February 19, 2003: Headlines: COS - Gabon: PCVs in the Field - Gabon: Personal Web Site: Leslie Sheppard's Gabon Web Site (Part 1)
Peace Corps Online:
Peace Corps Gabon :
The Peace Corps in Gabon:
February 19, 2003: Headlines: COS - Gabon: PCVs in the Field - Gabon: Personal Web Site: Leslie Sheppard's Gabon Web Site (Part 1)
Leslie Sheppard's Gabon Web Site (Part 1)
Leslie Sheppard's Gabon Web Site (Part 1)
This is a collection of letters home to me and others from my friend Leslie Sheppard. Leslie left July 2nd, 1996 for Gabon - Africa to serve in the Peace Corps. His mission was to build a school for a remote village and to help in any way needed during his tour there.
The letters are typed by myself and will be as close to the original as possible. If you have received letters from Leslie and would like to add them to this site please send me e-mail to make arrangements. I would ask that you send me copies in ASCII format but if you must send me originals I will try and type them up myself.
My address is: Jeff.Jenkins@Nashville.Com
July 7, 1996 - To his mother "LIFE IS KICKIN HERE!"
July 11, 1996 - To his mother "WHAT HAVE I DONE?"
July 31, 1996 - To Jeff Jenkins "ONLY STUDYING AND DRINKING ARE ALLOWED HERE."
July 16, 1996 - To his mother "CRAPPY UBIQUITOUS WHITE PLASTIC CHAIRS"
July 29, 1996 - To his mother "A DEAD GUY IN THE ROAD"
August 11, 1996 - To his mother "TRIAL BY FIRE"
August 26, 1996 - To his mother "STAGE SUCKS!"
September 1, 1996 - To his mother "HELL IS EVERYWHERE, HEAVEN'S WHERE YOU MAKE IT"
September 10, 1996 - To his mother "GO HUG YOUR PHONE" - Still being typed up.
September 19, 1996 - To Jeff Jenkins "THIS STAGE CAN BURN IN HELL"
September 23, 1996 - To his mother "POLONIUS WAS A FOOL"
September 30, 1996 - To his mother "THUNDER ROAD"
October 12, 1996 - To Jeff Jenkins "I THINK MY PIG GAVE ME FLEAS"
October 13, 1996 - To Jeff Jenkins "SAVE LESLIE'S SANITY FUND"
EDITOR'S NOTE - I have gotten so far behind in putting letters up that I just grabbed the last one I received and am now putting it up. I will be adding more older ones to the site as soon as I can get around to typing them in.
January 9, 1997 - To Jeff Jenkins "DID I MENTION THAT MY ROOF LEAKS? ALLOW ME TO STRESS THAT POINT!!"
January 27, 1997 - To Jeff Jenkins "PHILOSOPHIES OF DENIAL ARE NOT MY FORTE'"
May 19, 1997 - To Jeff Jenkins via Email "GET READY BOY, WE GONNA RUMBLE"
Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you Bill Martin from Tulane in New Orleans, LA!
BACK to my home page!
July 7, 1996
Howdy from downtown Libreville!
Hey mom, I hope you're doing well. I am discovering how hard it is to write here. The days are full, either with meetings, (no classes yet), or just plain socializing. I am in demand as someone to socialize with, which is a refreshing change from the recent past. In part I think it is because my reaction to the scary first day of orientation was to joke around and put up a big front, and once my initial nervousness wore off, and everyone became more comfortable with one another, the joking and fun just naturally carried through.
Spending as much time as possible speaking to people other than Peace Corps folk. Still hopelessly superficial conversation (Bonjour, ca va? cava bien....), but it should improve with time. Last night we were formerly welcomed to Gabon with a performance of traditional Gabonese dance. Very exciting, very moving, and I almost fell asleep during it, as earlier I had spent several hours in the surf... on the eastern end of the Atlantic! Anyway, the chief dancer, in his explanation of the dances, stated that the important thing was to persevere. I have a feeling we have not yet begun to be challenged. Yesterday, as in the day after we arrived in gabon, one of our group announced at lunch that he was leaving the service. His reasoning was that his motives were not the same as the Peace Corps, and that it seemed that Peace Corps volunteers and employees treated the indigenous people as inferior. This he explained in private to some of us as he packed. I argued that any organization was going to have it's flaws, but only the individual can really act on a personal basis with anyone, so it still came down to him. The Peace Corps is certainly not the worst western organization to reach these shores, and of philanthropic organizations, it gives the individual volunteer a great deal of leeway in deciding in his or her approach to the job. I hope he will be happy, but I think he will regret his too-hasty decision.
We have one other possible drop-out, so far as I can see, (for different reasons), but for the most part, we seem preety determined.
To that end, I've adopted the attitude that this is my home, and my fellow volunteers are my family, and I try to be a lightening and easing factor for everyone so we can be a happy family. I don't dwell on thoughts of my friends and you and "home" because it would be yearning for something I can't have now, rather than appreciating what I do have here.
For instance, right now a good number of us are writing or talking quietly with one another as a raucous rooster crows in the yard below, in a little lull between breakfast and another meeting. We are all together in a large barracks room, everyone with the bottom half of a bunk bed, the top half being to suspend the mosquito netting. `Stage' begins in ten minutes, have to go, but I'll continue as soon as possible. I'm preety tired today, hope I can stay awake.
Well, it's next morning. I got more sleep last night than I've had in days, but I still feel like I have felt since the dawning of time when I first woke up. Will I ever become a morning person?
Went into town yesterday afternoon with two other `trainees', Teri and Amy Jean, and Jean-Paul, a local who is among the instructors for our language training. As I was the only with any French knowledge, I had to translate between the members of the group. It is amazing how quickly so much of this forgotten knowledge returns. Along with the normal stops, I.E. the market, (which was closed, and that was the only way we could walk through - crowded), the post office, the "super-march'e", Jean-Paul took us to the radio station "Africa No. 1" and arranged a short tour, technical but interesting, which culminated in a disc jockey welcoming us by name to gabon; a greeting which was heard all over the world!
As fun as dealing with local life is, these classes are a pain in the ass.
