the end of the work for their labors. They were not disappointed as each received a small flashlight, a Polaroid picture and a soda.
Meanwhile Drew was using his time to complete the unfinished windows on the teachers houses to make them inhabitable. Check.
In the midst of the work, we paid our courtesy farewell on the sous-prefet. We turned the keys of the latrines over to him. He thanked us for our help and in fairly blunt language urged the Sam residents to now do their part in keeping up and maintaining what he called the “jewel” of the school we had repaired. We assured him of the good hospitality we had received from our hosts.
One final beer at the crossroads and one final supper before we got organized and packed, ready for an early departure the next morning.
With two pick-ups loaded with personal suitcases and project tools, we bade our farewells, not without a few tears.
The ride back to Libreville started in luxury with extra spaces in each car. We stopped in Ndjole for a lunch of coupe-coupe, Gabon’s sliced barbecue meat that has become my meal of choice. All was proceeding well enough that Emil, one of the drivers, predicted we’d be back on Libreville by 5pm, but he did add the “if there are no problems” caveat. You can guess what happened next.
Less than an hour later, we were startled out of our post-lunch sleepy confidence when the rear wheel on one of our rides fell off the truck, bounced by us, and we were treated to the spectacle of steel axle on pavement, with sparks and maybe even small flames shooting out from under the truck.
A sad sight. We located the tire in the yard of one of the village residents, we found the tire drum in a second spot and then located a couple of the bolts that had been severed off. After panic and hopeless depression, we moved, along with a roadside mechanic who just happened on the scene and jumped in to work, into problem-solving mode. We came up with a plan, moved all the luggage and passengers into the one remaining good truck and hustled off to the next village where we hoped to find spare parts. We hit the jackpot and the driver Florian headed back to the broken down car to make repairs while the rest of us crammed into the back seat and continued on. End of story, Florian limped into Libreville about six hours later with a repaired car.
Our program for our final full day here included heading over to the US Embassy where we congregated at actresses that had been planted three years earlier to commemorate Peace Corps volunteers who had died in service, Diana Fillmore and Karen Phillips. There the Gabonese wife of one of the Embassy employees who helped us on the Sam project gave a moving first-hand testimonial on the impact of Peace Corps on Gabon and the Gabonese who we came into contact with.
Finally, we joined our Sam D’Abord collaborators for a luncheon farewell with the obligatory slide show of our time here, featuring most of Henk’s 500 or more photos.
We closed out the day with pizza supper on the beach.
Tomorrow night the remaining five of us catch flights leaving behind our third year of projects.
Before I left to come here, a friend asked my why we come back. He understood one year, by why keep going back? Without hesitating, my response focused on the richly rewarding experience. This year was no different.
Sunday in Sam. I should say Palm Sunday, as we attended the procession to the church and the first two hours of the service. All the women dressed in red, and every reading/prayer was punctuated with a song that everyone knew the words to. The whole service was in Fang, but the deacon came directly to where we seated and gave us the three-minute version of her sermons on sins against neighbors.
We had attended the same service two years ago, and there were few changes. One change was that people weren’t continually turning around and staring at us. We’re more at home and less a novelty.
Just a few more work days left, and things are coming together nicely. The last of the nets were distributed and the team met in Libreville this week to review the project, prepare a final report and discuss the second phase. Many thanks to the large contingent of friends and former volunteers back in the US who made it possible to distribute so many nets.
Also completed this past week was the world map mural. Just in time too, since Claire, Mary and Henk took advantage of the final days of school before Easter break to bring in students to help paint. You can only imagine the enthusiastic response, but it was the teachers who were eager to paint as well. Once again, as in Doumandzou, the final result is a colorful lesson in geography that awes young and old as they stand in front and study. In the photo below, Mary applies a protective coating on it, after the students had left.
Drew, Nico and Pacom are pushing hard to put the final touches on the latrines. Both structures are up, we’ve painted one and now there’s a long list of small items that Drew prepared to get us to the finish line on Wednesday. The pouring of the slab was a labor intensive day, under the hot sun, and with the last minute help of many hands bringing the extra water needed, the final trowel touches left a solid, even platform on which to build the latrine stalls.
In the midst of all this work, the governor of the province came to the village, for the investiture of the local sous-prefet. A big party and lots of food and drink and even a quick photo with the governor, so quick that none of us were able to get our cameras out. You’ll just have to trust me.
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.
Yes, despite the upbeat nature of these postings, we did reach a low point this week. All on the same day.
We lost the key (twice) to the school classroom where we’re painting the world map mural and where we’re storing construction supplies. (Students have moved into the other two classes as school continues.). We had an evening without the usual two-three hours of electricity which meant we couldn’t recharge phones, or steri-pens, which meant we were low on clean drinking water. Our transport became an issue and two of us were out of commission to illness – toothache and stomach. I also threw out my back. Don’t ask how since it will reveal my stupidity. It seemed for a fleeting moment we might not be able to finish.
Just like the 1960s song, “Camp Grenada”, the clouds receded. We found and hired a local truck to move our supplies; Henk found the lost key on the field below the school. Yes, on the field! And the electricity came back on last night and everyone was in fine form for a full Saturday of work. We even received the last bunch of mosquito nets for distribution on Monday.
