Blog from Sam
Our representative in Gabon, Bob Weisflog, has for years tried to convince us to take on a project in the month of August, when the country celebrates its independence. It’s a time, he told us, that people from the cities return to their villages to take advantage of the long dry season, the school vacation and to celebrate the national day in grand style. For years, we have preferred travelling to Gabon in the northern hemisphere winter months.
Until this year. We finally gave in, and, now that the project is complete (just in time for the August 17 independence day), we understand why Bob was so insistent. It was truly a celebration, and grand style.
The village was packed with people, many who normally come back but others who wanted to see what we have been doing. Festivities included running races, soccer games, board games, copious amounts of food and libation, extending deep into the night. Joan was our only representative to run in the races, although we all joined the different board games.
We worked hard to get the school completed in time for the celebration. Final steps included fixing the pre-school chairs and desks, pouring the last of the cement for the apron/gutter in time for it to dry, fixing the flagpole stand, hanging the stenciled alphabet and numbers in each of the classroom, painting the railing in front of the school and then cleaning up the work site. We had a lot of help to push through to the final hours before the holiday. In addition, Claire and Joan had put the finishing touches on the wonderful world map mural in time to help out with these other projects.
The village set up a tent just up the hill from the school which first served as the site for our anti-malaria training, testing and mosquito net distribution. Over 100 people attended the training that extended into the early hours of the night, so Dick pulled the car up and shone the lights on the tent so people could see. The nurse tested 20 people for malaria, 3 of whom tested positive and we gave them a three-day treatment. The next day we handed out 150 nets to the households that had been first identified back in March by the earlier group of Encore volunteers.
The final ceremony included handing out the medals for the winners of the competitions and then the re-dedication of the school, first dedicated in 1964. We unveiled a plaque on the pre-school that spoke to children who represent our future and the common bonds that unite the U.S. and Gabon. Drew gave a speech on behalf of all of us who worked on the project, including our Gabonese colleagues, Medard, Sharif, Boris, Jordan, Ernest and the primary school director.
We said our goodbyes, with a few tears, especially when we left our hosts’ house. A little weary from both the work and the celebration, we hobbled into Oyem for the night, but still riding high from the grand conclusion.
We have many thank yous which we will send out separately, especially to everyone who supported both the March and August teams that allowed us to complete these ambitious projects.
From this: To this:
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.
Cross-cultural interactions during our village stay have been abundant and rewarding. And, as we appreciated participating in the local retraite de deuil ceremonies, we also have been pleased to share some of our own traditions from home.F or instance, one of the volunteers from March, Doug, left a small drone here, that we pulled out and operated, much to the delight of the neighbors and the howling of the dogs. Or, Drew brought with him his softball glove with a ball, and he pulled them out with a makeshift bat and conjured up a game with a couple of our workers. Drew made waffles on Sunday, and we even tried out some yoga positions to stretch out the sore muscles with our volunteers.
Meanwhile, work is proceeding.
— The world map mural is showing the colors of the countries with Joan and Claire recruiting anyone who drops in to help out.
— The pre-school is painted with steps out front, and Jack helped hang the blackboard.
— Dick and Drew have been fully engaged in constructing an anti-erosion apron along the front of the primary school. The apron is sloped to ensure run-off but has also required drainage pipes to be installed beneath two new stairways that cross the apron. We have also constructed a new balustrade on the front porch that safely controls student access while integrating with the original school design.
Some days the work has been long, owing to the need to pour the cement and let it set before we can move on the next project. One day, Dick worked until 9pm to smooth the sloped surface. We also work Saturdays mid-afternoon, with the rest of the weekend off (although we check in on the school to make sure that cement is drying as we want.)
Time is short with the independence day celebration this coming Saturday. We are on track to finish, but it will be a few more long days to complete the balustrade, apron, and painting.
.– We will distribute our final set of mosquito nets in Abam Eba to coincide with the independence day celebrations. There are a few days of festivities planned and we’ll write about those as soon as we can.
Abam Eba has been all excited last week in anticipation of a retraite de deuil that started on Thursday and finishes this afternoon (Sunday).
What’s is this? It is the end of mourning celebration for someone who has died sometime previously. The celebration is sponsored by the family and it can get pretty elaborate depending upon the importance of the deceased
This one was for a former teacher with two wives and a lot of kids. A traditional dance troupe was hired from Oyem, the provincial capital about an hour away. We heard them as they arrived in the village, beating on one of the large horizontal drums and singing and shaking rattles from the back of a pickup.
