Blog from Sam

From 1965 to 2016

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It’s dawning on us that we have less than a week to go. Four days to be exact. Inauguration is on Friday and departure Saturday. That kind of imminency brings home how accustomed we have gotten to life here and, as the people in the village say, how much we have become part of their landscape.

As much as former volunteers were part of their landscape, but for longer periods. Just last night, we heard a man rattle off the names of the original volunteers – Howard, Etienne (Steve), Gerard…. He said he was in his last year of primary school in 1965 when the group of volunteers came. They worked quickly enough for him to spend his last few months in the new school. We also hear a lot of the fisheries volunteers named Penny and Tony and John King.

Of course, the end of our time here also means a mad rush to finish, with a dose of panic thrown in. There’s still a lot of painting to be done, windows and doors on the teachers houses, the terrace/rain catchment in front needs completing and then there’s the whole site clean-up. We did have a young man come by with a gas powered weed-whacked to attacked the overgrown grass. Positive thinking leads me to believe we will have a presentable final version of a school by Friday, with perhaps a few more odds and ends to be completed. As you can see from the photo, there’s quite a bit of clean-up.

One additional piece of work was added to our plate last week when we learned of a 1960s era Peace Corps school that had lost its roof during a violent storm (see previous update on rainy season!). Drew and Floriant drove over to assess the damage and found a remarkably well-preserved school, but that had lost about 30% of its roof. We are hoping to arrange transport to have some of the excess wood and old roofing from the Sam school shipped over for a temporary fix. Then maybe we have a longer term project for next year all lined up.

Over in Doumandzou, they are acutely aware of the deadline coming up. Paul and Pooh managed to extend their departure by a few days to help finalize the latrines. Late a
Saturday cement pours for the apron and lentils above the doors will allow Dick and Paul to focus on roofing this week. The world map is complete and Pooh and Joan are working on stencils for outside of school.

It’s early morning, and the sounds that were once so foreign have faded into the background. The roosters and chickens, the loud voices of greetings and getting ready, the occasional car, the strange bird calls. Sometimes it gets so quiet that you can hear the wind. There’s a lot we will miss.


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Taking advantage of Internet to get as much on the website as possible.

I’ve been promising a picture of the world map mural so here are Pooh and Joan.

The green mamba they saw was on the ledge of the wall above the map.

Road Trip

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March 30

With the school in Sam about a mile away from where we are staying and with a second work site back in Doumandzou (about ten miles away) we have had access to a truck and a driver to move people and material, to run errands and then to keep our work team functioning. That has meant taking workers and children to the hospital in Mitzic (about 25 miles away), to the gendarmerie that is here in Sam and to the bus in Mitzic to go to Libreville.

This week we took Floriant, our driver, to the hospital as he had a serious bout with what he thought was worms at first and fever, but then was probably malaria. The common treatment is what people here call a “perfusion” that consists of injecting a bag of medical solution into the bloodstream. After about $50 of medicine, we left Floriant in the hospital on a gurney with a needle in his arm attached to a drip solution. A day later he was on his third perfusion and feeling well enough to leave the next day.

The rest of the day was running errands in Mitzic. Not your typical errands. First came money. There’s no bank or ATM but you can use your telephone account to get money. A small entrepreneur can set up a booth and distribute money to customers for a transaction fee. Of course they have to have money and a phone signal, so we went to about four different ones to finally get money.

Next came purchase of more aluminum roofing. We needed about 4 pieces of five meter roofing. Three different small hardware stores and we found matching pieces. How we were going to strap those on the roof of our pick-up was to be determined later.

Did I mention that one of passengers owned a small buvette that had run out of beer? She had about 12 empty cases and a couple of large plastic jugs to fill with kerosene for lighting her home and bar.

A few grocery items, a stop at a small restaurant for lunch (beef and rice for Christian and an omelette for me,) a check-in with Christian’s family (4 small children), then back to the hardware store to figure out how to tie on the five meter roof pieces. Fortunately, there were strips of rubber, ripped from old tire inner tubes) and we laid the roofing over the cab of the pick-up and the twelve cases of beer and kerosene in the bed of the truck. On the hour and a half ride back to Sam, we only had to stop once to adjust and secure the roofing.