O.K. Serious buisness here. You're probably one of the few people I'll be writing for the next couple of months. You'll have to spread the news. So far this letter has taken me 4 days to write a page and a half. THERE IS NO TIME! Wake up at 6:30, breakfast at 7:00, then solid classes `til lunch, then solid classes `til dinner. When we have free time I try to socialize and ge to know my new family and support group. Right now they're the other volunteers, but starting Thursday we're moving ino host families' home for 6 weeks, then out to a site to build a "practice school". One way I've dealt with the separation from all things familiar is simply to run headlong into my new situation. Life is kickin' here. There's enough life going on all around us; chickens, dogs, cats, lizards, birds, rats, bugs, bugs, bugs, and this is the biggest school in Gabon, not a farm!
Anyhoo, lot of friends, tell you about them all sooner or later, trying to talk the lingo as much as possible, getting way to little sleep.
In lieu of saying anything more now, I'll close and send this to you. I'm great, things are great, feel like I'm where I need to be.
Love you and hope all is well. Write soon.
Say HEY to all, esp. Dan & Ellen.
I love you
votre petit garcon, Leslie
I'm no longer in the Peace Corps. Dormitory, that is. Instead we have all packed up our mosquito nets (yes, we have them) and moved into host families. This is my first night as the newest member of the family, KOUMBA. I have been adopted by my new brothers, Appollinoure and Pamphile. Appolinaire's wife, his 3 children, and the brother's mom. She's ailing and on a low salt diet. I am going to make a concerted effort to talk to her, as she does not join the rest of the family at the dinner table. My french is terrible, and I feel terrible asking for endless repetitions, but my brothers are kind, and after 20 minutes of sheer "what have I done!" hell I begin to feel at home.
It was a terrible shock to leave 26 other English speakers and move in with a French speaking family, POW!, like that, but if Peace Corps taught me anything so far it's that change is slow, but not always. When my faith is shaken and I begin to despair, I gather my thoughts, speak to myself in English, and review my reasons for being here. I am in AFRICA! REALLY! and although there are doors, windows, cars and buildings, it is still a different world. Had baked fish heads for dinner tonights. They're good with worstershire. Manioc is good somewhere far away from me. Another volunteer, (actually right now we're "stageurs" or trainees, until we're sworn in) and I went swimming in the ocean today before we left for our various families. She was the first to leave with her host family. It's amazing how one day can be the most placid and the most terrifiying, all in a matter of hours!
Still, as I have said, I am constantly aware of how comfortable entropy is, and how uncomfortable pushing yourself into an alien world, but it is amazing when you can pull back far enough to appreciate the situation.
Two thoughts before I sleep: One, Pamphille told me tonight that we were family, and that his house was a safe place for me, against attackers and those who would poison my food. His family are not racist. Gabon, in general, is not racist. Do you appreciate the irony? I have gone in one short hop from being a white man in Alabama, to being a white man in Gabon, Africa. I am the tiny minority, the man who invites stares wherever he goes. It is a gift to be able to see the world through different eyes. Never have I been the racial minority. C'est l'experience ca plus profound, Oui? My other observation is from the beach today. Renee' and I would lie on the sand til we got hot or bored, then would splash out into the surf. The transition between comfort on the beach and the exhilaration of the waves was uncomfortable. We wanted to turn back,a nd we never thought the ocean would ever be warm and inviting.
Just like in an experience like this, you leave the comfort of home with the promise of exhileration in a new setting, but the transition is chilling, seems to take forever, and makes you wish you could turn back. But if you jump in, brave the cold, and just get down to business, you find it is the greatest thing you could've done. Just like the Gabonse surf. Good night, ma chere.
Good morning, it's 6:30.
Nope, not anymore. It's two days hence, and it get's getter and better. It's very, very hard to believe that I've only been here a week, as everyday is crammed full to the gills with new stimuli and many new lessons. The only way I can tell that I'm making progress is by looking at the short length of time I've been exposed to Gabon, and even though I'm not thinking in French, people apparently think I know enough to confound me with wildly rattled off conversations. perhaps my knowledge of the basics is good enough to merit that unexpected jump to the complex. Still, keeping my head clear, my ears open, and my french at my tounge all the time, now especially with the home-stays (which is truly like throwing the baby in the deep in of the pool) I am exhausted all the time and my emotions tend to sag at the edges. Not enough, though, to even come close to breaking me.
And please tell everyone that I think about them all the time, and starting in a couple months will be able to write much more. At the moment I'm in the host family's home. Both Pamphille and I overslept from a nap and missed going out today. Hooray! Take that sleep where you can get it. It's Sunday, so nothing went on today much. Part of the morning i was at Lycee Leon, my other home at the Peace Corps base, and I was talking to another construction volunteer who is having some problems adjusting. Telling somebody that it's only bad for another 2 months has a hollow ring to it. I hope he knuckles it out, and I hope I can help him do it, because in supporting another you forget your own fears. That's another problem with homestays. As you remember in France when I was there, if an exchange student shuts himself away, the host family may simply turn him off as well, which is what I believe has happened in a couple of cases. Even wild me, who has some French, the frustrations of communicating are so that too many snags in a conversation can result in an uncomfortable silence and an unresolved situation. All of which point to the need exactly of homestays. We will be alone, speaking French, and will have to communicate on some basic, concrete level. However for some who are unaccustomed to such a culture shock, or who have not known French before, perhaps taking them out of the security of the group so soon was not the ebst idea. Besides, living in barracks quarters with half men/half women was delightful, and made for many opportunities for joking around and flirting. Falling in lvoe would be a hopeless and completely frustrating thing to happen right now, but if there was any chance at all of doing so, I know the girl I'd fall for. But enough about that.
Before I send this, I'm going to give you a saga of free association observations, sights/smells that I've encountered here. I have been nowhere yet (not until next monday) but Libreville. Libreville is the third world. My letters must be vague.....
(EDITOR"S NOTE: At this point the copy of the letter I was given get's cut off, for about 6 or 7 words, all of which appear to be the same sentence. As best as I can tell Leslie is describing the public taxi's in Libreville. It continues as follows.)
....service, which we must use in order to get around, is abundant, invariably red and white, breakneck, and quite inexpensive (if it is before 6 and you bargain for the price before you get in.) I think morns will improve markedly when we enter the interior, where I hope to find more true Gabonese culture, rather than the Gabon, French, American mish-mash of the city. For everyone's information, right now the temperature hovers between 80° - 90°, with a lot of humidty, so it's not unlike home at all, weather wise, although I notice that the moment I begin to drink a hot-beverage, like cocoa or tea, my bent equilibruim is topped and I begin to sweat. People may speak a simple sentence to me, but there is so much noise: cars with little or no exhaust, people yelling and talking in loud voices, jet airplanes, roosters, dogs fighting, that I invariably ask for a repetition, another factor that makes things frustrating.