They set up near the house of the deceased and the music and singing began Thursday night . . . and well into the early hours of the morning. Friday was a repeat, but everyone was talking about Saturday night when it was going to get “très chaud” (really hot) and they would dance the Elone.
We saw some of the preliminaries on Thursday, but Saturday was indeed the real show. Strolling over around 8pm, two hours after sundown, the dancers and musicians were divided into two groups. Think stage 1 and stage 2 at a US music festival.
The first group we saw had 5 women and one man. The women had raffia skirts, arm and ankles bands. They would dance in formation, then three on three. The man had a pagne (printed cloth) wrapped around him over his shorts and you could see his bare back glistening with sweat. The drummers were playing two horizontal drums-hardwood logs of 30″ and 20″ in diameter and about 4′ long hollowed out to give 1″ thickness (talk about work!!). There were also 2 conga style drums, village-made, that have seen a lot of use. The rattle players had what looked like aluminum foil covered cups. Don’t know how they were made, but they made a big sound.
We watched this group for a while until they took a pause and then went to Stage 2. While they were all part of the same troupe, this group of 6 dancers and many percussionists seemed to be the A team. Similar to the others the women had raffia skirts over their leggings with black bras. The man in this group had the raffia skirt and something of woven suspenders crisscrossing his torso. He also had a decorated cap with several plumes coming our of the top.
They were dancing with shoulder shakes, feet kicks and body movements that defy description. At times they would be three on one side approaching the other three, other times in a circle but always moving. If you were lucky, a dancer would come up to you to invite you in to join the dance. Good dancers would receive CFA (Gabon currency) tucked into their clothing.
All the while, people were walking up and down the road reminding me of folks at a New England town fair, greeting friends and family.
The main event, dance Elone, was supposed to start at 10pm. The hour came and went with the troupe still dancing. Around 11:45, the troupe went to their guesthouse and more music started. Finally the big show.
In a area fenced in with large palm fronds measuring 20 by 20 feet there was a pole with a light and surrounded by a couple of drummers and more rattle players. They were going at a furious pace and singing at the same time. These were locals. More people arrived and started dancing in conga line around the musicians and also singing. Everyone was showing off their moves and if you missed it, you only had to wait a minute before the circle moved and they were back.
When we left about 12:20 it was only starting and the people were primarily young. From what we heard later, there were three concentric lines of all ages which continued to dawn. C’était chaud.
And there will be another 3 day retraite starting Monday night. The photo below is of people on their way to the ceremony. Some are musicians with their drums aboard.
So much to report, as the second group of volunteers from Encore de la Paix has spent already a week in Abam Eba. We arrived in Gabon at the end of July and made our way out to the village after the mandatory RPCV dinner on the beach and trips to stores to buy a few building supplies, local sim cards for phones, and other essential personal items for a month in the village. After a Sat afternoon meeting with our counterpart social and cultural association, named CEFAME, we left Libreville on Sunday July 28 in a 2 vehicle caravan arriving in the provincial capital Oyem the same night. The following morning we did the round of official local government introductions and then drove 30 kms to the village of Abam Eba, whick is located 5 kms from the Equatorial Guinea border. It is in Abam Ebat that Peace Corps built an elementary school 1964 and 1965.
The next day, the school director convened a meeting of all the area village chiefs and available villagers The idea was to get the help we need for the repairs to the older 60s school and to finish work to the March 2019 pre-school classroom. Help means stuff like truckloads of sand from the nearby stream needed to mix the cement, village based local volunteer labor, and requests for locally produced fruits, vegetables and palm wine.
We had a work meeting with our on-ground foreman, Medard, to lay out steps for the five projects we’ll be scrambling to complete in the short time we have in the village: paint the March 2019 newly built preschool classroom, complete the 1960s school renovations construction of a small wall on the front verandah; a back wall, steps in front of both the school and pre-school, completion of a world map mural, and distribution of mosquito nets (timed for the August 17 national independence festivities.)
We got to work right away and made good progress over the course of the week. Joan, Jack and Claire pitched in on the pre-school painting before turning their attention to preparing the grid for the world map mural. Dick and Drew worked with Medard and the group of village volunteers to build forms for the two veranda walls and the steps in front of the classrooms. Even Bob, our in-country indispensable chef, has been seen with a paint brush in his hand while organizing 3 young Michaelangelos to do most of the interior and exterior painting.
