A Gabon Memory

The coup that occurred in Gabon this week was a yawn to most news consumers in the West. Just another disputed election and military takeover in another African country; there have been many in recent years. So what.

At the time I read about this coup in the New York Times early Wednesday morning, it had drawn only ONE comment, whereas normally by this time lead NYTimes articles garner comments in the hundreds, sometimes thousands. Who cares about Africa after all? And Gabon? Where’s Gabon?

Roughly the size of Colorado, Gabon now has a population of just 2.4 million people. Ninety percent of the country is covered by forests.

Well, I, for one, care, as do most of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers who served there decades ago, when such doors were still open to us. I was (informally) adopted by a Gabonese family in Libreville, the capital, in 1996, when I was in Peace Corps training there, and I’ve stayed in touch ever since with one special member of the family, Yolande, who calls herself my Chocolate Sister, and I, her Vanilla Sister.

I wrote to her immediately to ask how things were, and she reassured me that “all is well in Gabon.” She added, “The coup came as a help from God to avoid the much anticipated bloodshed and civil war following the announcement of the presidential election results on August 30.” She said we should all pray that “peace, happiness and prosperity be the daily bread of all the Gabonese people,” and she sent me her family’s love “in abundance” before closing with, “Your Chocolate Sister.”

I was a health and nutrition volunteer for two years in a town called Lastoursville, a stop on the country’s one train line, in the rain-forested interior of this oil-rich, timber-rich, mineral-rich little country, where most of the people outside of the capital live in dire poverty. The then-president, Omar Bongo, was said to be one of the richest men in the world. At his death in 2009, his son, Ali, took over as president. This dynasty has lasted over half a century. It now appears, as a result of this coup, to be nearing its end.

I wrote about my two-year experience in Gabon in my memoir-with-recipes, HOW TO COOK A CROCODILE (Peace Corps Writers, 2010). Here is an excerpt, which I think is relevant, from one of its chapters, “Friday Night Brights,” to give you a sense, perhaps, of being there and maybe even caring about the outcome of this military coup:

“Beef or chicken, sir?” I ask each boy in turn, pretending I’m a flight attendant, going down an aircraft’s aisle, taking dinner orders on a pad. It’s Friday night, and my six o’clock English class, held in my living room and free to any high school student who cares to attend has just begun. 

I try to make these classes fun for them. Instead of teaching English grammar from a dry text – something they surely get enough of in their English classroom at Lastoursville’s regional lycee (high school) – I try to instigate lively discussions and enact real-life situations, all in English only.

A core group of about five earnest teenage boys – always clean and well dressed, in long-sleeved white shirts and pressed black trousers – attend these Friday night classes fairly faithfully. Other boys drop in from time to time, perhaps out of curiosity.

Occasionally, a few teenage girls come, too; but they are mostly quiet, sitting close together on my sofa, giggling among themselves nervously. The girls’ attention is focused solely on the boys; they show no interest in learning to speak English or are too shy in the presence of the boys to try.

A photo from HOW TO COOK A CROCODILE of me with some of the high school girls at my Friday night English class. (Note the louvered window in my living room.)

The boys who attend regularly, however, are bright, bold, and ambitious. They have goals and dreams – especially of getting out of Gabon one day and making something of themselves in the world. They realize that the ability to speak English well, as well as their second language, French, would benefit their careers. So they take advantage of this free opportunity and apply themselves. They are also particularly good-natured about going along with whatever unconventional ideas I dreamed up for making the class fun.

On this night we’re pretending they are all scholarship recipients to universities in the United States, and we’re on a flight from Libreville to New York, where they’ll be making connections to their respective beneficent universities. This pretense pleases them. From their broad smiles and widening eyes, I can see that it’s fueling their fantasies. Scholarship? University? United States? These powerful English words speak to them. They need no translation.           

On another evening, though, I made a big mistake. I raised the verboten topic of politics, hoping it might lead to a lively conversation. We were sitting in a circle in my living room, four of the core boys and myself, when I too straightforwardly shared my unvarnished view that the Gabonese people seemed to me to be too apathetic about their situation. Why did they allow their government to do whatever it wished? Why didn’t they stand up for themselves and demand their rights?