In case you're concerned, I'm eating very well, although perhaps not what would be your first choice in cuisine. Variety is limited, consisting mainly of rice, green salad, usually a meat or some fish stew (watch those bones, they're bastards!) and lately one or two types of manioc, a root vegetable that at it's best tastes like dry potato or sweet potato, and at, well, not best is inedible at the moment (and I've met locals who won't touch it.) French bread is omnipresent, adn water is de riguer as a beverage, although we sometimes have soda with dinnger here at my house. Now that I've made such good friends amongst the other volunteers, I am loath to leave them at the end of the day. We've known each other only a week and a half, but it's been so intense I feel I'mbeing separated from family. The Peace Corps is hard, make no mistake. I'm amazed at the things I miss, but I keep an eye to the future, to the Leslie to come. I don't want to burn out and I think the only way to keep from doing that is to look at the things you don't like; the dragons in the world, the poverty, imbalance, and ignorance everywhere in the world, and strike at it. Everyday you learn something that will enable you to help another strike at the dragon and train others who, in time, will change the world. Change is slow... but it is, in the end, inevitable.
Nothing works quite right here. The clock on the wall has a second hand which races down one side 3 seconds at a time, and creeps and abckslides up the otherside.
Hey mom. It's 10 PM, (22 hours) and I've just come back from making a long circuit around my little city here with my brother Pamphile to meet the rest of the family. Met a lot of people, drank a beer, drank a coke, watched a Michael Jackson video (Pamphile's very into Michael Jackson), watched two geckos on the wall go after flies. Most of Pamhile's relatives live on land owned by his father, now deceased.
Never get drunk in Libreville, because the sidewalks are uneven, if there are any, and the usually concist of concrete blocks laid across an open....er....drainage channel. Walking at night is hairy on the street, but back in the quartiers it's like the jungle took everything back. Huge roots bisect rotting masonry slabs, stairs lead to nowhere, it's preety damn cool.
I'm absolutely dogged, but I want to finish this letter with two things, only oe of which I can remember at the moment. You know those shoes you made me buy in Evansville? Well, I've been wearing them every day since I left D.C. Love `em! And I love you. I'll send another letter as soon as I can.
Please give my love to everyone.
Happy Bastille Day!
July 31, 1996 - To Jeff Jenkins
Just a quick note to ya `cuz a guy quit here and is going to mail this when he gets home.
I have no time to write, fowd or nothing. (EDITOR'S NOTE: I have no idea what "fowd" is supposed to mean.... perhaps it's some kind of gabonese word or something.....) Only studying and drinking are allowed here. Details many details, later. I'll have tons of time in a couple of months when I get my post.
Hope things are going well for you. Still with Kim? Hope so. Bike doing good? Are you going to go to the rally with Tom?
I have so much to tell you. You have to write and ask questions so I'll know where to start. Keep my letters because right now they're my only journal as well.
Remember, you are my porcine beauty and I think about you late at night when I feel that special way. (EDITOR'S NOTE: That's a joke of course....)
I'll write again soon.
Your buddy, pal, and copain'.
P.S. I can speak French! Sort of.
Hi mom. Sent your 2nd letter this morning.
As you can probably tell, my letters to you are more or less my journal for now. It's midnight and I won't get enough sleep tonight, because Pamphile wanted me to go with him to visit his friends. It's great doing the exchange student/host family thing, and equally great doing the Peace Corps thing, but together they wipe me out. All right, remind me tomorrow to tell you of crappy ubiquitous white plastic chairs, beaucoup de poulet pour diner tout les jours, and Pamphile and his friends heated dsicussion on whether or not Michael Jackson is a pervert. Also I'll finally tell you about this girl who has taken my fancy. Good night for now.
8pm, 17 July 96
President of France Jacques Chirac is in Gabon today, in Libreville, and the city is on it's ear: There are so many cars, so many various soldiers, gend'arms and armored vehicles, oh, and closed roads it was nearly impossible to get home tonight. But I did just fine. As usual, I'm dead, dead, tired, and it affects my ability to cope with the situation, exhaustion depression and all you knowm but as long as I know that, it's bearable.
Phew. It's morning two days hence. I've got a couple of minutes before French class. These letters take forever. There is no time to write. -- Like I said, no time to write between classes, time-wasting psychobabble sessions, and visiting and plodding through simple conversations with my host family. When I do have a little time with my fellow volunteers, I like to visit with them and swap war stories. Now I'm writing during a class that I'm compelled to attend, the Gabonese Educational System, but has nothing to do with me or my job. It's interesting, yes, but it's a waste of precious-precious time.
Anyway, wanna know what I had for dinner last night? I ate African, big time. Gazelle meat, (uiande de brousse, or bush meat), avacado, fish stew with bones, scales, head and tail, and manioc Manioc is a root vegetable that I think I mentioned in a previous letter. In a strong enough sauce (Gazelle, which is very gamey tasting; with hot peppers) manioc is edible, and not too bad. I won't starve. Actually, Clarice wants me to take a picture of myself close to when I leave their house, so my family in America can see how fat she's made me.
Average day for me: I get up, believe it or not, at 6 A.M., brush my teeth, wash my face, and leave my house. I lock the door behind me, throw the key back through the window, and close the window. Then I went through my neighborhood toward the taxi stop on the main street. My enighborhood is lower middle class, I think, which is much different from what you recognize from the states. The streets are in extreme disrepair, with deep, huge potholes, which are, even in the dry season, inexplicably filled with water. I pass a butcher/meat roaster, at work early in the morning, and closer to my shop, there is a beautiful catholic church, with no glass, but wooden louvered windows. Chickens and dogs abound around the streets, along with inumerable yellow budgie-like birds. At my taxi stop, I usually have to ask 2 or 3 taxis before I find one going my way. it's kind of like paying to hitchhike....
(EDITOR"S NOTE: At this point the copy of the letter I have get's cut off by the xerox machine and Begins on the next page.)
