A Small Rant

5 08 2011

I received a piece of mail yesterday and it sparked a frustration that has been burrowing inside me (and Joe) and I’d love to get it off my chest.

Africa is a continent and it is HUGE!  It is the second largest continent with the second largest population (behind Asia.)  It has 54 countries – 54, that’s a lot – and it’s home to over 1 BILLION people.

Simple lesson here: Africa ≠ South Africa

South Africa is 1 out of 54 countries on the continent of Africa.  So when I say I live in Africa, it does not mean I live in South Africa.  (You would be surprised how often we get that response!)  Should be fairly simple however, even some major organisations have had troubles with this concept.

1.  Royal Bank of Canada addressed a piece of mail to me as

Jay St John
BP ****
Port Gentil, Gabon, South Africa

RBC – you should be ashamed.

And even worse…

2.  The IRS (Yes, the Internal Revenue Service of the USA)

did the exact same thing on mail addressed to Joe.

Now that is embarassing.

Ahhh  – I feel much better.  Thank you for indulging me.


If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Another

1 04 2011

Today is the day we are to depart to South Africa.  We had issues with Joe’s passport and Joe getting here in time and the trip was subsequently delayed by one week.  Joe has been working like mad this week to get all of his work done before leaving and everything seemed to be in order.  His passport was sent to get the exit visa and we awaited its return Friday morning in time for our Friday evening flight.

So it makes complete sense that the Oil Worker’s Union decided to go on strike TODAY!  We heard rumours last night that it might happen at midnight but no one knew for sure.  It was confirmed this morning when Joe arrived at the office to find all locals absent.  (They eventually did show up to gather outside the gates and discuss the current situation.)  Apparently, the plan is for all members on strike to gather at a common point this morning and march to the big oil companies here such as Total and Sogara Refinery.  Their plan is to shut down those offices (I’m not sure how) and then to move on to the smaller companies, like Halliburton, Weatherford, etc.  Currently, there are some expats at the office but a local has cautioned that it might be a good idea to head home soon because you can never be sure what might occur with a large group of protesters.  Joe has set up his office at the dining table in the common kitchen of the staffhouse.

Our one issue standing between us and South Africa is Joe’s passport.  A local employee takes care of all travel and visa issues and she has sent Joe’s passport for the exit visa with a local agent.  We tried to phone the agent this morning to get Joe’s passport back and I politely tried to explain our situation to him in French when he not-so-politely responds that he only deals with Mama H (the local employee, and yes, it does sound like the Mob) and that we are not to call him.  We’ve passed it on to the HR manager here, an expat, and he went to the agents office to find him missing.  He will continue to track him down and hopefully return with the passport in question.

Barring any other major disasters and the return of Joe’s infamous passport with the exit visa intact, we’ll get the heck out of here tonight!  I will update you of any new developments and I really hope that by the time our Western friends at home wake up and read this, that all is solved and we are preparing to head to the airport.

Unfortunate Updates

24 03 2011

Funny enough, I wrote the last post and ever since then, all we’ve heard about is Gabonisation.  I do want to make one clarification.  I mentioned that the worker’s union and government in Gabon were working towards having 90% of all positions filled by Gabonese people.  I failed to mention that does not count the fact that they want all executive positions to be held by locals as well.

This week we’ve been told that the worker’s union is unhappy with the progress thus far and they want the process of Gabonisation sped up.  The president has asked them to be patient and tried to explain that these things take time but that did not subside the frustrations and they have announced a strike to begin Sunday at midnight.  From what I hear, this affects every aspect of every oil company and service company right down to the gas stations.  We’ve been told to fill up the cars and make sure anything needed from the office is brought home as there will be absolutely no access once the strike begins.  Apparently, police will patrol the buildings and escort you out if you are there.  No one knows how long it might last.

On top of all of that...

Joe and I were to head to South Africa tomorrow.  We were having issues with his passport renewal and I was working frantically for the last week and a half to ensure that it gets here in time for our flight tomorrow night.  While it seems I’ve succeeded, unfortunately Joe will not be here.  He went offshore a week ago yesterday to run a job that has of course, encountered several problems and the job has stretched from being a few days to a couple of weeks.  The base here is ridiculously understaffed and there is no one to replace Joe so we are forced to postpone our holiday.

Trust me, I’m not happy about this especially after all of the other issues we are dealing with right now but there is really nothing I can do about it.  I have been working all day on rescheduling everything for exactly one week later than planned and am hoping to see it all come together this afternoon.  We certainly need this holiday now more than ever!

One For All

19 03 2011

If you hadn’t already guessed, things are very complicated here.  As with any society, there are inner workings that you never fully understand until you’ve lived it and felt the effects of it.  This is one of the reasons I was so keen to take an overseas live-in position.  While we both like to travel, you can only learn so much in your few weeks time in that region; it’s living there that really opens your eyes to the complexities of the country.  Our eyes have certainly been opened over the last 8 months.

