Alison Graham, Peace Corps Volunteer in Gabon

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By Admin1 (admin) on Tuesday, July 03, 2001 - 9:01 pm: Edit Post

Alison Graham, Peace Corps Volunteer in Gabon

Alison Graham, Peace Corps Volunteer in Gabon

Alison Graham, Peace Corps Volunteer in Gabon

Located on the equatorial coast of Africa, Gabon is a country with a narrow coastal plain, a hilly rainforest interior, and savanna in the south and east. Its population includes more than forty separate tribal groups, each with distinct customs and languages. Gabon is a relatively stable country, with tribal boundaries less sharply drawn than elsewhere in Africa. Gabon's economy depends upon natural resources such as timber, manganese and oil. Today, oil accounts for much of the country's GDP. Gabon's per capita income is four times that of most of sub-Saharan Africa. Although oil has supported a sharp decline in extreme poverty, disparities in income allow a large proportion of the population to remain poor.

One natural resource not abundant in Gabon is food. Traditionally, the people of Gabon have used slash-and-burn techniques to grow food in the rainforest. Slash-and-burn farming is sustainable when the population density is low, as the rainforest will have time - thirty years or more - to recover before people return. But traditional farming cannot support the explosions of population that have occurred in modern times. Today, Gabon imports most of its food.

Gabon's oil prosperity is not permanent. Low market prices have recently caused financial problems, and production itself is expected to deteriorate within a decade. The Gabonese government is seeking to diversify its economy, to streamline and privitize government-owned industries, and to find other means of supporting its people. Locally, people look to the rainforest to provide food. A sustainable agricultural system capable of feeding Gabon's population would benefit both the country and the environment.

Alison's immediate task as a Peace Corps agricultural volunteer is to develop, demonstrate and transmit farming techniques that do not deplete the soil. Alison lives with and works alongside the inhabitants of Cocobeach, creating gardens that demonstrate how native food plants can be grown in a sustainable plot. Such a significant change in farming methods requires many other changes within the farming community. We hope that Alison's presence will help the Gabonese find a path that is beneficial to the whole of their society.

A Letter From Alison Graham

This story begins where the ocean meets the sky on one side and the rain forest on the other. Iím lucky enough to live in this Eden, and to have this tale to spew to you. Welcome to heaven; have a nice day.

A few months ago, as I was lumbering (some call it jogging) along the beach, I met a mama. She was fully clad in a pan and panier. She started flailing her arms and jogging in place. I think she was imitating me. I can only hope it was a bad imitation. "Wa bo dze?" she said. What are you doing? I donít know how to say "lumbering" in Fang, so I said "Ma bo dzom." Iím doing nothing. She asked me where I lived. "Va," I said, pointing toward Cocobeach. She said several things that I didnít understand. Smile and nod, like a good Peace Corps volunteer. After several minutes of smiling and nodding, I got a kink in my neck and my jaw was sore. She was just getting started, by the looks of it, and I didnít want to stick around for Chapter 2. I said, "Ma kaeande." Iím going home. I turned away. She kept flailing about embarrassingly, and jogged with me for a bit. This was unfortunate because I was tired and didnít want to jog anymore, but one must keep up appearances here in the jungle. You know how it is. Anyway, she eventually turned around. "Dzo a dzo," I said. See you next time. I decided that she was a few candles short of a menorah and went on my merry way.

A week later, I was on the same stretch of beach with bare feet and a book by Sidney Sheldon to boost my intellect. (Snarf.) I perched myself on a log and spent an hour reading about varying love sicknesses. Just as I was on the verge of screaming, "Oh Elizabeth! Oh, Reese! Donít you realize that youíre in love with each other?!" the mama walked up to me. Damn. Just when the story was getting good. She said, "Bia ke ande." Weíre going home. "Mmm," I said. Again she said, "Bia ke ande." "Mmmm," I said. It was a fun game. Then she said it again, pointing at me as she said it. "Bia ke ande. Bia ke ande." I finally understood that the "we" included me. Now whoís short a few candles? Even though I didnít want to leave Elizabeth and Reese, the mama was so inspiringly persistent I hopped off the log and started to follow her. "Yaaa," she said. Must be her ancient Swedish ancestry! We walked to her house, flanked by two of her grandchildren, Lebora and Bobby.