....first to `Poste en ville', the central Post Office, where I'd try to catch a ride to the Lycee Leon M'lon where my classes are. Unfortunately, very few taxis go there from the poste, so day before yesterday I ahd to walk to school, about 2 and a half miles, I think, and got to the class right on time, but missed breakfast. I got some answers that day, and now I can leave my house by 6:30 - 6:45, and ask two or three taxis, get one going to `Jeanne Ebori', the hospital, adn then get another taxi on to the school. It's worked for two days so far, so keep your fingers crossed.
Hi! I'm Katherine, a health volunteer here in gabon! Just thought I'd send a quick greeting & an assurance that everything is fine here... I think we're going to have a great time. : )
That was Katherine Parris, the girl I would've fallen in love with by now if such things were possible. Assurances that they decidedly are not, as I have to break many rules if I want to stay out and spend time with my friends at night. I am very popular, both with the volunteers and trainees, and with the host country national launguage trainees, and I brown-nose well with the higer-up so I'm not in any danger.
Here, let me finish this letter. It's saturday afternoon, and I'm sitting outside my host family's house, because the door is locked and I'm not sure whether they've left or are taking naps. It's a good opportunity to write. I've decided to spend the weekend here, to the disapointment of both my friends and myself. I need to stay here, because it's not fair to treat the Koumba's as a hotel. Even though this was not my choice, I'm here and they are good people, and I want to honor them and let them know I appreciate what they are doing. It's hard. though, as my french reaches it's limits within seconds of the start of a conversation. I'm still tired but, hey, I knew that when I signed up. This job constantly pushes the envelope and requires lots of energy, physical and especially mental and emotional. But you know that. Instead I'll tell you that Libreville is the 3rd most expensive city in the world to live, and that's a relief to know, as I'm broke. Luckily payday's monday and I learned some important lessons about what not to do. Couple of days ago, some of the volunteers, another trainee, Alex (a good friend) and myselfwent out to a French ex-patriate bar in town. Rich french kids, in Gabon with their oil company parents, or else in the military, hang out there. Expensive is a mild term. It was outrageous by American standards! 1 hour playing pool cost between 4 of us 6,000 francs (12 dollars!) Still, it was a surreal experience, stepping out of Gabon and into europe for a night, and a good time, drinking something other than Re'gab (Corona beer, with lime that night!) for a change.
I'm sure you know about the plane crash. I heard about it 2 days ago (today's the 20'th) but am only getting details slowly. By the time you get this, you and me both will know if it was deliberate. Worry not, everything's dandy here. Oh, I'm inside now - Pamphille woke up. Slowly my french is improving. I'm probably sharper now with it than I've (EDITOR'S NOTE: All of a sudden in the middle of the sentence the handwriting changes to the neat meticulous cursive handwriting of a young girl, writing only one word;) -- NDOMBI -- Mama, c'est le nom de ma petite soeur. My little sister says "hi". Anyway, I'm preety damn sharp with the frog-talk. Gettin' better all the time. Miss you terribly of course. Don't dream about home every night. Mostly dream about work here, which leaves me exhausted when I wake up. Once in a while though, I dream about home, and that's the hardest thing to deal with. I am happy though, and this is the greatest step your son has ever taken. Even if sometimes it isn't the most glamourous, if I can get through this I can do anything! All my love and please tell Dot and Amy that I got their letters and will write as soon as I can.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: The letter ends here. There is a goodbye at the bottom of the page but is unreadable on my copy.)
Mom! I got 2 letters from you today, plus one right before I left for Tciibonga. Thak you thank you thank you. In answer to your questions of July 13; yes, boring day to day stuff from home is so wonderful, it brings me to tears! I love it! More, please! Tell everyone that they don't need to send earth-shattering news, just anything is wonderful. Second; YES, please ask Dan to tape Red Dwarf. That would be fantastic to come back and find waiting!
It's monday afternoon. Nope, now it's tuesday morning, the 30th. I was so tired last night when I went home, all I could do was sleep, although another of Appolinoire's brothers, Jean-Pierre, a civil engineer, felt it necessary to ask me a thousand questions first, and correct my french on all of them. ECK! I'm waiting to begin my french lesson, and I've got so much to tell you about the past few days. To begin with, thursday morning around 7am the constructors, Rod - a volunteer, Mirielle - a french teacher, Jeremy - another volunteer, and a hanger-on for the ride, ten people in all, piled into a land cruiser, en route to Tchibonga down south, way south of the equator! For the first 3 hours the road was smooth, over the equator, past this dead guy in the road (no kidding! But it wasn't particulary dramatic, no mob hit or political assasination, just a drunk guy who wandered into the road and apparently, got his head run over.) Weird sight, but after the uncomfortable silence in the car, we all realized it's just par for the course in this world. Stuff you only hear about happens just as often in the states. Particularly in Scott's neighborhood.
Appolinoire has wished you well, as I'm writing at the dining table in the house. Tomorrow night he's invited all the construction volunteers to come over for a small party. Coincidentally, there's another party later on with all the volunteers. It's gonna be a rough night, but hey.... I can handle it. Imagine, my host family has invited all my friends over. Isn't that wonderful? They're very good to me, and here I'm truly part of the family. I got lucky. Speaking of volunteers, you may be getting this letter sooner than my others, as it will hopefully be mailed in the states by one of the two volunteers in our training group who has dropped out. The second construction volunteer, and a health volunteer, have decided, for personal reasons which I don't entirely understand, but respect nonetheless, to ditch service and tuck tail for home. Good thing they didn't join the army!
Gotta say, when I first talked to them the night before they left for a hostel closer to the Peace Corps office, the hopes and expectations they had on returning home were seductive. I found myself yearning for my life back home, then I snapped out of it and realized what kind of trap that was, that they had allready fallen into. Thoughts of home prey upon your insecurities and weaknesses. They make you see your life then through rose colored glasses. Kevin, the construction volunteer, once he had reached this point, refused to find joy in anything here, not even the marvelous trip we had to the interior! Therefore, I re-comitted myself to this job, and this experience. I am here, by the grace of god, where I am needed, where I can touch people, do good, make a difference. Things that I can do because I am here, and I am strong enough. Truth be told, in realizing, little by little, that I really am the right man for the job.
Again, tell everyone that I have very little time to write right now, but please send me letters, and I'll write soon, because at post I'll slowly get into a rhythm that promises lots of time to read, write, and be bored. So, keep `em comin.
