Destinations Magazine

Four Kilometers from the Border in Gabon

By Davedtc @davedtc

gabonExcerpt from the book “Au Gabon: More Memoirs of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Central Africa” — available on Amazon Kindle.

Written in 2013 based on true events from 1999.

It was a quiet afternoon. The tone of his voice sliced through the warm air like a machete in the bush.
“What in the world does he want?” I wondered, as I moved my attention to the official in a green uniform who was signaling to me.

I was not breaking any laws, but under these circumstances I knew it would be better to act first and then ask questions later. I understood the potential consequences for disobeying a Gabonese gendarme.

I walked with haste toward him. He directed me against the exterior wall of a concrete building, where stood another officer (who wore a similar uniform and appeared to be his assistant). Nobody else was in the vicinity.

“Do you speak French?” the chief gendarme asked me in that language.

“Yes,” I replied.

He demanded to see my passport. Thank God I had it with me. I was on a two-week bike trip to Malinga, the most southern town in this region in Gabon, just four kilometers from the border of Congo. Malinga was a town of less than one thousand people, surrounded by dense equatorial rain forest.

It was late March of 1999. Today was my first time here in Malinga and I didn’t know my way around town. These two officials seemed impatient.

I wiped the sweat from my forehead and reached into my back pocket for my wallet. I handed the chief gendarme my passport. He looked at it carefully, trying to spot any errors or inconsistencies. Finding none, he began to interrogate me.

“Where do you live?” he said, sternly.

“In Mikouandza, at the home of Joseph Kobani,” I replied.

“What do you do here?” he asked.

“I am a Peace Corps Volunteer. I’m teaching fish farmers to raise fish in ponds. I’m working with Victor Mwinga. He lives in the house across the way,” I hastily explained. My French-speaking ability was not strong but I was able to make myself understood.

All these questions made me wonder if he thought I was a spy. He could have been pondering, “What is some white guy doing so close to the Congo border?” After all, there was a civil war in Congo at the time.

Villagers often suggested that I was a spy, living in Gabon to do covert work for the United States government. They could not understand why a middle-class American guy would sacrifice two years of his life to do work in treacherous conditions in Africa. “I just came here to help you,” I would reassure them.

In any event, the interrogation continued.

“Where is his pond?” he asked.

“It’s seven kilometers down the road,” I said, pointing straight ahead of me. We were standing at the town’s only intersection.

“Seven kilometers down this road here?” he replied with skepticism.

“Yes,” I said.

“But the border with Congo ends at four kilometers,” he argued.

“Oh shit!” I said to myself, but speaking softly and in English. I had unknowingly extended my arm to the south.

I regained my sense of direction and I quickly pointed down another road, towards the west.

“No, I mean this way,” I said, correcting myself.

The truth was that I had just met Mwinga a half hour earlier and I had not been to his ponds yet. He told me he had to do some work and that he would take me to see his ponds the following day. So I had put my bag in his house and I had gone for a walk around town, and I guess I ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It did not appear these gendarmes were questioning me for the sole purpose of trying to entice me to bribe them. This was too realistic. Either way, bribing is always a bad thing. It seems easy to peel off a few dollars and hand them over in order to make your troubles go away. But, it makes it more difficult for the next guy who is in your situation and does not have enough money.

Besides, contributing to the bribery system encourages officials to partake in it more often, since there is potential profit in it. If you must pay a bribe, it is best to demand a receipt, so the officials must report it as the payment of a fine and they can’t keep the money.

This was not a good moment for me to be mistaken. These two officials could logically surmise that I had been lying and they could draw the wrong conclusion about my intentions.

The chief gendarme didn’t buy what I was saying. He started to talk about the bad things that might happen, and I could see myself getting thrown in a jail for the night. What misery, I imagined. No bed, no mosquito net, no food or water, no phone call, no attorney. I was doomed.

Witnesses tell stories of beatings by gendarmes during serious interrogations. Who knows what I might confess to if I were beaten with a piece of steel rebar or a metal-riveted military belt.

I just kept shaking my head, pleading with them to believe me. Then the other uniformed man (the chief’s assistant) started to talk. He said, “You’re here to see Victor Mwinga?”

“Yes,” I replied, nodding. I looked into his eyes, screaming silently for help out of this mess.

“Oh, yes,” the man said, “I think he’s telling us the truth. Mwinga has some ponds just off the side of the road several kilometers away.

I looked back at the mean one and I noticed that he didn’t want to concede so easily.

“Did you register at the police station upon your arrival?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “I just arrived in Malinga by bicycle half an hour ago. I didn’t have time,” I added, apologetically.

Besides, I thought to myself quietly, I didn’t know I even had to do that. But, as it turns out, foreigners are required to show their identification to officials at the police station, or “brigade,” upon arrival in a new town.

You must report to the brigade at 3 p.m. to fill out the proper papers,” he barked.

I agreed to do so.

“No problem,” I said, thinking that I wouldn’t dare to arrive a minute late.

And then they let me go.

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