Kevin Robinson 1999
E-mail received 12/21/01 from the last of the School Construction PCVs to Gabon:Bob, I don't have the luxury of your perspective and distance from the events, but I will try to be objective. And in the absence of those I will fabricate and make myself look like the hero.At some point in the late 80's or early 90's, somebody with very little experience with reality, decided that the construction of schools in Gabon by Peace Corps was good, but to have a Gabonese company working in cooperation with PC would be better. This entity, Programme de Construction des Equipment Scolaire, was to build schools and desks, but you already knew that. However, somebody forgot that a business is supposed to make money, or at least not lose it. PCES hemorrhaged money, as one can imagine when the responsible parties are PCVs and Gabonese nationals.
Anyway, in January 1999, I was one member of the last group of Construction volunteers. We went in spite of the very recent murder of Karen Phillips.. When we got to Libreville, the case de passage was filled with PCVs from all over the country trying to cope and relocate to new posts. Some left the country, some left their posts and some stayed on. There was a very somber and disconcerting aura amongst the PCVs, but our group of eight( ages 24-67, two of our group were over 65 but that is no big deal to you since you are also wizened and venerable) had no idea or reason to see this.
After 10 days in Libreville, 2 of our number had left, and we hadn't even left for Coco Beach to do our on-site training. However, when we did finally go to Coco Beach we stopped off in the village where you built the first school in Gabon and I am happy to say that after some remodeling, it is still in use. The use of the stones for the veranda and retaining wall are really well done and I think one of the reasons the school still stands.
Our group was to go to our respective posts and evaluate the viability of the continuation of the program. Yes, we were supposed to be the last group, but not really. But, we are not out of training yet. Some of the us had gone to college, some of had not. I myself was on the 12-year plan. I finally graduated from Georgia State University with a B.A. in Political Science( which qualifies me to read the newspaper). I needed to do something for others to truly vindicate my past so I joined the Peace Corps. In the words of the Martin Sheen character in Apocalypse Now ".... I asked for a mission, and for my past sins, they gave it to me..."
After our training was through, I was posted in a village, 8 hours by truck from Libreville with two other volunteers, neither of whom could speak French and both of whom had minor to severe emotional and psychological 'issues'. Did I mention that PC Washington decided that the last group of Construction volunteers was to be the first group not to drive the vehicles? Apparently the idea of PCVs riding in the trucks with people who had licenses to drive for a couple of years was more appealing than PCVs driving themselves. Liability issues and centralized decision making make life so much easier.
Did I mention that the three of us lived in the same house? After three weeks, the first of my post mates decided to leave, but not PC. He transferred to the Marshal Islands on an 8-day trip that he was given over $5000.00 cash to make his way to his new post. The second guy decided to stop taking his medicine and got a diseased baboon as a pet. Bob, I am not making this up. It was at that point that I asked him to leave, he had not been doing any work and he could not speak the language. I was afraid he was going to get malaria or Ebola from his pet 'minky'. Plus, he was suffering from depression, that is my uneducated clinical diagnosis. So there I am in the rainforest.....Did I mention that a month after being posted I caught two of the constructors, with whom I worked, using the truck as a bush taxi and selling the cement for our school? Anyway, they were both fired.
So there I am in the rainforest, both of my 'freres' have left the village, two of my Gabonese counterparts have lost their jobs as a direct result of me, the villagers can no longer buy cement for their own use and the taxi lamp is off. I've been at post for four months....We were supposed to evaluate the future for the program, which had some pretty fundamentally flawed parts to it. We were to go to our posts and try and give some small amount of training to our teams as to planning, scheduling, inventory control, setting bench marks, etc.
About five months into my service, the decision was made by some PC official that the program was to be closed. So my focus is to finish the school not to worry about trying to train these guys to be able to run these projects. Two of the guys on my team had just finished a school in Malumba, about 10 miles from the current Ebola outbreak in Gabon. The Malumba school took 4 years to complete. There had never been a volunteer at that site. So, we are just supposed to finish the school and close down the program. Then one day, two weeks later I learn that we are not closing it down, we are in fact going to make plans for a new group of 'stagiers'. So back to trying to show some management and organizational tricks to my counterparts. You can guess what happened next, right Bob...... they decide 'you know what, this is going to be harder that we thought, lets just close it down'. So I change my role again. Needless to say, this went on for a couple more months before I couldn't take any more of the indecision. I decided for myself in November of 1999, that the following May I would come home after a full year at post.
There was a volunteer managing the woodshops for the school desk program and a business advisor volunteer in Libreville who has since returned to Gabon to help run the new program which is totally separate from PC. They both COS'd after I left.
Kevin H Robinson