Peace Corps FISH Project in Gabon

Interview by Darcy Meijer, Editor of "the Gabon Letter", with Susan Stedman (FISH project; Moukoundou ‘82-’84) conducted April 2003 and published in July 2003 issue of the Gabon Letter.

Darcy: Tell me again where you were in Gabon.
Susan: I was in a little village called Moukoundou, and it was about 14 km from Lebamba, which is south of Mouila.
Darcy: Who else was there? I know Chris Gray was in....
Susan: Chris Gray was in Mouila. I would stop in and see him on my way to Libreville.
Darcy: Wasn’t Barb Benson there, too?
Susan: Barb Benson was there as well. That’s right.
Darcy: And who was in Lebamba?
Susan: Lebamba had a big ag station, so Mona (Miller) was there. And Diane...
Darcy: Ah! Yes, Diane uh, yeah. She married, um.....She was the cook in Oyem.
Susan: Yes! These were all ag volunteers who had been there a year before I got there, so they all left in a year.
Except for Mike. Mike Greven was the head fish volunteer who ended up staying on. I think he was still there last I heard.
Darcy: I’ve heard of Mike Greven. Another name that has come down, but I didn’t know him.
Susan: He’s definitely the stuff of legend.
Darcy: OK. So tell me about your job.
Susan: Lebamba had a fish station, which is a place where they had ponds where they would keep adult fish. We were using a fish called tilapia.
Darcy: You see it now in grocery stores.
Susan: Yeah, you sure do. They grow it in the U.S. in ponds that are kept warm by power plant outflow water. Because they’re tropical fish, they normally wouldn’t
survive the winters in this country. But if you’ve got a place with artificially warm water, they do pretty well. So anyway, they will grow and reproduce almost anywhere as long as it’s warm enough and stays warm. Our job was to get the culture of tilapia into the villages because what we were told was that the traditional culture of the people we were working with had been a kind of hunter-
gatherer society where the traditional role of the men had been to hunt animals in the forest as the groups of people moved around. And this government had more or
less commanded everyone to go sit in one place, somewhere on a road. The men had kind of lost their role in providing food for their families because there
was only so much game that they could hunt in the areas near the villages.
Darcy: So the government told the men they couldn’t go into the forest?
Susan: No, they didn’t tell them they couldn’t go into the forest. And again, this is what I remember from my orientation, so it should in no way be taken as gospel.
But I remember being told that there had been some kind of commandment that the people who normally would not have stayed in one place more than a year or
a season or two should establish permanent villages. And, frankly, it might have been just economic and cultural rather than something that the government really
had to enforce.
Darcy: Yes, I remember hearing that they were trying to centralize schools and hospitals. That was part of it.
(This policy was called “regroupement.”)
Susan: There you go. So what we were told was that with the people no longer being nomadic hunters, the men were kind of like out of jobs. And I know from my experience in the village that the women tended to be the ones who supported the family. The men would go out on the plantations with them to help cut down trees
maybe, but it really seemed like in a lot of cases they didn’t really know what to do with themselves. So the idea of fish culture was to get the men to spend their
time digging ponds and raising fish.
Darcy: Now tell me: What group of people was it where
you were?
Susan: I was working with the Banjabi. I don’t know if Banjabi is the language?
Darcy: I think the people could be the “Ba” part, and the “Njabi” is the language, or vice versa.
Susan: Yeah, the people were the Banjabi, and Ynzebi was the language. It’s a Bantu dialect. (Susan followed up our interview with research and wrote me that “The Gabon language map shows this area around Lebamba as speaking Punu. The
protestant mission across the river gave lessons in Ynzebi, but that may have been the local name for the language.”) So anyway, there was a fish station in Lebamba. A couple of cycles of volunteers. It had originally been established by the, I guess the Belgians or the French, and then had fallen into disrepair, and so the Peace
Corps volunteers started there and got the fish station up and running so it could produce essentially baby fish.
Darcy: Had it been started as a fish station?
Susan: Yeah.
Darcy: OK. And so you had, um, I know Mark Harris used the word “counterpart” often when he talked about fish. Were you assigned a native counterpart?
Susan: No, I was sent to find my own, and I ended up working with one in each village. Mark Harris had more of a centralized, official job running the fish station,
whereas I was doing outreach.
Darcy: OK. So you went to how many villages around this
center?
Susan: I went to about five, probably five or six villages.
Darcy: And you had little scooters.
Susan: (laughs) I had a 75-, no I think it was a 50-cc motorcycle or motorbike or whatever they were, which I loved. And I ended up buying a motorcycle when I got
back.
Darcy: That must have been fun.
