Friday, June 18, 2010
Florence Goulet: Education and a full loaf
Florence Goulet. (Photo by Priscilla Stevens)
Florence Goulet describes the small rural village in southwestern Uganda where she started life as “the last place created on earth, or maybe the first.” Geographically speaking, the tiny hamlet near Kisoro’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park is half a world away from her present home with her husband, Roger, on Westford Street. Culturally speaking, the divide is perhaps even greater. Florence remembers coming home from school and accompanying her parents to harvest sorghum after dark without so much as a flashlight to illuminate their work. The story that began in that village is one of courage, perseverance and continuing compassion; the story of an extraordinary woman.
When Florence was as old as an American middle schooler, there began to be talk of her marrying, but thanks to relatives who lived across the country in Mbale, she got the chance to go to high school. At 13, she traveled alone across Uganda to stay with her relatives to attend and graduate in 1980 from Mbale’s Nabumali High School.
Again, there was talk of finding her a husband, but Goulet says, “That was not my idea. I knew by then how women are treated in Africa, and I knew that I did not want to spend my life in a small village like the one I grew up in. Education was my only path out, so I went to college in Nairobi [Kenya].” There, she took business courses for two years, and, when she was finally ready to choose for herself, she met and married her first husband. He was “a good and highly educated man,” with a Ph.D. in Economics from Columbia University. They settled down to life in and around Nairobi, and soon had a son, Brian.
Life on her own
However, Florence’s life plan imploded when Brian was five years old and her husband suddenly died of appendicitis and peritonitis. At age 34, she was left a widow with a young son. Her husband’s family wished her to marry one of his brothers, according to custom, “but I refused. I knew how these relationships worked out. I saw women in Nairobi who were beaten, infected with AIDS. I did not want to be somebody’s second wife. I had decided never to marry again.” When her in-laws began to push her to agree, she literally packed up her son and fled into Nairobi.
She moved to an area where no English was spoken. When she spoke in English in a shop where she was buying food, the shopkeeper demanded that she speak Swahili, not a “white man’s language,” because she was “one of us.” That, says Goulet, is how she quickly picked up the 10 African languages that she speaks. “Traveling across east Africa, I had to learn the languages quickly. I learned to be fluent in Swahili in a year, and was able to become an interpreter.” She found a small house, got a job, and put her son into school, budgeting every penny of her $18-per-month salary.
A letter that changed everything
One of her household economies was to give up the post box she was renting at the local post office, “because I wasn’t using it. So I went in with the key one day, intending to turn it in and give up the box, when I found a letter inside from America. It was addressed to my late husband, so I opened it. It was from Roger’s wife, Rosie, inviting my husband to a student reunion. He and Roger had gone to university together. Of course I had to write back and tell Rosie that my husband was dead and couldn’t come to the reunion.”
“Two weeks later, I got another letter from Rosie, apologizing for not knowing about my husband’s death.” This letter started a correspondence between the two women. “She was the most wonderful person,” says Florence. “She was a real friend.” Even after Rosie Goulet wrote to say she had throat cancer, the two women kept writing. “I kept writing and writing. Then one day I got a letter from Roger, an obituary letter telling me that his wife had died. I kept the letter, and stored it under some of my son’s schoolbooks. I must be an evil person: I should have written to Roger and his daughter right away, but finally, when I found the letter one day while cleaning out my son’s books, I did write. I told them how much I missed Rosie.”
To her surprise, she received another letter from Roger Goulet two weeks later, and a new correspondence began. “I couldn’t keep up with the writing,” she says. “I was so busy working. But Roger sent me letters telling me about the schools in America, about women’s life there. He even sent me autumn leaves. He asked for my telephone number and said he would like to come to Nairobi to meet me.” True to his word, Roger Goulet flew to Nairobi, asking Florence to pick him up at the airport.
A telephone call that changed everything again
“I kept him waiting for an hour and a half. I was not sure this was a good idea. But he had sent me a picture of himself, so finally I went and found him.”
Goulet put up at the local Holiday Inn, and persuaded Florence to accompany him on a safari. Her son was staying with cousins on a school holiday, so she went. She introduced him to some friends, but made it quite clear that “we were not staying together. I did not want to arouse any talk, any scandal.” Goulet returned to the home he had built in Carlisle, but after nine days, he told his daughter Lydia about Florence, and called his sister in Wisconsin to tell her that he wanted to ask Florence to marry him. Then, he called Florence “and proposed on the phone. I just cried and hit down the receiver.” Goulet persisted, however, and Florence asked him for six months, so that she could consider this decision.
Goulet started arranging for Florence’s visa, and she went to her pastor, saying, “I haven’t been with a man for 10 years. I don’t know how to [be] married anymore.” After a lot of thought and prayer, however, she realized that “Roger is a good man, a gentleman. Rosie had told me so much about him, and when he was in Nairobi, he treated me so well. I thought also about the chance to live in America. So I asked my sister Agnes to prepare my parents’ home for a visit from an American man.”
Life in a new world
When Goulet returned to Nairobi, he and Florence traveled back across east Africa to that last or first place to be created on earth, where her father had killed a whole bull to celebrate their arrival. “I would never get married in that village [to a village man] and now even my mother believed this,” Florence says. Her mother told her that she now believed that Florence had the courage of her convictions, and that education had taken her into a better life.
Florence’s son Brian was about 14 when she and Goulet were married. After a little apprehension, he settled down to life in America, particularly life in Carlisle, with as much enthusiasm as his mother.
“Every day something excites me,” she says. “I don’t know how to sit still.” Brian is now 24, working and going to college, and Roger’s daughter, Lydia, is 40 and “she is my best friend.” She has also provided the Goulets with grandchildren, whose pictures and artwork adorn the refrigerator and many other surfaces in their home. Roger Goulet is an accomplished painter. The walls of the Goulet home are covered with his paintings, including some portraits of Florence, as well as with African art.
Working to educate the people she left behind
Florence did not, however, come to America to forget where she came from. Here, she works as a caregiver for the elderly and has brought her skill in African languages to bear as a telephone interpreter for Pacific Interpreters, Inc. and CanTalk Canada, Inc. Recently she has been taking courses in medical interpreting from Cross-Cultural Communication Systems, Inc., a field she entered by winning an essay contest. “Many [African refugees] have serious health problems because they have never seen a doctor before coming to the United States,” the winning essay says. “When they arrive here confused and disoriented, I can do my small part to give them a new start in their new country.” She became a U.S. citizen in 2005.
In addition, Florence says, “I do not save money. I travel back to Africa each year.” She has installed several refugee children in her parents’ home with her American earnings, and pays their school fees as well. She does the same for her deceased brother’s nine children, supporting 18 children in all. Some are nearly ready to enter college. She bought a small car for her family to help transport her charges back and forth to school, but, she smiles, “it has, of course, become the car for the whole village.”
“I have taken Roger back there too, to visit the children. They are all doing fine. They are the best students in their schools. I love education so much. You see, everyone in America goes to school. This is why America is different from the rest of the world. Education should be everywhere. It is my dream,” she says, “to build a birthing hospital in Kenya with education on family planning for all the women.”
Florence Goulet smiles broadly. “God has given me a full loaf of bread, you see; not just slices.” ∆
in addition to English:
Kiswahili (Kenya, Tanzania, Congo, and refugees from Somalia and Sudan)
Runyabwisha (North Kivu Province, Congo)
Rufumbira (Uganda) ∆
© 2010 The Carlisle Mosquito