Peace Corps Journal, Gabon I 

Disclaimer: this is one subjective account of the first US Peace Corps project in Gabon and in no way is meant to represent the views of others in the group. However, content from other PCVs in the Gabon 1962-65 era is welcome to help make this a more complete accounting-  bobutne@aol.com

Part 1    March--May 1963  

Ovendo, Okala (The First School), Tribal Customs & Married Life, The Beach, Libreville 

Part 2   June-Oct. 1963  

Kango, Dr. Albert Schweitzer, Le Rank Cinq, Gabon II Teachers 

Part 3    Nov. 1963-May 1964  

Fougamou, Christmas in Libreville, Gabon III and Guests, Pygmies, Trouble in Libreville, Pre-Revolution, Revolution, Post-Revolution, Elections, French, West African Merchants, Trouble in Fougamou

Part 4      June-Sept. 1964  

Alene,  Elephant Charge,  African "Frenchman",  Departing Gabon

Epilogue 

 

Gabon I training in St. Thomas, 1963.jpg (434413 bytes)  Gabon I, training program in St. Thomas (click to enlarge)

Ovendo    

March 21, 1963. Descending the plane in Libreville, we were greeted by the Gabon Minister of Education, the US Ambassador and our task masters, Marshal Erdman (architect of the schools) and Bill Wilkes, Peace Corps Country Director. Blah, blah, blah and off we filed in eight gleaming, blue and white Scout pickup trucks to Ovendo, our base camp and former RAF barracks.

Not a car to be seen on the way to our barracks. We saw women, everywhere along side the road, most smoking pipes and loaded on their backs, huge sacks filled with fire wood.

Our Ovendo camp was nothing more than an open warehouse with a tin roof. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a large cobra who had claimed our quarters and wasnít about to move out on its own volition. We smashed it to bits.

The first few weeks were spent in fixing up the quarters and helping to move the construction materials and equipment off the docks to our warehouse. Nights were for writing home and drinking a few beers. Zero local contact but for some kids who came by the barracks each day to ask for handouts and to play games.

Unfortunately, the two in our group that were the most idealistic, real-acting Peace Corps types who had a genuine interest in the Western-style education of the Gabonese, lasted less than a month in Gabon.

They never had a chance. The Peace Corps was good at eliminating most of whom they perceived as the "trouble makers" while we were in training in Puerto Rico (one month) and in St. Thomas (three months). The "de-selection" process was much like modern day "Survivor" shows on TV. Donít say too much, donít stand out from the crowd and follow the given script. Of more than 55 pre-selected, 40 of us made it to Gabon.

David Palmer and Rick Ferragano were two of our best French speakers,  intelligent and people-pleasers to a fault. They were there to "help" the Gabonese. Maybe they believed they were not "construction workers" like the Peace Corps wanted. The chips on their shoulders needed to be knocked off or so thought the Peace Corps staff and the outside contractor Marshall Erdman, the Milwaukee-based architect of our schools.

The trouble began when Marshal Erdman became annoyed that Palmer and Ferragano preferred playing with the local kids than working with the rest of us. To Wilkes and Erdman that was mutiny and either the boys obeyed orders or would be broken in whatever means possible.

The opportunity arose when David Palmer and Tom Longenecker left some of our food supply outside the Owendo quarters one night. Wilkes and Erdman picked up the supplies "to teach the boys a lesson". When they found out that Palmer was one of the two accused of the oversight, they had all the opportunity they needed.

Wilkes left the country for a few days to attend a conference and Erdman, assuming control, told Palmer to pack his bags and booked him on the next flight out of Libreville.

Ferragano, Palmerís best friend, upon hearing of Palmerís dismissal, asked to be transferred to another Peace Corps project out of Gabon. Erdman, hearing of this request, then called a general meeting of all the volunteers and staff. His intent was to explain why Palmer was sent out and why Ferragano was wrong to transfer.

The scheme backfired. We all backed Palmer and Ferragano. Erdman left the meeting in a huff and Ferragano was on the next flight out on his way home.

Just before Erdman left to return to Milwaukee, another unfortunate incident occurred. Marshal ordered one of our more head-strong volunteers, John Morascini, to execute an order that John was unwilling to perform. So, Erdman slapped John. John turned around and smashed and broke his hand on the nearest stone wall. Two years later, John died in Viet Nam from an exploding land mine.

