It's Not Always About Us

Wednesday 23 January 2013

There is so much left to say about our time in Gabon.  When we left, I felt like I wanted to leave it to settle for awhile; I needed some space from it to see things a little more clearly and to reflect on it.  There were so many topics I wanted to cover but often I held back sometimes because I wasn't comfortable broaching those subjects while still in the country for fear of any sort of retribution and partly because I didn't want my family to worry but I do feel it's important to share them, to provide a realistic view of the complexities of living there and also to record them for myself.  While the memories are currently quite sharp, I know that as time goes on I'll start to lose some of those details and feelings.

As you know, our journey to Gabon took over a year to come to fruition and while we didn't always know that Gabon was going to be the destination, we were preparing for a big move.  By the time we actually did get on that plane to Africa, I had read and researched as much as I possibly could (there isn't a lot out there on Gabon) to try to prepare myself for the changes that were to come.  While we certainly couldn't prepare for everything, I felt ready.  I was excited and anxious but so completely ready to start the adventure.

From the beginning, I expected everything to be different and in a way, I think that helped me more than anything else.  I didn't expect to encounter any similarities between my new life & home in Gabon versus my life in Canada so it was always a nice surprise when I found one.  I knew it was going to be hard - hard to settle in, hard to fit in, hard to see what we were seeing, hard on almost every account - and I wasn't surprised when it was exactly that.  When I look back on that first year, particularly the first 9 months, I wonder how we lasted through it.  The robberies, the homelessness, the visa issues, learning to live feeling scared, Joe's particularly difficult working conditions and the consistent lack of many basic necessities would be enough to send anyone packing yet we held out and didn't give up when many of our friends, even those in Gabon who knew we had a particularly rough go, thought we might.  I think perhaps it was, in part, due to our preparedness.
The first night in our 2nd Gabonese home - Joe's truck window was smashed out.

What I did not prepare for, was how difficult that expatriation would be on our families.  I had spent so much time worrying about preparing myself, that I didn't really pause to think of the impact our decision to move overseas would have on those who care the most about us.  In the early days, our infrequent calls home were filled with details near impossible to explain to those who had never visited Africa yet we tried nonetheless.  When Joe was offshore and I was spooked after hearing a particularly unpleasant story, I shared it over Skype with my parents.  I phoned home crying after the final robbery and tried to explain that there was nothing we could do and that we couldn't rely on police nor our security to help us.  When Joe was hauled into the police station over the immigration debacle and no one knew what was happening, I detailed everything to our families.  It was so hard to explain when the society itself is so different yet I tried and always felt better after expressing my feelings.

I didn't realize that after ending that Skype call, my parents would worry.  They would worry even more when the internet would go out for several days afterwards and they wouldn't be getting updates from me.  Later on I would hear the relief in their voices when I explained that it was just the fluctuating power that week that caused my silence.  I couldn't count the number of times my Mom or sister would mutter the words, "Come home" after we faced yet another problem.

I remember in the last 6 months of our stay there was a string of armed robberies at expat homes.  It was terrifying to us as armed robberies were not very common in Port Gentil.  Our guards were unarmed, as they all were, and the recent events had us questioning our safety.  While I tried to get emergency plans from our company 'just in case' I debated chronicling it all to my family at home yet I didn't want them to worry unnecessarily.  Instead, I drove over to a friend's house and we talked it out.  I remember deciding to hold back a lot of stories because it was just so difficult to explain that if someone attempted to break-in that I was to phone my husband's boss instead of the police and hope that someone would come to our rescue.  I decided that causing fear at home wouldn't do any of us any good so it was better to keep it quiet.

When Norway came together, I had no idea the giant sigh of relief that our families would breath.  My Mom takes every opportunity she can to say, "Oh, I'm so glad you don't live there anymore."  It's evident on my Facebook page when a friend posts some crazy photo or story from Port Gentil to my wall, my Mom will always comment, "Thank goodness you're in Norway now."  Right now I'm in the middle of meeting the other expat women in Stavanger and we always list our expatriations as a way of getting to know each other, similar to, "What do you do for a living?"  Everyone is curious about Gabon and they often ask how the experience was for us.  I generally respond, "It was hard but I'm so glad we did it.  I made really great friends and learned so much about life yet we were both so happy to be moving on."

We always seem to think of the impact it had on the person living it but I'm realizing that it was just as hard on our families as it was on us, and they didn't get near the amount of reward that we did.


  1. When I was in my 20's I never thought what traveling would do to my parents. I just booked a flight and went. Now I start to realize what I put them through...

  2. i seriously can not even imagine. when parents, family and friends tell me how produ they are of me and how brave i am to move to a different country i literally look at them with a side eye and then think about you moving to gabon. i mean i have everything i could possibly need (except for my family) and even during riots and strikes i'm not worried for my safety. i just can not even imagine. i would have been out of there so fast ... actually i never would have entertained the thought of moving there... and if i was your family, you better believe i would have gone to gabon and dragged you back myself.

    but yes i understand what you mean. even just being so far away, i'm so conscious to email or message my family very often and if i know i won't have internet for awhile i always send them a message to let them know. i know they worry a lot and i want to make that worry a lot less

  3. You are so brave to face it all. I can just imagine myself crying all night with all those stories of bad experiences you've shared. Good for you, you are in a safe place now. And thanks for sharing a part of your life story. ;)

    1. Thanks Debie Grace - I'm not sure I consider myself brave though ;)

      Luckily, it wasn't all bad. We have a lot of great memories from our time there too!

  4. I too am glad you are outta there :)

  5. I can't even imagine living in those conditions. My family would freak.out. My parents even freak out now when we tell them the small differences between Korea and the states. Like not having English speaking doctors or WHAT?! You can't buy coffee creamer there?! My mom's a worrier.

  6. Hello! My husband and I came to Gabon one year ago, also with the oil industry. We live in Gamba. We are currently in POG, as my husband is sick in the hospital with some tropical bug. I was surfing the internet trying to find listings for some grocers or markets in POG and stumbled across you! We are from Wyoming, kinda close to Canada!! We will be here 3 more years. So, I'm wondering if you can recommend some shopping places?? My email is and I would be most appreciative if you emailed me. Thank you! Perhaps we can eventually meet! I'm actually pleasantly surprised with POG. Much nicer than I was led to believe. Although, after being here a year, I think the bar for us is much lower than what it was before even visiting a third-world country, let alone living in one! Anyway, I hope to hear from you!! PJ

  7. I am so in awe of your attitude through all of your experiences in Gabon. The fact that you're not bitter, not angry, not incredibly negative about it is just so... wow. I can't say I'd be that mature and diplomatic about it, especially after I felt safe away from there.
    I'm glad you're having a different experience now, and that you didn't just pack up and head home. Obviously living overseas can be so incredibly rewarding, so I'm glad you have that now. And I'm thankful you're willing to share your experiences, good and bad, with us!

  8. So proud of you two. I can't imagine learning to live in fear every day. You navigated it all with such grace.

  9. I just found this blog. It's interesting how you say "I knew it was going to be hard - hard to settle in, hard to fit in, hard to see what we were seeing, hard on almost every account - and I wasn't surprised when it was exactly that." Since you knew, why would it be any different? (My boyfriend is from Somalia, and it's interesting to hear his stories.)


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