A Writer Writes

Martha Stewart of Gabon
by Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 1996–98)

Fame is a fickle food
Upon a shifting plate . . .
— Emily Dickinson

THEY CALLED ME “the Martha Stewart of Gabon.” It was meant to be funny — young Peace Corps Volunteers’ inclination to make light of everything around them, in order to survive the harsh realities of life at their remote posts — but like most jokes and cartoons, it derived its humor precisely from its proximity to raw truth. Indeed, apart from the fact that Martha and I lived in different worlds, we actually had a lot in common.
     We are about the same age (she is four years older), about the same height and coloring. We were both the eldest daughters of working-class families from suburban New Jersey. We were both scholarship students at college on 116th Street and Broadway in Manhattan — she, at Barnard; I, at Columbia. We were both, briefly, fashion models. We are both divorced and mothers of one child, both daughters, born the same year. Most of all, we were both food-obsessed professional caterers for a time and passionate homemakers for all time.
     In the realms of wealth, power, and fame, however, Martha and I were at opposite ends of the spectrum, and that was just fine with me. As an essentially shy person with simple tastes, I had never wanted to be famous or rich or, god forbid, wield power over others. Somehow, I’d always only seen the down-side of these great American ambitions — such as the loss of privacy and cherished solitude and the exposure to public scrutiny and judgment.
     “How dreary,” Emily Dickinson wrote, “to be Somebody! How public — like a Frog — To tell your name — the livelong June — To an admiring Bog!” From the moment I first read these words in high school and wrote them on the walls of my mind, I knew it would never be my life’s goal to be a Somebody in the Bog.
     The real Martha Stewart, though, rose from her humble beginnings to reach empress status; and she knew how to carry it off. Referred to in the press as “the diva of domesticity,” “the paragon of domestic virtue” and “the queen of all things house and home,” Martha Stewart became famous all over the media-watching world. I, on the other hand, at least for a short while and among a small band of Peace Corps Volunteers, became famous as “the Martha Stewart of Gabon” — a place where the real Martha Stewart truly wouldn’t care about fame.
     The label stuck when it went into print. In a write-up for the December ’96 issue of a monthly Peace Corps-Gabon newsletter, Cindy, the Volunteer posted in Koulamoutou, told of the Thanksgiving dinner 18 of us new Volunteers had had at her house. “. . . With Bonnie leading the way in the kitchen,” Cindy enthused, “we had a feast that was incredible. . . . turkey . . . stuffing . . . mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans . . . carrots, feuilles de manioc (okay, that isn’t really traditional, but we are in Gabon!), pumpkin pie, apple tart and bread pudding! Bonnie was the true Martha Stewart of Gabon. She made sure that everything came out perfect — right down to the flowers and napkins on the harvest table. It felt like a real Thanksgiving.”
     From then on, my nickname became “Martha”; and, frankly, I was a little flattered by it. It inspired me to become a role model for these younger (roughly half my age) Volunteers: to show them, through my own lifestyle there, that although we were living in the back of beyond, in the middle of a hot, wet rainforest as dense as a head of broccoli; although we all lived on a shoestring in towns and villages where there was really nothing to buy anyway, we could rise above!
     We didn’t have to live in squalor and subsist on tinned sardines and stale cookies! We could learn to make decent-enough meals with available ingredients (and herbs and spices sent from home). We could get the knack of gracious entertaining by candlelight (since the power lines were almost always down). We could decorate the interiors of our mud-wattle huts or cement-block houses in such a way that they would be cheerful and welcoming. It’s amazing what one coat of paint can do. It became my mission to teach my fellow PCVs, by example.
     My house in Lastoursville, two degrees south of the Equator, was on the train line. There is one train in Gabon, which reaches from Libreville, the country’s cosmopolitan capital, on the Atlantic coast, to Franceville in the southeast. Lastoursville lies just south of the middle of that line, a ten-hour train trip to the capital, so Volunteers often stopped at my house in their travels. They knew I had room for them, clean sheets and dry towels, screened windows, thick homemade soup, fresh-baked bread, just-washed floors, and current issues of The New Yorker and Gourmet magazines neatly arranged on my living room coffee table.
     “This is like a real home,” some would swoon, with a tinge of homesickness in their voices.
     “But you can do it, too!” I’d tell them, launching into Martha mode. I’d show them how I built my own bed, using NIDO tins for the legs; how I made a loom for weaving doormats out of discarded plastic bags; how I used the tiny, ubiquitous, red, tomato-paste cans (washed, with both ends removed) as napkin rings; how I made tie-back curtains without the benefit of a sewing machine; how I made flowers out of dried corn husks for the dining room centerpiece bouquet; how I planted pineapple tops and forced avocado pits (in time, I had 30 little avocado trees growing in separate small containers on my front porch). So Martha.
     At one point, I even went a bit crazy with Peace Corps-issue Magic Markers. In the bedroom that Morgan, my Pisciculture-postmate, used when she came into town for mail and supplies once a week from her village 40 km away, I painted a big, rattan headboard on the wall at the head of her bed; on the wall to the right I painted a low, bed-side table, with a huge vase filled with colorful flowers on top of it. Not content with that, I surprised her by drawing a large-screen TV on the wall across from her bed. She was thrilled when she saw it — none of us had TV’s at our posts — but wondered where I’d hidden the remote.
     The decorating touch that I think the real Martha Stewart would envy today, though, was in my bathroom in Gabon. I took green markers and drew tall, wild grass from the baseboard up. I painted a clear, rain-free, baby blue sky, dotted with cotton-ball clouds, on the ceiling. At head-height, I drew a drooping, black telephone line from one corner of the room to the other, then the other, and the other, and painted colorful birds perched on it in happy clusters. And then, to express my soaring sentiments in that exuberant moment, I wrote in loopy, two-inch-high script along the drawing of the telephone line: “Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have found my own way to be free.”

Bonnie Lee Black was a food professional in New York City for ten years before joining the Peace Corps and serving in Gabon in central Africa. She now lives in northern New Mexico and teaches Essay Writing at UNM-Taos.