We all were prepared to mutiny. Either Erdman went or we would all go home. Charles Darlington, the US Ambassador, was called in to mitigate the situation and shortly after Erdman flew out never to return. Erdman not only slapped a Peace Corps Volunteer but, it was alleged, also slapped the Gabonese workers at the docks when they moved "too slowly".


 

Okala    

The more active we were, the less homesick and concern about being "stuck" in this country for two years. With this in mind, ten of us volunteered to quickly leave the barracks to start building the first primary school, located in Okala, about 10 kilometers north of the Libreville airport. This was Fang country with no pretense of urbanized life. No electricity, no plumbing just a village stuck out in the boondocks surrounded by lush jungle and not too far from a broad, log-laden, Atlantic coast beach.

We surmised that this site was selected to have the first school due to family/tribal considerations. The village chief, Jerome Mba, was a close relative of the nationís president, Leon Mba. He had married the sister of Leon Mbaís first wife.

   Okala 1963 a.jpg (410604 bytes)

As Jerome explained to me, the first wife in Gabon has special social status and responsibilities. She orders the other wives to perform their daily duties and is responsible for selecting the additional wives for her husband.

Looking at Jerome, you knew he was the chief. Tall and regal, Fang-tribal scars adorned his face and body and quick of wit.

There were a number of interesting villagers working at our site. One favorite of mine was Daniel. He was about our age, early 20ís, well versed in French and had both an attractive personality and appearance. Daniel liked nothing better to sit and talk so getting him and the others to work for $1 a day took a lot of friendly persuasion and reverse psychology. (Note: USAID paid 80% of all the material and labor costs and Gabon the remaining 20%)

Daniel could not understand why we Americans had left the great United States to come to impoverished Gabon to build schools in the bush. "Were we being paid huge sums of money", he asked.

"No Gabriel", I replied. "We are here because your government asked us to come to assist you to build your nation. We volunteer two years of life for public service because our great leader, John Kennedy, told us to ask not what your country can do for you but ask what you can do for your country."

Gabriel gave me a blank look. This didnít make sense. Truth is, most of us were in Gabon not to be altruistic servants of our government but to seek adventure, getting out of boring and limited life styles back at home. While we werenít actually replicas of Stanley and Livingston, we had the courage to challenge the wild unknown.

Our campsite at Okala was similar to any GI campsite seen in the TV episodes of "Mash", except in miniature. Our tents were two man pup tents. During the night, the tents kept out the bugs and other pests but during the day, they were like ovens where if you were so foolish as to take a brief afternoon nap, a few minutes later you would wake in a pool of sweat on your Army-issued cot. We had no power, relying upon kerosene lanterns at night.

Okala Group.jpg (1723840 bytes) Pictured: Bob Brandstetter, Gabon Minister of Education, pro builder, Larry, me, ?, Mike Hyland, Dale Judkins

All our initial food was GI issue- C-rations and K-rations. Spam was our main fare with cigarettes included in the rations for evening smokes. No fresh vegetables to be had other than what we could trade with the village children, a few avocados in exchange for C-ration cookies.

Our group Leader, Bill Langile, lasted about a month. He had previously served a few months in the first Peace Corps group to Columbia and then requested transfer to another project, because he claimed the Columbia project was corrupt. So why did Bill quit this time? Bill claimed he couldnít deal with either Wilkes or Erdman. Maybe, however, his bowels played a more decisive role. During his one month at Okala, Bill had one successful trip to the latrine.

I received a tape from my Dad who, quite liberally and figuratively, used my early letters to home to use in one of his speeches to life insurance groups. The tape went like this:

"My oldest son, Bob, is serving in the Peace Corps in Africa. I received a letter from him which I would like to share with you now.

Dear Dad,  Conditions over here are unbelievable. Itís disgusting to see all the debauchery, drunkenness, ineptness, laziness and poor performance. Well, so much for the staff...."


 

Tribal Customs          Fang Du Gabon    

Jerome, the Fang village chief, invited me to a memorial ceremony for a recently deceased member of the tribe.

The ceremonial structure had a thatched roof and open sides constructed solely for Bwiti ceremonies and where the Bwiti members of the tribe met to discuss tribal affairs. On each side of the structure were low benches and at one end sat the band, two drummers and one harp player. The middle of the structure was filled with female dancers all draped in white cloths.

