My address in Gabon is: Hannah Koenker, Peace Corps Volunteer

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By Admin1 (admin) on Thursday, July 12, 2001 - 10:28 pm: Edit Post

My address in Gabon is: Hannah Koenker, Peace Corps Volunteer



My address in Gabon is: Hannah Koenker, Peace Corps Volunteer

Letter #1a, July 3, 2001

6-28-01

(Received 7-17-01; transcribed by Mom)

Dear Mom and Dad,

For the first few days, weíre staying at a small hotel on the beach in Libreville. Itís mostly cloudy, but the sun has broken through & shining on the water. The sea is calm but the undertow is strong & there are lots of huge logs strewn in the sand, maybe from a timber ship, since theyíre all the same size & have numbers printed on the ends. There are big leafy beach trees & coconut palms, & a strong cool breeze coming off the water. Earlier today, three dogs were playing on the sand & they were very friendly. Even if they didnít have their shots, they didnít bite anyone.

The trip was pretty arduous Ė we left Philly at noon on Tuesday & drove to JFK, where we unloaded our bags at the wrong terminal. Earlier, because of weather in Tennessee, our tickets and passports were delayed. I think we got them 3 hours before we left. The orientation was good. I think the primary purpose was to get us pumped up for the whole thing & to get to know each other, which it did pretty well. We got $190 for meals and stuff for Philly, the airports, & Paris Ė I only spent around $90. That first day I felt pretty calm but my body was nervous & so I threw up. Iíve been fine since. Havenít had much of an appetite but Iím forcing myself to eat anyway. :)

We got to Paris at 8:30 & some people went into the city to sight see. Nine of us got day rooms & slept, which made a huge difference. The night flight to LBV was fine, but it was hard to sleep. We got in at 5:15 am, got our bags & were shipped off to the hotel. I think three people are missing some luggage but everybody seems to think itíll arrive soon.

The hotel is small & part of it is still just concrete, but there are toilets (no seats) & showers (cold) & we share double beds Ė not the guys, though, thatís sketchy. Tonight is our first night in real beds in 64 hours. There are fans and a/c but right now at 5:30 itís about 70 & perfect. Humid, yeah, but not too bad. Saturday we go to Lambaréné for training ("stage") and itíll be hotter there.

I think I can see Sao Tome on the horizon. There are tons of chirpy birds hre, & Iím trying to tech the two caged African Gray Parrots to say "Peace Corps," but all they do is whistle. There are the same lizards I saw in Mali, & very few mosquitoes. We got more forms to fill out today plus our food and water briefing & general intro from Jean-Luc, the PCMO (Medical Officer). He said in the six years heís been here heís only done one medevac & no oneís gotten malaria whoís taken their Larium. He likes to talk about bugs dancing in your stomach & on your food & got an MA in Tropical Health in the US, so Iím confident he knows whatís up.

These logs are really big Ė Iím sitting up in the bar area that overlooks our strip (10-15 m) of beach, and the logs are each 3 ft. thick & 10-20 feet long. The bar is just like the ones in Mali Ė broken tile mosaic for the floor & picnic tables, & straw roof with tin top. There are 7 kids next door playing a game like dodgeball where a kid in the middle tries to fill up a Coke bottle with sand while his sisters try & bean him.

6-30-01. Saturday. Itís hard to keep track of the days! Yesterday we had some more briefings Ė an introduction to the FARM program and more medical stuff with Jean-Luc. Everybody loves this guy & we are psyched for the upcoming diarrhea, malaria, & filaria talks. Weíve been told how long to boil our water (3 minutes! and you kill all de viruses!) & then to filter it in our huge samovar sized stainless steel & ceramic filters. Weíll get those when we go to our families in Lambaréné. Right now they just keep bringing crates & crates of bottled water. We saw our med kits too Ė theyíre the size of a thick briefcase, all hard plastic, and theyíve got everything.