We generally start at 8.30 and work to about 6 with brief stops for food and whatever. The village guys working with us are doing a great job with a lot more energy and muscle power than the rest of us over 60 types.
We’re all staying with the same folks who hosted the group in March – Papa Jean and Marthe. The photo below shows Claire with Mama Marthe and her daughter-in-law Rachelle. Claire’s holding the baby that Rachelle was carrying in March when the first group of Encore volunteers were here.
Accommodations are quite comfortable and the food is more than enough, even if some of the dishes are new to us – but that will be the subject of the next entry.
The obligatory end of project photo. We assembled in front of the school or at least as far as we could get it before our designated departure. By Saturday, the village workers will pour the cement floor and hang the door. That will allow students back in when school starts after the short break. Then the volunteers who arrive in August will paint and put finishing touches on the building as well as fix up the roof on the main school.
After the photo we joined about 50 villagers for a grand departure meal and a few speeches of thanks.
Let me use this farewell post to introduce those who volunteered at the work site. Left to right:
Monique. A teacher, who lived right next to the school. She gave up her classroom for our storage and work space and moved blackboard and chairs into her house. Forever with a smile, she and one other woman were most responsible for the daily meals that appeared for all of us at the site.
Cyril. The son of our hosts, he was the go-to guy with the saw. He was the most talkative and constantly animated the site. Slender but strong.
Emile (white hat). Another teacher who lived on the school grounds. Friendly and helpful.
Frances (green hat). Didn’t work at site but made all our brick blocks and helped with sand. Cheerful, older brother of Sherrif.
Sherrif (behind Frances in black shirt). One of three muscle guys. Christian is his name but everyone called him Sherrif, pronounced like the actor Omar Sharif. Funny, mischievous, kept site loose.
Guy (blue shirt). One of three masons but did everything. Lived and worked in E. Guinea for fifteen years before developing health issues. Came back home. Said he heard of our project and wanted to be a part of it. Probably most skilled, super nice guy.
Dieudonne (black cap). Older guy. Another mason. Quiet, a little on the dour side, but friendly and always helpful.
Placide (kneeling, blue jumpsuit). Carpenter. Came on site last week to help with trusses. Had earlier helped brining sand up from the river. Skilled worker, respected.
Eric (checked 1980s jive hat). Pitched in everywhere. Another of the laugh guys. Helped teach us Fang in between shoveling or drawing water or moving brick.
Medard (yellow shirt). Our foreman. Assembled and sustained team of volunteers who kept showing up. Definitely had his way of doing things but respected by everyone. From the village but works in Oyem.
Alphonse (squatting). Serious. Hard worker. Rarely squeezed a smile out of him. Smart and eager to learn mason trade. Muscle guy, did everything.
Jean-Jacques (green cap). Medard’s older brother. Mason with hearing loss and a leg he couldn’t bend, but that didn’t stop him from doing anything. Climbed up on barrel scaffolding and sat down to do footings. Cheerful, pitched in everywhere
Daniel. The youngest of the crew at 19 years old. Called himself Commando. Strong, hard luck case. Orphan, dirt poor. Came to us with a terrible would on his shin he got earlier from a shovel. Then he fell off a truck (not ours) and had serious wounds on chin, neck and arms so he had to stop working.
Missing – Papa Jean. Our host. 72 years old probably 80 pounds but jack of all trades. Had a huge chain saw that he used to cut planks from trees he felled and then to speed up cuts at site. Came on board fully last week to help with roof including climbing on top to nail and fill holes.
Working side by side these guys develops an intense camaraderie. We ate meals with them, we had a beer with them, we hung out and joked. Constant chatter between them, most of it in Fang, but sounded like a cross between trash talk and village gossip. They taught us cultural norms and overall made for a full, rich, rewarding stay.
Saying goodbye was more than a little hard. I expect some will be around to help complete the project when the second group of Encore de la Paix volunteers arrives. And we’ll be lucky to have them back.
Even though we are here in this small village for but a few weeks, we are witnesses to life’s events. Births, weddings, funerals, jails.
In the past two weeks, we attended a presentation ceremony, a step along the path to marriage where the bride is marched into a collected assembly and presented to her future husband. After the ceremony she leaves with her future husband to live wherever he lives, saying goodbye to the family that raised her. Her husband has a year or so to pay the dowry. The bride’s mother and other family members were crying to see her go.