We started the framing for one of the latrines and are ready to pour the slab for the other. And the outlines for all the countries on the map are finished, and on Monday the students will start painting with us.
We hit the half-way point yesterday and find ourselves in good shape to complete all three projects on schedule.
It is, after all, the rainy season. But somehow it seems rainier than any of us remember. Two years ago, people were complaining that it was hardly raining. After a five hour torrential downpour yesterday, no such worries. We put out two buckets under the roof line, and when one gets full we empty it into a bigger barrel, and by the time we get back the other bucket’s full. And on and on until the bigger barrel is full.
We ran out of water yesterday when mixing cement for the latrine platform floor. But that was because we only had one barrel. What to do? Take the wheelbarrow down to the stream and fill up 20 liter containers to wheel back to the barrel. We filled up the barrel so we could continue pouring the cement for the three by five meter (approximately) slab.
When I say “we” I really mean David, the young man who showed up with his friend Dominique to help the pour. Thank goodness. He wasn’t the only village contributor. Celestine came by with two baskets of food that the church women gave to us – peanuts, bananas, pineapples and the atangas, Gabon’s purple sour “plums”. And wonderfully, so have many others, dropping by to give us bananas or ????
We did finish the pour, an exhausting stretch of eight hours, and by we, I mean Drew and our two local hires, Nico and Pacom. Not one hour after finishing, yes, another extended rainstorm.
In fact, there’s one right now as I write, and we barely got our clean clothes off the line in time.
And here comes Virginie with her truck and hopefully the four stranded colleagues.
That’s French for mosquito net. Five hundred arrived by truck this week and, after taking house-to-house assessments for the first four days, word spread that the nets were ready for distribution. Within 30 minutes, with no advance notice, over 100 people had shown up with their vouchers to collect their nets.
Working closely with a team from the Ministry of Health, we were able to make sure the nets went to the right people and that they had the right information on using the nets properly and on other ways to prevent malaria.
We said goodbye to our Ministry counterparts this morning but we had a solid plan on continuing this coming week with the remaining distribution and the inclusion of one more village. By week’s end we should have handed out all five hundred nets.
Progress continues on building the latrines as well as the first steps in preparing the map mural. Rain delays hampered our progress but we’ll always welcome the rain to meet our water needs.
Today was our day off and we made a run to the closest town Mitzic for provisions.
It was not an uneventful trip out to Sam. First there was an annoying drizzle while loading the truck but we managed to get all the suitcases and provisions, including a wheelbarrow on top, tied down.
We stopped to buy fish and some “bush pig” on the way, and had lunch in Ndjole where they sell grilled, sliced beef (coupe-coupe) and grilled fish for lunch.
On our way out of town, we predicted an easy three hour drive when the phone rang. “Virginie,” our volunteer from Libreville, “has had an accident.” We turned around and drove back to Ndjole to find Virginia’s car on the side of the road with a piece missing from her front fender. Someone who said his brakes were not working had rammed into the corner of her car. Not too serious, but not the way Virginie, who had offered her pick-up truck, to our group, would have wanted to start. Nor the rest of us. Anyway, with the police report completed and an abashed, apologetic driver, we were on our way with the fender piece in the back seat.
We pulled into Mitzic a little later and ran into a few people we had worked with before, including our friend Nico who was going to help us again. Gassed up, we made the final leg to the village.
There we met with Boniface who is the village president of Sam D’Abord and made our sleeping arrangements. Beer and peanuts for dinner and we collapsed.
Sunday we spent setting up house. All seven of us from Encore de la Paix are staying in the same house we lived in two years ago. That helps since, even at our advanced age, we kind of remember the drill, in the kitchen, with the preoccupation with water to drink, to cook with and to clean, and in other assorted requirements like laundry and garbage.
We held an introductory meeting with villagers and explained our three projects, mosquito nets, school latrines and world map mural. Gaston, our main Gabonese counterpart from this region who spent his career in the Ministry of Health, was his usual indispensable self explaining in both French and Fang our plans, peppering with multiple thank-you’s for the welcome. And he’s right as people have dropped off bananas, pineapples, papayas, avocados and peanuts to stock our pantry.
We scouted our project sites, and we kept running into people we remembered, so it was really quite a joyous reunion.
Our PNLP colleagues from the Ministry of Health, arranged a “sensibilization” meeting for the village that around 100 people attended including school children. They ran through a quick primer on malaria prevention and their plans to conduct an assessment focusing on at risk populations of children, seniors and pregnant women for the initial net distribution. Some preliminary testing uncovered three people with malaria and the PNLP truck rushed back to Mitzic to get the medicines needed.
I knew this project was stimulating interest later that day when a woman stopped us exclaiming that no one had come to count her household and she had three children. We assured her the team was on their way. Sure enough, five minutes later they arrived to count her household.
On the latrines, the good news is that both pits were dug before our arrival. They are both too big, however, requiring a few adjustments to our design. No problem.
The school we had fixed up last time is holding up well. There’s a new school director, Marcel, who has been extraordinarily helpful in organizing the work site and in helping reinforce the mosquito net project.