I have a small request: My watch is fine, but I fear for it's life here. Also, I have no alarm clock except the one lent to me by my friend Katherine Parris. What I need is a TIMEX EXPEDITION watch. They've got both analong and digital, and I need the digital. They're cheap, only about 25 bucks, but they're impressivley tough, have an alarm clock, and are unobtrusive. If you could send me one I'd be grateful. Pack it in a padded envelope or something and label it 'Educational Materials' or something boring like that. There's always the chance that someone'll go through it otherwise. Send it to the same address, in Libreville, and there shouldn't be any trouble.
Have you heard from Jeff? Is he keeping up on his payments now that I'm not there? I'm sure he is. Please give him my love. Dan, as well. I think anout them both, as well as all my friends, daily. And I think of you constantly. You have all my good wishes. I too have made a pact with god. If he takes care of you, I will be the hardest and best worker I know how to be.
Geez, I ran our of room and still haven't talked about my trip! Too much to say, too little time. Suffice to say, I HAVE SEEN THE PROMISED LAND! I'm gonna love this job!
Your lil garcon, Leslie
PS: I'm enclosing my address list for safe keeping.
I'm very behind on letters now. Thursday or friday, I forget, I brought two letters and a parcel of insoles from you, two letters from Jeff, and a letter from Brian Daubrey. I will write when I can. My stage here is winding up, it's monday morning, and friday morning we (the construction volunteers and I) leave for Dyene in the far north of the country. There are only 5 of us left now: three adults (40's), Larry, who's going to be coming back here to work the bureau (office) end of things, Leone, a successfull architect who put her practice in Rhode Island on hold to come here, and J.J., a contractor from Arizona. J.J. and I could have had a lot of fun, but his delight is in recounting stories of his wild years, not reliving them. To round out this group, we have Steven, a fresh out of college architect student. Although he's closer in age, his life experiences still have him at the idealistic stage, and his sudden switches between complaining and reading me because I'm complaining will not allow us to share any common wavelength for long. In other words, the best friends I have made so far, I'm again leaving behind me. Sure is a trial by fire. As much as I want to be self reliant, the connections I make with other people make or break me. This is why I have no time right now. I feel like I did before I left for the Peace Corps, wanting to draw out the time I have with the friends I've made.
On a more positive note, construction move to Oyeeme marks the beginning of technical training, the next step closer to actually starting my job.
Hello - Leslie's mother - from Gabon. Your son is doing fine, except for that oozing wound - nah - really tomorrow they leave for Oyeeme. I am sure that they will have a better time there... a nice change. I am here to sell condoms to Gabonsese people - What a job, huh? Imagine that the US Government subsidies a condom sales programme in Africa?! Well, Leslie is fine & we will miss him... Take care - A.
That was Allison, another buddy o'mine. Today's the day we're leaving, and I have no time with packing and all, so I've got ghost writers.
(EDITOR'S NOTE:From now on till the end of the letter Leslie has friends and co-workers write short notes to his mother.)
And I am Gobe! How are you? Leslie leaves tomorrow and that is lame. People eat many cow parts here that we don't eat in the US. Leslie is not sick, don't worry.
Hi mom! This is Leigh Ann, one of Leslie's biggest fans. He's a little triste right now since he has to leave us all for his adventure up north, but otherwise he's coping well - esp. for a guy w/a heart bigger than the African continent. Hope the US is still there.
Hello Mrs Sheppard. I'm Ken Hahn, one of the other Peace Corps volunteers in the education program. Leslie is watching out for us all down here, hope to meet you someday.
Hi again Mrs Sheppard.
Mrs Sheppard - I am going through a tres difficile time (language, sex, food - you know the usual) & Leslie has been great. He's a wonderful man, n'est pas?
Hi Mrs Leslie - Mom: Your son leaves us tomorrow - I feel lucky to have met him - you must be a great woman, him being your son & all. - Tabatha
Salut! Mrs Sheppard I'm sure Leslie has filled you in on the details of our Peace Corps experience so far. Leslie has been a wonderful, cheerful, funny, caring, and all around great addition to that experience. I'm going to miss seeing his smiling face, as I'm sure you do, during the rest of our training - but hopefully I'll see him more during actual service. I'd love to meet you too if you ever visit because I'm sure you must be as nice as Leslie! Sincerely, Michelle
Bonjour! - La mere de Leslie,
Leslie has picked up right where he left off, back home in Alabamma with plenty of laughs, emotional support, caring and a wonderful sense of humor that will be missed by all as he leaves for Tyien. He is truly one of a kind and irreplaceable. I hope I have the opportunity to meet you back in the states.
Dear Leslie's mom, Your son is a stud - Megan
I love you son. i love him. He loves me. I want to have his babies. Dave
Leslie is a nice guy. His dear friend (unreadable signature)
Hi - I have had a chance to meet your son, Leslie, and he's nice. In fact, we talked one day and realized that we have a mutual friend, the Meglis, Evaratt's, Akrabawis, Evansville (undreadable.) Deb has...a good friend of...about these years...the bitch....(unreadable)
Hey there - I think you should photocopy this and sent it back to Leslie sometime. Anyhow, your son has been verys upportive for all of us, both in humor reserves and emotional reserves. He, like all of us, is finding strength within and strength from from family and friend both here and at home. He is safe in our family for now. Tracy
Mother of Leslie
What have you done to this world? - Darran
Hi mom, I miss you. leslie's quite a funny guy. Send him lots of kool-aid and other goodies often. Packages are the source of all happiness.
Hi, Leslie's mom, ca va! You did good, raising him. he's a very, very nice guy. Everyone lvoes him here, but then again they think he's Jesus Christ! You should be proud of him, I'm sure you are! - Christine
Hi! Leslie's mom - No parasites yet! Terri
Bonjeur - Leslie sure is swell and we're gonna miss him `round these parts. Renee'
Great job - Mom, he's quite a guy and I'm glad he's aprt of our construction team. I'll write more later. Leone
Hey mom. I'm the training director - in effect, his acting mother in Gabon. Be proud. he's doing well. He's going to make a great volunteer - sensitive, caring, and yes - wild & crazy. Don't worry about him - he's fitting in well.
Well, that's some of the company I've been keeping. Worry not for me.
All my love, as always, to you, les amimaux, and my richest of all possessions, my friend.
