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A Trip Back

By: Jonathon Shacat, Front Royal, USA
2006 Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant

"Norbert est mort." Mama Antoinette said it so matter-of-factly that the magnitude of it didn't register in my mind until much later. These were three words I didn't want to hear. Norbert Makita was one of three very successful fish farmers who worked as a team to raise Tilapia in a clay pond in the village of Mbenga Mamba. I knew his death could result in drastic effects on the project.
On this day, I was in the village of Mikouandza in Gabon, Africa. I worked along the road there as a Peace Corps volunteer from 1998-2000. I had returned now, a little more than five years later, to check on the status of the projects. I was staying in this village for a few days to visit people like Mama Antionette and Papa Joseph Kobani, who were like family to me. I looked forward to traveling further down this road later in the week to Mbenga Mamba to talk to Norbert's wife, Honorine, and his brother, Ettienne Foumoulu, about their work.

In 1999, we harvested more than 100 kilograms of fish from their pond in one day. There were too many fish to sell in a small village like Mbenga  Mamba. It made
sense to bring them to the market in the town of Mbigou. But Ettienne, Norbert and Honorine were reluctant to spend money for a bush taxi ride without a guarantee they would get it back. I convinced them they had to take a risk. I said that in the end they would profit so much it would be worthwhile. Fortunately, I was right. The fish sold very quickly at market. It turned out to be a tremendous success.

Then in 2000, I told Ettienne, Norbert and Honorine to harvest the pond without my assistance. I knew Peace Corps was not going to assign another fish culture
volunteer to work with these people. I wanted to prepare them so they could do it by themselves. On the day of the harvest they were unable to find a ride into town. But we had a back up plan. The village did not have electricity and we realized the fish would go bad without a way to preserve them. So, they built a smoke rack. Again, they were successful. They harvested about 45 kilos, smoked the fish and
sold them gradually in Mbenga Mamba.

Ever since my return to the United States, I wondered what happened to the fish farmers in Mbenga Mamba. I also was curious to know updates on the other ponds in the area. There were a total of about 15 projects on the road from Mbigou to Malinga. I made a list of the four that I thought would be most successful. Besides
the farmers in Mbenga Mamba, the others were Victor Lefoumou in Mambonga, Victor Mwinga in Malinga and the team of Raphael Wombo and Daniel ibambagne in Baposso.

In February of this year I arrived in Gabon. When I checked on the projects that I had worked on there, it wasn't all good news. Some of them are no longer in existence. Others exist but are not really that impressive. One, however, has been quite successful and that was in Mbenga Mamba.

When I got to Mbenga Mamba, I talked to Ettienne about what took place since I left. He said they had harvested the pond twice and brought the fish to town to sell at market. That news was very satisfying. To me, this was like finding a sparkle of gold in a pile of dust. But I was concerned that more than a year has passed without harvesting the pond. Ettienne explained to me that Norbert's death caused considerable complications to the project. He said Honorine moved to a faraway town after her husband died. Ettienne was not sure what to do. I told him he has to find a way to move forward with the work and he agreed to do so.

I asked Ettienne what will happen when he dies. He told me his son, Desiree, will inherit the pond. I asked Desiree if his father had begun to teach him how to raise fish and he said, "Oui."


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