In Lambaréné tonight weíre staying Ďchez les soeursí at a French mission, and Sunday we meet our families and get our bikes. Some of us will be staying in a village (no water, no electricity) which is 4 k away from town. Iím actually hoping Iíll be there, because I donít want to get spoiled living in town & then get a post with no H2O or current. Better to start off tough & get the hang of it. Yesterday we also went in small groups to get our carte de sejour. In Mali your "papiers" are just that Ė paper with a b & w photo pasted on. But here in Gabon (ok Ė Libreville Ė weíll see who has papiers in the bush) everyone gets really nice laminated cards, with a digital photo printed on it, a bar code, and a shiny hologrammy seal of Gabon on the back. The office of immigration where we got them looks like a DMV Ė a big waiting room with benches, with lots of windows & tellers & form-filler-outers. Thereís even a number system Ė 170 flashes up, with D1 or B3 underneath, and usually the person goes to the right place. There was still some shouting Ė "165! 165!" "Suivez vos numeros! (go according to your numbers!)" and people not knowing which booth to go to, only that their number had been called. We got through quickly, maybe because PC has a good reputation (my interviewer asked which program I was doing. I said health, & she said thatís good Ė Gabon needs you Americans.) Or maybe because Emil, the guy who organized the cartes, knows the right people. I was impressed that things were so calm & people were patient & not crowding up to each window, but I also saw a guy come into my booth, laugh with my interviewer, & offer him 1000 CFA to process his wife/girlfriend/friend a little faster. I still havenít gotten over how nice our cards are Ė nicer than any drivers license Iíve had, for sure.

Today is our last day by the ocean. Everything is hotter inside. Weíre not supposed to take all our stuff to our host families, because itís too intimidating, so Iíve put my stuff into my blue back and my red bag. Makes me wonder what the heck I need the stuff thatís left in my big green backpack for! Itís mostly clothes, camera stuff, film, my blanket and little pillow, can opener, frisbee, pens, etc. Our non-essential bags will be locked up in Lambaréné so we can get at them if we need to.

Yesterday we also took a tour of LBV, on a bus. ALL THE STREETS ARE PAVED!!! Itís hilly, and houses are built into them. We saw the PC office, & were told the PC House (La Case de Passage) is behind líEcole Normale, near the university. We saw the BIG ASS private residence of Pres. Bongo Ė there were at least four houses on a huge hill behind a wall, covering about 3-4 square miles. It was ridiculous. Then we saw the "Presidence" Ė the residence of the President. He gets to live there too. Elections are every seven years Ė the next one is 2005. He always gets elected. We saw our bank, BiCiG (Bee-Cee), and we went by the artisan market, which Ed (the regional leader in Franceville) said had mostly WEST AFRICAN ART & CRAFTS. I really was hoping for some more culture here. Itís very different from Mali. You can see the wealth and the French influence everywhere. There are very few men in boubons, and very few women in traditional tailored outfits. Most people wear loose Western style clothes Ė suits & skirts & blouses. The taxi system seems to be the same but the buses have actual seats, not just benches. And there are a few real buses. Because the roads are paved all the buildings are a lot cleaner too. Traffic stills snarls downtown but there are freeways Avenue Bongo) that go by the major stops Ė Bongo Airport, University Bongo, the ministries, etc.

The nicest thing has been feeling the same euphoria that I felt those first few nights in Mali Ė a sense of being in the right place, that this is where Iím supposed to be, & that a lot of who Iíll become will be built right here. Our trainer, Helen, is awesome, all the staff is awesome, & even our interim ambassador is a good guy, funny and serious and direct. Iím really looking forward to the homestay and getting started on learning the ins and outs of the culture, something that hasnít really been addressed. Unlike in Mali, where Iíd studied stuff and heard explanations from Cherif, and then a very frank briefing from Claire on cultural no noís etc., we havenít had anything here and are mostly expected to Ďpick it up as we go along.

I want to speak Bambara to all these people and I know they wonít understand! Now weíre in Lambaréné chez les Soeurs de líImmaculate Conception. Itís 125 years old and all us girls are in a big dorm room like Madeleine or Annie. The bus ride was 4-1/2 hours, plus 2 hours at the beginning for gas and tire changes. There were lots of log trucks okouné) with trunks 15 feet long and 3 feet thick. Lots of mango trees and banana palms and coconut palms and 3 other palms, and more trees and then lots of brush and vines. It was breezy but got more humid as we got further in. We saw some dead monkeys for sale and small villages, mud or mud-cement or wood plank houses. There were goats and dogs and chickens in yards, people cooking, kids playing or washing, men sitting in the shade and talking, or selling stuff

We were welcomed at the mission by dancing girls! Here, they paint their faces white with flour, and have thick raffia headbands that have tails down their backs like raccoon tails, and then they have raffia (itís like straw) butt-enhancers which they can shake in circles.

