Peace Corps Writers
Martha Stewart of Gabon (page 2)

Martha Stewart of Gabon
page 1
page 2

     We didn’t have to live in squalor and subsist on tinned sardines and stale cookies! We could learn to make decent-enough meals with available ingredients (and herbs and spices sent from home). We could get the knack of gracious entertaining by candlelight (since the power lines were almost always down). We could decorate the interiors of our mud-wattle huts or cement-block houses in such a way that they would be cheerful and welcoming. It’s amazing what one coat of paint can do. It became my mission to teach my fellow PCVs, by example.
     My house in Lastoursville, two degrees south of the Equator, was on the train line. There is one train in Gabon, which reaches from Libreville, the country’s cosmopolitan capital, on the Atlantic coast, to Franceville in the southeast. Lastoursville lies just south of the middle of that line, a ten-hour train trip to the capital, so Volunteers often stopped at my house in their travels. They knew I had room for them, clean sheets and dry towels, screened windows, thick homemade soup, fresh-baked bread, just-washed floors, and current issues of The New Yorker and Gourmet magazines neatly arranged on my living room coffee table.
     “This is like a real home,” some would swoon, with a tinge of homesickness in their voices.
     “But you can do it, too!” I’d tell them, launching into Martha mode. I’d show them how I built my own bed, using NIDO tins for the legs; how I made a loom for weaving doormats out of discarded plastic bags; how I used the tiny, ubiquitous, red, tomato-paste cans (washed, with both ends removed) as napkin rings; how I made tie-back curtains without the benefit of a sewing machine; how I made flowers out of dried corn husks for the dining room centerpiece bouquet; how I planted pineapple tops and forced avocado pits (in time, I had 30 little avocado trees growing in separate small containers on my front porch). So Martha.
     At one point, I even went a bit crazy with Peace Corps-issue Magic Markers. In the bedroom that Morgan, my Pisciculture-postmate, used when she came into town for mail and supplies once a week from her village 40 km away, I painted a big, rattan headboard on the wall at the head of her bed; on the wall to the right I painted a low, bed-side table, with a huge vase filled with colorful flowers on top of it. Not content with that, I surprised her by drawing a large-screen TV on the wall across from her bed. She was thrilled when she saw it — none of us had TV’s at our posts — but wondered where I’d hidden the remote.
     The decorating touch that I think the real Martha Stewart would envy today, though, was in my bathroom in Gabon. I took green markers and drew tall, wild grass from the baseboard up. I painted a clear, rain-free, baby blue sky, dotted with cotton-ball clouds, on the ceiling. At head-height, I drew a drooping, black telephone line from one corner of the room to the other, then the other, and the other, and painted colorful birds perched on it in happy clusters. And then, to express my soaring sentiments in that exuberant moment, I wrote in loopy, two-inch-high script along the drawing of the telephone line: “Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have found my own way to be free.”


Bonnie Lee Black was a food professional in New York City for ten years before joining the Peace Corps and serving in Gabon in central Africa. She now lives in northern New Mexico and teaches Essay Writing at UNM-Taos.

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