Vanilla Sister

Before I left for Gabon, Central Africa, in mid-1996, I had what I briefly thought was a brilliant idea. It was both a thought — an inspired one, I felt — and a gut feeling, not something I had spent time researching. (This, of course, was before Google was born). I thought I would introduce vanilla growing at my Peace Corps post and thereby single-handedly raise, exponentially, I felt sure, the standard of living of the people around me.

To the extent that I had thought this through, my reasoning went like this: Vanilla is a tropical plant; Gabon is a tropical, equatorial country. Vanilla beans are precious and costly; the poor people in the country’s interior would profit from growing and selling them. Why hadn’t anyone else thought of this? I wondered.

When I first shared these thoughts with my Gabonese “sister,” Yolande Borobo, with whom I lived during my Peace Corps training in the coastal capital, Libreville, and with whom I gratefully stayed during every subsequent trip from my post in the interior of the country, Lastoursville, to Libreville for my in-service training, she rolled her eyes and laughed.

“Vanilla?  Here?  Vanilla growing takes work,” she said to me in English, one of the several languages she spoke fluently, “hard, dirty work. And we Gabonese don’t like that kind of work. We don’t like to get our hands dirty. We prefer to work in air-conditioned offices.” She laughed again, flashing a gleaming smile and waving a manicured hand. “Oh, cherie, you’ll have to choose a better project than that. Ditch the vanilla idea.”

Yoland and her son Alex (photo by Martha Cooper, c. 1997)

From then on, she called me her “Vanilla Sister,” a term of endearment that both fit and stuck.

Yolande, who worked in a modern, air-conditioned office as the private secretary for an oil executive in Libreville and whose work wardrobe consisted of fitted suits and tailored dresses she’d bought on her frequent trips to New York and Paris, was right, of course. Vanilla, I subsequently learned, is the most labor-intensive agricultural product in the world; and this was not the type of work the Gabonese preferred. Also, the soil and climate of Gabon were far from ideal for it.

My “inspired” vanilla idea, then, so utterly unsuited for Gabon, became a sisterly joke between Yolande and me — an example of how far off base a well meaning, utterly green, gung-ho, humanitarian-wannabe can be. But her nickname for me, Vanilla Sister, suited me, I thought, because compared to her Gabonese “chocolate” beauty, which never failed to turn men’s heads when we were together, I was indeed “plain vanilla.”

I remembered this – my vanilla-ness – especially this week when I heard Joe Biden’s words, “White Supremacy is a poison,” in response to the recent shootings in Buffalo, New York. That poison, tragically, has been sickening the United States for far too long.

I’ve been fortunate to have lived in three countries in Africa, on the ground, among Africans, for a total of nine years; and I’ve been living in the central mountains of Mexico now for close to seven years. In my experience in these countries, white people – or let me call us Vanilla People – are in the minority, and the concept of “White Supremacy” seems very foreign and, thankfully, far away.

I’ve been Vanilla all my life. I was born into a Vanilla family and grew up in a plain Vanilla town in northern New Jersey. Vanilla is okay. I’ve even experienced some of its advantages. Two small examples come to mind: When checks were offered as common currency, no one ever refused mine; and no one ever ran from me on a darkened city street.

But, happily, I’ve learned from my travels and my many friendships with people who do not look like me, such as my wonderful, generous, humorous Gabonese sister Yolande, that Vanilla is only one of many beautiful flavors in this world. There’s no reason why it should be supreme.

What, I worry and wonder, will it take for the dangerously misguided followers of White Supremacist ideology to realize this?  I shudder to think they never will.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The story about my Gabonese sister Yolande Borobo first appeared in my memoir How to Cook a Crocodile (Peace Corps Writers 2010). Some of the above was excerpted from the chapter “Vanilla Sister” in that book. To learn more, please go to: .

20 thoughts on “Vanilla Sister”

  1. Blessings to you and your article. When I lived in San Miguel I worked with the five year olds at CILA teaching them art, opera and ballet. For each session they had to do their own drawings. Creativity is wonderful as a healer and spiritual growth mechanism for everyone. Now in California I hope to work on creative programs for teenagers,
    Here is a poem that addresses the issue, pulled from a series of poems I have written for children of family and friends:


    by Mireille Modenbach Grovier

    Katie is an artist with an easel to herself
    And a box of paints and brushes that she stores upon a shelf.
    She paints the brightest canvases with colors clear and bold,
    With landscapes and with floral scenes all joyous to behold.
    Sometimes the flowers are white or pink with leaves of vivid green.
    Her colors chosen carefully to form a lovely scene.
    If Katie paints the petals pink or sometimes blue or white,
    Her choices are her own to make; they are her artist’s right.
    It would not do for me or you to criticize those hues;
    Because she is creating and they are her pinks and blues.

    God is the Greatest Artist that the world has ever known
    For He created earth and sky in a world His very own.
    God made all the creatures on the land and in the sea,
    He created Moms and Dads, and also you and me.
    This world is God’s Own Canvas, and His Own Work of Art
    Where each of us, vivid flowers, plays a very special part.
    For each of us, His children, He’s found just the perfect shade,
    The perfect hue and color for each one of us He’s made.
    And so we must appreciate the shade of each one’s skin,
    Because it is the perfect shade God chose for her or him.

    1. Thank you, dear Mireille, for sharing your thoughts and your poem. I hope other readers will do the same. I feel it’s very important for all of us to raise our voices, to counteract the haters.

  2. Dear Bon,

    I remember your vanilla plan and thinking that it was a great idea.
    How I wish more Americans had your global perspective because white supremacy seems frighteningly real here. We seem to be going backwards in time, not forwards. I can only pray that enough people here wake up and become mobilized to put an end to this spreading disease. It is terrifying.


  3. A thought I heard many years ago regarding the variety of human skin tones says that the very same current of electricity flows through the many different colored bulbs of flesh. We are all of the same stuff.

  4. As much as the racism angers me to a point of defining me, at times I feel pain for people who feel that kind of hate and fear. They are missing a world of goodness.

  5. Oh my dear, how we’re suffering over this in the states, and as a minister in the Christian church, the current marriage of Christian Nationalism is grave cause for shuddering indeed. When a faith of kindness, generosity and radical inclusion is co-opted in such a way as this, we all have reason to grieve. A dear and heart rending post. Anna V. Copeland

    1. Thank you, dear Anna, for your heartfelt input. Yes, it must be especially terrible for you as a minister to observe how such so-called-“Christian” haters are causing people to turn away from the church.

  6. Thank you for sharing a wonderful 8nsight. I was surprised to learn that racism exists in Mexico as well.. discriminating how “brown” one is!

  7. The only way I see we are going to get rid of Trump and his white supremacist followers is to vote them out

  8. BonnieDear, thank you for reminding me of that story in “How to Cook a Crocodile” and for tying it in to the pernicious racism in America. The cure (or at least a start) is to get out of one’s own neighborhood and travel the world a bit. Even better would be to live in another country — not as an entitled white person but as the citizens do — as you’ve done. Even my week in Mexico was such a relief from the relentless polarity so prevalent in America. xoxo

    1. Thank you so much, BeDear, for sharing your valuable perspective. Yes, there’s nothing like travel for widening one’s point of view! When I was living in southern Africa in my mid-twenties, I met a number of Australian young people who said that’s what they all do after their schooling: Pack up and travel all over the world before settling down. They told me they consider this a necessary part of their education.

      1. Sometimes it breaks my heart to hear how rational other countries are in educating their children, compared to the USA.

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