It is our little tradition to eat out on Fridays. Partly because we don't feel like cooking and partly because we like our little traditions, we end up in L'Embuscade or L'Emir nearly every Friday. However, as L'Embuscade seems to be on holiday and our stomachs felt too delicate to subject them to Libanese sauces, last week we were made to look for a tasty alternative. A friend recommended Perroquet (in English: parrot), a charming Gabonese restaurant in the city centre (not far away from the Grande Mosquée).
The place is simple but nice, with certain attemps at decoration clearly visible, not to mention the immortal flowery tablemats, omnipresent in African restaurants. Of course, they serve typically Gabonese dishes, so you might expect grilled chicken, boiled fish, gazelle, cow's tail, folon (mashed green stuff) with smoked fish and so on... all this accompanied by boiled banana, fried banana and manioc.
By now you're probably thinking that this post is supposed to introduce you to my new culinary discoveries, but no, today's topic is different if related: today I want to talk about the - sometimes complete - lack of integration between the Gabonese and the expatriate community. And our first visit to Perroquet showed me that, indeed, most of the time there is no integration at all. Here's what happened.
As I was happily chewing on my manioc and smoked fish folon (gotta love the green mushy stuff!), I heard the gentleman at the table next to us talk to the waitress. The only words I caught were la blanche (the white girl) and manioc, so I looked the man straight in the eye, ready for battle, convinced that he was mocking me. Are you talking to me?, I asked defyingly in French. To my surprise, the gentleman smiled, gave me the thumbs up and answered in fluent Spanish that yes, he was looking at me and appreciating what I was doing. Apparently, I was sitting there all white, indulging myself in a typically Gabonese meal, which is not at all a common picture in Libreville. We don't see many Europeans in this restaurant, he said, tactfully changing white to European.
This extremely polite exchange left me pondering two things:
Question 1: Why did I assume he was going to attack me? Answer: Previous experience. And - let's face it - my slightly prejudiced attitude. As much as I hate to admit it, I am not immune to judging people the moment I lay my eyes on them.
Question 2: Why was he surprised at our visit to Perroquet? Answer: Easy. Hardly any white people go there, which is inevitably true for other African restaurants, too.
A large part of white people in Libreville lock themselves in their own expat world. They meet at expensive restaurants, which the Gabonese simply can't afford, they only move around in cars, never taxis, they play tennis and they despise Gabon as a Third World country. Other people, like us, do what they can to live a bit of Africa every day but let's be fair: we also go to the European supermarkets and to the gym, and we don't have as many Gabonese friends as we'd like to. We do, however, venture to typically African places (like Jean Paul II or the market), enjoy ourselves, and are either given the thumbs up or frowned upon by the Africans. In spite of our huge bord-de-mer flat, I think we've seen more of African food than some Europeans who have been here for twenty years.
It is not easy to touch upon this subject, and even more difficult to exhaust it. It would be unfair to say that the integration problem lies only on the European side, as if the Africans were waiting for us with open arms. There is little confidence and willingness on both sides, which makes me doubt if any real integration is even possible. On a lighter note, however, we try. And I've met many other white people who try. And many black people who try. And certain mixed couples who beautifully succeeded. Don't give up hope, then, and keep trying!
The picture comes from here.