Sept. 1, 1996
Never Complain. That's when god shows you how good you had it by making things worse. The constructeurs: Moi, Leone Nell Smets, J.J. Herrman, Steven Jallad, and Larry Fleming have made the break from the other poor saps in Libreville with their sissy electric light and running water, and are now up in a village 15 kilometers from Bitam, one of the northern-most points in Gabon. This is the home of the Fang, the largest and (politically correct speaking) most agressive ethnic group in Gabon. Historically, they swept down from the north and took over most of what is now N. Gabon, and still have their fingers in lots of pies. Being as far north as we are, too, presents unique problems. For one, the Fang are a proud people and speak their own language, although most still know a 2nd language as well. Trouble is, alot of folk come down from Equatorial Guinea, so their second language isn't French, it's SPANISH! Therefore communication is retarded, to say the least.
I'm also discovering that I am the construction volunteer I would have voted least likely to succeed. J.J.'s been in the construction biz for in-the-teens of years, Larry in the supervisory aspect of construction, and Leone and Steven are architects (her a practicing, muy successful architect, him a VERY recent graduate). I'm a jack of all trades, part-time tattoo artist who works on bikes in his spare time! Excuse me, but....what the fuck? Seems I am muy underqualified for this, providing me with an almost limitless source of anxiety. Those of you who think it's a blast over here, let me tell you, hell is everywhere, heaven's where you make it. I dream nightly of the idyllic life I left behind and all my friends. Another life lesson, if your dealing with people look no further than next door, because folks don't change anywhere in the world. There's nice folks, and there are pricks, in every flavor, financial category, linguistic group, and job, in the whole world (thus that I have seen). Sure I see some exotic stuff, but the major emphasis of this job is to impart new knowledge to hayseeds whose lingo you (and they for the most part) can't speak! Right now everything I think is colored by a semi-burned out state I exist in for stage (stahj'), our basic training program. Physical work is hard and heavy, and I don't know what I'm doing, and I don't know the language I'm doing it in, and all our time is regimented, and we are, for the moment, not free citizens any longer. It's a situation to survive, merely, the object of which is to get out to your post, establish a mailing address, get some workers together, SLOWLY figure out what the hells going on, and then sit back and write all those letters you've been promising everybody. By the way, mail didn't get to us for our first two weeks here, and morale dropped like the brow of a villager seeing 4 white guys in a pickup truck. So please, keep em coming! Thank you so much for news from home. I feel like I'm still a part of everyone's life because of them. I thought letters would depress me and make me think of home too much, but that's exactly what NO letter does!
Jeff, I would love it if you put my address on your bulletin board. I will try to answer everybody, just give me some time. Once I'm settled in, I've been promised by everyone that I'll have all the time I need to write letters.
Random observations. People don't have personal cars around here at all. Just another reason why we are so bizarre. The accepted mode of transportation `en brousse' (in the sticks) is an `occasion', the only traffic on these back roads, which is basically a little Japanese pick-up, with hoops on the back for a canvas top and about, and I'm not exaggerating, 12-15 people in the back, not including the 3 or 4 in the cab. Of course, there's usually baggage, bunches of bananas, barrels of water, you name it, as well. In rainy weather, when the clay roads are slick as snake snot (tried to teach the Gabonese that expression) everyone has to get out and walk so the occasion can get to the top of the hill, then it waits and everyone climbs back on. But it works, and that is the way to go for travelling overland in this country.
Let's see, what else? Used half my free time yesterday, and a good chunk today, trying to get the generator back up and running. It was good to get back to mechanics and apparently I looked like I was doing enough that everyone was very supportive and confident of my abilities, until the actual stage mechanic came back, made me put everything back together, took it all apart again, didn't even ask me for even an opinion, and three hours later drove out to Oyem, two hours away, with the generator in the back of the truck. Ha ha! (smug, self satisfied laugh)
At this point I want to give a special thank you/apology combination to everyone who has written that I haven't written back yet. Give me time and I promise you personalized dirt. Mom, Jeff, Dan, Byron, Amy, Aunt Dot, and Mary Archer, oh yeah, and Chris too, thanks so much for your letters. They mean more than you know. Jeff, write all you want, no news from home is boring. Dan, your line about some girl your sistier bought a car from being a rich sorority type, but not a "sucks to be Julie" kind of girl. Well, now I've met both Julie and Julia!
'Course that story will have to wait til tonight when I write more, because now this 2 and a half week letter is going home. Douglas (our stage elader) is going to Oyem and will mail this.
Love to all. I'll write more tonight and hopefully have it off by this weekend.
All my love, mom, and keep a good heart, you've got good people there.
Another day almost past. I mailed a letter to Jeff this morning, meant for the general populus at some point. God this is frustrating. Besides the little "wunderkind", we've got experts in this stage. This means we've got opinions, at least four of them, for every single itty bitty operation we try. Today, after the flood that came racing towards the stage house, that JJ and I kept from swamping the kitchen, we're trying to build a simple diversion to redirect the water around the house. JJ and I were simply going to go ahead and do it, but out plans were obviously not complex enough, and once our resident architect got involved, the engineering grew to staggering proportions. Therefore I'm writing a letter instead. Funny how the old saying translates: Too many cooks spoil the soup. Here it's "Too many "Chefs" (name for the boss) spoil every blessed thing. I can't wait 'till this intermiable stage is over, and I can try to exercise my brain and not have all my ideas dismissed, labeled as "Oh no, we should .... instead." I concede that my experience level is not where their's is, but it's no reason to treat my input with casual disdain.
Jeez, I'm sorry. I guess I'm the one who's bitter. I think back to my last letter, berating those who try to make changes in things they don't fully understand, and I realize I am berating myself. These people are scared, worried, excited, anxious: everything I am as well and thier reactions to this situation should not be judged by me, anymore than I would want them to judge me. It's easy to write this, and think it. but it's awfully hard to live it. When I'm unhappy and these folks are bothering me, it's so simple to write them off as pains in the ass that I want to go away. I suppose I still wouldn't want to hang out with them for too long, but they're good people, who are trying to do a difficult, I guess you'd say, job, just like me.
Alright, enough whining. I miss you so much (all of you can take this statement as gospel) that I can hardley put it into words. I know life goes on in the states while I'm gone, but please try to behave when I come back, or I'll regret ever having left.
Is it allowed to just not get along with someone? The annoying trainee from the last letter is back. Everyone is outside talking, and I'm in the house. Fortunately with electrical light from the generator at the moment. I try so hard to get along with him, but he's so unconscious of the stuff he says whereas I'm painfully conscious of the stuff I'm not saying, either to him, or in general that he, alone of everyone else, has proven he is incapable of understanding as of yet. Perhaps we are obliged to wade through the teeming masses of unpleasant people we encounter every day, in order to better appreciate those whom we truly connect with.
