It’s official: you cannot plan anything or travel the country, if you are waiting on Gabonese authorities, and I still do not have the right papers, and so I have been unable to return to the forest Baka. This however made it possible to start working with Hélène, a Baka woman who lives in Libreville. It has been great fun to learn about her life story, as she was schooled by catholic missionaries, and lives her life in between forest and big city.
Being in Libreville has also given me a chance to conduct interviews with people from government bodies, NGOs, and to have countless informal exchanges with taxi drivers and just people out and about. Apart from shedding light on the way ‘pygmies’ are seen in this country, I learned that the Gabonese worry about food scandals and climate change just the way we do. Nearly everybody complains about there no longer being distinct wet and dry seasons, but that it’s all mixed up with new record high and low temperatures; and they don’t like the fact that using chemical fertilizers means traditional foods are now available year-round, but have lost their good taste.
Gabon had its very own ‘coup d’etat’ in January, but luckily it didn’t have any major implications. Nevertheless, especially with the revolutionary movements in Northern Africa, it’s been fascinating to analyse international media coverage from an African perspective. And I have been lucky to discuss all these changes with two very competent people: Tine, a German anthropologist studying modern Gabonese politics for her PhD, and Sam, a researcher and cartographer who works for Brainforest, an NGO which aims to help build a Gabonese society where the environment and the people who live in it are equally valued and protected.
One of our topics are the government’s urban development plans for Libreville. This means the same as in many other parts of the world: established local institutions must make way for modern high-rise buildings. In Libreville this meant losing ‘Boul-Bess’, a nightly street market selling grilled fish, where everybody, rich or poor, local or foreigner, came to eat – Sunday nights are just not the same without it.
Over the last few weeks, I have also better understood the economic, logisitcal and social aspects of having a country like Gabon, which is two thirds the size of Germany, but with roughly the same number of inhabitants as the city of Cologne, ie about 1.5 million, the majority of which live in Libreville. I won’t go into detail, but I hope I can enjoy what’s best about Gabon again soon: the amazing forest and wildlife. Can’t wait to see my first elephant.