We arrived after dark, and unloaded the roofing, and continued on to Doumandzou where we unloaded the beer and the biggest sack of rice in the world for Nguema’s family (our principal worker over there.)

A quick bite with Dick and Joan, Paul and Pooh and heard their adventure story of spotting a green mamba on the rafters above the world map mural (photo below). Pooh said she screamed while Joan, the biologist, ran for her camera. Paul later saw the snake on the road, about a yard and half long.

After the 30 minute ride back to Sam, I learned that Mary had fallen and twisted her ankle. (A day later and she’s better, back to work, with a slight limp.)

Just another day.

Update, March 31: Floriant out of hospital and back with us in Sam!

Roof raising

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Been having internet problems. This written March 27.

With two weeks to go, the re-build of the teachers’ houses began in earnest on Friday. The photo shows our chef de chantier, Christian, standing on the concrete wall easing a very heavy truss on to the walls. Pascal, Eko and Aimee are raising it and pushing it towards Christian who was straddling it and maintaining his balance on top of the walls. Please do not show this photo to OSHA. Risky and dangerous, but minutes later the truss was pushed up against the concrete gable, the first one in place that helped align and stabilize the remaining four that were lifted up in the same manner.

The next day, five rows of the purloins were nailed across the trusses on each side of the roof. Then by the end of the day the first aluminum sheets were put in place on the front slope of the roof. A week’s worth of work in 24 hours.

Meanwhile, on one of the other teachers’ houses only one truss was needed as the other four were in pretty good shape. Drew and Nico worked on getting the new purloins nailed in to hold the aluminum roofing.

Where was John? With both feet safely on the ground, he was cleaning off the excess mortar from the cement block cloister windows to get them ready for painting.

More importantly, where were the women? After priming windows all week, they made a provision run into Mitzic, the nearest town to get the gasoline needed to clean the final coat of oil-based paint that we’ll be applying over the next two weeks.

Over in Doumandzou, eight courses of cement block have been raised above ground for the latrines. The gates have been placed in the doorways and 4-5 more courses of bricks are planned before Dick, Paul and Nguema start the roofs.

The world map mural that Joan and Pooh are painting in the classroom is proceeding beautifully. Individual countries have been drawn on the grid and they have filled some in with yellow and red paint. Purple on Monday.

Today is Easter and a rest day. Last night on the soccer field in the village center was what we presumed to be an Easter vigil. We had heard from our house drums and singing starting should 9pm and walked over to investigate. Under a just passed full moon, we came across a group of women singing and dancing with percussive cans and two men playing the fastest balafon drums we had seen. It was too dark for a photo or video, so you’ll just have to take our word that it was quite a show.

Rainy season, part 2

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I wish I had had my phone yesterday to take a picture of the torrential rain storm we were caught in at the end of the work day. Without a picture, I’ll have to use 1000 words to describe it and you’ll just have to believe me.

The ethnic group in this region, the Fang, has many words to describe rain, or “nvong.” One “otaba tab nvong” describes the drizzle that lasts a long time, is just serious enough to annoy people on their way to work, school or market, but not serious enough to collect any water useful for the household. My favorite happens to be “ndoum” which is the surprise rainstorm that comes early in the morning and is heavy enough to keep everyone inside. Kind of like a snow day, but we haven’t had one of those yet.

There’s another called “nkoulou” (wind and rain) and “nzalang” (thunder and rain) and that’s what we saw coming for about 30 minutes but were not smart enough to make preparations.

Drew, Nico and I finished work a few minutes early to walk the 2 kilometers to the house of the man who was making bricks for the school windows. We were short about 50 bricks. Off in the distance we could see dark clouds forming. We knew it meant rain but we thought maybe not here, maybe a little later. Perhaps the rain would be so kind as to wait until we had seen the brick man.

Twenty minutes later when we arrived at the intersection in town, all the market stalls and shops were closing down as the wind picked up. It was ten more minutes of walking and we wasted 30 seconds of debating whether to head home or complete the assigned task. On to the bricks.

Once there, we knew our time was short. The brick man was not there, and as we were counting the 28 bricks already made on his front lawn, a lightning bolt caused electrical sparks in the wires above us, sending us into a momentary wild dance of fear.

We said our goodbyes to Nico who was close to his house and headed back home. By then I had put on my poncho but it was just dropping the occasional pellet. A brisk walk.