Oh! We crossed the equator. There was a sign and we took pictures.

July 3.

So itís the third night in our host families and I have to finish this letter because Nancie is leaving tomorrow and taking our letters to mail in the U.S. Training and homestay are really keeping me busy. Sunday night our families took us home. I live 3 houses down from the PC house and 2 minutes from the school thatís our training site. I have a shower (cold) and a toilet and good food and a nice mama. I LUCKED OUT. I havenít spent any money yet, on taxis or lunch. But I also donít know where anything in town is or how to get there or how much to pay. There are people in the village who are gonna be ready for anything because they have to fend for themselves everyday and here I am begging my mama to let me eat out twice a

Our school is a regular school, all grades, I think. There are 3 buildings around a central area Ė the whole deal is about the same size as a high school track and field area. Itís at the top of the hill in Atongawanga (Ah TONGa-wanga), my neighborhood. You can see my house from the place we have our coffee break Ė itís the next row of houses down the hill. Itís a nice house Ė tile floors, a big living room, 5 bedrooms, gas stove and fridge, where they keep beers to sell to the neighbors. Mamaís a policewoman and her husband is in LBV (heís a principal).

In the school courtyard, which is dirt, thereís a soccer pitch and a small garden of manioc and taro. Manioc is a tall (3-4 feet) weedy-looking plant with skinny leaves and red stems. You pound the leaves to make sauce for rice (itís kind of like dry bitter spinach) and the roots you soak in water for awhile, then pound and shape it into little sticks that look like hearts of palm, but are chewy and sticky and taste fine with tomato sauce. Taro is like potatoes.

Today the uncle came home with a small antelope! Itís about the size of a daschund, pretty cute really, but Iím pysched because itís gonna be a tasty dinner. The first night they fed me porky-pique, which was ok but had a lot of the skin and hair still attached. We eat a lot of fish too Ė carpe et capitaine. Fried is yummiest. Fried chicken, too Ė mmm :). The second night we went into town. Ali, the Libanais across the street, dropped us off in his truck. Virginie, my sister, is trying to get me to get him to take us dancing and out to the bars. Sheís chaud-chaud Ė a mover and shaker. Sheís tons of fun. We had dinner in town at a bar Ė brochettes (shish-kabob) Ė mm! mm! Yummy. They bought me Cokes which made me really burpy, but at least itís not giardia. Giardia makes you stinky burp. We hung out for awhile en famille Ė me, mama, Begonia (sheís 3 and a firecracker), Virginie and Geraldine, her friend. My language prof was there too and so that was fun. I felt really good being there, my family loves me and really appreciates my French ability. They speak Fang and taught me a little, and because theyíre from LBV originally they mix a lot of French in. I think they said that Iím the best trainee theyíve had, but who knows. Plus, itís early. :) After dinner we came back to the neighborhood and stopped at Carrieís house around the corner. They were making brochettes too, and I had a grilled chicken foot (pretty goodómostly skin). We hung out some more and the women started singing and dancing and the men inside the house got mad and shut the door so they could watch soccer. Liz lives across the street from Carrie and she came over with her mom and kids too Ė it was a big block party. Plus, it was Carrieís birthday, so that was nice for her.

My familyís given me a new name Ė Aubonne Ė Nkogué, which is my last name. Aubonne is the last name of mamaís mom and mother in law and her husbandís last name is Nkogué. So now they say that to me all the time, and I respond Eh? which is yes. I keep wanting to say Nse, like in Mali, when people say your last name.

Iím still missing the familiarity of Mali but things are taking shape here slowly. Thereís a Malian family, Ibrahim Doumbia and Kadia Keita, with 2 boys. Iím gonna try to visit them tomorrow maybe.