Imagine the worker’s unions that everyone loves to hate at home.  Now imagine that every single person in the country belongs to said union.  That is how Gabon is run.  I can’t tell you exactly when this union came to be and I can’t tell you the specific reasons it was formed but I can hypothesize that the Gabonese government wanted to put something in place to protect the local employees with all of these foreign companies setting up shop here.  In theory, it was probably a good idea.

In reality, it makes it extremely difficult to do business here because of the regulations put in place by this union.  Right now, all local employees work from 7:30-3:30 Monday to Friday with a half an hour break for lunch.  At 3:30, a bell rings and it doesn’t matter if you are in the middle of something important, all local employees pack up and leave.  When they are required to go offshore, as some are in Joe’s business, they earn 1 day off for every day they are there.  Sometimes, jobs can have them out there for a week or more and the 3 or 4 local employees out there are then entitled to one full week off work.  It doesn’t matter that they might otherwise be working 7:30-3:30, it is still a full day off.  This isn’t mentioning that they are legally only allowed to work 20 hours of overtime per week; overtime beginning at 3:30.  This means, companies here require double or triple the employees they would at home.

As with many unions, once hired, that employee is basically signed on for life.  It doesn’t matter if they literally refuse to do their job (as one person blatantly did in front of Joe) they will not be fired because of all the loopholes in order to release someone. I have heard of some companies trying to fire people but often times a racism charge is brought forward and because the legal system is not trustworthy nor reliable, many want to avoid it entirely.

The government in Gabon has brought forward a plan of Gabonization.  In a few years time, they want all foreign companies to employ 90% local Gabonese people.  Companies here try to employ locals whenever possible as, lets face it, they’re a lot cheaper than expats.  However, the lack of accountability and urgency in anything coupled with union restrictions makes it near impossible for them to do their job to the standard needed for international business.

Of course, this is only a problem when working with international companies.  Trying to mesh 2 completely different systems and work ethics aren’t easy and I sometimes wonder, is it really worth it?  We can’t force people to do things ‘our’ way but we also can’t run an international business on Gabonese time (nothing would get done!)  I’m not even confronted by this on a daily basis but Joe certainly is and I know it is extremely frustrating for him.

I do, however, try to remind ourselves that maybe we can learn something from this way of life… work isn’t always everything.  I try to encourage Joe to pack up when the bell rings at 3:30 at least once in awhile.  Life is too short!

A Short Political History of Gabon

28 01 2011

**Note: This is my understanding and may or may not be fully accurate.**

Gabon was originally inhabited by Pygmy people and then Bantu tribes as they moved into the area.  The first Europeans arrived in the 15th century although it wasn’t until the late 1800’s that France officially began to occupy the area.  In 1910, Gabon became part of French Equatorial Africa and it remained under French rule until 1960 when it finally gained it’s independence.  Just this year, Gabon celebrated it’s 50th year of independence.

Leon M’ba became Gabon’s first president with Omar Bongo Ondimba as vice president.  It is widely known that the French government funneled a lot of money into his campaign in order to continue their logging exploits in the country.  When M’ba took power, it was not long until he abolished all other political parties and took a dictator role.  There were widespread riots and an attempt to overthrow the government but the French government intervened and sent the army restore M’ba to power.  M’ba remained president until his death in 1967 when vice president Omar Bongo succeeded him.

Omar Bongo dissolved the current political party and created his own one-party state.  He continued this until public perception forced him to bring multi-party politics to Gabon in 1990.  He was ‘elected’ as president several times and ruled Gabon from 1967 until he died in 2009.  Throughout his rule, there were several claims of fraudulent election results but he remained president for a whopping 42 years.  Omar Bongo was widely criticized for doing more for France than Gabon and many people questioned why the wealth from the massive oil revenue was not seen throughout the country when apparently, Bongo had hundreds of millions of dollars in his own bank account.  (Something not uncommon in many African countries.)

Upon his death, elections were held again with 18 candidates running.  Omar Bongo’s son, Ali won the election with 42% of the vote.  Things brings us to the recent past.  After the elections, the opposition rejected the results and riots began in Port Gentil (the home of the party.)  You can still see some remnants of what most people refer to as ‘the problems’ in the Total area of town.  Total is the French oil company that has the largest stakes in Gabon.  Apparently, the opposition felt that Total had helped to rig the election in order to preserve their current oil contracts.  I don’t think any expats were harmed and many of the companies brought their foreign employees to safe areas of town (barricaded by the army.)  The riots were soon under control and everything returned to the normal, peaceful existance here.

This week, another opposition leader declared himself president in Libreville and introduced the cabinet he had formed (apparently inspired by the events in Tunisia, Ivory Coast, and now Egypt.)  He claimed that it was time that Gabon had a president they actually wanted.  He has now sought refuge in the UN offices as a government official warned that he has committed treason and could be charged.  His supporters have taken to the streets in Libreville and have had some clashes with police.