An old woman sauntered onto the dance floor and began shuffling to the music. As she danced, several of the men shouted at her

"I will knock your head open crazy woman", said one

"I will cut you with my machete into little pieces", said another.

Is this how the mentally ill are treated in Gabon, I wondered? This continued for some time but when the "crazy" woman sat down, I was quite surprised at what happened next. All the tribe gathered around her and bestowed upon her well wishes.

"My wonderful woman, may you live until 100"

"I will give you a chicken tomorrow", said another.

Later, I learned that it was a common custom among many tribes in the area for the village elders, in secret, to select their newest chief and then announce the name to the villagers prior to announcing the fact to the new chief. The villagers, similar to the situation with the crazy woman, would hurl insults and even spit on the new king prior to his inauguration ceremony. Once the chief was anointed by the elders, the praises and celebration would begin. 

Was this dance a funeral ceremony for the dead tribe member or some animistic ritual? Or was it both? The missionaries had been through these parts for over a century but I failed to see any evidence of Christian rituals.

The men sat along the benches and drank palm wine while the women of the village danced in the center of the structure. After a little palm wine, I joined in by attempting to mimic the dancers. 

I brought along my tape recorder to the dance and taped much of the music. After recording for awhile, I played back some of the tape. They were amazed to hear themselves.   

"Monsieur Robert, cíest fantastique", said one villager who heard his own voice for the first time.

Then, I played a few of my recorded songs from the US. They could care less. Modern technology mixed with ancient ceremony. Was this a sacrilege or a portent of the future?

One of the friendliest guys at the party was Francois. He poured me glasses of palm wine and even offered to bring a chicken to my tent, the next day. Then, after about four hours from my arrival, Francois went berserk. He had already consumed a pint of whiskey and four bottles of palm wine, according to the Chief. Francois attempted to take away a flashlight from another of the tribe and a fight ensued that was quickly broken up by Jerome.

I asked the chief, Why did you invite this disagreeable man to your party"

The chief replied, "He married my sister so he has the right to attend all the parties of my village". Social rights, Fang style.

The Fang tribe is the largest of Gabonís 40-some tribes and comes from a heritage of hunters, wanderers and artisans. The Fang are reported to have originated near the mouth of the Nile and moved westward over a period of several thousand years.

The men of the Fang tribe had only three responsibilities: to hunt for food, to slash and burn the crops at the end of the season and to build a new living structure once every three years. The rest of the time was for drinking palm wine and other activities of amusement. Those without guns used crossbows to hunt, which were uniquely designed by each hunter. The witch doctors were the true artisans creating masks designed to send fear to tribal members.

Many women in the villages are responsible for all firewood and food gathering (other than meat), food preparation, cleaning, raising the children and serving their spouses.

There was no limit on how many wives a man could have as long as he had sufficient funds to pay the father-in-law. The going rate was two cows or $250 to $500 for a wife. With the average days pay at less than $1 (one USD) a day, many men could not afford a wife with most having to wait until their mid thirties to purchase a 12-14 year old bride. This was one reason why the country was so under-populated (about 450,000 in 1963 versus 1.5 million today) and hurt the economy since most wages were saved for buying a wife thus were not quickly re-circulated into the economy.

Meanwhile, Francois had become completely out of hand. He began brandishing a machete threatening to cut off all our heads. So, we took the chiefís son with us to get the local Gendarmes who hauled off Francois to the brig.

With Francois safely taken away, the party resumed and about 3:00 AM a powdery substance was passed around to all the partygoers. It was a narcotic based substance used in Bwiti ceremonies called Iboga. Iboga is a hallucinogen that transforms one into another world in a trance-like state. Colors seemed sharper; music bolder and began to blend into visuals. After everyone got high on the drugs, the ceremony concluded with the passing around of a bowl of meat to all those still at the party. I was the only one left from our group to observe the practice of cannibalism.

The chief explained to me, the next day, that the Fang believe that by eating the flesh of a departed tribal member, then that member lives through you. I thought to myself, not as strange as many other religious beliefs. As a Lutheran, I was taught that the wine sipped at the sacrament of communion is the Blood of Christ.