We were minutes away from the intersection when we caught the full force of the nvong. A quick dash, or at least as fast as two 60-plus year old men could waddle, and we found the first shelter. We were drenched nonetheless. Luckily, it happened to be Papa Joseph’s buvette, and he offered us a warm beer to watch the downpour. Inside was one customer, the catechist from Palm Sunday and you guessed it, he was having a glass of red wine.

A river quickly developed between his door and the road. A mini-van pulled up and a couple of people ventured out in a sprint.

From our seats we had the vantage point of the soccer field where we had earlier seen boys playing as we walked by. Amazingly, in the wind, the rain, the lightning bolts and the dusk light, they continued playing. For another 30 minutes. There’s something about rain and its universal appeal to children to play and jump in puddles. I guess once you get completely wet, you’re not going to get more wet.

After a second beer, we imagined a slight let up and headed home in the dark. When we arrived, Mary had collected 3 buckets of water at the edge of the roof. Someone was thinking.

Half way mark

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Three weeks to go. And all projects are in full gear.

Over in Doumandzou, the latrines are precisely at the half way point. In the photo, from right to left, Steve, Dick, Drew and Paul check out the slab on the second pit that was poured on Saturday. Today begins the work on building the walls. Oh, I should mention that in moving the bricks for the walls to the site, we saw three scorpions and a black mamba.

Working with the two teachers, Roland and Camille, Joan and Pooh have started the world map mural that will go on one of the classrooms. There will be plenty of photos of that as they proceed.

Over in Sam, we had a three-ring work site going on Saturday. Nico and Aimee were putting in the brick cloister windows, Drew and Desiree were replacing a rotted beam, Mary, Claire and Mary were priming the wood, Steve and John were brushing the wood walls, and Eko and Xavier were working on the front steps. It’s pretty amazing how much gets done in a week; we’re trying to imagine where we’ll be a week from today.

Sunday was rest day, and it was a big day in Sam with a Palm Sunday procession through the village. We made it through two hours of the service but slipped out after the sermon. Almost the entire service was in Fang, the language spoken here, so it was left to our imagination and memory the Passion. The other photo is of Eko, one of the village workers, with the two palm fronds that he made for Mary and Mary.

Guardian angels

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It’s not just the school. It’s living with and sharing time and stories with our co-workers and village residents. It’s even back exercises as Mary demonstrates to one man who owns a small bar in the center of the village. He had complained about back problems to us so she wanted to show him a couple of stretching exercises she does every day. And where best to show him? Right on the counter!

Given the amount of lifting and standing on ladders and digging, we’re all doing back exercises. And our new best friend goes by the name of Motrin.

There’s a prequel though. Mary had one evening forgotten her back-pack with her camera and passport in it. He had found it and set it aside and returned it early the next morning.

Two people have lost their phones. But they were found on the side of the road. Terri’s phone slipped out of her back-pack as we were walking back one day. A little bit later Drew was walking back and spotted it on the side of the road. Then Floriant who drives us around lost his and as he was driving he noticed something on the side of the road.

And there’s even real guardians, two elderly women who live across the street from the school and keep our tools and materials under their roof and watchful eye.

Everyone has a phone here and when the electricity comes on in the evening for a couple of hours, the sockets are full of phone charging. It’s the most noticeable change over the past 40 years.

The school advances. We have closed off the top part of the windows with wood planks (lots of sawing) and the water catchment terrace has started. That cement apron will prevent further erosion of the foundation. Over in Doumandzou the slab for one of the latrines has been poured and the second one is to be poured this week.

Three weeks in and we look to be in good shape for completion on time.

A new roof

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I’m going to try to send two photos today. One is about today and the other is a connection to 50 years ago.

The man standing by the barrel goes by Lucien. Like most of us he’s retired, but he has set up a small bar on the outskirts of the village and has managed to figure out how to use the irregular electricity to keep the coldest beer and soft drinks around. Both are made in Gabon. Lucien keeps a clean establishment, with decorations up around the bar.

He was a child when the first volunteers were here building the school. Somehow he or his family managed to secure that barrel when the school was complete, and Lucien pulled it out to show us. Reduce, reuse, recycle.

