Peace Corps Writers
A Writer Writes
Martha Stewart of Gabon
   by Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 1996–98)
Fame is a fickle food
Upon a shifting plate . . .
— Emily Dickinson
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THEY CALLED ME “the Martha Stewart of Gabon.” It was meant to be funny — young Peace Corps Volunteers’ inclination to make light ofPrinter friendly version everything around them, in order to survive the harsh realities of life at their remote posts — but like most jokes and cartoons, it derived its humor precisely from its proximity to raw truth. Indeed, apart from the fact that Martha and I lived in different worlds, we actually had a lot in common.
     We are about the same age (she is four years older), about the same height and coloring. We were both the eldest daughters of working-class families from suburban New Jersey. We were both scholarship students at college on 116th Street and Broadway in Manhattan — she, at Barnard; I, at Columbia. We were both, briefly, fashion models. We are both divorced and mothers of one child, both daughters, born the same year. Most of all, we were both food-obsessed professional caterers for a time and passionate homemakers for all time.
     In the realms of wealth, power, and fame, however, Martha and I were at opposite ends of the spectrum, and that was just fine with me. As an essentially shy person with simple tastes, I had never wanted to be famous or rich or, god forbid, wield power over others. Somehow, I’d always only seen the down-side of these great American ambitions — such as the loss of privacy and cherished solitude and the exposure to public scrutiny and judgment.
     “How dreary,” Emily Dickinson wrote, “to be Somebody! How public — like a Frog — To tell your name — the livelong June — To an admiring Bog!” From the moment I first read these words in high school and wrote them on the walls of my mind, I knew it would never be my life’s goal to be a Somebody in the Bog.
     The real Martha Stewart, though, rose from her humble beginnings to reach empress status; and she knew how to carry it off. Referred to in the press as “the diva of domesticity,” “the paragon of domestic virtue” and “the queen of all things house and home,” Martha Stewart became famous all over the media-watching world. I, on the other hand, at least for a short while and among a small band of Peace Corps Volunteers, became famous as “the Martha Stewart of Gabon” — a place where the real Martha Stewart truly wouldn’t care about fame.
     The label stuck when it went into print. In a write-up for the December ’96 issue of a monthly Peace Corps-Gabon newsletter, Cindy, the Volunteer posted in Koulamoutou, told of the Thanksgiving dinner 18 of us new Volunteers had had at her house. “. . . With Bonnie leading the way in the kitchen,” Cindy enthused, “we had a feast that was incredible. . . . turkey . . . stuffing . . . mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans . . . carrots, feuilles de manioc (okay, that isn’t really traditional, but we are in Gabon!), pumpkin pie, apple tart and bread pudding! Bonnie was the true Martha Stewart of Gabon. She made sure that everything came out perfect — right down to the flowers and napkins on the harvest table. It felt like a real Thanksgiving.”
     From then on, my nickname became “Martha”; and, frankly, I was a little flattered by it. It inspired me to become a role model for these younger (roughly half my age) Volunteers: to show them, through my own lifestyle there, that although we were living in the back of beyond, in the middle of a hot, wet rainforest as dense as a head of broccoli; although we all lived on a shoestring in towns and villages where there was really nothing to buy anyway, we could rise above!
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