Cannibalism among the Fang continues with a now-and-then story emerging about the practice being carried to extremes. In 2000, one Fang fanatic in neighboring Spanish Guinea was reported to have killed five women and then ate them. Omar Bongo, the current ruler of Gabon, is not a Fang but from a tribe located in the eastern region of Gabon. He reacted to the negative news by calling for an end to the practice of cannibalism.


 

Married Life

One of our workers, Diaz, needed money to obtain his new bride. He placed a down-payment on her when she was two. Now, she was ten and would soon be initiated in the Fang, ndjembe ceremony. Once initiated, she was free to marry.

This is an-ultra secret ceremony where young girls are initiated into women-hood by the older women of the tribe. Sexual acts among the women and the young girls, according to some reports, are a major portion of the ceremony. Boys went through similar rites, being admitted to the Bwiti, where they went into the bush with the elder men, chewed Iboga (the heroin-like narcotic) and underwent secret acts and were told historical Fang tales. 

The practice of working years and years to accumulate enough money to purchase a bride appears to be one of the primary reasons why the economies of much of Africa have stagnated. Most wages are not quickly re-circulated into the economy but stored in safe-keeping until the time when a bride can be bought.

A few months later, Leon Mba (the president of Gabon) issued an edict designed to change the marriage customs of Gabon. Instead of the going rate of a minimum $500 for a bride, no one is to pay more than 10,000 CFA ($40). The prospective husband can take his case to court if the parents donít consent and if there is no other suitor willing to pay more.

Whether government fiats can change age-old, tribal practices remains to be evidenced. It is possible that the price of a new wife will lessen due to the fiat. However, it appears highly likely that the savings will be sucked in by the witch doctors in order that the new couples are not cursed and will be blessed to have many children.

Diaz was married shortly after. We trained him to drive and then he became one of our drivers and later moved to Libreville to work as a driver for a trucking company. Besides the new schools, that may have been one of the first accomplishments of our Peace Corps mission to Gabon. 

Daniel was another young man who always was looking to break out of his cycle of poverty but hated work. He continually needed someone to listen to his woes.

"Robert", he said, "You do not understand all of the problems of the working man in Gabon".

"Tell me", I answered.

He said, "I have a wife who wants everything and all I have to support her is a salary of $1 a day".

"Do you have any kids", I asked.

"No, Robert", my wife is only 10 years old."

In the bush, where life expectancy is short and daily life filled with many unknowns such as when and where the Gabon viper will strike, the malaria bite of a mosquito or the dreaded tse fly or even the curse from a witch doctor causing instant death, 10 is not considered young.

Besides, babies are difficult to conceive in the bush. Those that are, often, do not live beyond the first six months. The younger a bride, the more the opportunity to have a large family in old age. 

Any serious problem we experienced with our Gabonese workers seemed to be over women. Later in Fougamou, one of our key workers was named Demi-Kilo who slashed his arm and almost bled to death at our house all because of a situation involving his friend and one of our workers, Ernie, and a woman.

Ernie had paid the woman 20,000 CFA to marry him even though the woman was already married to another of our workers, Luciene. Ernie had slept with the woman for five months and now wanted her to move into his quarters. Luciene refused so Ernie asked and got his money back. When the woman heard the news of the refund of the 20,000 CFA, she went to Ernie to demand 10,000 CFA for "work performed".

A huge argument ensued ending with Demi-Kilo slashing his arm. Ernie rolled on the ground for almost an hour moaning and screaming in front of a huge crowd that he had attracted. A little later, Ernie packed up and left to go to Lambarene with his 20,000 CFA. His goals were to buy another wife and to move to Port Gentil to find work.

The next day, I asked Demi-Kilo why he had slashed his arm.

Demi-Kilo replied, "There was too much argument going on so I cut my arm and everyone would think that I was possessed by the devil and they would all leave."


 

The Beach     

A few other workers stood out from the rest, Jules and Bernard. Both were over 50 years old, with Jules being the most dedicated worker of the lot and Bernard the laziest. Jules dropped by our campsite every Sunday morning on his way to the bush to hunt meat for his family and village. 

Kids from the village visited our camp, daily. Two of our favorites were Archie and his brother John. At first Archie would never smile but after giving him some of our K-rations and joking around with him and the other kids, they would all break into smiles and join us in play.