The other photo is of the finished roof! Two weeks in and the school has a new roof. How about that? Our chef de chantier (foreman) Christian can be seen to the left on the top of the roof hammering in the ridge cap. At the right of the building putting up the facia board on the gable are Aimee and Xavier.

This week marks a changing of the guard as Terri Barker and Doug and Corey Spatz leave the project. Corey, a freshman at Northeastern, decided against Cancun for spring break in lieu of helping his father with the latrine pits in Doumandzou. Judging from Corey’s photos, he had his own entourage of young Doumandzou children.

Merci to Terri, Doug and Corey for their contributions.

Arrivals this week have started with Mary and Steve Hyde on their way out to Sam, and Dick and Joan Steeper and Paul and Pooh Slocum coming later in the week. Just in time as we have a lot to do.

Rainy season, soccer

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Weather report. Last year, we worked in January and February which was the short dry season here. It rained only a few times towards the end of our stay. Arriving in March this year meant we would hit the rainy season and we’ve had a few torrential rains and a number of others shorter bursts. The hard rains have come at night, including last night.

Those of us who remember fondly waking up to sound of rain on the roof must have either our memories or ears checked out. It is LOUD and a little disconcerting waking up to the shock and awe of this kind of rainstorm.

While needed, the rain came a day early. Today we start putting the new roof back on the school, having finished the framing repairs. That means a fair amount of sweeping out the puddles in the classrooms where we work.

The Gabonese talk about a drought this year, part of what could be the El NiƱo effects.

One more weather comment. The rain usually comes on the heels of a brutally hot, sunny day. So hot yesterday that we all broke for four hours in the middle of the day to escape the worst of the sun.

Oh, and yes, there was a soccer game on Sunday between the two villages where we are working, Sam and Doumandzou. John played for two minutes and then took over referee duties. As this photo shows, it was a fast-paced game with the referee looking in the wrong direction too many times. It was a hard fought game but ended with cheers and handshakes. There’s a dispute over the score but probably best to call it a tie.

We’re not the only volunteers

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Sam is a bigger village than where we were last year. It’s more spread out; the school is on the edge of town, a mile plus away from where we’re staying. As a result, this year Gaston loaned us his small pick-up for transport. It has made a world of difference not only in getting people from four different places in the village out to the school but also in getting over to Doumandzou where Doug is working on the latrines. We also took an hour drive to the closest large town for resupplies.

From the first day of work here in Sam, people heard the hammering and came to help. A few stayed through the week, sweating and getting dirty and joking around alongside those of us from the states.

Pictured here is Yves, who is the caretaker at the house where Drew and Claire are staying. Desiree (with an accent at the end) is a neighbor of the school and he is strong and skillful. Xavier showed up and reminded us he helped in Doumandzou last year for the first week, but he’s from here. Floriant is our driver but he pitches in, even through a minor bout of malaria. The first day two women – Hortense and Marie Therese – were helping with the demolition. Somewhere we have a photo of Marie Therese removing rotten wood while continuing to clutch her pocketbook. With Christian and Eko we have a good number working on the different areas.

Rundown of the first week of work. At the school, it was removal of the leaky roof, windows and doors. That went fast but more slowly was the tedious, difficult task of taking out all the nails that had rusted solid in place for 50 years. If you look closely at the picture, you will see on the wall in the front of the school a pile of the bane of our lives this first week. I want to find the guy who invented these nail clasps that hold adjacent pieces of wood together with four nails on each board. They have worked well to hold trusses and cross pieces together for fifty years. Too well, though, as we struggle to remove each one.

Anyway, by the end of the week we started the rebuild, putting up what they call here “chevrons” but might be the purloins across the trusses. We’ll screw the new aluminum roofing into those chevrons. Claire, Terri and Mary are treating wood with some anti-termite concoction and Drew built saw horses that will double as scaffolding when we start painting.

Over in Doumandzou, Doug, Nguema and Gabriel have started laying the cement block the first latrine pit, and the second pit was dug by some hardy men from a nearby village. It’s all coming together, not sure how but I know behind it all are Bob and Gaston making all the right calls from Libreville.

One week down and we’ve settled in and have a nice routine. No work today, Sunday, but we hear there’s a soccer game between the two villages today. That should be good for a few photos for the next blog.

Sorry about the repeated copies of the last update. We’ll figure it out.