March 1, 1963 - Personal Web Page: Peace Corps Journal of Bob Utne in Gabon

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Gabon: Peace Corps Gabon : The Peace Corps in Gabon: March 1, 1963 - Personal Web Page: Peace Corps Journal of Bob Utne in Gabon

By Admin1 (admin) on Friday, April 18, 2003 - 7:10 pm: Edit Post

Peace Corps Journal of Bob Utne in Gabon

Peace Corps Journal of Bob Utne in Gabon

Peace Corps Journal of Bob Utne
Part 1 March--May 1963 Ovendo, Okala, The First School, Tribal Customs and Married Life, The Beach, Libreville
Part 2 June-Oct. 1963 Kango, Dr. Albert Schweitzer, Le Rank Cinq, Gabon II Teachers
Part 3 Nov. 1963-May 1964 Fougamou, Christmas in Libreville, Gabon III and Guests, Pygmies, Trouble in Libreville, Pre-Revolution, Revolution, Post-Revolution, Elections, French, West African Merchants, Trouble in Fougamou
Part 4 June-Sept. 1964 Alene, Elephant Charge, African "Frenchman", Departing Gabon

Gabon I, training program in St. Thomas (click to enlarge)


March 21, 1963. Descending the plane in Libreville, we were greeted by the Gabon Minister of Education, the US Ambassador and our task masters, Marshal Erdman (architect of the schools) and Bill Wilkes, Peace Corps Country Director. Blah, blah, blah and off we filed in eight gleaming, blue and white Scout pickup trucks to Ovendo, our base camp and former RAF barracks.

Not a car to be seen on the way to our barracks. We saw women, everywhere along side the road, most smoking pipes and loaded on their backs, huge sacks filled with fire wood.

Our Ovendo camp was nothing more than an open warehouse with a tin roof. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a large cobra who had claimed our quarters and wasnít about to move out on its own volition. We smashed it to bits.

The first few weeks were spent in fixing up the quarters and helping to move the construction materials and equipment off the docks to our warehouse. Nights were for writing home and drinking a few beers. Zero local contact but for some kids who came by the barracks each day to ask for handouts and to play games.

Unfortunately, the two in our group that were the most idealistic, real-acting Peace Corps types who had a genuine interest in the Western-style education of the Gabonese, lasted less than a month in Gabon.

They never had a chance. The Peace Corps was good at eliminating most of what they perceived as the "trouble makers" while we were in training in Puerto Rico (one month) and in St. Thomas (three months). The "de-selection" process was much like modern day "Survivor" shows on TV. Donít say too much, donít stand out from the crowd and follow the given script. Of more than 55 pre-selected, 40 of us made it to Gabon.

David Palmer and Rick Ferragano were two of our best French speakers, both highly intelligent and people-pleasers to a fault. They were there to "help" the Gabonese. Maybe they believed they were not construction workers like the rest of us. The chips on their shoulders needed to be knocked off or so thought the Peace Corps staff and the outside contractor Marshall Erdman, the Milwaukee-based architect of our schools.

The trouble began when Marshal Erdman became annoyed that Palmer and Ferragano preferred playing with the local kids than working with the rest of us. To Wilkes and Erdman that was mutiny and either the boys obeyed orders or would be broken in whatever means possible.

The opportunity arose when David Palmer and Tom Longenecker left some of our food supply outside the Owendo quarters one night. Wilkes and Erdman picked up the supplies "to teach the boys a lesson". When they found out that Palmer was one of the two accused of the oversight, they had all the opportunity they needed.

Wilkes left the country for a few days to attend a conference and Erdman, assuming control, told Palmer to pack his bags and booked him on the next flight out of Libreville.

Ferragano, Palmerís best friend, upon hearing of Palmerís dismissal, asked to be transferred to another Peace Corps project out of Gabon. Erdman, hearing of this request, then called a general meeting of all the volunteers and staff. His intent was to explain why Palmer was sent out and why Ferragano was wrong to transfer.

The scheme backfired. We all backed Palmer and Ferragano. Erdman left the meeting in a huff and Ferragano was on the next flight out on his way home.

Just before Erdman left to return to Milwaukee, another unfortunate incident occurred. Marshal ordered one of our more head-strong volunteers, John Morascini, to execute an order that John was unwilling to perform. So, Erdman slapped John. John turned around and smashed and broke his hand on the nearest stone wall. Two years later, John died in Viet Nam from an exploding land mine.

We all were prepared to mutiny. Either Erdman went or we would all go home. Charles Darlington, the US Ambassador, was called in to mitigate the situation and shortly after Erdman flew out never to return. Erdman not only slapped a Peace Corps Volunteer but, it was alleged, also slapped the Gabonese workers at the docks when they moved "too slowly".