One Sunday, we asked Jules to show how to get to the beach. The Atlantic coast beach is located less than 5 kilometers from our campsite but appeared unreachable to us because of the thick jungle.

We boarded our Scout pickup truck and Jules lead us to an elephant path through the thick forest. A large stream blocked our path. Surely the stream would lead us to the beach but would we sink into the stream bed or should we turn around? Beams of light penetrated through the thick forest walls serving as torches as we sloshed through the rapid stream.

Yep, we got stuck in the stream and only the Scoutís wench got us out. The forest opened into a marvelous view of the wide sandy beach and the dark blue Atlantic Ocean.

We werenít the only ones on what we thought would be a deserted stretch of beach. Just ahead was a group of women and kids on the beach and a couple of fisherman, in their pirogue, not far from shore, laying their huge net in a semi-circle to the beach. Lots of jellyfish were strewn over the beach so we had to be careful where we walked.

When they were done laying the net, half the group pulled the net in from one side of the beach and the other half, about 50 meters away, pulled in from the other beach side. We joined in, and, within 10 minutes of hard pulling, pulled the fish-laden net on the beach.

Uneventful catch with lots of small fish and a few large until one fisherman stuck his had in the net and had it bit by an eel. From the coal black hand, blood flowed, deep red, seeping into the sandy yellow beach, quickly washed away by the deep blue tide.


 

Libreville Libreville

On Saturday nights, we usually boarded our Scout and headed to the airport or to Libreville. The airport had a nice bar with a cute-looking French barmaid and plenty of cold beer. In Libreville, we usually go to the Peyote or La Residence, a couple of French bars with clientele mostly French sprinkled with a few other expatriates whites. No African blood was ever in evidence within these white enclaves. Prices were exorbitant, about a days wage for one drink.

One Saturday evening, I got the nerve to ask a pretty French girl to dance. The one dance turned into an hour of dancing bliss. I returned to the table where I left my full drink to find it had disappeared. Standing at the bar were three Frenchman who were having a good laugh at the American. In later months, when we got into Libreville, we mostly avoided the French clubs and hung out at the Circle de Matise (French word for Mulatto), where the most beautiful and friendly girls in Gabon could often be found.

In Libreville, we twice played the Gabonese national basketball team. I say "basketball" in the loosest sense of the term. It was really "jungleball".

The games had all the trappings of a real game of basketball with uniforms, refs and a regulation court, baskets and ball. Trouble is, no matter how we played, we got physically mauled since the refs very rarely called a foul. In one game, I went up for a lay up and got upended by my opponent, barely escaping serious injury. No fouls called in "jungleball".

First game, first half, I thought I was the "star", scoring 18 points with my left-hand, unorthodox style. They never saw it coming. Score: 32 Peace Corps to 26 Gabon. Second half they ran us ragged. Fast breaks, fast breaks, fast breaks. Close game. "We will get them next time". Never happened. We got beat the second time, too. 

These guys, with basically no basketball experience and little training, run and jump like no white man we had seen. Does the black-African, muscle type provide them with the ability to jump twice the distance as their European-heritage opponents? Appears so, probably due to the tens of thousands of years of genetic selection where only those hunters with the strongest legs survived the rigors of the bush.

The US Ambassador to Gabon, Charles Darlington, hosted a party for us when we were days from completing the first school. Same crowd as we usually ran into in Libreville with the exception of a new guy at the American Embassy named Wallace. He was a gung-ho Foreign Service officer who loved his work, whatever that was. Wallace claimed he had taken the Foreign Service entrance test seven times before he took a cram course at George Washington University and then passed it on his eighth attempt.

Wallaceís accounts of his life in the Foreign Service and the need to pass the Foreign Service entrance test spurred me to attempt to do the same. For months, in the bush, I read every book I could get my hands on to improve my knowledge of economics, history, literature and politics. Several of us took the Foreign Service test while we were in Gabon. (none of our group ever passed)

In one of our trips to Libreville, a few of us went to the new Post Office to buy stamps and to mail our letters. By chance, we discovered that Gabon had just issued a new stamp featuring Dr. Albert Schweitzer. It was a beautiful gold stamp already mounted on a collectorís card. Each of us bought one and planned to bring them with us when visiting Schweitzer's hospital in Lambarene.

Part 2