We have seen nothing here in Port Gentil and we are keeping our fingers crossed that everything ends quickly and peacefully.  Joe’s boss has reassured us that everything is fine and there is no need to panic however, should things arise, safety precautions will be taken.  (Last time, they moved all expats to the Ranch, our old hotel, where it was protected by the French army.)  However, we are preparing ourselves by stocking up on food in case something flares up and stores close.  Luckily, we live no where close to the Total compound which has previously been the target.

As it stands now, we have nothing to worry about and the situation is much, much milder than those in the other African countries right now.  We’ll keep you posted if anything unfolds!

The Ridiculously Long and Complicated Road to Acquiring a Carte de Sejour

29 11 2010

Literal Translation: Card of Stay (which is essentially a residence card)

Let me start by saying that we are very fortunate to have acquired this card.  Many other companies have not figured out how to do it for their expats and there are a lot of people who have been living here much longer than us without cards.  Instead, they make trips to Congo or Cameroon every few months to renew visas.

From the beginning…

When Joe was here back in May/June, the company HR guy began the process of getting Joe the residence card.  Unfortunately, it didn’t work and they instead contracted a separate agent to do the entire process for us.  His name is Nestor and he is a Gabonese man who has unlocked the code of securing residence cards (at least for the time being.)

Nestor begins by preparing all paperwork.  I can’t actually tell you what is on this paperwork as he has someone fill in all of the information and I never actually saw it other than to sign the bottom.  Every other day, Joe gets an urgent call from Nestor’s office saying that they need our passports NOW.  Joe complains as he is busy at work and can’t drop everything to drive home, pick up the passports and take them to his office… but he does it anyway.  This paperwork is sent away, to where I have no idea, and eventually returned with an all important stamp/press seal of approval.

Next, we are required to leave the country.  Most often, people are sent to Congo or Cameroon.  Joe and I tried to go to Sao Tome, a resort island off the coast of Gabon, but we were turned down and banished to Pointe Noire.  We are required to leave for 48 hours but it usually turns into more because one needs a visa to enter Congo and they take your passport at the airport to issue it and that usually takes a few days.  (We tried to work our way around that by getting a visa before going but when we arrived they told us the visa wasn’t correct, cancelled it, and kept our passports anyways.)

Upon returning to Gabon, we present the original papers that were returned to us, to an immigration officer.  It is extremely important to have everything perfect.  The papers must be the originals, not copies, the stamp must be in the correct place, the dates must be correct, and we pay 45 000 cfa ($90.)  The officer looks everything over, scouring for loopholes so that you can be denied.  If you aren’t, they scan your fingers, take your picture and provide you with a temporary 30-day visa.  They stamp the papers and return them to you and send you on your way.

Nestor anxiously awaits the new visa and stamped papers to begin filling out the second round of paperwork.  He resumes calling Joe every other day demanding passports or signatures until everything is in order and then a trip to Libreville is booked.

We catch an early morning flight to Libreville and head directly to the immigration office.  Nestor has some sort of connection there as we bypass lines of people waiting outside and head directly to a side door.  It is very important to be dressed nicely as people have been turned away at the door.  Upon entering, we are shuffled on to a bench where 5 people, no more, no less, must sit and wait.  You sit for several hours trying to figure out how everything works because no one actually tells you anything.  Nestor tells us to listen for our names to be called which is impossible because they call from the other side of the room and there are a hundred other people shuffling about and talking.

It appears that Nestor has some sort of deal with one particular immigration officer who may or may not have been paid in order to let us jump the line.  After 2 hours of waiting, I am called forward and surprisingly Nestor accompanies me.  Prior to this, he wasn’t allowed to help unless there was a problem.  The officer scours the papers and finds something wrong with them.  He demands that Nestor explains but never accepts the answer, scans my fingers, and directs me to sit back on the benches.  Half an hour later, I’m called to a different man who looks over our ‘offenses’ and assigns a penalty  (the going rate for us white people seems to be 300 000 cfa or about $600.)  We are then directed to the cashier to pay the fine.

We resume sitting on the benches waiting for our names to be called again, this time for the photo.  Once called, I enter a cubicle and answer a few questions, have my fingerprints scanned again and get the photo taken.  I resume my place on another bench and again, wait for my name to be called for the fourth and final time to receive the actual carte de sejour.

Voila, process is complete.  Nestor swoops up the card telling me that he needs to take it for one reason or another but assures me I will have it in my hands in a few days.

To recap… 2 trips to Pointe Noire, an infinite number of trips to Nestor’s office, 4 passport photos, a wedding, a day at the immigration office in Libreville, several thousand dollars, 4 months of frustration but I am the proud new owner of a Gabonese Carte de Sejour.  If we’re still here, we’ll get to do it all over again in 2 years!