Day three

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It’s hard to believe we’ve only been working three days. We have accomplished a lot, have hit our exhaustion thresholds and we still have 5 weeks to go!

We left Libreville on Sunday in caravan style. Gabonese volunteers from both villages drove us out. The long trip allowed us to get acquainted, stop for lunch of grilled meat and see a couple of the sites, as we crossed the equator.

We had a wonderful dinner on arrival with all the contingent from Libreville and our hosts here. Then we split up to go to the places where we’re staying. Terri, Mary and John are staying in Giselle’s house while Drew and Claire are not far away in the house of one of Giselle’s family members. Doug continued on to Doumandzou with Gaston and settled into Papa’s house. All our lodging is comfortable; there’s electricity a couple of hours at night and indoor plumbing features. We are cooking on gas stoves and everyone is bending over backwards to make us feel at home. And we do.

Monday was a planning day. We were met at the school by students who sang and handed us a floral bouquet. We all then headed to Doumandzou where we worked last year. The reception by the children there has made the whole trip (this year and last). Nguema’s children came running up to us with the most genuine, heartfelt hugs. Gaston put on a nice meal for us, that included a forest cat that Nguema had killed that morning!

To the work: we started Tuesday in Sam with demolition being the order of the day. In some respects the school this year is in better shape, in others in worse shape, including a leaky, unsalvageable roof. By noon we had ripped out all the windows, by the end of the day the roof was off and we were bringing down the ceiling and rotted out roof framing. The work slowed down a little as we got into the tedious job of removing nails and small nail clasps that the 1960s volunteers seemed to love, too much as we wrestle to rip them out.

We started dismantling the first of the teachers houses, sand and tin roof was delivered, as were loads of wood. (Thanks Bob). If you ask, you can hear the story of the scorpion and the black mamba.

Over in Doumandzou, Doug is working with Nguema and Gabriel on the school latrines, pouring the footings for the cement block pits and finishing digging the second pit.

Those of us who were here last year keep talking of differences and small reminders of the work, but mostly about people who just show up and want to help and pitch in.

We have other stories, of dipping in the small stream after work to cool down, of power tools, of new friends.

This Sunday, we hear there’s going to be a soccer match between the two villages. Who do we root for?

The photo included is on arrival at the school when Terri Barker, Claire Thiebault and Mary Dickson were presented with flowers.

What a send off

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The members of two different committees from the village of Sam organized a fete today to get the project started on the right foot.

At least 50 people filled the community center for the official welcome and send-off. It says a lot about the village that can boast a former minister, a senator, officials from the Ministry of Education, from the airport authority who all participated in the ceremony. There were speeches by Gaston Biyoghe and Giselle Ntoutoume as well as the President of the Resortissants de Sam Association (residents originally from Sam but living in Libreville.). John Dickson, on behalf of all those in Encore, thanked everyone and gave a brief history of our project mentioning how many people in the US and even Holland support this effort in Sam. Bob Weisflog also spoke, providing background on the Peace Corps in Gabon and on Marshall Erdman, the original architect for the school.

We were all thrilled that the US Ambassador Cynthia Akuetteh joined us. She had some wonderful, inspiring words of encouragement as well.

People present had fresh, fond memories of Peace Corps volunteers they remembered from Sam, many of them getting their start in the primary school that Peace Corps built in 1965 and that we will be repairing.

The first six to arrive from the states (and Egypt) landed during the week without problems. Terri Barber came first, followed by Doug Spatz, Claire Thiebault and Drew Howard. John and Mary Dickson arrived Friday, in time to join everyone for last minute shopping and the fete. Jean Pierre Lindeme, a student from Lastourville, and later teacher for many trainings, spent the day with us helping with telephones and purchases.

So this starts as a collective effort. Spirits are high and we’re running on adrenalin. Tomorrow a caravan of four cars takes off for the day’s drive to the village.

Ca commence.

This photo is of the Ambassador Akuetteh (center holding folder) flanked by Encore volunteers and members of the Sam committees.

