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.)
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.
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.
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…?