It looks like itís gonna be a lot of hands on training, going out and doing stuff and practicing health and French skills together to have an idea of how things will work at post. Right now I donít feel like Iíve done much but I have, just being with the family and doing training. Itís 8-5, with 12-2 for lunch. And things are busy in the evening with all the people coming by and dinner to prepare. The cell phone here is 27-14-21; Adéle Mengué is my mama. I think weíre on London time, 1 hour earlier than Paris. Good times to call are 1 pm or between 7 and 8:30 pm here. I think the country code is 00241 or something like that. My health is excellent so far, nothing to really complain about. Itís not hot and the high temp is only 31, maybe up to 34. I guess with humidity it sucks, but I think I can sweat it out, literally.

Well, Iíve been here a week Ė just took my second Larium. So far, so good. I feel like Iím in the right place Ė Tom and I were talking today about enjoying ourselves and wanting to do another tour somewhere else. Weíll see how we feel in two years, though Ė Iím sure things will be different. But itís true that itís sort of seductive Ė PC takes care of everything and gives you all the tools to do your job, and you get to have the experience and see another culture and have that for the rest of your life. I wouldnít be anywhere else right now.

OK everyone, time to sign off. I donít have email but Iíll write each week. Mama says itís cool if you call here but I may not always be here. Just say, "Bonjour, eskuh Anna (Aaanna) ay la?" If Iím around theyíll get me. Mail works well, I think Ė people have been getting letters within 1-3 weeks. Iíll be here till mid-September but that address will work for my 2 years Ė while weíre here people bring our mail when they come in from LBV and afterwards I can pick it up. Send pictures and KoolAid/Gatorade packets for when Mr. Diarrhea comes for me! Send news, even if it seems boring.

Well, thatís the first week! Lots of love to everyone and good wishes. Hereís Nate Stewartís address, which I got from his dad just before I left New York:

Nathan Stewart

Peace Corps

P.O. Box 208

Lilongwe, MALAWI

CENTRAL EAST AFRICA

His and Mikeís shared email is atlanticcanada@hotmail.com Ė he can check it every 6 weeks or so. His dad told me heís in a village of 22 families called Niyka, where the men all work in the forest preserve. Heís having a blast and the village just loves him. Iím sure that those of you that know Nate are not at all surprised. :)

Love,

Hannah




Letter #2, July 13, 2001

July 13, 2001

Lambarene

#2

Dear Mom and Dad,

This week has flown by. Our first weekend wasnít too eventful, except that I felt pretty sick on Saturday and couldnít go out dancing. Sunday was great Ė I did nothing :). And because I wasnít feeling well, I didnít have to do my laundry myself!

Overall Iím pretty healthy, and Iím eating better now that my family understands that I need veggies and chicken sometimes. The weather is perfect Ė 70, breezy, cloudy. My aunties (I think theyíre sisters Ė theyíre the same size and shape and have the same hairdo) came over last night with down coats on! I guess itís unseasonably chilly, so Iím trying to enjoy it while it lasts. During the rainy season the walls sweat from the heat.

Iím keeping culture shock at bay, for now, except for my constant disappointment with alcohol abuse here. Itís everywhere. My mama and her friends (my aunties) gather every evening on our porch and drink steadily until bedtime (11:00). The other day I got up and they were having beer for breakfast. Drunkenness is just accepted and tolerated. Itís not like my mamas are getting tanked every night (and Iím sure they donít see it that way) but they are alcoholics. Other families are similar Ė Jim and Nateís dad is your classic drnk, and there were fights and stuff at their house, so theyíve changed families. The only thing I really canít stand chez moi is the way Begonia is spoiled. I mean, I thought Moustaf was bad but Begonia is far worse. Her mom canít say no to her Ė last night we went out to dinner and there were cups of fruit salad for dessert. I got one and Begonia started demanding some. Then her mom got her a whole one, which she ate part of then just played with and spilled everywhere. Then her mom got one for herself. Begonia started whining because she wanted the bigger bowl. So her mom traded bowls. I wanted to scream! Carrie and I talked about it (she lives with Mamaís colleague, so we hang out a lot and she was at the dinner too), and we decided itís because Begoniaís the baby of the family. I canít wait to get to post where parents have less means and their kids are well-behaved.

What else this weekÖ we went to a dispensaire, which is where you go if you have diarrhea or malaria, or simple stuff, and get this Ė you pay 1500 CFA and get treated and medicine for all your ills, 1500 CFA is like $2. 5 years ago it didnít cost anything but now thereís the oil crisis, which Iím still not sure about. But everybody always talks about "la crise" and how itís made things worse. Weíre finding out more and more about Bongo and how people feel about him, but I donít think Iím supposed to talk about that stuff. They still open letters and stuff, and this aerogram is practically transparent. But our language instructor was in the marches and manifestations in 1990, right in the thick of it, so itís fun to ask him questions.