We did it, with your help!! Thank YOU!

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Not only did we meet our fundraising goal, but we exceeded it, and more. With the help of over 85 different individuals and organizations, we were able to raise $38,000.

A couple of points. Donations came from friends and family, from people who know each of us traveling back to Gabon to work in Sam and in Doumandzou. They came from former Peace Corps Gabon volunteers, from the 1960s all the way through to the early 2000s. And some came from volunteers who served in other countries. Each contribution, because it is personal, carries for all of us special meaning.

The additional funding will allow us to complete the teachers’ houses in Sam. We had decided to forego repairing these houses, because the entire school roof needed replacing and we didn’t think we would have funding for both. Now, because of your generosity, we can make sure that the teachers have proper houses, incentives to attract and keep teachers in the village. (The photo included shows the condition of one of the houses.) When we fixed up the houses last year in Doumandzou, a second teacher was assigned to the village!

One final point. It’s important to recognize the contributions the Gabonese from the two villages where we will be working. They are collecting contributions to pay for the sand and other local materials needed.

We can’t thank our friends and supporters enough. Through this journal from Gabon, we hope to convey to each of you some of the excitement as we make new the Sam school that Peace Corps built in 1965, and provide sanitary latrines for the school in Doumandzou.

Thank you and MERCI.

A new window brick mold

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Preparations proceed. Seen here is M. Eyene Ntoutoume Benoit handing over a new window block mold that he made in his welding shop in Libreville. Accepting the mold is M. Nguema Essone Jacques, who serves as the Vice-President of “Comitee Sam d’Abord,” which is partnering with Encore de la Paix in the school renovation project. He will send the mold out to start making the new window blocks, so they are on hand when the first of the U.S. volunteers arrives.

The mold will make up to 400 new window blocks to replace the wooden windows on the school that have broken and rotted. Last year in Doumandzou, half way through making the window blocks, one of the seams on the outside wall of the mold broke. We wrapped the mold with wire and were able to get by making the rest of the window blocks, each of which has an opening to allow in light, but is deep enough to prevent even the hardest rain from entering the classrooms. This was a design that Peace Corps volunteers were using on the schools they built as far back as the 1970s.

Not included in the photo was a donation of 200L of diesel fuel. Bob Weisflog, January 9, 2016

Preparations for Sam 2016

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This trip report comes from Bob Weisflog who traveled to the villages where we will be working in March.

Had an excellent trip to Sam and Doumandzou.

Left Libreville on Sunday at 7am with Gaston & Marie Therese and twelve hours later we finally arrived at Doumandzou. I was fined 20,000 cfa for passing an off duty gendarme on the Kango bridge, ate porc-epic in Biboulou, drank beers in Mitzic, had a wonderful meal in a village 20 km outside Mitzic with one of Gaston’s “nieces”, stopped in Sam, arrived in Doumandzou to watch soccer match with Papa Ekabane. Typical 14 hour day!

The next morning, we met with 20+ Sam villagers at 08:30 for an hour. Gaston did the introduction, Marie Therese gave her spiel representing the Libreville committee, I gave the “Encore” presentation. I reiterated the need for debroussing (weed-whacking), making blocks, providing sand, vehicle and lodging.

We visited 9 lodging possibilities. There is a decent small stream bathing that’s going to be a big part of living arrangements. The distance from the school site will be 1 -2 kilometers. Silent filarial flies that sting like crap are a problem. Volunteers will need to bring socks, closed shoes and long light weight pants & shirts. The food situation will be like Doumandzou – partly provided, partly bring/cook your own.

Christian, our foreman, came from Mitzic, and we worked at the Sam school for a couple hours. We went line item by line item from the budget sheet. The key is going to be flexibility and improvising when faced with reality – “it is what it is”.

