Petit a Petit
I vowed to my Parisian friend, Marie-Laure (with whom I spoke English because she was an English teacher at the time and enjoyed the chance to practice her English with me), I would surprise her by speaking French with her one day. “Learn French!” then became my adamant New Year’s resolution every subsequent year, but Marie-Laure would often tease me in letters: “I think you start with Chapter One from the same French grammar book every New Year’s Day and give up on it before February arrives.”
I am nothing if not stubborn. I was determined to learn to speak French, one way or the other, if it was the last thing I did which is why “Learn to speak French well” was near the top of my list of things to do before I died. But here, in Francophone Gabon, on the ground, at my post, my inability to converse intelligently in French was a daily source of embarrassment and personal disappointment for me. I felt like a small child speaking baby talk. I felt stupid (and good for nothing). It made me want to (and I often did), in the privacy of my own home, cry.
I could read and write in French (especially with a fat dictionary nearby). I could speak some French slowly, painstakingly, word-by-well-accented-word within a finite vocabulary. I just couldn’t carry on real, live, animated, back-and-forth conversations with other human beings in the town where I’d been sent to live and work for two years.
I could ask polite questions, such as, How are you? Ca va? or inquire cheerily, What’s new? Quelles nouvelles? But if the answer I received was longer than short, which it usually was among Africans, for whom the social niceties of elaborate greetings are enormously important, I probably couldn’t understand what they were saying.
I would hear sounds that seemed like French coming out of people’s mouths in long, fast-moving, seamless streams; but I couldn’t discern individual words. To my ear, there were no breaks at all, no telling where one word ended and another began. And the accents so vital to this musical language seemed to me to be everywhere but where they belonged. It was, I thought, like learning to speak English in Jamaica.
Sometimes I rationalized: Everyone here is at least bilingual. French is a second, if not third, language for all of us. In this town of over twenty different ethnicities, each with its own first language. French taught only in school, where few people had spent much time as the common denominator of communication, was bound to suffer.
MY TOWN, centrally located Lastoursville, was a crossroads town that attracted people from outlying villages as well as entrepreneurs and adventurers from other African countries. For those Gabonese who dreamed of dressing for success and working in air-conditioned offices, there was nowhere to go but the capital, Libreville, ten hours away by train. But for those with more modest, or realistic, employment goals, Lastoursville and the surrounding area offered a few opportunities.
People from local tribes, such as the Banjabi, Baduma, and Bakota, might find work at the hospital, the post office, or the regional high school situated in Lastoursville. Men from other Gabonese tribes, from further away, such as the Bateki, Bapunu, or Fang, might be found working in the forestry camps just outside of Lastoursville.
Refugees and immigrants, both legal and illegal, from other African countries came to sparsely populated Gabon with their trades and specialties as well as their hopes of a better life. Muslim West Africans, from Senegal, Mali, and Chad, for example, set up shop in Lastoursville as small-scale commercants. Nigerians were barbers; Ghanaians, tailors; Congolese, painters; Sao Tomeans, builders, Beninois, auto mechanics; Camerounians, restaurateurs.
Lebanese men left their wives and children back home in Lebanon to run the largest grocery stores in Lastoursville, where they sold tinned goods that were past their expiration date and other items that were clearly seconds all at first-rate prices. Frenchmen, who seldom showed their rugged, tanned-white faces in town, managed the chantiers, or logging camps, along the nearby train line. There were only two white women in town both American, both in their fifties Bev, a Christian Alliance missionary who was often on the road on business, and me.