Blog from Doumandzou

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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.

Tree Planting Ceremony

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This Saturday, the U.S. Ambassador to Gabon, Cynthia Akuetteh, is supposed to be in Doumandzou for the formal inauguration of the renovated school.

A former Peace Corps staffer, she has shown interest in the project as far back as a year ago when she was awaiting confirmation.

When we first arrived in Libreville, back in January, just a month after she had arrived, she organized at the new Embassy grounds north of the airport a ceremony to honor the two Peace Corps volunteers who died during their service: Karen Phillips and Diana Fillmore. Ambassador Akuetteh arranged to have a tree planted on the Embassy grounds and a plaque with both Karen’s and Diana’s names on it.

During the ceremony, the Ambassador (in yellow below) read a couple of poems, and two of us present spoke about our memories of Karen and Diana. Bob Weisflog made some wonderful remarks about the Peace Corps family. The family was well represented, with four returned volunteers, former staff members and teachers who taught at trainings. The tree will be a living memorial to our friends who never made it home.

Here are a few photos, but you can find more on the Embassy website: http://french.libreville.usembassy.gov/tree_planting.html



What does Doumandzou mean?

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You have heard that Doumandzou is the “centre du monde”. But what does it mean. This came up as the cement was being worked as the final surface of the terrace. The goats did a number on the original as you can see, but we were worried. One of the construction inspectors (in red in the photo) was remarking that he didn’t want to get stuck in the fresh cement. That brought to mind the village of Obia in the east of Gabon where we had a training and completed a school. I mentioned that Obia mean “we got stuck in the mud”. I then asked one of the other construction inspectors, Papa Ekabane our host and the biggest player in the village, “What does Doumandzou mean?” He replies “The eagle’s nest.” He pointed out that eagles make their nests in the tops if some of the okoume trees and specifically one in the distant horizon. I of course had to tell them that I used to live in a house called “Crows Nest”, Then I said that i had graduated from a Crow to an Eagle. Last coat of paint goes on tomorrow and then it is patching holes in the roof and touch up and clean up. We should be ready for the ambassador and other dignitaries this Saturday.

Old brick mill found near the school, resting on the terrace
Old brick mill found near the school, resting on the terrace

Water

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We have arrived back in western Massachusetts, leaving Drew and Claire to complete the school, supporting the indispensable effort of Christian, Nico, Nguema and the young men.

While in Doumandzou, we were reminded of how much we take for granted back home. Water is number one on that list.

We each drank about 2 quarts a day, we used almost as much for cooking, more for cleaning, and about 2 buckets for our showers, and more for washing clothes.

There is a well not far from the house that we would tap into for about 6-8 buckets a day. We filtered a couple of quarts each day for cooking, and we had a large supply of bottled water, that was replenished several times. That’s unfortunate because of the empty plastic bottles but it seemed some of them were re-used in a variety of creative ways.

Then there was the water needed for the school construction, to mix the cement and paint, and to clean up. That water came from a stream, with the small children bringing in wheelbarrows the buckets to fill up an oil drum outside the school.

The well is a meeting place. It is normally the job for the young to get water, but we saw mothers and fathers there with their very small children. Whenever we took a bucket up to the well, a young child would inevitably emerge and take over the dance required to operate the foot pump.

There are a couple of streams flowing through the village but we heard of snakes and other animals so we preferred to go to the well.

Perhaps water took on such a priority since we were in the village during the short dry season. Normally, big metal drums sit under the roof and collect the run-off from the heavy downpours, leaving a ready supply of water just outside the house. That heavy rainfall accounted for the erosion of the foundation on the school and hence the need to build a terrace under the roof to catch the rain before it hit the ground and caused further erosion.

The photos here are of Terrence working the pump, balancing two jugs so that the opening of the top jug fits right over the spout, wasting as little water as possible. There is a photo of the terrace under construction this week, and a group photo of all the workers, taken shortly before Mary, Henk and John joined Bob and Gaston for the ride back to Libreville.

Songo

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In the various countries of west Africa where I have traveled, I have encountered a variety of games played with beads or seeds and a wooden board with any number of different cavities or “houses.” The name and rules vary depending on the culture-among the Mende of Sierra Leone I recall different rules for a men’s or a women’s game.
Here amoung the Fang of Gabon it is called Songo and as the picture shows there are 7 “houses” per side and each player starts with 35 seeds from a local tree and the object is to capture more seeds than your opponent. It is deceptively simple which leads to very complex strategy. This particular game is located on the veranda of our host and I received excellent instructions, “Play Andre (as I am known here) and see what happens.” I am pretty good at counting, so I thought I had a chance. NOT. I got whipped. But I could for sure have another games as we had seen a similar set in the “corps de garde” (a village meeting house) in Belleville where we walked two weeks ago.

We are in the final push to get the school finished for the inauguration on the14th of Feb which will include the US ambassador and local dignitaries.

There’s still some painting to do (did you know in a pinch, you can thin oil base paint with gasoline?) and renailing the roof where we had replace rotten purloins. We are getting more volunteers from the village so I know we will make it.

Village Walk

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I remember my father talking about walking through villages in Italy where his quartermaster company would spend a night. He and his buddy would look for spices in the window and would later return to trade army rations for hidden Italian delicacies. And I recall Jon Anderson or Steve Hyde talking about walking from their house in Obili to the school site and spending sometimes a half an hour due to all the greetings they would receive and give. It’s about getting to know a place and be known in that place.

We stay in a place at the east end of Doumandzou and Mad Bum could throw a fast ball from where we are drinking a Regab and hit the school we are rehabbing easily. A walk to the west end of Doumandzou is about 800 meters and it can be magical.

I get and give greetings to folks sitting in front of their houses. I greet people sitting outside of Jean Martin’s house/buvette. They ask where I am going, “Just to the top of the hill where the wire crosses the road.”

And now I am there. No more Doumandzou ahead of me so I turn around. The full moon is rising, an orange in some whispy clouds. Two toucans cry out as they fly over (think geese-just as loud, but slightly smaller. And then the playful voices of kids filling up water for their families at the village pump/well. More questions “Andre what are you doing?” “Just out for a walk.” And so much more.

I must conclude with many thanks to John, Mary and Henk who preceded us here and left this past Monday. Our transition to Doumandzou would not have so easy but for them.

I have to learn to post pictures-next time.