Christian and I discussed his assistance with Sam school, 3 teachers houses and Doumandzou latrine. We agreed it is an ambitious 5-week project and that:

1) pre-arrival work will absolutely have to be completed

2) all materials and supplies need to be on site by first week

3) communication and coordination between himself, you guys and me needs to be better

4) his full-time presence would be required (except for real material runs to Mitzic)

5) additional skilled or manual labor would only be used as needed

The Sam village participation is to debrousse, supply 500 cement blocks and 400 window blocks (to be purchased from the village but I will provide window block mold), provide 6 pick-ups of sand, housing and pick-up truck (we supply gasoil). I think we should buy some chevrons and lattes locally from a wood cutter in the neighboring village of Hollande (considered part of Sam) to support the local economy.

At Doumandzou, we met with Gaston and 30+ men and women from the village. I presented the latrine project, emphasizing the Michelle Obama Let Girls Learn Fund much to everyone’s delight. The village contribution will be dig the pits and supply 1100 bricks – either we supply cement and sand and they make the bricks or we purchase the blocks from the village block maker.

For the Peace Corps World Map mural, the walls are still pretty clean and will need some light rinsing at most. There is one vacant block wall inside each classroom plus the gable end wall facing the road. Only 2 classrooms are being used so freeing-up a room is no problem. Gaston suggests to write/paint in large font “Ecole Publique de Doumandzou” on roadside gable end exterior wall.

Hope this helps.

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Journal from Domandzou 2015

For 6 weeks in early 2015, five volunteers from Encore de la Paix traveled from the U.S. and the Netherlands to Doumandzou, Gabon to refurbish a primary school that Peace Corps had built in 1965.  We kept a regular journal of life in the village and working side by side with the residents of Doumandzou.  All of these past postings follow here.

The final 24 hours

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Here is more detail on the inauguration and completing the school, from Drew, who must have written this while on board the train to Franceville.

Despite some last minute issues-rain storm on Monday which showed abundant leaks from the school roof, the accident of the truck bringing the material for the long negotiated solution- the school is finished. It was well into the darkness of Friday night with headlamps on our foreheads and insects in our eyes that the last of the aluminum/tar ridge cap was melted in place.

We retired for well deserved Regabs and atangas. Then the skies opened up and the rain poured. An inspection showed 3 minor leaks which will easily be taken care of.

Now comes Saturday morning and the wait for the ambassador and other dignitaries to show up. Preparations for the arrival included lots of food from antelope and chat hurlant to canapés and cake, and the planting palm fronds all along the road and the village women dressed in dresses of the same cloth (including Claire) to the appearance of drums which we had not heard previously.
Then around 1:30 the parade of vehicles arrived led by Bob and Gaston, then followed by two silver Chevy Suburbans with diplomatic plates and followed by several others. With drums beating the women started singing, "Madame l’ambassador est arrivee."

After an appropriate time of watching the dancing, Cynthia Akuetteh went down her first receiving line of her first village visit of her first up county visit since becoming ambassador late last year.
Doumandzou, the eagle’s nest, then welcomed the ambassador with speeches, more singing and more drumming. Bob and I gave brief speeches on Peace Corps and Encore de la Paix and the fact that we completed the school and were able to get most of the work on the teachers houses into the budget and completed, emphasizing that the village’s responsibility was to complete the houses.

Then there was a photo show (an extension cord leading from Bob’s laptop and projector in one classroom to Papa’s house) showing the very early stages of the school and teachers’ houses (wonderful photos taken by Henk), then a walk to the village dispensary and finally back to Papa’s place for drinks and hors d’oeuvres. I managed to get a seat and a glass and was waiting for a Regab when Gaston slips up with a 2 liter plastic container with a milky white liquid- tutu PALM WINE!!! For the first time au village. And it was good.

The ambassador doesn’t like traveling at night and since that was our ride out, we had quick but emotional goodbyes (the women were literally not letting Claire go) and bid au revoir to le Centre du Monde.

Inauguration Day

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The ceremony had speeches, singing and drums; dancing and a photo slide show; capped off with a big meal. The presentations by Roland the teacher, by the chef de village and by the Ambassador emphasized the future of the village, linked to the students attending the school. The village women, including Claire, all dressed in the same African print cloth, singing and ululating whenever they agreed with something said in the speeches. The beginnings of a school library comprised books that Claire and Bob had brought.

