Before going away to Franceville we consulted a travel agent's and found out that we would have to pay nearly 1 milion francs (almost 1500 euros) if we wanted them to organise our trip. Of course, this was out of the question and thus we were left with the only alternative: organise the trip alone. You'd think it's easy - you call up some people, book some hotels, talk to the guides... well, nothing is easy in Africa. However, we did tackle the challenge rather satisfactorily and met a few interesting people. I think they deserve a more detailed presentation.
Hilaire is the guide who picked us up at the train station and whom we'd contacted from Libreville. He works for the Eco-Museum of Franceville and can organise your stay in the area in the sense of giving you contacts and letting you know what you can do. He also works for an eco-turism organisation associated with WCS. The organisation is based in Kessala, a village not far away from Hilaire's birth place. Large numbers of elephants live near the village and thus Hilaire came up with the idea of making them a tourist attraction. It is important to make the villagers see that they can make money off the elephants, because this is the only way to stop poaching. Hilaire sees that Kessala needs to open up for tourists: maybe give them something to eat? Maybe show them some of their traditions? It is difficult to work with the villagers, as they don't really understand the idea of attracting tourists. They don't trust Hilaire and think they want to use them in some, as of yet unknown, way. The guides were thus rather mediocre and it was from Hilaire and not from them that I found out that elephants admired white women.
Papa Jerome and the Kessala village
Papa Jerome is the president of the eco-turism organisation and takes his role quite seriously. He let us camp by his house and took us for a walk in the evening, having put on what I assumed was his finest jacket. He is a little man and you have to at least smile when you see him put on his glasses to read a message on his mobile. After we came back from our elephant hike, we showed our pictures to the male representation of the village and they asked us to send them the pictures. We should send photos to them directly, mind you, because if we send them to Hilaire he will keep them for himself (I strongly believe they think Hilaire's Franceville house is crammed with pictures that he didn't share).
The village itself was quite an experience. It was startling to see tin huts with mud floors and mobile phones charging inside. Progress is everywhere, or maybe just bits and pieces of it. We asked why women spoke no French and were informed that they must get married instead of going to school. We thus asked about marriage and dowry and Papa Jerome told us that when a girl is twelve or so she is chosen a husband and then the trial period begins. When the man feels ready, he tells his fiance's parents that he wants her to live with him and they continue with the trial period until they are around twenty. The dowry consists of money, animals, food... whatever you have to spare. Having said all this, Papa Jerome looked at Jandro and asked: How much is the dowry chez vous? My boyfriend smiled and answered that he paid nothing for me. Jerome processed for a moment and concluded: Trial period. You can take her to live with you but you can still change your mind. Oh how safe it makes me feel!
We met Roger when we were looking for a taxi which could take us to Leconi (100 km away from Franceville). We negotiated the price and got into what turned out to be a death cab - he drove so fast and so dangerously that I thought we would crash on every turn. After a while he started chatting to Jandro (he requested that the gentleman sat in the front "for our security") and we found out several things about him. He is from Bongoville (the native town of president Bongo) but he travelled to Italy and France. He loves nature and hunting and thus he chose to settle in Gabon. He plays music. Roger was not only a driver, he actually turned out to be a very good guide. He stopped the car several times to show us pretty views and told us interesting things about the area. Then he took out his mobile and had us listen to a song recored by his band, Ngoss Brothers. The song was pretty good and sounded interesting (they sing in teke) and we asked if he could sell us a CD. When he picked us up from Leconi in the afternoon, the front seat of the cab was occupied by a guitar. He sold us a CD and took us to Bongoville, to see the bar he plays in. Then we went back to Franceville and had dinner together. He took us home and played Aisha for us. He promised to call us up when he came to Libreville.
I must say I really enjoyed this aspect of our trip. We were with real people, making chance acquaintances, getting to know Gabon a bit more. For five days we saw no white people. Libreville does feel rather European now.