Bread and Bureaucracy

December 15, 2010

I received the wrong type of visa for entering the country as a researcher, so, whilst waiting for questions around the visa irregularity to be solved, I have been discovering more of life in Libreville. Something that can nearly be described as German Bread fell into my arms in the supermarket, and I moved to a new guesthouse run by a truly wonderful American missionary couple, and with wi-fi, which was like a new lease of life, not constantly having to run to internet cafes.

'Purple ladies' from right to left: Alace, wonderful manager of the guest house, Céline, responsible for all things practical around the house, and me, on a study break.

One of the bureaucratic aspects here is that each time I go to Minvoul or Makokou, I need a so-called ‘ordre de mission’, a document which entitles me to be in the area and, in my case, to work with the Baka. I must get this paper signed and stamped by the province’s Governor and Prefect, and several other authorities the last of which is the village chief – and I’m in trouble, if I don’t go through this procedure. In return the authorities including the gendarmerie (police) are responsible for my safety and well-being.

My first Ordre de Mission

Proud stamps from the governor, the prefect, the sub-prefect, and the chef de village

Over the last few weeks, I have had many conversations about my experiences outside of the capital which helped put things into the Gabonese context, and I attended another anthropologists’ viva (oral exam for doctorate). I’ve been to some funky concerts and other cultural performances, such as Annie-Flore Batchiellily, Gabon’s very own politically active singer-songwriter. As I have to get taxis everywhere, I urgently wanted to do some sports, and I have started to go swimming regularly at a local sports club. Here on the equator, the sun sets around six thirty and nightfall is immediate, so I get to swim under the stars by 7pm (19:00 Uhr) – life in the tropics does have its advantages.

One of my favourite places in Libreville 🙂

 

Another thing I have discovered is that Africa really has a different sense of time than we know it in Europe, or even no sense of time at all – bizzarre and challenging at first, but interesting and enjoyable when you start adapting to it. But it’s the festive season in many parts of the world and so I wanted to wish you all a wonderful Christmas and a happy and successful 2011!

My very own little hand-made X-mas tree - complete with 8 different light settings


A White Woman in Rural Gabon

December 2, 2010

One of the things that really struck me during the last few weeks was the difference between Libreville and the jungle forest (la brousse, as people say here in French). It may sound like an obvious fact, but as Gabon is classed as a rich African country, I hadn’t expected the extremely low level of development and lack of infrastructure in the rural North. In the villages, women should worry about 3Cs: children, cooking and collecting firewood; men hunt and get drunk. (Ok, it’s not quite that simple, but it’s pretty close.)

Every village offers the 'catch of the day' from the forest for sale by the roadside

You can buy me for 3 Euros

 

Gabon has no noteworthy tourist industry, so that the main association with white people who go into the ‘brousse’ is that they work for an NGO (Nicht-Regierungs-Organisation) and bring lots of money or other goods into the area. It is part of life here in Gabon to constantly get people asking you for money, even in Libreville, but in the rural areas this was a 24-hour thing, and so very exhausting. There is poverty and a lack of basic medical care and other important things in some places. Both the Baka and their village neighbours have always lived with the idea that the forest provides everything they need, but changing consumption patterns and new technologies mean new needs: batteries don’t grow on trees.

Timber transport on a really good piece of road

After a storm the dirt road was often blocked by big branches which the driver just hacked away with an axe from inside the car

 

The ‘benefit’ of being a white woman in rural Gabon is that you can be sure of undivided male attention, or rather you cannot go anywhere without being chatted up. I found this tiring, and started appreciating the African system of relations, whereby everyone is linked to each other as brother and sister irrespective of actual blood relations. It means people look after me, protect, accompany and help me, and some of the things I achieved during the last weeks would not have been possible without the support I got as ‘petite soeur’ (little sister). For example, the Gabonese Deputy Ambassador in Germany, whose Hotel Comfort I stayed in Oyem, calls me regularly to check on my moves and views on Gabon.

I never leave the house without my umbrella, which provides the best shelter even in the forest

 

All this has sometimes left me wishing for the capacity to simply camouflage my skin colour;  And for all my anthropological friends: Gabon is certainly good to think with… for example, what makes a village chief, local hotels and others hang up these posters…?

 

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