Ambassador Akuetteh pulled off the pink sheet hiding the plaque that would greet students, teachers and visitors who walked up the new steps to the school, reminding them that this was a Peace Corps school, renovated by Encore de la Paix and the residents of Doumandzou, with the generous help of Citibank Gabon, the town of Woerden in the Netherlands, and the families and friends of Encore de la Paix.

Drew and Claire departed the village after the ceremony, less than 24 hours after working in the dark to place a tin roof cap along the ridge of the school to prevent leaks, finishing off with the help of car lights and lanterns in the dark. They took advantage of the Ambassador’s car to catch a ride to Mitzic where they would start their journey back to the Haut-Ogooué to visit the village where Drew and Cliff Brown had built a school in 1977-8. Bob stayed the night, continuing the celebration, but also planning a meeting the following day to discuss the work remaining on the teachers’ houses.

And, just like that, the Encore involvement in the project came to an end. But did it really? Much like our two and three year stints in the Peace Corps, our involvement will probably continue in many different ways. This inauguration day was a very satisfying way to culminate a project that we all felt was immensely worthwhile and rewarding, not only in the completed project but in the connections made to the village, to the early volunteers, to our own past. Inevitably, the question looms, what next?

Photos below are of Bob Wesiflog and Gaston Biyogo the movers behind the project in Gabon with Ambassador Akuettah; of Claire and the village women in their colorful print dress, and of the Ambassador unveiling the plaque.

The next generation

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The plaque that will be unveiled at today’s inauguration reads that, “for future generations of students,” our group Encore de la Paix and the residents of Doumandzou completed the school renovation, 50 years after it was built by Peace Corps.

We heard a lot about students who had attended the school in the ensuing 50 years and had gone on to distinguished careers in medicine, in teaching, in politics. And we met a number in the village, like Pierre, who every other day would drop off the biggest, juiciest pineapples to keep our vitamin C balance fully charged.

So, the school will house more generations of students, for maybe another 50 years?​ We often caught young children wandering into the classrooms after hours, just to sit in the new desks. Our workplace was always full of children, watching and even helping out a little. They hovered around us at home, and filled our off hours with laughter and companionship. They helped pump our water and carry it back to the house. They brought us strange food, like the “longtroncs” that, much like big pea pods, housed sweet milky seeds. They prized the little LED keychain flashlights that our friend Chris Crane had generously given us for distribution in the village. One endless source of entertainment was the digital camera, with the instant photo capturing.

The photos below are of Vanelle sitting in the classroom, Mary showing Yuri, Stefan and Bogar their picture, and a group of karate kids, and if you look closely you can see a couple have made necklaces to hold their flashlights.

La Buvette and television

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Doumandzou is like many Gabonese villages where some the basic needs can always be found. In this case chez Genvieve is one of two places in the village where you can get cans of mackerel, matches, tomato paste and of course a couple varieties of soft drinks and Regab.
While sitting around the small tables in the enclosed veranda, you can also shoot the breeze, wait for some form of transport to take you from the centre du monde, or in our case this evening, celebrate with our most steady worker, Nico, on the near completion of the school. We heard the distant thunder and saw the lightening and soon we weren’t leaving, just waiting for the storm to pass. It didn’t right away and Genieve ended up loaning us an umbrella and flashlight to get home.

We got home to find the television on (the generator was running) and our host watching her favorite South African soap opera. This time she was alone, but normally there would be several children from the extended family on the floor or the sofa. Our house Is a bit unusual since it belongs to the most important man in Doumandzou, but there are five generators in village and probably 10 TV sets. During the African Cup soccer tournament they were all tuned to that, but after there are Sesame Street type shows that Nico says his daughter watches and learns to count. The dichotomy between the ads on the screen and life in the village seems bizarre to us but does not seem to phase folks here though it is not the type of discussion you plunge into.