Return to West Africa

When I finished my travels in East Africa during the summer of 1966, I needed to get back to the Ivory Coast and start my summer project to help three Germans in their construction project in the northern part of the country before returning to my school gardens program in Gagnoa.  However, my return was quite eventful.

After our visit in East Africa, our chartered plane full of Peace Corps Volunteers returned across the great continent of Africa back to Lagos, Nigeria, where our joint vacation began.  As these Peace Corps Volunteers disembarked from the airplane, we were “greeted” by soldiers armed with loaded rifles to watch us as we walked to the airport terminal.  The Nigerian military government was now under the command of General Ironsi and made sure we were no trouble.  I went to the Peace Corps hostel to prepare for my return to the Ivory Coast.      

My plan was to catch the next plane out of Lagos to fly back to Abidjan, Ivory Coast.  However, I heard that all flights out of Lagos were canceled by the military government.  But there were a few flights allowed to leave.  So I hurried back to the airport, hoping to catch one of those flights. I was lucky enough to catch a flight.  Hooray, I made it!!  That allowed me to get back, as scheduled.  Some other volunteers did not react as quickly and were stuck in Lagos for days before they received permission to leave.    

After I returned, I took a bush taxi back to Gagnoa.  Although I had neglected  my diary for several months, I recall that I went back to Korhogo in the north to help the three Germans in their construction project.  While I was with them, I felt some chills and noticed a swollen spot on my leg that was about the size of a nickel and about as high as a nickel.  It reminded me of seeing a similar swollen spot that Nadine Sansonetti, my fellow Peace Corps Volunteer in Gagnoa, showed me on her leg about a year earlier. Hers was the size of a quarter and about as high as a quarter.  It turned out that she became extremely sick with malaria and had to go to a hospital in Abidjan for about three to four weeks before the doctors released her to return to Gagnoa.  “Oh, oh,” I thought,  “It looks like I’ve got malaria.”  I went to see the Dutch volunteers who worked in Korhogo as a team of around twenty members, each of whom had a special trade skill.  I went to see their nurse who gave me a shot in the butt of hydroxychloroquine or a similar Dutch drug.  Fortunately,  my symptoms disappeared totally within twenty-four hours, and I felt completely normal.  And haven’t had a problem since then.  Whatever she gave me worked wonderfully well.  Usually, we volunteers took Aralen, a version of hydroxychloroquine, as a malaria suppressant. Unlike Nadine, I faithfully took my Aralen once a week, as instructed.  As a result, that incident was the only health problem that I ever had and fortunately turned out much less serious than Nadine’s malaria.

The Germans could not speak English for the most part and spoke very little French, and I could not speak German.  Since we could not communicate well, it did not work out very well for our joint effort.  One impression I did remember.  They liked their food very hot, as in boiling hot in temperature, not hot with chili pepper.  The temperature of their food was way too hot for me, for example, boiling hot potatoes.  After a few futile weeks, I returned to Gagnoa to resume my school gardens work, when the schools reopened for the school year.

When school began the new school year, I continued my visits to the schools along the Oumé, Sinfra, Issia, Divo, and Soubré routes, plus Gagnoa.  Things moved along pretty well for several months.  Then, at the beginning of 1967, as I drove along one of my routes, my car drove over a very large hump in the road, the car lifted up in the air and slammed down on the other side of the hump.  My Deux Chevaux camionette had pretty weak shock absorbers and springs to support the car.  When I returned to Gagnoa, I took the car to the Société Commerciale de l’Ouest Africain (SCOA)(West African Commercial Company garage in Gagnoa the next day to get it checked out.  After they checked it out, they discovered the chassis was cracked.  It needed to be replaced. 

Another garage claimed they had a chassis that would work for my car.  However, when the SCOA checked the chassis a couple of weeks later, after the Peace Corps agreed to pay for the repair, they found the chassis would not work because it was too weak.  As it turned out, SCOA had to order the chassis part from France.  That would take a lot longer.  A week later, when I checked up on the progress, the garage had forgotten to order the part.  So, frustrated, I had to wait even longer.  I was very discouraged and upset with this turn of events—the accident and the delay.  However, Gerard allowed his driver Mamadou Touré to drive me occasionally to some of the school gardens.  Usually, it was not for long days but for short trips.  All was not lost, thankfully.

