Scott Erik Fleming (1999)

Scott's Peace Corps Assignment from Peace Corps Placement Office

Project Name/Assignment Title: RURAL PRIMARY SCHOOL CONSTRUCTION & EQUIPMENT/ARCHITECT

In-Country Training: 21 JANUARY 99 - 16 APRIL 99
Service Duration: 16 APRIL 99 - 16 APRIL 01

The purpose of this project is to assist in the construction of rural primary schools and teacher houses. The project attempts to assist Gabon in realizing its objectives to provide modern classroom space for all primary school pupils and to attract qualified teachers to rural villages by providing adequate local-style housing.

To assist the Government and people of Gabon, Peace Corps (PC) and Gabon's Ministry of National Education (MEN) created the Rural Primary School Construction Project. A second initiative resulted in the creation of the School Desk Project. The projects have been combined under the heading of Rural Primary School Construction & Equipment Project (or Programme de Construction et d'Equipment Scolaire).

In 1994 the decision was made to turn over the project: phase out PC and train Gabonese personnel to support and run a viable construction program on their own. Skill transfer is still needed in masonry, carpentry, material usage, field supervision, plan reading and management. The refinement of existing plans (school and housing) will also be necessary. Presently, there are three volunteers working in the program who will be closing their service three months after you are sworn in. Your group will be one of the last in the attempt to bring the program to a level where it can operate independently by the projected 2002 turnover date.

The school construction program began in 1963 and is Peace Corps Gabon's oldest project. Despite many changes and periods of inactivity, it has built more then 600 classrooms and produced thousands of durable desks. The task of leaving it an independent organization in 2002 is ambitious and enormous: you have a rare and exciting opportunity to be part of that team.

The program is in a period of transition and the plans for school construction are being totally revised to include improvements in structure and function based on lessons learned until now. As experience is gained with the new plans, it may be necessary or desirable to modify some details. It is possible that the program could be asked to provide services that it has not provided in the past. These may include such things as construction of simple health clinics or training of Ministry of Education personnel in school and/or construction inspection. You will be asked to assist in the training of masons and carpenters in subjects such as plan reading or material selection and use.

Construction in Gabon is much more difficult than in the United States. Cement blocks are made by hand and often sand and gravel are collected from local stream beds. In some cases local lumber is used, necessitating trips to the rain forest to cut poles and stakes. At times roads are blocked, bridges washed out, or materials are unavailable.

In two years time you will truly work yourself out of a job by providing some of the basic knowledge needed by program employees. To do this successfully, you will need to be able to adapt your previous knowledge of materials and methods to those that are appropriate in Gabon. In some cases it will be best to teach US methods, in other cases you will realize that things work better here if they continue as they have been. The trick will be to know the difference.

Many areas in the interior of Gabon are underdeveloped and are uniquely difficult environments in which to serve. Life in the capitol; is easier in terms of creature comforts, but still offers its share of hardships and constraints. If you accept this position you will be joining a team of dedicated PCV's and Gabonese, who are working very hard to improve access to improved education in the rural areas. It is one of the most challenging assignments PC has to offer. No decision to leave the U.S. for two years to work overseas is easy. This decision should be carefully thought over. To achieve success in This crucial position takes a great deal of personal motivation, a strong commitment, a desire to help others, a conscientious and rigorous effort to maintain good physical and mental health standards, and ability to adapt to trying circumstances. In terms of human relations and cross-cultural understanding, much will be expected of you that neither your background or training can predict. It is planned that training (12 weeks of intensive French ;language, cross-cultural, health and technical training) will help prepare you for the frustrations and difficulties inherent in the job and your ability to accept and work with Gabonese. At the same time, our training cannot prepare you for the combination of flexibility, patience and tolerance that will be required of you.

You should be able to look back after two years on tangible achievements. You will know that you have worked with Gabonese and taught them skills which will improve their job performance and help them succeed as an independent organization in the future; you will appreciate the changes in their lives which you and your work will have brought about as well as the changes and lessons you will learn from them. Because of the uniqueness of this program and the excellent reputation that construction and school desk PCV's have established with the Gabonese Government as well as with the villagers they have lived and worked with, we require a strong commitment to maintain that reputation. We ask that your acceptance be very carefully weighed and considered before a final decision is made.

Housing will be provided in Libreville, the capitol city, and will include electricity and running water. Diet will consist primarily of local foods such as cassava, yams , pineapples , fish and wild game. During 12 weeks of training you will be living with a Gabonese family in a village without electricity or running water. French is the official language. No prior French language skills are required, but a strong commitment to learning French is advised. A used Toyota diesel pick-up truck will be available for work purposes. AIDS and STD's are prevalent, therefore, volunteers must practice safe sex (condoms are always available through the medical office) or abstinence. Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever broke out twice in Gabon in 1996.

 

Correspondence from Scott posted on Internet:

January 23, 1999 I have indeed arrived in paradise...Gabon is a beautiful country.

Well, we've been in-country for three days now and I am completely overwhelmed. I don't even know where to begin. The flights from DC were long, boring and cramped. The first thing I noticed when we got off the plane was how hot and muggy it was, totally oppressive but something that I know I'll get use to. The Gabonese people are extremely friendly, which I thought might be the case considering the experiences I have had with the Africans in Zambia and Zimbabwe. We are living in a two story training house in Libreville with AC, hot water and lights so I don't have too much to complain about. Two weeks from now we are all moving to a place up North called Coco Beach for three weeks where we will begin our individual home-stays with local villages and learn how to build the schools and teacher housing we came to do.

Yesterday we took a Land Cruiser to a beach called Cape Santa Clara north of town, you would not believe how beautiful it was....endless ribbons of pure white sand, pure warm water, palm and mango trees arching towards the sky. We swam and climbed coconut trees, opened them up by banging them against driftwood. What an experience! Like I already said, it is very hot and muggy here despite the fact that it rains two or three times a day. And the rain drops out of the sky in buckets, far more intense than the worst monsoon I've ever seen in Arizona. The Peace Corps people really have their shit together as far as providing us with the language/cultural/health training that we will need so I feel good about that.

Believe it or not but the limited French that I do know has been very handy and I am picking up more with each day. Some of us ate dinner at a roadside vendors stand and drank beer at a tiny little neighborhood bar and we did everything in French. The Africans got a kick out of that because we were murdering the language. Libreville itself is a large city spread across low rolling hills covered with jungle; lots of palm, banana and mango trees. The larger buildings/hotels are all located on the beach.

Thus far, I like all of the eight guys in our group and we seem to get along just fine, but then again, we haven't exactly been stressed out yet. We start training full time on Monday and will have classes eight hours a day, should be fun. The university students have been protesting against President Omar Bongo and some interesting things happened our first day in-country...I'll tell you more about that later (things like burning cars, tear gas, small arms fire), but don't worry, we're all very safe. Did I mention that the University is located literally in the training center's back yard.

I'll write/email as much as I can, but we're going to be pretty damn busy now...and I won't be able to access anything once we move to Coco Beach February 1st. But like I said, feel free to send an email reply, I think I'll have regular access once I get to know the PC staff better...right now we're the new kids on the block. And since I am serving in the capacity of Architect I might be working in this building (if I do live in Libreville) and will have access whenever I want. Keep your fingers crossed. Well, my time seems to be up now, it goes without saying that I miss all of you tremendously. I hope that all is well. Don't worry about me, I can already tell that everything will be just fine. After all, I'm in paradise!


Scott's service with the PC was cancelled due to "political issues" that occurred in Gabon.