“Apathy is complicity,” I said, tossing out these weighty English words in the hope that the boys would catch their significance and a heated discussion would ensue.

My words fell heavily, and the boys stiffened. Their eyes darted across the length of the louvered windows in my living room. Thierry shook his head slowly from side to side. Regis fixed his gaze on me and drew his right index finger gingerly across his throat. Martial froze. The boys’ body language told me instantly: You mustn’t say these things. People could be watching, listening. We cannot speak ill of President Bongo if we want to live.

 Jacques, an active member of the local Christian Alliance church, spoke up. “Papa Bongo takes good care of us,” he said in French. “We live in peace. He is a good president. God put him in office. It is not for us to question God’s plan.” The other boys nodded.

“Ah, yes, of course, you’re right,” I said carefully and slowly in English, then repeated again in French for whoever might have been lurking outside. I didn’t want to put these boys in danger. Free speech was not an option for them, in any language.

~ ~  ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

To learn more about Gabon and this recent coup, visit:


  • The BBC:


To learn more about HOW TO COOK A CROCODILE or to order a copy, go to my website’s Home page: www.bonnieleeblack.com .

20 thoughts on “A Gabon Memory”

  1. Thank you, Bonnie, for your personal view. Especially telling were the four boys who were terrified of saying anything against the president. And thanks for the links. It was interesting to read the NY Times piece AFTER I read yours. I think I might have had a different view otherwise. Time will tell whether it was a good move for the Gabonese people or not. I hope so.

    1. Thank you, dearest Be, for reading the whole post — and even going to the links! I hope more WOW readers follow your example. Yes, Time will tell whether this coup will have a positive, peaceful, beneficial-to-all outcome. We can only hope and pray. Mucho love, BB xx

  2. Thank you for highlighting something the media doesn’t reach us with Bonnie. I’ll add Yolande and her family and all the ‘innocents’ of Gabon to my prayers.

  3. Thank you for sharing this story that perfectly illustrates what so many of us Peace Corps Volunteers experienced in Gabon. I served from 2002-2005 and I struggled the most with what I perceived to be political apathy at the time.

  4. Ay, la Bonnie! I am rereading the book now. Yes, Regis’s gesture must have been very scary! It’s so wonderful that you have kept in contact with Yolande all these years. And what happened to Antoinette? I loved the story about her wedding cake.

  5. Dear Bonnie,

    When I heard the news of the coup in Gabon I immediately thought of you. Thank you for sharing your insight. We are conditioned to think, automatically that coup = antidemocratic = bad, but when we see in the news media images of people in Gabon dancing in the streets after this coup we are reminded that the story is always more complicated.

    xx Monty

    1. You’re so right, Monty dear. Things are always more complicated than the B/W tidbits we get in the media. My source in Gabon tells me “so far so good!” Let’s hope it stays that way. — LU, BB xx

  6. Interesting about talking about politics. I have had a similar experience in Mexico. As with American politics, just don’t talk about it. I hope the girls eventually realized that they are as interesting as the boys.

    1. Yes, we were strictly advised in our PC training NOT to discuss either politics or religion. So my bringing up the subject was a no-no. As for those girls, who knows? I hope they’re happy, whatever they’re doing.

  7. Hi BB, and thanks. The release today of a map showing the sites of Indian Boarding Schools in the U.S. and Canada reminds us the shoe was cruelly on our “American” feet for generations.

  8. Dear Bon,
    I have only heard this discussed on Democracy Now, which I listen to on YouTube every weekday. (I first encountered Amy Goodman on Manhattan Cable and see her now as an old friend.)
    You are first person around me to reference this event. So you are right, the American people do not often think about Africa.
    The other side of this is there are groups of people worldwide who are obsessed by Africa.These groups are ruled by implacable greed.
    I could never say I understand the issues involved in Gabon, Niger, or any other African country. I do believe each nation of Africa should be self-ruled without interference.

    1. Yes, you’re right, dear Paul. The Powers that Be are very interested in Africa’s riches so that they can plunder them and claim them as their own. This has been the case since explorers first set foot on Africa’s rich soil centuries ago, alas.

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