"Bonjour Jean. Ça va?"
My mornings in Gabon often started in such a manner as I climbed into my Rav 4 to meet the ladies for our hour long morning walk.
Joe and I's alarm would ring just after 6 am sending Joe off to the shower. I'd eventually crawl out of bed, making my way into the dining room where I'd part the white, linen curtains ever so slightly to make sure we had a daytime guard. Jean was pretty reliable and most days I'd see him bent over top of an old paint bucket wearing his purple and white tie-dyed pants as he washed his work uniform. Eventually, he'd hang it on the small line alongside the pool before stringing the hose out the gate to wash Joe's truck.
By the time I left the house two hours later, Jean's blue collared shirt would have dried and he'd be dressed for the days work. Despite buying him a couple of plastic, white garden chairs, he'd flip over the paint bucket-turned wash basin and sit on it outside the door.
My morning walk consisted of a regular route with several other ladies and it usually took just over an hour. I liked to keep the pace up and by the end, we'd be drenched partly due to exercise but mostly due to 35 degree heat with an insane amount of humidity. We'd say our 'Au revoirs' and I'd drive back to my home, this time finding Jean sat across the street with the woman who ran a small cigarette/phone credit/convenience store stand. He'd see me come around the corner, hop up and lumber back across the street to meet me.
Half the time, there'd be someone parked in Joe's spot. This used to annoy me as one of the main responsibilities of our guard was to guard our parking. We even devised a makeshift gate which could be closed when we departed just to curb those that would ignore the 'No Parking' sign on the wall but the guards would leave the gate open in case they weren't there when we pulled up leaving it vulnerable to other drivers. No amount of reasoning resulted in any change so I gave up.
"C'est qui?" I'd ask, pointing at the vehicle beside me.
"Oh, le monsieur là. J'ai dit que c'est privé mais il n'ecoute pas."
(Oh, the man there. I told him that it's private but he doesn't listen.)
I'd nod and remind him that once 'le monsieur' left, to close up the ribbons.
Most days, Jean would have something to rant about. He'd complain about the adjacent store's night guard who would leave his garbage in front of our entrance. He'd demand that I march over and confront 'le chef' and explain that his guard was useless. Sometimes he'd complain about the men urinating on the wall or the school children that always walked out in front of vehicles. Most of time, he vent about our night guard, Diallo. "He sleeps all night long when he's supposed to be working and he always leaves early before I arrive in the morning. He's really messy and the WC is a disaster." I'd nod, occasionally telling him I'd have a talk with Diallo before climbing the stairs to take a shower.
Jean was somewhere between his early and mid-fifties. In Gabon, this was considered very old. After all, life expectancy for a male sat somewhere around 57. He has a wife who would occasionally visit. Jean would bring out the plastic chair for her and he'd sit on the overturned bucket where they'd watch the downtown going-ons in silence. In all the guards we had, Jean was the most reliable. He worked his 12 hour shifts, 6 days a week and was usually on time. Near the end of our stay in Gabon, he was taking more and more time to travel to the hospital for treatment on his bad knee. I hated those days because it meant a replacement guard would come (or not) and replacement guards tended to be miserable souls who showed up several hours late, slept all day long and left several hours early.
But Jean, he was kind. He acted like a house manager. He directed the gardeners and mosquito sprayers. He cleaned the pool and informed me when the chlorine block needed replacing and he tended to the banana trees letting me know when they were ready to be cut. He filled me in on neighbourhood gossip and every afternoon, he'd meet me at my car to carry my groceries upstairs, each time, slipping off his worn shoes below despite me telling him that he could wear them inside. When something was wrong, the buzzer would start ringing incessantly and I'd know, Jean was worked up about something. I'd peek out the door and he'd beckon me down so that I could nod away as he ranted about this or that. Despite being a mostly gentle man, he had a fiery side to him but often after the rant, he'd feel better and the crisis would subside.
Having a full time guard stationed at your house 24 hours a day was a concept so foreign and uncomfortable to me when we first moved to Gabon. They knew when and where I went and who came to the house, how often I grocery shopped and what time I woke up in the morning. In the beginning, I didn't like the transparency. At one point in our second year in Gabon, I became quite ill and lay confined in the house for almost 2 weeks as I battled whatever tropical bug was fighting me. Jean caught on pretty quickly as I didn't follow my normal routines and soon, every morning he was greeting Joe with, "Et Madame?" Joe would reply in his broken French, "Pas bonne," and Jean would look down and shake his head. When I finally did surface, I could see a look of relief in his eyes as he hopped up and assisted me.
In the end, it was comforting to have him there, watching over us and keeping an eye on everything. As we prepared to depart Gabon for good, we gifted him a hat from Joe's parents' golf course and a healthy bonus in hopes to make things a bit easier for him for the next few months. I knew when we said goodbye, we'd never hear from each other again but I think of him often. I wonder how the new family treated him and how is sore knee is faring. I hoped he still had his health and I hoped he continued to watch out for those school children as they made their way to school.