Days are up and down here but mostly up, or at least not down. Our days are so packed with French class and health stuff and skills and methods that thereís very little time to think Ė which is probably good for most of us. Every time we have a cool health session (how to start a Peer Educator Group; explaining pregnancy) I got psyched up to get to post and start doing stuff. Having French is definitely a big advantage, and Iím so thankful that Iím not struggling with that on top of everything else. Itís really great to be able to hang out with the facilitators. Yesterday we had class at a bar, and then more people showed up and it was a nice big party after school. Anicet and Arsene (our facilitators) were there, and about 10 stagieres. Theyíve been switching our language groups around which lets us spend more time with different people, and the group seems like itís hanging together a little more.

Abigail, our PCV trainer this week, led a yoga session Wednesday and I am still sore. I hope Iíll be able to keep it up Ė she says it really makes you flexible and helps digestion Ė the whole body. We all bought prayer mats for yoga at the marché and I wonder if the town thinks theyíve been invaded by White American Muslim Women. The marché is pretty small Ė maybe a block long. On the waterfront thereís a couple blocks of little shops, boutiques, a couple grocery stores, several lunch places, and a salon de thé that welove. They have pain au chocolat, and café and thé and Bob Marley and even gateau and other yummy stuff. Itís small but clean, with plastic chairs and tables outside and wood ones inside, and mirrors on the wall. I think it was the first time Iíd seen myself in 10 days.

Iím not too up on world news, but Iíve figured out the radio, which is great Ė small and powerful. Iíll definitely be using it more at post. Good things to send me are granola bars and cliff (?) bars and Luna bars, because sometimes I think Iíll puke if I see another fish. Also Lifesavers and mints. We can get decent cookies in the grocery stores. I think Sunday Iím making peanut chicken and couscous for my family. Theyíre already plotting to take me to Libreville for a marriage at the end of July, and theyíre going to write letters to get me posted in Coco Beach or Ntorem or Lambarene. Iím not really sure I want to be so close, but I appreciate that they want me close by and that Iím part of the family. But itís kind of weird too Ė Peace Corps gave you to us, and they should keep you nearby for us too! Iím getting more interested in the Haute Ogooué region, near Franceville, and in the mountains between Moula and Tchibanga. Thereís a post near Abigail, and she says itís nice and cool.

Love,

Hannah

Please send KoolAid/Gatoraid!




Letter #3, July 19, 2001,

Dear Mom and Dad,

We're sitting in class putting condoms on wooden penises. This whole week has been sex and AIDS and abortion and condoms, and of course some parts of it have been more fun than others. Today has been pretty fun so far -- everyone definitely enjoyed getting our "demonstrative devices" and waving them around. I just hope the same ice-breaking tactic works in the village.

The day we talked about abortion was our first real day as PCVs. Up until now it's just been fun and games in French, at bars, and at schools, but when a bunch of super pro-choice women find out that there are no safe abortions, that at minimum 50 % of women have had abortions at least once, and that they use bleach and OD on chloroquine or stick plant stalks or pens or crochet needles to get rid of their babies, it's not pretty. At the beginning we were told we would be telling women not to have abortions and no one could believe it. How can we tell someone she doesn't have a choice? But after the presentations we realized that so many women die or seriously hurt themselves from self-abortions that we can't in good conscience even hint that abortion is an option. Better to keep the baby, because family here will almost always take it if the girl is too young. All the same, it's horrible. No choice. And plenty of women and young girls are doing this, it's everywhere, in many places the #2 health problem after malaria is complications from self-abortion.

