Au Gabon: Memoirs by a Peace Corps Volunteer in Central Africa
(Search the title on Amazon to purchase the entire book on Kindle.)
By Jonathon Shacat
Written in 2001 based on true events that took place in 1999.
My eyes open to the sounds of an annoying rooster crowing outside my window. It must be morning. I raise my mosquito netting and slide my feet into the plastic sandals I never leave bed without. Walking on the dirt floor is unwise, I’ve learned, due to chiggers and parasites that may burrow beneath the skin of my soles.
I pull on a long-sleeve shirt and pants. In the living room I grab a roll of pink toilet paper off the shelf and make my way out the door of my mud-wattle house. The latrine is in my backyard, concealed by the rain forest surrounding Mikouandza.
I live in a small village in Gabon, Africa, where I teach villagers to construct ponds and raise Tilapia. I am a Peace Corps Volunteer. I came here thinking I could make a big difference in the lives of the people, but the truth is change happens incrementally and one person at a time. Sometimes, it seems I am the one who has changed the most.
In the center of the latrine is a gap. As I squat down, I listen to the termite-infested logs beneath me, checking for any telltale cracking sounds. I do not want to fall into that horrid pit. The sun has not yet broken through the misty morning sky. Despite efforts to swat the mosquitoes and gnats, they hungrily swarm my exposed tender skin. I do my business quickly.
Bugs don’t like smoke, so I head to mama Antoinette’s kitchen. It's a mud brick building, with a dirt floor. There is a fire on the ground, near the center of the room. Antoinette is sitting on a short wooden bench. She is heating water so we can drink instant coffee. She says she wishes we had some bread to compliment our breakfast. Occasionally a man drives his pickup truck along this dirt road selling stale bread from the town of Mbigou, but lately it seems he has stopped coming.
Antoinette asks if I would accompany papa Joseph to his ponds today. I hesitate to say yes. Joseph's ponds are a lost cause. He uses his old age as an excuse for not taking care of his fish. Joseph feeds them monthly, not daily. But I agree to go. I hope that, indirectly, my efforts will boost the protein intake of at least one child in the village when a pond is harvested. Kids here are malnourished, and trying to stop their suffering by giving out food is unsustainable and unrealistic. There simply aren’t enough cans of sardines.
Antoinette hands me a cup of sweet coffee and gives me Joseph’s cup, too. She asks me to take it to him. I walk to the corps to garde, a communal hut where Joseph sits on a rickety chair beside a fire. I join him. I tell him I will help him care for his ponds if he wants. I add that we should go today because tomorrow I leave for a week-long bike trip to visit other fish farmers in the south. Joseph takes a sip of the warm, black, sweetened liquid and nods his head in agreement.
I prepare for work, putting on my knee-high rubber boots and changing into a short-sleeved shirt. I gather my machete and leather gloves. The sun is out, and the flying insects have gone away. It promises to be a nice day. The sky will remain bright until late afternoon when it is overcome by dark storm clouds that bring a torrential downpour.
I meet Joseph as agreed. He is wearing shorts and a shirt. I notice his only preparation was to get his machete. How primitive this culture prepares its people for the forest, I think to myself.
We leave for the brief hike. The trail is narrow, overgrown and so steep I have difficulty making my way. At some points, I have to grab hold of the brush to prevent myself from sliding down the decline. Last night’s rains have left the ground slick. As I stumble and slip, I notice Joseph's bare feet. His skin is calloused from years of wear. Nearly three times my age, he navigates the rugged terrain better than I. This frustrates me.
At the ponds I assist Joseph in sprinkling manioc leaves and termite larvae on the water's surface. A few fish come up to eat. If he cared for the ponds consistently, there would be many more fish, I know.
Joseph asks me to help cut the grass that is growing on the dikes. If not trimmed regularly, the vegetation will attract snakes that prey on the fish. I wonder if my energy could be better used tomorrow in Baposso, where I will work with villagers who have more potential for success. But I give in. Machetes start swinging and grass clippings fly. Joseph quickly trims his section while I struggle to keep up. Blisters form on my palms and I have to stop. Joseph finishes my work as I take a much-needed rest. I marvel at his remarkable endurance.
I think about how hard it must have been to build these ponds. That was several years ago, when he still had the strength and energy to dig the canals and shovel tons of red clay to construct the dikes. What a shame the potential yield of the finished products is not being maximized, I think to myself. If I could only find someone in his family who is younger and more motivated to inherit the ponds and maintain them properly, the fish could potentially provide food for the entire village. The surplus could be smoked or salted.
Back in Mikouandza, I bathe from a bucket of cold water that I slowly pour over my body with a plastic cup. I get dressed and head toward the kitchen. Antoinette has returned from the field. She complains that groundhogs have destroyed some of her manioc plants, whose roots and leaves provide food. If the rodents continue at this pace, they’ll leave her with nothing to feed her family — or Joseph’s fish. When her grown son comes to visit, she will have him catch the pests. Before he moved to the town to continue his education and seek work, he used to set traps. But, like most villagers, he didn’t check his snares regularly. Sometimes, he would find animals dead beyond recognition, their bodies bloated and covered with flies and ants.
I take a seat on a bench in the kitchen. Antoinette is cleaning gazelle meat. I watch closely. She cuts a piece off the leg, and maggots crawl out from under the skin. She removes the fly larvae and discards them near the fire pit. She places the meat in a pot. I don’t panic. I’ve come to rely on Antoinette and her ability to cook based on the ways of the bush. It no longer bothers me to know we will be eating rotten meat for dinner. In this part of the world, food is food.
She serves me a generous portion of gazelle and manioc root, and we eat the meal together. I remind her I will be leaving early in the morning for Baposso to meet the farmers. She asks me to purchase some salt at the general store while I am there.
The evening rains come and go. As the day turns to night, I return to my mud hut. I light my kerosene lantern and a couple of candles. I get in bed, tucking in my mosquito net. I turn on my shortwave radio to try to catch some of the news back home. Although I would like to listen for hours, I can’t. I must ration my batteries. Besides, I need to get some rest for tomorrow.
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