Only 2 1/2 weeks left. Jesus, is this ever long. So, how's things at home? Funny how enticing the idea of sunday crosswords, microwave popcorn, and PBS british sitcoms, is to me, although I vaguely remember dreaming then of life being more exciting. I guess this would count as that. By the way mom, thanks tons for the crossword puzzles. They're keeping that part of my brain entertained, and I imagine working the ones you've put answers in already with you, clucking my tounge at the wrong ones you've written in, imagineing you clucking your tounge at the wrong ones I write.
I'm sitting in a Peace Corps truck in Bitam, the closest town to the chantier. Condor, the stage mechanic, logisitcs man, etc is evaluating my driving under the guise of running errands. Our last stop was at the dreaded post office, where I got into a yelling match, in french, with the jaded civil servant behind the stamp desk. No nice pre-printed envelopes this time, so I'll have to glue all my old ones together, paste 300f worth of stamps on 'em (250f if THEY provide.... [EDITOR'S NOTE: At this point the xerox copy of this letter get's cut off.]
I can send letters now. I haven't recieved any mail now in a week and a half, because we're still stuck in limbo-land up here. I don't think anything gets lost, it just wanders a while before I see it. I hope you're getting these letters from me.
Condor's doing something here at the local hospital. I think he's making me pay for making him wait in the car last time.
OK Here's the big news, and I hope it doesn't change after I tell you. J.J., the old biker type constructor in our stage group, is going do remain on this chantier in order to mop it up. 2 rooms and an office will have to be finished in the school, one teacher's house needed to be completed, and another, built by this inimatable English teacher turned frustrated Construction volunteer, is badly in need of repair. Besides allowing him to know his place in the universe, rather than being at loose ends not knowing his next post, J.J. already knows the workers here, and is hoping to get his french, which is rather lacking at the moment, up to par. So what does this have to do with me? I like J.J.'s way of working, his laid-back philosophy, in short, we get along preety well. He also has 15+ years of construction experience under his belt, whereas I have preety much none. I -DO- however, have a preety good command of the local 'langue do frog'. Therefore we came up with the idea of us both staying here, me teaching him french, him teaching me technical stuff. We ran this by both big bosses last weekend, and pending any sudden turn abouts, they're in agreement taht this is a good idea, because J.J. is not ready to face the french speaking world alone, and I am finding it difficult to learn anything right now, with everything so chopped up and people falling over one another.
Another added benefit is that the stage site '95 is STILL not finished,
[EDITOR'S NOTE: 2-23-97 There is LOTS more of this letter for me to type up, I found it on my desk under a pile of magazines. Check back later.]
Sept. 19, 1996
If anybody pays heed to my letters, you should be getting some traffic on your web page. I just today wrote Bruce Hatfield, remember the dude with the KILLER music collection in Newburgh, and gave him your WWW address, because the idea of writing everything to everybody all the time is yicky. I love this being accessible, man! Between mom sending copies of my letters around, and you bringing the word to the street, I feel like I'm not leaving people out. This way, general Leslie goings-on can be passed around, and I can write personal stuff to individual buddies, pals, and amours.
So, how's things? It's 7 in the morning, Friday, and we're getting ready to go to war....
...You see that? That's the last thing I wrote before I lent my pen to this new dude Doug Layden, who took over when Condor jetted. 'Ready to go to war...' Fuckin' right that was! Today was a fuckin' nightmare! This stage can burn in hell. Half because I wanna have my life back, half because I know I'm gonna miss folks when they've all scattered to the 4 winds after this. Just like the hero says to the villian in the movies, "Pity, under different circumstances we could've been friends."
OK, whinings over for a minute. Music wish list time.
Don't laugh, I'm serious. I like these guys and they ain't nothin even remotely like 'em here. RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE. I like 'em.
Poh-lice. Rap, esp Disposable Heroes, Spearhead, 3rd Bass, whatcha got that's good?
Geggy Tah. I've been repeatedly singing that wierd song that begins with a sample from the Giddyap song of theirs.
Oh yeah, my Specials tape is dee-ehd. I didn't even get a last listen to it!
Hmm, what else. I know I mentioned stuff already. Oh, by the way, as long as you don't incriminate anybody, or write anything that might come back to haunt me later, you can be preety liberal about what you put in the web site, so people know what's going on. And keep my letters too, they'll make a great.... umm.... something. Well, anyway....
RUSH I think I said allready. Oh yeah, Enigma and stuff like that. it's good to relax to and think of the next time I'll get any.
Hey! Bravo on your bike, bud! You figured out that choke problem right handily I must say. You're going to be a whiz by the time I re-emerge on the scene-a-like a sex machine. HOWWWW! Send me James! (not that fucking lame Brit band either!) Hoo-ah, I could use some funk in my life. The pop music here SUCKS. It's called "ZOOK" and it might be the same crap Chris sent you. It all sounds like itself, and every bar, boutique, night club, what have you plays it way above the capacity of whatever speakers it careens through, and its just distorted and unpleasant. 'Course Joe, our star-crossed cook and my good buddy, listened endlessly to live Grateful Dead tapes, which also have negligible musical value to the uninitiated. I don't think 2 years is gonna be sufficient to 'iniitiate' me to bubble gum crappy pop in any language.
Oh hell yeah! You better be able to free yourself for a chunk when I get back ('course I'll be coming back as it's getting cold. So we might wait a bit, do a few warm up trips first) for the blow out'n'est, worthy of a Homeric epic road trip ever assembled! RAHHHT AHN DUWHD!
(Oh, did I mention I don't have any Beck?)
Should I write another page? Mebbie. If I do it's cuz I can't get this to a P.O., but if not, I'll write again soon, to you or mom.
Sept. 23, 1996
Do you know why I'm here? Because I'm tormented. Because I can be miserable anywhere I go. Soemthing inside me has obviously gotten sick of being scared and lonely and confused, and sent me to the scariest, loneliest, most confusing place it could imagine for me so that I would have to find a paradise here. No, so I WOULD find a paradise here. I think I try too hard. Of everyone here, I've felt like my inner demons were screaming loder than everone else's, scattering my good feelings, and giving resteles nights, full of horrible dreams. But there ARE no inner demons. There's just me, not enjoying my life. What in the world do I have more control over than my own life? It's the one thing I own outright.
