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Lehmann Nicole

Nicole Lehmann, born in Alsace, France. After studying social work she soon got involved in SCI activities. She took part in various workcamps in Europe and was a long-term volunteer in Africa between1959-`62. In 1962, she went to the workcamp at El Khemis in Algeria and went on to do camps in Morocco and Tanzania. She lives in Paris.

Origin of the text
Olivier Bertrand: Breaking down barriers 1945-1975, 30 years of voluntary service for peace with Service Civil International.
Paris (2008)

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Nicole Lehmann

I lived with my parents. There were very few people around, just thelocksmith, the road mender’s and the coal man’s daughters, and a couple of farms where nobody could speak French. I did not see any children outside school and I did not meet my schoolmates very often. My father had just come back from the war, and he used to say that he did not trust anybody. He would meet very few people socially, and my mother did not like Alsace. I was very isolated, I spent my time reading. After middle school, my friends had gone to work as apprentices. At the age of 17, I went to Paris to live with my grandmother.
My parents were well-educated and had a wide range of interests, when I went to university I expected to have exciting contacts and discussions with the other students, but it was not so. Fortunately, I heard about SCI through the press and I joined the association on my 18th birthday. There were floods in the Paris suburbs, and I participated in week-end camps around Paris and in the North African shantytown of
Nanterre. I also did some work giving literacy tuition to immigrants as well as going on two summer camps, in the North of France and in the Alps.
In 1958, I went on a workcamp in Poland, in the mountains near the Czech border. The project was building a road, and the Polish Army was also involved in the work. The girls did the same work as the boys (whereas in the North of France they spent part of the time cooking) and the volunteers ate in a canteen. In the Alps, they were in charge of cooking. In Poland, we ate in the workers’ canteen.
Poland was my first experience of a camp abroad. It was not very easy. There were volunteers from Germany, Bulgaria, France and Poland (some of them could speak French). I was stunned to see that Warsaw had been completely destroyed. From Alsace, I had already seen the ruins of Sarrebruck in nearby Germany and the damage caused by the fighting in my village (including our own house); there were still mines there and children were not allowed to play away from the footpaths. From Warsaw, I had taken a train where I had met an old man who had been a soldier in France during WW1. He was so happy to meet a French person.
I do not remember any of the discussions that were organized during the camp. I did not feel that there was so much difference between the Polish (most of them spoke French) and the Bulgarian volunteers. I kept in touch with some of them. A French volunteer, Georges Douart, who had just got back from a camp in the Soviet Union, based his book ’Operation Friendship’ on his experiences in workcamps I personally did not find the work in that camp too hard. I was young and strong and enjoyed physical work. It is then that I had the opportunity of visiting the Auschwitz concentration camp.
A year after starting work (1959), I participated in a workcamp in Italy, near the French border, after a flood. Amongst the Italian volunteers there was a girl who worked with me, and we both did manual work and the cooking. Nevertheless the boys did the hardest work; there were also German and Irish volunteers. In the evenings, there were organized discussions, mostly on religious subjects: I enjoyed that camp very much.
Looking back over that whole period, what was most worthwhile for me were the week-end camps and the literacy courses in the Paris area (where I worked with North African people). Coming from an isolated background as I did, this work afforded me the opportunity of meeting people I would never otherwise have met, including (during the week-ends) extremely poor old people. Then there were our interesting team leaders, some of whom had participated in the Korean War. It was also life in other countries, the wooden houses and the muddy roads in Poland, or that old man, the only survivor from WWI I had ever met. I also met young people of different social origins. I liked the pick and shovel work. I did not feel that foreign volunteers were so different. I was not influenced by the fact that they were foreigners. Maybe because our cultures and social origins were not so different.
Contrary to Nelly’s memories of the Czechs, that she had met a few years earlier, I remember that the Poles were not communists, and they tended rather to speak out against the régime. Volunteers from Bulgaria did not talk with people enough to express a political point of view.
I did not go to any work-camp for three years. I was a social worker in the Eastern part of France, dealing particularly with North African families. There were lots of discussions about the war in Algeria. Therefore, I had met Algerian people and this had an impact in my choosing a job. I had friends who had to do their military service in Algeria; some of them went there, others managed to escape. After completing my three year work contract in Eastern France, I wanted to work with SCI again, this time as a long-term volunteer. I was offered the possibility of going to India or Africa. I did not know much about India; I had just read a few things and of course heard about Gandhi, and seen pictures of him in very large crowds. Finally, I chose Africa and left in 1961.