To make a long story longer, we talked for a while with Lebora as the translator. The womanís name is Mama Marguerite and she doesnít plan to buy cuttings. She has seven grandchildren, gray hair, and one spoon. She cooked up a storm, I got the sppon, and pretty soon we were eating orgasmatron gari with sauce and some bones that smelled like fish. I spent another hour there cleaning manioc, then I had to leave. The tide was coming in, you see, and the beach was waning. I waded away as I waved good-bye. And thus a friendship was born, full of words neither of us could understand, and smiles and nods that both of us could.

I began visiting Marguerite whenever I was down that way. Just as things were becoming really comfie, I left for vacation for a month. In a lot of ways, I didnít want to go. My life in Cocobeach is too sweet to warrant a vacation. But the tickets were already bought, and the check was in the mail. Which leads me to my favorite part of the story.

I went for a beach jog today for the first time since Iíve been back. I stopped to chat with two men whoíd just come in from fishing, and with a flock of kids out crab-catching. "Attention-oh, ca pique!", I said. Look out for the claws! Lucky for them I was there to remind them. They were seconds away from falling victim to yet another freak piquing accident. Sigh. Anyhow, as I got close to Margueriteís house, two tiny black bodies ran onto the sand and started flailing their arms and jumping up and down. Genes are funny like that. They werenít imitating me, however. They were jumping, clapping, smiling, and screaming "Ali! Ali!". I smiled so hard that my jaw got sore again, but this time it was a poignant pain. One of the emotional floods containing surprise, joy at existence, pain at the knowledge that we all C.O.S., sadness at the suspicion that some people will never experience something so wonderful, and a selfish elation that those children were honestly thrilled to see me, not so líil, ole lumbering me.

Hereís where I get philosophical, so fasten your mental seatbelt. I didnít, which may explain the bump on my head. Who knew? Anyway, Iíve done a lot of soul-searching here in Gabon, as we peace Corps volunteers do. I have a lot of questions. Why do we have such a need to be told that weíre wonderful? Why isnít the knowledge enough, all by itself? Why do we focus on our negative aspects and sweep the good points away with the dust-bunnies?

Why is a sunset so hard to explain? Why does Pito wear tap shoes? Why donít I? Why do I wish Iíd gotten letters from those who havenít written, even though theyíre the people that I donít need to hear from because our hearts already are bound by steel? How close will anyone come to perfection? Why do I recoil when I could be reaching out? Will I ever find my Mr. Right? Does he have a face? Do I? What in the sam-hell is the frigginí meaning of life? And what is that suspicious red bump on my face? And the list goes on and on, similar to drunk papas with too much time and too much wine. Iíll spare you, which gives me one up on the papas.

I have come up with an answer or two. (You can take your seatbelt off; the turbulence is over.) Iíve decided that tomatoes arenít the only things that need watering to grow. We need watering to grow too (metaphorically, at least). I havenít figured out why that is, but screw it. Iíve also decided that Pito wears tap shoes because he likes them, and that I donít because I donít, and thatís fine. The meaning of life is, of course, 42. As for the red bump on my arm, well, it can stay so long as it doesnít start itching. Also, if it were to start demanding parmesan cheese, Iíd be forced to bust out the hydrocortisone. But thatís another story. In closing, Iím just happy to discover that life can be something to escape to rather than from. Iím still reading Sidney Sheldon, but itís purely education.

In closing (I mean it this time) we all go through a lot of crap while weíre here. It seems unhelpful to compare tales of woe without balancing them with tales of wow. Without both of them, you wouldnít feel the extremes of either. I just wanted to share my most recent tale of wow. Sorry to be so wordy. Thatís the news from Lake Woe-be-gone, and thatís Gabon, and me, in a coconut shell.

Alison Graham

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Story Source: Personal Web Page

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



By Jonathan Stilwell ( - on Monday, July 17, 2006 - 3:26 pm: Edit Post

I am interested in volunteering somewhere in Gabon. I am a writer, but I could just as well do anything. Could anyone give me any useful info?


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