Finally, for this letter, we made our protocol call on the sous-prefet, M. Ze-Ovono Emmanuel. He told us he grew up in Bitam, the same home town as Virginie. They knew a number of people in common. He proceeded to speak a little English and spoke fondly of his Peace Corps English and math teachers from 1981-1986. We asked for their names so they would know that how well one of their students had done. He remembered Mr. Arnold, John Sinamone, Miss Meany, and someone named Hild.
It was not the only time people spoke of former volunteers here. We have passed around photos that one volunteer, Tony Ware, sent us before we left. Even with 20 years intervening, people pointed out the names of friends and neighbors.
We’ve only had three days of work, but we’re making headway on both our goals to complete projects and to enjoy the company of our hosts.
It’s early Saturday morning. The cars are loaded, and we’re heading out to the village of Sam in a few minutes. We’re a caravan of four cars with 13 people and every nook and cranny filled with supplies, suitcases and food.
Last night on our way to dinner, we passed near the airport and realized we had gone there the previous three nights to pick up incoming members of our team. Two came all the way from French Polynesia, one from North Carolina, one from the Netherlands and two from western Massachusetts. We’ll be joined by a woman who lives in Gabon now but spent a lot of time in the US and our leader Bob who also lives over here.
We’re matched by a contingent coming out from the National Program for the Prevention of Malaria who will help conducting the first phase of the mosquito net distribution plan. We’ll be going from village to village counting the families who need nets.
By way of introduction yesterday, we had a briefing on malaria in Gabon, with statistics, background on mosquito behavior, high risk populations, and testing. The photo below shows Bob volunteering to be tested.
One other highlight of our brief stay in Libreville was running into a few former students.
In the month since we left Gabon, all of us have spent a fair amount of time organizing the photos that we took.
Rather than have you sift through all of them, we have put up a few before, during and after photos of our three projects in our gallery on the right hand banner. Also, there are the two articles that appeared in Gabon’s largest newspaper L’Union.
But, to make it easy, we also put together a few videos on each of our different projects completed this year. In sum they run about ten minutes:
And they’re all on our very own YouTube channel!
It now seems like a blur; it all happened so fast.
It actually started with frantic last minute preparations the day before when for the first few hours everything seemed to go wrong. Our car broke down so we had to walk to work, the truck with doors and windows for the teachers houses (and one last piece of roof for the latrine) was stuck on the road from Libreville, it started raining so we couldn’t paint and then 35 students arrived with nothing to do but mill around.
But the sun came out. We picked up our tools and went to work. We finished painting the last of the teachers houses, Drew and Claire put up the blackboards, the students cleaned out the classrooms and picked up debris outside (lots of it), Christian and Nico went to work on the windows when they finally arrived, and volunteers from town were cutting the grass in front of the school.
Then the people from Libreville started arriving. These included Bob and Gaston, our principal organizers, as well as the committee of people from Sam who were now living in Libreville and have been very supportive of the project.
Inauguration day started leisurely, something we were not so used to after six weeks of early rising and off to work. We ditched our work clothes and headed to the site for readiness. By the time we got there, desks and chairs lined the outside just as palm fronds lined the entrance to the school. The Gabonese workers were putting in the windows on one house. Then we realized we hadn’t put up the name of the school, or the plaque, so Drew and Christian got to work on that.
We set off for Doumandzou to celebrate the completion of the school latrines and the world map mural. Dick explained various aspects of the latrines and Nguema demonstrated the “tippy” for washing hands after use. These turned out to be real models of sanitary latrines for schools. Incredible effort, and Dick made sure to mention our sponsor, Water Charity, in his remarks.
After a toast, we hopped into the caravan of cars for the 30 minute drive back to Sam. People were waiting for us as we pulled up. In one of the classrooms was a tremendous feast with drinks for everyone. As the last group of Sam dignitaries arrived, people formed a long receiving line. Drummers led a women’s choral group as we all walked up to the school.
Then, a surprise. Emerging from one of the teachers houses came a dancer in a white costume wearing a traditional mask. The place became electric: children shouting, people getting out phones and cameras as the dancer and his handlers cleared a path for his approach to the drums. Part jokester, he approached people to dance with him, and Gaston, Drew, Giselle, Mary and Claire obliged to everyone’s amusement. (That video will go viral.) A major highlight.
How do you top that? You don’t, but we tried to with speeches. Boniface (the head of the local committee,) the representative from the Ministry of Education, and John made brief presentations. Drew helped Giselle unveil the plaque. The plaque mentions Marshall Erdman, the original designer of the Peace Corps schools, so, at the request of people in the crowd, Bob explained a little of the history of the first Peace Corps schools with the young architect from Wisconsin who came to Gabon to come up with a practical, aesthetic design that still stands out across the country, with buildings readily identifiable as “les ecoles Americains.”
Then the feast and the farewells. Both lasted into the night and moved around the village. When we collapsed that night, we were tired and overwhelmed. Too many emotions.
A day later, we are in Libreville, preparing for our departures tomorrow. There are a few remaining touches that our Gabonese counterparts will finalize over the next week or so.