The more active we were, the less homesick and concern about being "stuck" in this country for two years. With this in mind, ten of us volunteered to quickly leave the barracks to start building the first primary school, located in Okala, about 10 kilometers north of the Libreville airport. This was Fang country with no pretense of urbanized life. No electricity, no plumbing just a village stuck out in the boondocks surrounded by lush jungle and not too far from a broad, log-laden, Atlantic coast beach.

We surmised that this site was selected to have the first school due to family/tribal considerations. The village chief, Jerome Mba, was a close relative of the nationís president, Leon Mba. He had married the sister of Leon Mbaís first wife.

As Jerome explained to me, the first wife in Gabon has special social status and responsibilities. She orders the other wives to perform their daily duties and is responsible for selecting the additional wives for her husband.

Looking at Jerome, you knew he was the chief. Tall and regal, Fang-tribal scars adorned his face and body and quick of wit.

There were a number of interesting villagers working at our site. One favorite of mine was Daniel. He was about our age, early 20ís, well versed in French and had both an attractive personality and appearance. Daniel liked nothing better to sit and talk so getting him and the others to work for $1 a day took a lot of friendly persuasion and reverse psychology. (Note: USAID paid 80% of all the material and labor costs and Gabon the remaining 20%)

Daniel could not understand why we Americans had left the great United States to come to impoverished Gabon to build schools in the bush. "Were we being paid huge sums of money", he asked.

"No Gabriel", I replied. "We are here because your government asked us to come to assist you to build your nation. We volunteer two years of life for public service because our great leader, John Kennedy, told us to ask not what your country can do for you but ask what you can do for your country."

Gabriel gave me a blank look. This didnít make sense. Truth is, most of us were in Gabon not to be altruistic servants of our government but to seek adventure, getting out of boring and limited life styles back at home. While we werenít actually replicas of Stanley and Livingston, we had the courage to challenge the wild unknown.

Our campsite at Okala was similar to any GI campsite seen in the TV episodes of "Mash", except in miniature. Our tents were two man pup tents. During the night, the tents kept out the bugs and other pests but during the day, they were like ovens where if you were so foolish as to take a brief afternoon nap, a few minutes later you would wake in a pool of sweat on your Army-issued cot. We had no power, relying upon kerosene lanterns at night.

Pictured: Bob Brandstetter, Gabon Minister of Education, pro builder, Larry, me, ?, Mike Hyland, Dale Judkins

All our initial food was GI issue- C-rations and K-rations. Spam was our main fare with cigarettes included in the rations for evening smokes. No fresh vegetables to be had other than what we could trade with the village children, a few avocados in exchange for C-ration cookies.

Our group Leader, Bill Langile, lasted about a month. He had previously served a few months in the first Peace Corps group to Columbia and then requested transfer to another project, because he claimed the Columbia project was corrupt. So why did Bill quit this time? Bill claimed he couldnít deal with either Wilkes or Erdman. Maybe, however, his bowels played a more decisive role. During his one month at Okala, Bill had one successful trip to the latrine.

I received a tape from my Dad who, quite liberally and figuratively, used my early letters to home to use in one of his speeches to life insurance groups. The tape went like this:

"My oldest son, Bob, is serving in the Peace Corps in Africa. I received a letter from him which I would like to share with you now.

Dear Dad, Conditions over here are unbelievable. Itís disgusting to see all the debauchery, drunkenness, ineptness, laziness and poor performance. Well, so much for the staff...."

Some postings on Peace Corps Online are provided to the individual members of this group without permission of the copyright owner for the non-profit purposes of criticism, comment, education, scholarship, and research under the "Fair Use" provisions of U.S. Government copyright laws and they may not be distributed further without permission of the copyright owner. Peace Corps Online does not vouch for the accuracy of the content of the postings, which is the sole responsibility of the copyright holder.

Story Source: Personal Web Page

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Gabon



By Dale Judkins ( - on Monday, March 20, 2006 - 12:02 pm: Edit Post

Hi Bob,
Great to read your journal about Gabon. I'm wondering if you have heard from Lou Williams?

I reside in Scottsdale, AZ. With my wife Joni. We raised four great kids and have eight wonderful grand children. Life is good.

Thanks for mentioning me in your writings.

Dale Judkins

By Dwight P Russell ( on Monday, September 25, 2006 - 4:35 pm: Edit Post

Hi Bob and Dale,

Thanks for your account of our project. It is great reading!
I recently scanned my 35mm slides and sent copies of the scanned pictures to Steve Bean in San Deigo and he sent to me his pictures on a flash drive.
I would be happy to share them with you too.
Best wishes,
Dwight (Red Bluff, California)

By BradleyRobinson ( on Saturday, December 06, 2014 - 7:15 am: Edit Post

My father in law recently passed away.His name was Paul Seymour.He was in Gabon from 62 til 64.Trying to find some pictures and stories.He was a great man.

Add a Message

This is a public posting area. Enter your username and password if you have an account. Otherwise, enter your full name as your username and leave the password blank. Your e-mail address is optional.