Susan: Yeah, it was. It was kind of a mixed blessing. I was a lot more mobile on that motorcycle than obviously I would have been on foot.  However,  I was unable to
take six people to the hospital or help people haul firewood or manioc or whatever. The villagers were very excited to hear that they were getting a Peace Corps
volunteer because they figured I would be like the ag volunteers who came with trucks. And so when I showed up, it was not a truck, it was a stinky little motorbike;
they were a little disappointed.
Darcy: No room for regimes de bananes or goats on that.
Susan: Exactly. But I had a good time riding that.
Darcy: So you rounded up counterparts in the villages and then, did you work hard to convince them of the merits of the program? Was it easy to get a team together to dig the pond and stock it?
Susan: There was always at least one or two people in the village who already knew of other ponds, who had maybe seen the ponds in Lebamba or there was a
person in the village that I lived in, in Moukoundou, who had ponds of his own already. Again, they had been built earlier by the Belgians or the French, I forget who. So his name was Jean-Paul; he already had ponds. He was the first person I worked with. And then every village I went to there was at least one or two people who had heard about ponds and was willing to give it a try. And for the most part they were the people who really wanted to better their place in life. They knew that the ponds would bring them money and more food, and um, honestly I have never seen people work so hard before for so little because to build a fish pond the first thing you have to do is find a site. You have to find a site with water and clay soil, so that when you build your pond the water won’t all leak out. And so I spent a lot of time walking around in the jungle. And I was so amazed that we would spend hours walking through the jungle on things that didn’t look very discernibly like paths to me, and not end up completely lost. They always got me home, you
know! (laughs)
Darcy: There were no flat areas, nothing like fields?
Susan: No no. The part of the country I was in was all rainforest. And all very hilly.
Darcy: Where did you get these tilapia? Did you get them....I know very little. Did you get them as hatchlings?
Susan: We got them as what were called “fingerlings” because they were about as long as your finger. So once the farmer had found a site, the next thing he had
to do - and this was the heroic task - was clear away the jungle from an area that was usually at least 100’ by 100’.
Darcy: Oh boy!
Susan: They had to cut down huge trees, cart them away, get rid of all the underbrush. It was an enormous task. And they did it with machetes.We’re not talking chain-saws here.
Darcy: How many days was that?
Susan: Um, that would take a couple months. And then what we would do to create ponds was we wouldn’t dig a pond. We would throw up earthen dams across the
valley that the stream was going through. And we  would redirect the stream around the side of the pond. So imagine a valley with a small stream going through it.
You would throw up a dam and direct the stream around it along the bottom of the valley, and you could get maybe three or four ponds. We were really shooting for six.
Darcy: So that was a big part of choosing a site, finding a river that was not too far away then. Right?
Susan: Well, actually, most of them really were pretty far away (laughs).
Darcy: So you would erect a little earth.....My husband’s
Dutch; he knows all about these things - “Land of Dikes.”
Susan: (laughs) Yup. They would usually be about 100’ long, 6-8’ high, maybe 6-8’ wide at the base and tapering at the top to about 2 or 3’ across - you could
walk across them.
Darcy: I had no idea.
Susan: It was a huge huge task, and it was accomplished with shovels and wheelbarrows.
Darcy: Wasn’t it ever possible to find a place where the water table was near the surface and dig down?
Susan: If you did that you wouldn’t be able to drain the pond. And one of the problems with tilapia is that they reproduce like crazy. If you put a couple tilapia in a pond, they’ll do just fine; they’ll get real big, they’ll produce lots of children. Their children will get not so big and produce more children. Or if we didn’t have any pipes we would just drain the pond. We would just chop a hole in the dam and drain the water out. And I would go to the fish station...I made saddle bags for my motorcycle out of burlap bags and put plastic bidons in them. You remember those? I would go to the station, and they’d give me little fingerling fish, and I would put them in the
bidons with the water and then ride furiously to get them to the pond before they died.
Darcy: Where did these fish come from? They weren’t native to Gabon, were they?
Susan: You know I’m not sure. Tilapia are tropical. Now I actually think some of them are native to Africa, but some of them might have also been Asian imports. But the family is definitely.....
Darcy: Tropical
Susan: Tropical, and the reason we were using them is that they reproduce easily and eat almost anything.
Darcy: I heard that they have a very mild taste and can be incorporated easily into local menus.
Susan: I wouldn’t be surprised. They’re very bony - that’s the one drawback. But the people I was living with had a wonderful habit of just spitting things out on the ground if they weren’t edible (laughs). So once we stocked the pond with the fingerlings it would take about six months for them to get to be dinner-plate sized fish, and it would be time to drain the pond. And that was always a pretty amazing affair because everyone in the village would come, and we would put a net across the pipe or the hole in the dike so nothing would get out. And we would drain the water out, and the pond would just be full of mud, and the fish would be hiding in the mud. So everybody from the village would descend into the mud.
Darcy: Mud wrestling!
