The day we arrived in Libreville, there was an eclipse of the sun. A ‘hybrid solar eclipse’ nogal. Gabon was on the line of greatest eclipse and coverage was 98%. Luckily, we’d decided to go for a walk to stretch our legs and a passing Frenchman mentioned it to us. A kind street hawker gave the children a pair of solar glasses to share and we set off down the beachfront boulevard known simply as Au Bord de la Mer. People were gathering on the lawns, but we stopped next to the Slave Monument, a giant concrete sculpture both impressive and ugly in its magnificence. A little like Libreville itself.
We lay on our backs on the picnic blanket passing round the cardboard shades and oohed and aahed as the moon slipped across the sun leaving only a nail-paring of light visible. As the sky darkened strangely and dusk fell at 2pm, I wondered what we’d have thought if we didn’t know what was happening.
To witness the eclipse was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the children, but Sampson and I were more affected by the Slave Monument. Presumably it had been erected at the point of embarkation, but there was no information on display, not even the name of the artist. The sculpture was of a huge figure, very stylised, half-man half-woman, with mask-like features and one pert buttock. The breaking of chains was the major motif, but interestingly s/he was shaking both fists directly inland across the road at the presidential palace. I wondered if the artist had done that on purpose.
We seem to have this uncanny ability for setting up camp next door to the President. When we first drove past it, I thought this gold building must be an office block for some multinational corporation, or perhaps Parliament itself? But no, it was just a residence built for one man. There were security cameras everywhere and foot patrols circling constantly. I was careful just to take pics of the statue.
On the way from Lambaréné to Libreville, we saw the very first signs of tourism on the west coast: just a few stalls selling wooden masks with raffia hair and small soapstone sculptures. But every home had a rusty oil drum by the roadside ready to display whatever food was surplus: tomatoes, yams, huge bunches of green plantain, not to mention the odd bush bonus…
As we got nearer to the city, buildings became concrete rather than wooden; every house, however humble, had satellite TV; some had cars parked outside. Gabon is the first country since Angola where the majority of people are wearing modern clothes; traditional outfits seem limited to the elderly – of which there were suddenly markedly more than in the Congo. There was also the first appearance of trouser suits for women in print fabrics, which look both comfy and funky to me.
We took a tough decision not to detour to Mayumba. Not only is it apparently one of the longest left-hand pointbreaks in the world, but also it was our chance to see some of the last remaining pristine rainforest on our route. However we’d lost too much time in Congo, and would’ve risked losing more on another rough road to the coast. We pushed north, crossing the Equator on the way to the capital.
I have to confess that my impressions of Libreville were somewhat shadowed by the terrible time we had with Ruby that week. She has been growing increasingly stroppy of late – undeniably teenage hormones are kicking in (or maybe just the genes) but her bolshiness seems to be increasing with every centimetre she grows. She’s sleeping so much, but even when she gets 12 hours she’s grumpy as hell in the mornings. This was bearable in Pointe Noire because she was forced to exercise: she always – reluctantly – felt better for our daily walk. Back on the road, things became more difficult. Stuck in the truck, we are at the mercy of her moods and it was driving us up the wall.
Sampson has decided that Ruby has inherited my righteous indignation without any of my moral rectitude. I think she’s got his stubbornness without any of his leavening easygoing disposition. It’s a terrifying combination. We tried punishments involving being sent to bed earlier or being denied anything with sugar in it for a week, but still too many mornings were being ruined by her waspish negativity. It was going beyond dominating our day to beginning to poison our trip; Sampson and I were at the end of our tether. Driving into Libreville, there was a rather battered monument sticking up amidst the seething mass of red and purple taxi buses, declaring ‘Tolerance’. Ruefully I reflected I’d been hoping to achieve something a bit more ambitious than that chez nous. Is it too much to expect that the human race should be aspiring to evolve further than mere tolerance? Towards compassion and harmony perhaps?
The morning after the eclipse, we made ourselves known to the wonderful folks at the SA embassy. Despite the city centre being in lock down because the President was driving somewhere, they managed to find us a perfect shady spot between their building and an overgrown park. That evening, in the middle of a massive downpour, First Secretary Nomonde Mjoli and her colleague Ethel arrived under umbrellas bearing gifts from home: Koo baked beans, Lucky Star pilchards and All Bran! The children were dancing round the truck. Nomonde also gave the kids – and us – a welcome break by hosting them for two nights’ sleepovers with her kids Lolly (12) and Siya (10). They were so thrilled to have English-speaking friends to hang out with, and we were quite chuffed too…
Meanwhile, Nomonde’s colleagues Marsho September and Nicholas Ampim had been very busy prior to our arrival, making arrangements for oil donations, sponsorship and media coverage. Thanks to their sterling efforts, Sampson performed a great show at the Nelson Mandela High School in Libreville supported by local mobile communications company MOOV. Their branding is the same colour as Big Reg and they didn’t hold back on the staging.
