‘And where’s that?’ was the most frequently encountered response to my saying I was to travel to Gabon. Over months of studying ill-drawn and out-dated maps I had narrowed the answer to the geographically simplistic “armpit of Africa”, cockney rhyming slang for Bight of Biafra. ‘Why?’ was a question more difficult to answer.
Travelling has not been a family preoccupation. Neither of the grandfathers had single-handedly held back marauding communists during the nineteen fifties. In fact, the first time my paternal grandfather travelled by plane was for a wedding in Malta in 1977. Kin had not kept India British or China Chinese.
Until only a few years ago my family’s most intrepid destination had been Lower Saxony. Following in the footsteps of my forbears would involve catching a bus to Sussex.
Having spent weeks alone in the wilds of Ghana, and Singapore, the forests of Gabon posed me no immediate fears. The fears only began to surface some minutes on. Though there had been no report for some years of Ebola virus, which kills you and the people who come to help without so much as a mosquito bite, there were various dysenteries, malaria, dengue and yellow fevers, sleeping sickness,
cholera, rabies and the pronunciation of schistosomiasis to contend with. Part of my answer to the question ‘why?’ was what held a mirror to the myriad of potential diseases: the number of desirable fauna, including lowland gorilla, which call Gabon home.
My answer also included an interest in learning hands-on of Gabon’s culture and history; and in part I confess, because few people had heard of the place. We know almost nothing of Gabon in Britain, which is perhaps the result of stability precluding its name appearing in the headlines. The desire to visit began after reading about the foundation of 13 national parks throughout the country, covering its vastly differing habitats of rainforest, savannah, swamp, coastline and the animals that live there. The desire became more intense when I learnt of the relative difficulty in getting there and Gabon’s Francophile tendencies. French had never been a strongpoint, and would need revision. However, the thought of sitting in African equatorial rainforest surrounded by the hum of biomass, eating fresh baguettes smothered in chicken liver paté while drinking Burgundy, tickled my imagination. Almost everything in Gabon is imported. With Atlantic Ocean to the West and the small matter of the gigantic Congo basin forests receding into the East, there is very little other choice. All of this, of course, causes Gabon’s reputation as très cher: not something I was looking forward to as a new member of the job market.
The fears remained; all that might go wrong, a list as long as an aged Guinea worm. But my biggest fear, and most irrational, as a new member of the job market was to convince my boss that I should take a large lump of my annual leave all in one go. I was unnerved although I knew the answer should be yes. I worked harder, but everything I tried failed. I waited; learnt French; and tried to put myself
in the mindset of the former President of the Gabonese Republic. As a man who was in power since the breakup of Gondwanaland, El Hadj Omar Albert-Bernard Bongo must have developed powerful means of getting his own way. After all, Bongo did get his home town remained in his honour, even if Bongoville is just a small town with a small town mentality in the middle of some jungle. He managed (with the help of a few French paratroopers on occasion) to keep his head, while all around him were loosing theirs. Perhaps, just perhaps, like here in Britain, some of those means were legal. Bongo surely had no fear.
I would have no fear. I would bat away disease with the back of a palm and a fistful of prophylaxes. I would scare charging hippopotami into psychotherapy. And I would do it alone. I just needed to talk to my boss.