Susan: Yes, basically it was a village mud wrestling event, and the prize is the fish. My job was to make sure we got enough fingerlings back to restock the pond. The
guy who owned the pond would give fish to his family and to people who had helped him with the pond. And give one or two fish to the people who had helped him
catch them. Then he would take the rest and go back to his village and sell them.
Darcy: Wouldn’t it have been possible just to drag a net instead of draining all that hard-earned water?
Susan: Well, the water actually wasn’t hard-earned. Remember we were building these ponds in stream valleys, so the water was just there pretty much all the
time. One of the reasons was that the tilapia reproduce constantly, so you’ve got to get the pond emptied out. Otherwise, you’ll have so many young tilapia that
they’ll never get beyond a couple inches big.
Darcy: So this was the best way to get all the fish out.
Susan: Right. And you actually leave the pond dry for a couple weeks to make sure you killed any of the little fish that were left. The ones that we saved we put in a
holding pond.
Darcy: Ah!
Susan: Once the pond was dry and we were sure we were starting fresh again, we would fill it up again. Yes, you could run a net through. I guess you could fish for
tilapia although no one ever wanted to. We were there to help them have enough of a harvest to sell the fish and make some money. And the idea with having six ponds
is that you could harvest a pond a month and have a regular source of income. Now I only had one farmer who got to that point in two years. So that’s how it
worked. We had some great mud fights, and it was very hard work. In the two years I was there it was just getting things started. There was a volunteer that replaced me -
his name is Jeff - and he kept working with the villagers, and I kept in touch with him. Last I knew he was working essentially with the same people I started with and just
getting them to build one more pond.
Darcy: Your experience was worthwhile, it sounds like.
Susan: Oh yeah! (laughter) My experience was very very worthwhile for me. I know I made a difference in people’s lives just in terms of them having a chance to
get to know me.  You know, whether any of the farmers I worked with saved enough money to send his kids to college I seriously doubt, but they really didn’t have any
other options.
Darcy: You might have sown a seed that will show in a generation or so.
Susan: I would like to think so. Unfortunately, I’ve read things about Gabon over the past 20 years that make we wonder. I’ve heard the economy’s really changed and
that life got pretty hard for people, so I don’t know.
Darcy: What is your fondest memory of Gabon?
Susan: That would be the village that I loved working in the most - Idembe. It was not on a road that cars could pass on, so I had to either walk 7km from the main road,
or I came on motorcycle. It was one of the older kinds of villages with a village square. The houses were all made with the traditional materials as opposed to the
to le rooves. I would stay there overnight when I went to work for people. I remember waking up in the morning to the smell of the wood smoke and the roosters and
looking outside and seeing the mist coming off the forest. It was just this big sigh - “Ah! This is Africa! This is what I came for!”
Darcy: Did you have any little bar where you could dance?
Susan: We went into Lebamba when we wanted to drink beer and listen to music on the radio and talk to other Americans. We only did that about once a month. The
village I lived in also had its own sources of entertainment (laughs). Just going to people’s houses and watching their kids play or do you remember those festivals called retraites de deuil? A year after someone died there would be a big party? There were those periodically.
Darcy: With a lot of bush meat! Palm oil and monkey mix!
Susan: I have two small daughters: one is seven and one is three. And the older one sometimes at the dinner table will say, “Mommy, tell me the story about when you
ate the caterpillars”, or “Tell me the story about when you had goats for dinner.”
Darcy: They would eat that up! What are you doing now?
Susan: I work at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) now, but rather than growing fish I work in habitat protection. I’m a wetlands scientist, and I work
in the headquarters office just outside of Washington, DC. I work in policy evaluation, trying to establish programsthat will protect wetlands.

Darcy: Is there anything else that you’d like to say?
Susan: In the years since I came back I’ve rethought
some of the things that we were told in training.
Darcy: Me, too!
Susan: We were told that we were sent there to get
people to grow  fish because they had this huge protein
deficit in their diet. And, you know, I read the book Diet
for a Small Planet and of course got converted to
vegetarianism and the opinion that people don’t actually
need as much protein in their diets as the USDA would
like us to think we do. I never saw any symptoms of
protein deprivation in the people I worked with and,
furthermore, they ate a lot of manioc leaves which are
very high in protein. So I suspect that the dietary reasons
we were told were there were probably not as dire as we
were led to believe.
Darcy: What are the symptoms of protein deficit?
Susan: Bloated stomach and reddish hair. Now the kids
did have bloated stomachs, but that’s because they
were stuffing themselves on manioc!
Darcy: You think so?
Susan: Oh, I know so! I watched these kids eat! It’s
probably not true everywhere in Gabon, but where I was
living there was plenty to eat. It was the same old stuff
over and over again, and I’m sure fish was a very
welcome addition to the diet. So I’m not saying I wasn’t
there for a good reason, but I think I was there for a
cultural more than a nutritional reason.