I’d like to share some observations about the local people. I find it really interesting to look for similarities to back home, as well as to absorb the sometimes striking cultural differences. When discussing this, it wouldn’t be accurate to simply say ‘Gabonese’ because this area is quite a melting pot of other central African countries especially Mali, it seems. The other thing I need to be careful of is that I’ve only been here for a couple of months. There’s no way I can know this culture in any depth. Finally, Bongolo is a rural jungle hospital and the people around here are rural, small town folk. I have absolutely no idea what the differences in a city would be!
All of that said, here are some random observations about people, places and things:
- People here are very image conscious. Those in their 30’s and up typically wear their better clothes out in public, whether shopping, at the hospital, or visiting.
- Men traditionally wear long dress slacks and a long sleeved shirt. I don’t know how they stand the heat, but I guess it’s what you’re used to!
- Most women wear colorful Gabonese full length skirts or dresses, similar to American sun dresses, but longer.
- This ‘dress code’ is changing with the younger generation, unfortunately. Younger men often wear jeans and t-shirts, and some of the younger women wear skinny jeans and tights underneath a skirt. They are becoming more westernized. I’m more traditional in this area; I like the dressier look.
- Most of the ‘modern’ clothing looks as if it has come from thrift stores in Europe. That’s not a judgement statement. 90% of my clothing comes from thrift stores. First World thrift stores, that is. Back home, I’ve often seen bundled ‘bricks’ of clothing at my big thrift store – stuff they can’t sell – and wondered where it goes. Now I know: it’s sold to distributors in third world countries. It makes me sad.
- I have only seen one or two people smoking, and that was in Lebamba. None of the stores I’ve been to have a cigarette section like at an American super market. I don’t know where those who smoke get them and, while I’ve been thrilled not to smell burning tobacco, I’m not sure why so few people smoke, other than poverty.
- Alcohol is a problem in the surrounding villages and Lebamba, like most places. There are tons of corner bars where they sell beer and maybe some liquor. I haven’t been in any, so I’m not exactly sure (not the missionary thing!).
- I have not seen any tattoos, yet, except on the upper back of one of the resident (student) surgeon’s wives. Yes, she’s American…
- I can’t tell if the local construction workers swear – my French hasn’t gone in that direction! However, they can be loud with each other, tease a lot and look at passing women (no hooting, however!).
- People have a greater chance of contracting Malaria if they become run down or otherwise sick. I’ve never needed a more persuasive reason for self-care!!
- There’s a stereotype of the ‘lazy Gabonese’ that I’ve been trying to unravel. I’ve been told by several people that there are three main reasons Gabonese, in general, are not very hard working or entrepreneurial by other standards. The first is that Gabon is relatively wealthy due to oil exports. Years ago, the government began handing out oil profits to every adult, similar to Alaska’s program. The following generations have grown up not needing to work, but reliant on the government’s generosity – sound familiar? The current generation now needs to work more because oil prices are down. The second reason is Gabonese value relationships and personal image over nearly anything else. If you have money and a relative asks you for it, it is expected you will give what you have. I thought this was absurd, but then I thought about life back home… A possible third reason is that most people only do just enough to get by. Sounds familiar.
- There are a number of larger employers around. Bongolo Hospital is by far the largest, however. Many people work on farms, at schools, for the government, for various small businesses, etc.
- Many other people survive by subsistence farming, their government check and whatever other work they can get.
- Household help is common. They are paid about $1 per hour.
- Construction laborers are paid about $1 per hour, as well.
As I’ve noted these items over the last two months, I can’t help but reflect on how many remind me of home, just packaged differently. Hmm…
Lessons so far:
- Intentionally looking for interesting details around me is fun!
- I learn an awful lot by asking good questions and listening.
- I find I do a lot less talking than I used to unless there’s a natural give and take. People are quick to answer pretty much every question, but are often slow to ask me things.
- While I’m happy people have clothing available, I’m saddened that their western attire is made up of clothing thrift stores couldn’t sell. Cast-offs of cast-offs.
How well have I observed things about people, places and things in my life?
Curiosity is great!