Sept. 25, 1996
I'm going through the classic after effects of reading a good book. I finally found a copy of Richard Bach's "Illusions" in my hands, and knowing how much I needed a new way of looking at things at that very moment, I read it right then. Well, what do you know? He's got a very good argument against a lot of what our family holds so sacred: that would be the guilt we constantly inflict upon ourselves, judging ourselves with 300%, no 3000% sharper indictments than the rest of the world would slap us with if they had a problem with us, which they don't! Everybody is [too] wrapped [up] in a horrible cozy coccoon of their own self doubt, and paranoia, etc to notice any but the brightest highlights of anyone else's life. To be specific, I have been having a whole lot of no fun here here so far, and I'll bet a BIG chunk of it is that I've been so worried about what other people think of me: Am I speaking French well enough? If I get tired during work and need to rest, will others think I'm lazy? When I take over here, will the villagers respect me? The answer is.... Maybe! Maybe you're understood, maybe you're not. That's not your problem. If other people don't understand you, TRYING to make them understand you is probably the worst thing you can do. They'll just shake their heads, and you'll frustrate yourself out of havig any semblance of a good time. Polonius was a fool, but he did say, 'To thine own self be true' all those years ago. Seems after all this time of trying to learn self-sacrifice, we've lost the ability to have fun ourselves, so we go around miserable all the time, grumbling, complaining, and not being a hell of a lot of good to anyone. I'm through being miserable here, I'll just go home if I have to be unhappy in a french-speaking, 3rd world country that stares at me all the time. At least back in the states we got TV, sit-down toilets and hot water! Nope. I'm here, and it took a long time to get myself here, and I'll be damned if I let anyone, like me for instance, get in the way of my full-out enjoying these next two fun-filled, adventursome, lots of people to hang out with, years. Nuff said.
This will be my last letter to you as a stagiare, or trainee. Come friday we're off to Oyem to a real motel (beds! hot water! a mirror!) (well, maybe. Nothings for sure here, I'm sure I wrote that before.) We swear in friday night, and after 3 months of INTENSIVE training, we get to be volunteers. I didn't out an exclamation point there, because it's almost a let down. Most people become 'volunteers' simply by raising their hands and saying "I'll clean the erasers, Mrs Crabapple!" Also, volunteers classically get a lot more than they bargain for.
Hi! It's me again. Thursday night now, last night of stage. Doug and I went back to his (soon to be my) house and made tortillas and sauce. The flour was full of weevils, but they're not poisonous, and everyone knows bugs are full of protein! Boy am I full now. J.J.'s having one last conversation with Doug, which for whatever reasons tend to exclude me, so I'm using the time to scribble to you. NEWS FLASH! Remember me saying it was cool to send packages to Bitam? Well, if they come here, depending on the postman, I might have to pay whatever they ask as duty, even though Peace Corps stuff is duty-exempt. Best things is to send it to B.P. 2098, Libreville, like usual. It'll get forwarded to me that way. Please spread the word, as I told several people, including the Hatfields! Yeah, I was thinking of them one day, so I wrote them right then before I forgot. I am tired. I've been designing T-shirts today, besides helping Doug and everyone pack up stuff and get the chantier ready for us to take over. it's going to be wierd to be the BOSS! Yike! Oh well, I have to try it some time.
Friday the 27th of Sept 1996
Here we are in Oyem. The hotel does have hot water, but no knob on the spindle, so it's a challenge. I also had to repair the hose connection at the shower head end so it didn't spray water 90' way from where it was supposed to. I can't believe after all this time, tonight's the first night of our two year service. It seems so long. I don't suppose it helps that I'm sick again. just a little stomach bug, but it's enough to keep me near exhaustion, and has my emotions off balance so that the normal coping mechanisms aren't on-line. Nice way to start my service. Tonight instead of going out and partying with everyone, I'm going to probably go to bed early so as to nip this in the butt, er bud, and have a fresh roll of TP near the sitdown toilet! (no seat though. what did I say? you never know.) It's one of the hardest things I've had to come to grips with: keeping your expectations low or having no expectations at all! Else set yourself up for disappointment,but it's hard not to look forward to something that should be good, and to relish its thought in your mind. Throughout my life I've come to the realization that anticipation is is almost more savory than actual experience! The month of December leading to Christmas, for instance. Here it finding the nicest hotel in town wouldn't pass basic health standards in the states. Here it's finding that work will be longer than expected, occasions (the private bus service - see last letter) are cheap but it's a 2-day! journey from any chantier in the north to Lambarini, where Julia lives, so the likely hood of my seeing her is about.... Well, I just told Larry my theory about 'no expectations', and he said it was very Zen, then proceeded to remind me that if I just take it easy and take things as they come, things'll work out. Rides may appear whenre I least expect em. Knowing this is one thing, remembering it when you already feel lousy is another. I appreciated the reminder. Sure enought, too, best to nail the point home. Leone came by my room to call Larry to his French exam (we all get one today), and in the conversation that ensued following her 'How're you doing, Leslie?" She pinpointed the exact reason for my malady, and why I was feeling crampy! Seems on tuesday, after painting a lot of boards with used motor oil/diesel mix which seals the wood and repels termites, (primitive creosote) i got myself preety covered in it. All I wanted was a good soak in the river to clean up, but I ended up having to drive someone home, got invited to dinner, got poured a drink at another house, and stop two other places before I finally got to wash. Therefore the oil soaked in and I got sick. Now I'm feeling better, and know better too. Boy, do I bitch!
Oh, incidentally, I'm a volunteer! It's 11:00 friday night and I'm penning a last few lines before I sleep. I wore my hair down over my shoulders for swear-in, because that's how I wore it when I spoke at Dad's memorial service. I feel important. Purposeful. in short, the problems seem small, the job big, and the pride bigger. That'll all possibly change tomorrow, when JJ and I return to our ransacked chantier, but now I'm enjoying the glow. Thanks for being proud of me. Good night.
7am, the 28th
Everything's starting to move early this morning. I don't think I'll have the relaxing 2 hours I thought to write a second page, so I'll finish this and start another when I get back to the village. Sorry my letters are schizophrenic. the peaks and vallys really are amazing far from one another right now in my life, and it's suprisingly how little time it takes to travel from one to another.
I'll try to catch up on mail soon, I promise!
Love you all!
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