So then we did HIV/AIDS and found out lots of women have sugar daddies who keep them fed and clothed (their kids too) in exchange for sex. And if a guy offers you 10,000 CFA ($12) you're gonna take it, with or without a condom. Amanda's sister has a Spanish guy who takes her out to nice places and takes care of her kids, but she's less a girlfriend than a kept woman. And it's usually more prestigious to be one of these women than to sell gateaux or fish or tresse hair to be financially independent. Oldest sisters feel like they're willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of taking care of their younger siblings, especially when the parents are dead or too sick or old. It just sucks. So our job is to educate on ways to earn money besides sex, ways to avoid or lessen the risk of pregnancy and AIDS and STDs, because even doing a little bit is better than nothing. We're really doing this for Amanda's sister's kids, so that contraception and safe sex and being financially independent are accepted and understood by the time they're ready for it. Change is slow but already the younger people are more knowledgeable.

I've met more Malians and they are super nice of course. I'm having some skirts made and they also sell ginger and hibiscus juice :). I get to speak Bambara every day -- it's great! I miss Mali but I am learning more about culture and history here -- there are initiation ceremonies and hallucenogenic drugs (bark) and an epic song. Vampires and soul-eaters and fetishes and curses too. Still widely held beliefs, even with Catholics.

July 21 - I've been hanging out with Crystal, a PCV who's here this week, and last night a bunch of us went across the river to a new quarter to explore the bar scene over there. We found a great place that played Madonna and decent hip hop right on the river. No brochettes though. :( I've been eating a lot of grillades -- grilled chicken or beef with mayonnaise and lettuce and onions and tomatoes and hot peppers. Yum. I have yet to find coupé-coupé, but Crystal says it's a day thing, while grillades are an evening thing. Next to most every bar in town thre's some guy or girl grilling food. Cheap too - 1 mil ($1.50) for a 1/4 chicken and a big hunk of bread.

I'm getting fed up with Begonia because she throws tantrums every 2 minutes. So I'm not as often at home as before, and I think my mama's upset, but she knows if I'm out I won't be alone. Liz and Julie live in the neighborhood, and Alex the FARM trainer and whoever is doing the weekly training sessions (Abigail and Crystal) live 2 houses down, so I'm with several people always. It's not unsafe here, but it makes me feel better and my mama too.

Right now Jean Luc the PCMO is talking about parasites. We're passing around tapeworms and roundworms. Gabon has the lowest rate of worms, so don't worry! PC Gabon has really good health stats -- best in the region. Jean Luc rules and he's always saying how admin gets mad because he doesn't care about costs, he'll take planes and get there in half an hour and give you the expensive medicine.

It's hard to write a lot about what's going on because there's too much. I don't really know where to begin. Hopefully you got my big letter and the roll of film. I'm sure once I get to post I'll have more time to write -- we're just so busy in class and at lunch and more class-- then hanging out or errands. I don't have a desk in my room and it's stinky in there because I can't leave my door open. I'm having a great time hanging out with my stagemates after class and in the evenings sometimes -- now that we've been together for a month my personality is coming out or something and I'm enjoying myself with people and vice versa. My Gabonese friends are great and the facilitators are fun too -- it's nice when PCVs and fac's go out together. They're really our doorway into the culture because they really want us to do well and finish stage and get to COS (close of service) and not ET (early terminate.) People have money on who's gonna leave but I honestly think everyone's capable of making it. I know a few people are going to have it tough but if they adapt and accept and change they'll be fine.

I love Gabon -- I had a really bad homesickness for Mali the other night, but the more I get out and hang out and see things and do things and talk to people the more I feel like this could be my country, just like Mali. And I'm so psyched to be psyched all of the time. It can't last forever but if I can hang onto my excitement it'll get me through the sucky parts. Cuz they're coming. It's also fun to see everyone else changing and struggling and having fun too. I'm definitely extremely comfortable here and I may even be impressing the trainers, which is nice because they like hanging out with me and I can learn stuff from them. This week the PC chauffeur, who is sketchy, hit on me, subtly, which made me mad. So the next day I cornered him and chewed him out in French - if you do this again to me or anyone else I'll tell Helen and you'll be fired. We have to have a certain level of trust with staff and if we didn't have that, we have nothing. At first he denied everything but I repeated what he said and he ended up slinking away, tail between his lefs. It made me feel awesome.

Lots of love and send M & Ms!

Hannah




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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; Photography - Gabon

PCOL4483
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By Anonymous (mdoc-sm-244-70-112.monarch.net - 24.244.70.112) on Thursday, March 27, 2008 - 11:47 am: Edit Post

Hello hannah what are you doing my name is angela


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