Attendance was voluntary so we were pleased to attract around 200 very well behaved kids who stood in midday sun listening to Sampson’s “1,2,3, reduce, reuse, recycle; don’t be a Waster” message, skillfully translated by the pithy Zina Ando. Just to be on the safe side, he started with a silly moonwalk and ended with magic – guaranteed crowd-pleasers. We were impressed both by the kids’ enthusiastic response and the awesome authority of their Principal Mve Nguema. We spent an hour giving the two-minute ‘Truck Tour’ to groups of five at a time, and could not begin to dent the queue of interested students.
Afterwards, I’m proud to say I coped far better with TV interviews in French than I did in Brazzaville. There were not one but three cameras on me this time, from RTG, TH and TéléAfrica. With zero preparation I answered questions, if not fluently, at least more fluidly than my last attempt.
Marsho and Nicholas also arranged for us to meet Dimitri Duplat of SIAT, Gabon’s sole local palm oil producer. In the DRC and Congo, the only refined palm oil you could buy for cooking was imported from Malaysia, even though the raw product grew wild everywhere. Ten years ago, SIAT, a Belgian company, bought rubber plantations from the government in a deal that included the rather less profitable palm plantations and a cattle ranch; they hope to turn both around and make the Gabonese proud of their local beef as well.
It was the end of a long tiring day for Dimtri, but we were touched that he was genuinely excited to learn about our project and see the truck. He called out the entire SIAT management team of very pale Belgians to come look too. They work very hard indoors every day from 7am till 7pm. I know this because they let us spend the night in the compound, didn’t leave till after dark and were all arriving for work as we were doing yoga.
Sampson had wrestled overnight with the challenge of illuminating the fuel vs food debate, and was proud to come up with the following: if SIAT gave us new cooking oil, we would offer it to restaurants en route in exchange for their used oil to raise awareness around the carcinogenic dangers of overuse. This was a win-win solution, and SIAT donated 200L to the cause.
In addition, IT manager Nicolas Borckmans generously provided us with access to their wi-fi to post a couple of long overdue blogs that I had failed to upload all week due to Gabon’s tortuously slow internet connection. His youthful enthusiasm about life in Libreville made me realise how old and cynical I’m getting. When I caught sight of a plaque and remarked “Oh the Belgian Consulate is here in the same building, how convenient!” he responded cheerfully “Well, the Consul is the Chairman of the Board.” Plus ça change, hey?
While waiting to meet Dimtri that first day, embassy staff had shared some fascinating diplomatic insights into French power play in the region: how pressure had been brought to bear, leading to the reduction of staff complements or complete abandonment of the embassies here of Britain, Germany and Canada; how President Mbeki’s NEPAD initiative was undermined by the French government using their influence with Francophone African states to seed discontent with an SA-led strategy. Once again, naïve little me was shocked that such ‘divide and rule’ bullyboy tactics are still employed – and still work.
After humble Lambaréné, Libreville seemed a rather charmless city, like Pointe Noire on steroids. It’s also built on oil money but is more flashy and brash. My view of it was, admittedly, severely limited to the square kilometre around the SA embassy, and the overgrown park with the giant snails, who move like us, slowly dragging their house along through the detritus. Men kept peeing against the wall just outside the truck; once, when we were in the middle of eating lunch and Sampson remonstrated, one bloke had the balls to retort: “It’s our culture”.
Is it simply that the more money you have, the less considerate of others you have to be? There’s so much of it sloshing around here: ‘superupmarket’ Casino has a Hypermarché in Libreville, and the French Géant supermarket is indeed giant – I wasn’t tempted to enter either. In only the small supermarket round the corner from SIAT where Sampson bought up their bargain cheese supplies, he saw R25000 bottles of champagne available on the shelf. My major regret was not getting to the Musée des Arts et Traditions as planned due to fierce heat, as I think that would have given me an insight into Gabonese culture that would have lifted it above the material. Imagine judging Jo’burg solely on Sandton; that would be equally unfair.
My most favourable impressions of Libreville were when driving out at night – it’s amazing how tropical cities come alive after dark, when everyone comes out to play in the cool, and all the tiny bars along the way are lit up like Christmas. The kids love setting off after supper, all fed and washed and in their beds; they watch the city passing out of their bird’s eye windows over the cab. Thanks to our HELLA LED Luminator spotlights, we cruised through the busy streets aiming to sleep 50km out of town to avoid the morning gridlock as well as the usual plethora of roadblocks. Sampson and I both groaned when we got pulled over by a group of soldiers just before the last bridge, but we needn’t have worried. “Hey!” the tallest greeted us enthusiastically “We’ve just seen you on TV!”
Written 10th Nov