In 1982 I became a teacher of English as a foreign language with the Peace Corps. I was posted to Gabon in Central Africa. Twenty-three years later, in 2005, I won a Fulbright Scholar’s grant to train English teachers in Vietnam. I was accompanied by my husband and three children.
Last month I was asked by Peace Corps Writers’ John Coyne to compare my two experiences. They were 23 years apart a lifetime, and many of the differences I noted were in myself at 22 and at 45, apart from comparing the two countries. Having been in Gabon may have helped me live in Vietnam in the sense that I built on that experience as an older and wiser person.
I HAD JUST GRADUATED from Boston College with a B.A. in French and English, a degree I valued but didn’t know what to do with it. I had studied at the Sorbonne in Paris my third year of college, and this caused me to be very restless as a senior. When I got word from Peace Corps that my application had been accepted, I was ecstatic at the prospect of being on the road again.
I flew into Libreville, Gabon on July 4, 1982, the youngest in my group of 30 trainees. It included fish breeders, agriculturalists, construction workers and EFL teachers. For many in the group, this was their first experience overseas.
The Corps provided a short training course in TEFL methodology in-country. I hadn’t thought of pursuing a career in teaching before my PC stint, and to be honest, I was a really bad teacher my first year and only a little better my second. I was lonesome, frightened at the responsibility, and awed with Gabonese culture, so different from my own.
I was single with no children, and the most common question I heard was, “Where is your husband?” Many of the Volunteers lied that they had husbands in the States, and others sported faux wedding rings, both to no avail. Fending off advances with good-natured rebuffs was the best solution in the end.
Other Gabon RPCVs with whom I’m in contact say that when they first learned they were to live in Gabon, they consulted their maps to locate it. It is hard to find substantial information on Gabon. President Omar Bongo, the longest-serving president in Africa today, keeps information to the outside world at a minimum.
Gabon is the size of Colorado, right on the equator in Central Africa. Like many of its African neighbors, Gabon was a colony of France until 1960. It is the second wealthiest nation in Africa, with huge reserves of manganese, uranium, gold, bauxite, and oil, as well as ebony and mahogany. It also has the 5th highest cost of living index in the world. It was an expensive place to live, and my monthly stipend barely covered my living costs. (The expense partially explains why the Peace Corps withdrew from Gabon in July of 2005 the other main reason was Volunteer security.) Gabon and the U.S. maintain a minimum of trade contact, although President Bongo did give President Bush a machete as a gift last spring.
If you think of wild, mysterious Africa, Gabon is the country you are probably imagining. There are pygmy villages, Bwitists who trip on iboga, warring sects that thrive on ignorance and deal in death, army ants that carry off domestic animals, parasites that eat you first and ask questions later. And the country is very beautiful, with plateaus, waterfalls, rainforest, and species after species of flora and fauna.
During the three days my Peace Corps group spent in Philadelphia prior to flying to Gabon, we were told that Volunteers who go to South America learn how to be militant, Volunteers who go to Asia learn how to be contemplative, and Volunteers who go to Africa learn how to laugh. The Gabonese certainly do have the ability to laugh at themselves and at their situations. I was so stunned by the differentness and naive when I lived there, however, that I could not see much beyond myself. I regret that I did not learn more about Gabonese character.
Because of my fear and immaturity when I lived there, the whole experience remains a mystery to me. I don’t remember details, and I can’t figure out what I might have contributed. In an effort to reconstruct what I have forgotten and get a bigger picture of the culture, I have been editing the newsletter of the Friends of Gabon The Gabon Letter for the past four years. It has helped.
ON MY 45th BIRTHDAY, in 2005, my husband, three children and I flew from Knoxville, Tennessee to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Fulbright had awarded me a one-year grant to lecture instructors of English on teaching techniques. I had obtained my M.A. in Applied Linguistics from the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California twenty years before and had been working in ESL for 23 years. Behind me I had much experience in teaching, training, curriculum development and just living.