Later in the week, we took a woman to the hospital for a checkup in the seventh month of her pregnancy. She is the daughter in law of our hosts and quietly does a lot of the work taking care of us. (The photo here is of Rachel cleaning the front yard.) She has two young boys and a girl and is hoping for another girl so her daughter can have a sister. It sounded like she had an ultrasound but she told us it was too early to tell the gender.
Then, the next day, our host, Papa Jean, drove up to the work site in his old station wagon that he manages somehow to keep running and said he had been summoned to the border with Equatorial Guinea by the police commissioner. “What have you done?” I blurted our thinking it would be funny. He said that the two grandsons (who had helped us get water last week) had been sitting in jail for two days. An hour later he was back from the border with the two young men. One of them later told us they had been taunted and harassed on the other side of the border and ended up in a fight, landing them in jail.
Saddest of all was the rumors that filtered on that one of the village residents had taken ill and died in Equatorial Guinea where he gone looking for work, as many young people do. The rumors proved true with the message that a 25 year old brother/cousin of some of our workers had died and they were bringing the body back to be buried here. Three days of preparations and people from all over started descending on the village. Last night was the wake that extended through the night. Our workers went to help dig the grave and prepare the cement tomb. In front of the house where we are staying the coffin passed several times with a long procession; long both in terms of numbers of people walking but also in distance they had to walk. Almost on cue, the wind picked up and thunder and lightening announced a heavy rain just as the procession arrived from the church to the final resting place.
Saturday. We were supposed to work today but the reprieve came about 4am with little warning. A strong wind followed by a fierce rainstorm. No lightning or thunder but it’s been raining steadily for a few hours. Our roofs are made of tin, and the ceilings are low so the noise can be overpowering, loud enough to make you think the storm is stronger than it really is. This rain though is the kind that could last all day. The Fang (the ethnic group where we’re staying) have different words for rain that lingers and rain that comes with fierce winds and rain that destroys.
On the whole we love rain since it replenishes our bucket supply for bathrooms and dishes. We’ve had some false rain alarms and placed buckets around the perimeter of the buildings to catch the run off from the tin roofs. So we’ve come to the conclusion that putting out the buckets too early means no rain. Our barrels emptied this week so we paid a couple of older boys to refill them. Of course, it started raining right after they filled the barrels.
We drink a lot of water, on average 3 liters per person per day. There’s a working pump in the village that has pretty clean water and every couple of days we fill up four 20-liter jugs for our hosts, for our worksite and for us. We have a pretty efficient system of filtering and sterilizing that water to make sure we don’t get sick. Also, we feel pretty self-righteous about not cluttering the environment with dozens of empty plastic water bottles.
A recommendation for those people who like to eat “local”. Find your way to Abam Eba. Two meals a day are mostly local – different ways to prepare the cassava tubers and plantains, the various leaves and what they call aubergines (small and green). They serve these with fish and meat and there comes the exotic. Outside of canned sardines and mackerel, we’ve eaten various kinds of fish caught locally. It’s the wild boar, porcupine, groundhog, antelope and anteater that will make many vegetarians cringe. Still even those don’t compare with a Gabon Viper that was trapped in the forest near here. Our host’s son, Cyril, convinced us to buy it and promised he would cook. He did, and his stew was great and the meat on the viper was quite tasty. Worth the price!!
Two nights ago, I was awakened by a gunshot. I knew they did night hunting so I didn’t think anything of it. The following morning the local chef de village, Ngo, walked by the house carrying a shotgun. He said he had fired at an antelope the night before and was on his way to try to find it. He had a couple of village dogs with him – they must have known what was going on. Sure enough, the dogs found the wounded, barely alive antelope and put it out of its misery. On my way to work, I passed a wheelbarrow containing the antelope, on its way to the chef’s home. It should make its way to our table one of these days.
Amidst all this surviving logistics, the work proceeds. Cement block walls are up five feet, thanks to the presence of three masons on our team. We have ten days or so left and a lot still to do but we’ll keep pushing forward. Photo here shows our contractor, Medard, with Cyril smoothing the mortar joints.
Our nets team went back to where they did the distribution last year and surveyed two villages. They were encouraged by continued use but we’ll await their final report.
On a sad note, the school in Doumandzou where we worked in 2015 and 2016 has closed, for this year anyway. Apparently the teacher assigned there refused to go since it was too far away from all the amenities. When we were working there, we heard similar stories of years when the school was forced to close due to lack of teachers. Hopefully next year.
One week into our project and we’re moving quickly through our assigned projects and adjusting to our new surroundings. The latter has been made easy by our wonderful hosts, John and Marte, who have opened up their home and taken care of our settling in so well. After only one week, we feel part of the family.