A couple of months later, Daniel Guerlain, my former roommate who served in the French army, returned to Gagnoa accompanied by his parents.  His parents were very nice, both polite and friendly.  His mother’s father had taught at Harvard for twelve years, as I found out when his mother mentioned that during our conversation.  When she talked, she occasionally used an English word to spice up the conversation.  We PCVs did the same thing in reverse—we would sprinkle our conversation with French words. Her ability to speak a number of English words gave me the impression she spoke fluent English.  She denied that was true.  She told me she had left the United States while she was too young.  Daniel’s parents planned to spend thirteen days in the Ivory Coast and visit especially Abidjan, Gagnoa, Sassandra, Man, and Bouaké.  Sassandra was a growing town on the coast, south of Gagnoa.  It was being developed and destined to become a tourist destination.  It was nice to see them again.

In mid-March, Monsieur and Madame D’Orfond received a house full of furniture given free from SATMACI, the association for which he worked.  They finished all the furniture in blond wood, as opposed to his other choice, red-stained wood. They expected to move into a house in town, but some reason the association moved another family into their place, which meant the D’Orfonds would remain my neighbors.  Of course, that pleased me very much.  The D’Orfonds saw this as an opportunity to remodel their house.

About the same time, I found out that the garage had finally repaired my car.  So, I started my regular visits again on Friday and Saturday.  On the first day, I was pleased to see that Dagadio and Golihoa, two mediocre schools on the Issia route, were actually working better in their gardens.  Sadly, the schools on the Oumé route had little to show, which meant I had to start over with them.  I tried to figure out a reason they should do their school gardens.  Improvement in their nutrition and patriotism did not seem to be persuasive reasons for them.  So I decided to emphasize the profitability of a garden.  Ordinarily, the school garden was not large enough to produce enough vegetables for every student.  When the students see others receive some vegetables and they don’t get any, they would grumble and murmur against the practice.  So I figured, if I suggested something like a soccer ball or team uniforms, the students would work better together to achieve their goal. Of course, if they picked their own goals, it would be even better.  Then they would show more interest and motivation.

During the Easter school break at the end of March, 1967, I drove to Danané (pronounced Dawn-a-nay) in the Northwest part of the Ivory Coast to see the Sous-Prefect, as part of my pre-planning for my summer project this year.  It surprised me to find out the Sous-Prefect was the former Sous-Prefect of Sinfra, one of my towns for my school gardens.  He had been transferred to his new post only a month and a half earlier.  I explained to him my proposed project, which was a garden in a nearby village. I offered him four reasons to urge acceptance of my idea. First was to improve the health of the villagers and their children.  Second was to show that agriculture was profitable.  Third was to teach gardening techniques to augment the harvest.  Fourth was to stop the rural exodus of young people to the large cities.

After listening patiently, the Sous-Prefect, in apparent agreement with my project, suggested that I see Mr. Louis Gomet, the Secretary-General of the Parti Democratique de la Cote d’Ivoire (PDCI)(which stands for the Democratic Party of the Ivory Coast).  The Sous-Prefect wanted me to ask him for help in selecting a village.  Since he was new to the area, he felt Mr. Gomet would be better able to help me.  After thanking him, I went out to look for the Secretary-General.  When I finally asked for help, they located him for me.  I explained to Mr. Gomet my project and requested his assistance.  He spoke to the Sous-Prefect for a few minutes and then said, “Let’s go to the village.”  I was surprised with the swiftness of events.

The village Mr. Gomet had chosen was Déahouépleu (pronounced Day-a-who-way-plew).  We borrowed someone’s pickup and drove out there.  We went directly to a special house with a bamboo curtain hanging for a door.  Villagers rolled up the door, and we entered inside.  Inside was a room about ten feet by six feet with chairs around the edges.  We sat down and waited for all to come who were coming.  Before we started at Mr. Gomet’s encouragement, I went to every notable villager present and shook their hands to greet them. Then the Secretary-General signaled for me to begin.  Speaking slowly and with breaks  to permit Mr. Gomet to translate, I explained what I wanted and my project.  While he translated my words into Yacouba, the local dialect, the villagers seemed to indicate they understood.

