An earlier version of this article referenced a $5 million contribution coming from the University of Oregon. The $5 million is a portion of the $20 million in funding from Gabon, not an additional contribution (see the entire contract for the agreement here). The earlier version also stated that Virgil’s age is 23; he is 21.
Virgil Boulendet returned home last June with high hopes of doing very little.
Like most college students, he wanted time away from campus and from the familiar lecture halls. But the trip also meant an end to nearly three years away from Libreville, the capital city of Gabon on the west coast of Central Africa, and his romping ground for 18 years as a youth.
Virgil, now 21, sought reunions, downtime and homemade shrimp and eggplant, a cherished meal that, accordingly, can’t be made in America.
Virgil got his meal but none of the leisure; within weeks, the mournful memories from his youth resurfaced. A scandal reignited in July when a banned party leader re-entered the country, demanding justice for an alleged massacre of 60 people in the past election.
An earlier protest decrying corrupt officials had ended in 30 arrests, and embezzlement charges continued to mar the administration — an investigation last year tallied 33 luxury properties and 70 bank accounts around the world as possessions of the presidential family.
All the disorder marred a sentimental trip for Virgil, who had prayed that — three years after the country’s first change in leadership since 1967 — he would have seen more progress.
“It was bittersweet,” Virgil says. “When you go back home, you’d expect to get some rest. But no — you can’t even walk around your own city, your own house, without being worried.”
Yet while denouncing its legacy of problems, Virgil also expresses gratitude for his government, one that ever since his graduation from Gabon’s premier school has completely funded his education in the U.S.
And today, his story is indicative of a new promise by Gabonese leaders to change their legacy, an effort that four weeks ago culminated in a $20 million dollar research deal between the government and the University of Oregon, and has brought Virgil to Eugene to be a Duck.
“I used to wake up in the morning and see huge lizards, birds, all sorts of things,” Virgil says with a laugh. “You can feel the air is pure.”
Childhood in Gabon — a nation slightly larger than Oregon but with two million fewer people — often means time spent outdoors amid a rich rain forest ecology. Virgil recalls seeing trees from his home, even though it was in the suburbs of the capital, their branches crowning lush horizons behind nearby communities.
Yet in Africa, childhood also means making do without amenities — even in Gabon, which due to its enormous oil reserves enjoys a median income four times that of other Sub-Saharan countries.
“We didn’t have much to be happy about, so we didn’t need much to be happy,” Virgil says. “Everybody knew everybody. If we wanted to play soccer and we didn’t have a ball, we would find a can.”
Virgil recalls spending hours every day roaming his neighborhood of Cité de la Caisse, where rows of simple houses border the streets in a stair-like fashion.
He describes his youth as “awesome,” mostly removed from the greater problems of Gabon and more concerned with avoiding punishments from his mom, a military woman who kept a strict household.
“Sometimes she would make us work out like we were in the military — you didn’t want that,” Virgil says with a laugh, “so you knew you had to do everything you had to do on time.”
With his strict mother playing a supporting role, young Virgil set off on a path through academics that became defined by excellence. As early as elementary school, he established himself as a clever student with talent and potential, and with a goal in mind.
“I was the kid who was always talking, saying ‘I’m going to do this, this and that,’” he recalls. “I said I was going to go to Nelson Mandela High School — it was the best school in my country … but I told my dad, ‘I’m going there.’
“And I did it,” Virgil adds proudly. He began attending the seven-year school at the age of 10.
Even so, Virgil says that shortly after gaining admission, a change in attitude wrought by adolescence threatened to derail his early success; at age 13, he failed two terms and was suspended.
But the trouble came to an abrupt end soon after it started. Virgil set a new goal: make it to the United States. Driven in large part by a dream of producing music, he found a reason to restore his academic focus.
“I talked to my dad, and he said, ‘You need to figure it out; if you want to go to the States, you have to get the scholarship,’” Virgil says.
The scholarship: a prestigious national program funded directly by the Gabonese Ministry of Finance. It dates back to 1967, the same year Shell oil company discovered the Gamba field. The country’s first major reservoir, it can still, 45 years later, produce 15,000 barrels of oil each day.
“That was how it started,” Virgil says of his childhood. “(After that), I was always willing to be on top of the class — I had no choice.”
Virgil won the scholarship. He finished at the top of his class. And he came to the U.S.
“We all know it’s hard. We all know there is corruption. But at the same time, our mentality at all levels — the mentality in government, of the average person — it just needs to change,” Virgil says.
Virgil walked through Cité de la Caisse last June during his visit in Gabon, and the streets he roamed as a child lay desolate and in disrepair. Pot holes blotted the neighborhood like pockmarks, and the rows of houses now sat tarnished by time and weather. To see the area in such a condition, he says, served as a reminder of the problems that plague his country.
That is, those parts of the country untouched by oil revenue. Following the Gamba field discovery in 1967, the newly elected president Omar Bongo worked closely with Shell to expand oil production, generating vast funds for the government. But instead of investing in the country’s infrastructure, bureaucrats diverted untold amounts for political purposes or, as the embezzlement charges suggest, themselves.
Despite its above-average median income, roughly 20 percent of the country still lives on less than $2 a day, according to the most recent data from the World Bank.
Bongo died in office in 2009 after serving for 43 years. His son, Ali-Ben Bongo Ondimba has now succeeded him as president, winning through a three-way election riddled with allegations of fraud and violence.
While the story line seems to suggest a continuation of old politics, Ali-Ben Bongo’s agenda has thus far proven to be surprisingly different from his father’s in one key way, and it has evolved to include the University of Oregon.
Gabon, which has suffered declining oil production rates since 1999, will devote $20 million to the UO for helping develop an economy based on ecology and wildlife, not fossil fuels.
UO and Gabonese officials signed the contract in Libreville on Oct. 31, and work will begin winter term — the UO will begin receiving funding before the end of the year.
The partnership will research sustainable development in Gabon; it plans to accomplish this at first through two major grants of $600,000, and in the future through a minimum of four annual seed grants. These allow researchers to explore an idea to see if a larger project is feasible.
The partnership also creates a Ph.D. program, an English-language center and new administrative positions on the UO campus and in Libreville, at the University of Omar Bongo.
The research deal was months in the making, and boasts an esteemed list of advocates. In 2011, former university president Richard Lariviere met with President Bongo in a mutual show of support for the deal.
“The Gabonese government feels that they are purchasing into a research agreement that will guarantee work for their academics,” said Eric Benjaminson, the U.S. Ambassador to Gabon, during an interview with the Emerald last February. “We’re giving them a menu to choose from. They’re putting the money together.”
A total of $5 million from Gabon’s contribution will be used to cover start-up costs in the coming months. The remaining $15 million won’t be spent, but instead will form an endowment, a funding model that uses the annual interest off market investments to generate revenue. Officials project a 4 percent return to generate $600,000 each year, and it wil be used to cover future costs.
Virgil started his first term at the UO this fall, and is joined by five other Gabonese students studying in the program.
Virgil is optimistic that this agreement will foster significant change in his country. While the research projects have not yet been determined, Virgil expects this partnership to represent a genuine avenue for progress in Gabon.
He hopes it can replace the legacy of corrupt government, and come to epitomize how the country’s resources are being used effectively. While production is declining, World Bank data shows that oil still accounts for 60 percent of all government revenue in 2012.
“(The environment) is something that Gabon is really willing to work on,” Virgil says. “I know a lot of students who would love to be in my place right now. I just hope they get that chance.”