Leslie Sheppard left July 2nd, 1996 for Gabon - Africa to serve in the Peace Corps. Here are some of his letters home.

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Leslie Sheppard left July 2nd, 1996 for Gabon - Africa to serve in the Peace Corps. Here are some of his letters home.

Leslie Sheppard left July 2nd, 1996 for Gabon - Africa to serve in the Peace Corps. Here are some of his letters home.

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 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 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"

July 7, 1996
6:30 A.M.

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

Dear Mom.

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!

Love, Leslie

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.)

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