When we finished, I requested that we look for a garden site. They showed me three different sites, but I rejected them because those sites were too sandy.  The soil was not right for a garden.  When they showed me the fourth site, I agreed to it because it contained a lot more dirt and not just sand.  They had a fifth site to show me if the fourth site was not good.  But I reasoned that perhaps the fifth site might be too sandy, and if I rejected all five sites, I would lose the village.  After my three rejections, Mr. Gomet suggested leaving, but the villagers urged him to look at a couple more places.  That encouraged me to think the villagers really wanted to do my project.  Before I left the village, I requested a couple of things, a house in the village, and a toilet.  Then we left.   

While I was still in Danané, I tried to learn some Yacouba, the language of the Yacouba people who predominated in the region. My teachers were Seraphin, a relative of Guy Gilbert Oulay, the proprietor of the Campement (the encampment where people stayed like a motel), and Marie Oulay, Gilbert’s cousin.  One problem I foresaw was the variety within the Yacouba dialect.  As it happened, there were seven cantons or family units living right around Danané.  This complicated matters because the vocabulary of one canton varied compared to other cantons because Yacouba was a tonal language. So the same word could mean various things depending how they pronounced the word.  So the difficulty was to get the accent and pronunciation correct as well as to learn the vocabulary.

While in Danané, I met Gilbert’s wife and their son Dominique.  Gilbert stood about five feet, ten inches in height and wore a mustache with a small chin beard.  His wife was a little shorter.  They were so generous and so nice.  They invited me to eat with them for virtually every day while I visited Danané.  Three or four times, it seemed, I went to dances at the Campement.  I especially enjoyed the first dance.  I began to get acquainted with Marie Oulay, Gilbert’s cousin.  She always appeared very happy and joked with Gilbert and his wife, usually in Yacouba, and with others.  I started to feel attracted to her.  She began to tu-toi me.  As I mentioned previously, when the French talk with an acquaintance or stranger, they always use the “vous” form of you in their conversation.  When they talk with family or close friends, they use the more familiar “tu” form of you.  So when you talk with them, you know your friendship is increasing when they “tu-toi” you.  When I left Danané, Marie waved at me a long time.

The next day, Thursday, Gilbert took me to Flampleu, a Yacouba village about twelve kilometers north of Danané.  I learned later that this was Marie’s village.  I unknowingly met her father who was participating in a ceremony.  The village was celebrating circumcision rites.  In the village center, there were about twenty chairs with a large blanket-sized piece of material covering every chair.  These chairs were for the circumcised boys and girls who appeared to range in ages from seven to sixteen.  The boys were dressed uniformly in blue and white blankets, and all wore hats and sunglasses.  Their lips had been blackened.  The girls remained naked from the waist up, revealing their budding breasts.  They wore pagnes (cloths) wrapped around them from the waist down.

A mask of greeting arrived before the ceremony began.  When I asked for permission to photograph the ceremony, apparently, I neglected to greet the keeper or guardian of the mask.  That made him unhappy.  To correct my error, I hurriedly greeted him and asked for permission to photograph the mask.  The villagers demanded 200 francs CFA before they would agree.  So, I happily gave them the money.  The name of the mask was Guébon.

Before the ceremony began, the circumcised lined up. Over them, the villagers carried covering cloths ostensibly to protect them from the sun. The children of richer parents rode on Mobylettes (motor byes) in the procession.  The girls were sweating profusely.  All the circumcised kept looking toward the ground and never raised their eyes in accordance with their custom.  As the procession marched forward, other villagers the newly initiated with perfume.  At the end of the procession, the circumcised sat down in the specially dressed chairs of honor so they could watch the ceremony.  During and after the procession, groups of young men walked quickly and continually around the circumcised and chanted and sometimes chanted the names of the newly initiated. Reluctantly, I left the village when Gilbert suggested we leave.  The dancing continued for two days before stopping.  It was time for me to get back to Gagnoa.