Much of the first couple of days was given over to courtesy calls and introductory meetings. Bob W made all these arrangements to make sure there were no suspicions or misunderstandings about our presence. Suffice it to say that while our project is small in the grand scale, people who work across the whole province are really happy we’re here
We are guilty of comparing our situation to what we experienced in the last few years. It’s probably only natural but it’s also not really fair to Abam Eba or Sam and Doumandzou.
There are some changes though worth noting.
First, we’re only a few miles from the border with Equatorial Guinea and the village lies on the principal road which means there are electric lines along the road and that means most homes have electricity most of the day. That makes it easy for us to keep all our tech devices charged.
Like many border towns around the world, the influence of the other country is marked. Spanish is heard, many people go shopping across the border. Spanish beer is here and so is Spanish wine.
Second, it’s still a bit of a shock to appreciate the impact of technology. WhatsApp is the biggest change this year. We text and call at no expense. We’ve even called the US. Reception is spotty but no complaints. There are 30 or so channels on television which is turned on each night.
Some things remain. Water is a preoccupation. There is a working pump in the village but a long walk away. Closer is a stream where we sometimes bathe – very refreshing at the end of the day. And when it rains, buckets are placed along the tin roof’s edge to catch enough to fill a barrel for washing through the week.
We have volunteers. At our first meeting in the village, a man pointed out that if we weren’t able to pay, then it would be hard to get people to help. A valid point where people have so little. We answered with lofty ideas of friendship and collaboration. And yet, people have shown up to help. It must be like an old-fashioned barn raising because the men villagers are digging sand, hauling bricks, mixing and pouring cement, and at the end of the work day a meal appears for all who worked. We later learned the women of the village are taking turns preparing food for all who worked.
Our mosquito nets project is moving quickly. The team has surveyed house to house nine villages and distributed nets to eight of them – 303 nets. They’ve tested about 45 people who felt sick and almost half were given treatments for malaria. They have one more day of survey and distribution before they go back to last year’s villages to do an evaluation. We did run into one woman in Mitzic who had gotten two nets last year. She was effusive in her praise – no trips to the hospital, no illness compared to the year before when she and her children were sick multiple times. Only one person but the kind of result that shows the value of the nets.
I love it when a plan comes together. Three of us (Henk, Doug and me) showed up at the boarding gate in Paris and when we exited in Libreville there were Bob and Charlie waiting for us. That may be the easiest part of the whole month but getting to that point had enough of its own fits and starts.
Plans don’t just appear, and “our man in Libreville” (great title for a book) has certainly paved the way. Over the past few months, he has been meeting our partners from the village and from the Ministry of Health and getting their buy-in and designating areas of responsibility. Long lists and schedules and agreements came from his meetings, and based on initial meetings we’re all excited and ready to go.
Day 1 saw us paying a courtesy call at the US Embassy and examining the growth on the memorial tree planted in our first year in honor of the two Peace Corps volunteers who died during their tours: Karen Phillips and Diana Fillmore.
We then had a meeting with our partners from the anti-malaria program to review this year’s mosquito net distribution. We will head back to the villages where we handed out nets last year and do an evaluation. In addition the Ministry people want to offer some vaccinations at the same time as distributing the nets.
It was “old home” week when we arrived at the Ministry. Two of our counterparts from last year, Giseline and Marie Paschal, greeted us with cries of delight, reciprocated from our side. Dr Safiou, the director of the national anti-malaria program fondly recalled playing basketball with Peace Corps volunteers.
At the end of the meeting we took our photo and noted we were in the same spot as last year. Charlie threw out some of his departing Bandjabi phrases and amidst the laughter, I overheard one Ministry official say “he speaks my language!” It turns out he grew up near Lastoursville in a village where Peace Corps volunteers were building a school. Mark Schultz, he remembered. And so did we.
We did our obligatory shopping although much scaled down as Bob assures is we can get everything we need in Oyem, the large town closest to Abam Eba where we will be working. Just as obligatory was dinner on the beachfront.
Truth told, we spent much of our first day figuring out phones, SIM cards, WhatsApp, wi-fi, etc. We’re fortunate no one was filming our tech conversations, as five old guys try to figure out technology in a foreign country with spotty service.
Today we meet the village civic association and perhaps have another dinner on the beachfront. Then tomorrow at the crack of dawn, we load up the cars and begin our trek north and east. I love it when a plan comes together.