Forging strong friendships, making a difference, experiencing new things. These are just a few of the many amazing parts of this trip. This was the last week of our time here and we ended in an incredible way. Three key experiences made this week as special as it was.
First, on Wednesday we graduated our English Training class and finished up our teaching. The next day an event was organized where our mission commander, Lt. Col. Kelly Broome (A Boy Scout leader in the United States), Cadet Stephen Hoeprich and Cadet Nick Carella (both Eagle Scouts), and Cadet Jeff Cader attended a meeting of the Gabonese Scouts. Here we shared our experiences with Scouting in the United States and took part in a campfire organized by the local Scouts. Finally on Friday, we completed our humanitarian mission with the assistance of our English class and said our final goodbyes to them.
The graduation for our class was held on Wednesday afternoon. Cadets and students gathered in a room while cadre organized certificates. Gabonese press was present and covered the event with both photo and video. The students were very proud of their hard work, and the Cadets were just as proud of their students’ success. This was a very big moment for some of them, so everybody wanted to take pictures. We were there for a solid hour after the ceremony taking pictures and celebrating with the students.
“It is amazing to see how our work paid off,” said Cadet Stephen Hoeprich.
Many students showed marked improvement in speaking, reading and writing English over the short three weeks. Students and Cadets also got to know each other very well in their small groups and learned an great deal about each others’ respective cultures. All of the Cadets here can also say that they have made some good friends with the students in their small groups.
The students were not out of school yet, though. Cadets spent Thursday talking and exchanging gifts with their students. Gifts such as boonie hats, patches, and even an American football were given as tokens of appreciation.
Back in the United States, Broome is an assistant scoutmaster in the Boy Scouts of America and a venture crew leader. As a special operations officer with the Texas National Guard who travels often, he likes to find the Scouts in each country if there is a program. Broome and Cadets Stephen Hoeprich and Nick Carrela (both Eagle Scouts) planned a “cultural exchange” with the Scouts.
Cadet Jeff Cader came along as well. We made a slideshow with our pictures and showed it to them while talking about American Scouting. Their organization is very different than Scouts in the United States. They have both girls and boys and are also a Catholic-led group. However every one of them wears a patch called the world crest, which Boy Scouts wear on their uniforms in the U.S.
The Scouts here blend the intense tribal culture of Africa with regular Scout traditions, and that creates a very interesting effect. They started their meeting with clapping, singing and dancing. When they clap they do it in polyrhythm, which is when groups clap different rhythmic patterns at the same time, and they all blend into one rhythm.
They gave us gifts, as is customary in Africa, and lit a massive campfire. There was some sort of tribal-like ritual for lighting the fire that involved face paint and masks. Then everyone (about 50 Scouts and leaders) joined in a circle and sang, danced and clapped for literally two hours straight. This was no casual campfire with halfhearted skits and songs. These Scouts were ultra-high energy. Their leaders would pull people out of the circle (Cadets included) and make them dance in the center for a while. After the campfire, we spent a long time taking pictures with everyone until we physically couldn’t smile anymore. As former Scouts themselves, Hoeprich and Carrela were moved by the experience, which brought back fond memories.
“It is good to see that the spirit of Scouting is alive and well in Gabon,” said Broome.
On Friday, we performed our humanitarian mission with the assistance of our students. Broome runs a not-for-profit NGO, Sights Unseen, that makes glasses for children. However, these glasses are very cheap to make and the prescription can be adjusted. The lenses are made from silicon oil, which is 100 percent clear, and by adjusting the amount of oil in a vacuum, you can change the shape of the lens, making it more convex or concave.
The children can do this themselves by rotating small knobs on the side until it is just right. Then the lenses can be sealed, the knobs removed and the glasses are permanent. Cadets handed these glasses to the children and instructed them on how to turn the knobs while students translated and helped the children. Cadets also sealed the lenses and showed the children how to properly care for the glasses. For many of the children, this was the first time they would have glasses, or see clearly.
After these glasses were handed out, Cadets and students said their final goodbyes to each other. The students surprised us by giving generous gifts. Each Cadet and cadre received a hand-carved stone map of Gabon with their names on it and a book on the National Parks of Gabon.
“We are beyond grateful for your traveling to our country and teaching us,” said Wilfried Matteya, a captain in the Gabonese Army and the de facto speaker for the students. “Everyone will be missed.”
CULP has been an incredible experience for everyone involved. Eyes have been opened, friends have been made, and two completely different cultures worked together to do great things. Hopefully these two cultures will interact again in the same way because the friendships built here between people lead to friendships between nations.