After returning to Gagnoa from Danané, I felt extremely refreshed and very happy.  This trip apparently did wonders for me.  I felt reinvigorated after my arrangements and visit went so well.  So, it was time to resume my tours of the school gardens to finish the school year.

As the school year was coming to a close, I had the bright idea of giving the èléves (students) a final test in gardening for several reasons.  First, I wanted to evaluate how much the èléves learned during the school year. Second, it would tell me what I needed to emphasize more in the next school year.  Also, I would learn from the results.  Finally, the tests would reveal the interest of the èléves and the teachers in gardening.  I planned to use the results to encourage the teachers in the next year in the necessity of working harder for themselves and for their country. 

Here are the questions that I determined to ask:

  1. Name at least six vegetables planted in your garden.
  • What is a nursery?
  • Name four vegetables planted in the nursery.
  • In general, how much time should it take before transplanting a young plant?
  • Why does one use paillage (i.e. mulching)?  Give four reasons.
  • Name five vegetables that need mulching.
  • How does one control insects that attack the plants?  What product do you use?
  • What does a fertilizer do in the garden?  Which fertilizers are used in a garden?
  • What are the measurements of a planche in the school garden?
  1. How does one construct the supports for some of the plants, and cite two vegetables that need supports?

For question number five, the reasons for mulching were to prevent erosion (because of the heavy, erosive rains), to keep the planche humid, to suppress weeds, and to decompose and become fertilizer.  The answer for question eight was nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium.  I had to admit this was a pretty ambitious test to give and maybe a little too tough for any students as their grade level.  Nevertheless, I had to start somewhere.

Because of the tests, I was quite excited about what the overall results showed.  However, that doesn’t mean I liked the results.  But they pointed the direction I needed to take to improve.

Out of a possible hundred points, the scores were generally very poor.  My feeling was that these questions were based on what the students should have actually practiced in their respective gardens throughout the school year.  It probably made sense to exclude the questions about fertilizers and about the insecticide.  So a score of eighty would be terrific.  As it turned out, a score in the fifties was relatively good; scores in the sixties were the highest, in general.  Actually, scores in the forties were not so bad for the first year.  However, most scores fell in the forties, thirties, and twenties.  One student went all out to achieve the miraculous score of eighty! I wondered how that student achieved that.  It was incredible!

The following scores represented the highest scores in a number of particular groups or classes:  59, 48, 64, 74, 75, 63, 68, and 67.  Another group achieved scores of 63, 54, 68, 52, 60, 59, and 50.  One class achieved spectacular scores of 91, 83, 75,74,72,69, 67, 66, 66, and 65.  The student named Jean Kouadio Konan achieved 91, while Hugo Bougnon earned 83. The reason this class did so much better was because the teacher taught his students about gardening—after receiving a two-week warning of the impending test.  While I wrote down the names of the two students in my diary, I regret I did not write the name of the teacher in my diary who deserved tremendous credit for doing what the school gardens program wanted the teachers to do.  Most of the other schools, if not all, were also warned about the final test, but maybe they were not as motivated to prepare their students.

The low scores indicated to me that generally the teachers and students lacked interest in agriculture.  This showed the influence of the teacher to encourage students toward a career in agriculture.  If the teacher was indifferent to agriculture, as evidenced by a lack of preparation and study for the final test, it allowed the student to have the same indifferent attitude.  When the teacher accepted the responsibility to teach gardening techniques to their students, the students performed better on the test.

This concludes our discussion about “Return to West Africa”  and when we had an unexpected encounter, how I successfully returned to the Ivory Coast, my unfortunate accident, how I coped with that challenge, and how I successfully arranged to work in a village for my summer project.

Next time, I want to talk with you about my village Deahouepleu” where I helped the villagers set up a village garden, the unexpected volunteer to help me, the challenges we faced, and how we met them.  Interesting insights into life in a village await us.