At that time, one had to travel there by boat and it took me two weeks to reach Togo. On the boat - thanks to the book ‘Operation Friendship’ that he was reading at that moment- I met an African with whom I am still in touch. On arriving in Togo, I was attached to a local association, ‘Volontaires au travail’ whose leader was Gerson Konu. He had received some training in Ghana, one of the first independent countries in Africa. His association cooperated closely with SCI. I was part of an exchange of volunteers which included Max, a Belgian volunteer, who had arrived six months prior to me; we did not get many opportunities of working together. The workcamp was located a kilometre from the sea, near the Ghanaian border, and we worked in isolated villages or near roads used only by local taxis going to and from the market. In the village, there was no electricity and we used to have to fetch water from the little river nearby.

I was with Togolese volunteers and we were supposed to open up a trail in the forest to link different villages and build schools and dispensaries. We dug foundations, made earthen bricks or used concrete blocks bought by the farmers (with some help from the Government). I worked with high school children and the villagers themselves. Most of the work was done by local carpenters and masons. The African women, who made bricks, carried the materials and did the cooking. Every day, people from a different village would come to work with us; we did not work for the villagers, but with them.
I was the only European volunteer, except during the holidays, when other volunteers would join us. I had very limited contacts with the local Europeans, who lived in the small town nearby and who had a completely different way of life. There was a nun, an education inspector and a protestant nun, whom I met once. There was also a Togolese doctor and his wife, who would only travel by car (I never met her). The Africans could see that the missionaries were competing with each other and that they said bad things about one another.
At the end of my stay, I visited the school supervisor in order to try and borrow some particular books; he told me that everyone thought I was a communist. I routinely wore a loincloth. I walked and went cycling, which was all very unusual for a European. Some Africans told me that I was losing prestige because I walked instead of driving. Like Max I became very well integrated. Amongst other things, I never objected to the local food.
For instance, we ate beans with palm oil for breakfast; I found them delicious compared to my memories of eating beans during the war. The spicy food was a bit more difficult. In our camp, we used to drink filtered water, but outside, I drank the same water as everyone else. I had tablets to put into the water, but since, in a group, it was usual to drink out of the same cup, I felt that I could not put pills in the cup when it was my turn.

I was lucky as I never got sick, and only took anti-malaria pills. Most of the time I slept with a family in the village, but not when there was work to be done in the fields; then I lived for several months with a Togolese teacher and his family.
People were nice. I liked the way of life, and living out of doors was not a problem for me. The village was made of traditional mud huts. The teacher had a house made of concrete in an agricultural school, but his wife cooked outside and we only went indoors to sleep. In other words, I lived and dressed like an African woman, except for when I was on the campsite itself, I wore trousers then. We slept on the ground on mats. Every morning the women swept the floor and everyone did their washing. It was a picnic the whole year round.
We foreign volunteers and local camp leaders could speak French or English, but not the villagers so I picked up a bit of Ewe, the local language (which is now the official language). That was enough to manage on and to go to the market and exchange a few jokes with people.
For some time, I replaced a local teacher of French who had to go away on a training course. The pupils were happy to have a white teacher. I also went to a village in the hills to do some dispensary work (my first year of training had included some nursing). But I did not see how my social work skills, gained in France, could be of any use in Togo. Apart from how to deal with problems of feeding infants, I soon realized that I did not have much to teach them. Boiling water was almost impossible, in view of the wood shortage. I had some tablets for the water, but people did not see the use for them. They did not really have so many problems, except maybe in perinatal matters. I tried to persuade them to use palm alcohol as an antiseptic before cutting the umbilical cord with a bamboo knife, or to wean their babies more progressively, before only feeding them on manioc, as there were no cows in that region. I doubt whether I succeeded.
I tried to do some sewing with the young girls and to make loin cloths for the babies in winter. I always tried to use local resources, since the farmers had very little money. Everyone was poor but nobody was really miserable. They grew coffee and cocoa on small pieces of land and living on corn, manioc and yam. These little parcels of land belonged to the community and their distribution was renewed periodically.
I was impressed by the freedom of African women compared with North African women. In Togo, when women rowed with their husband, they simply stopped preparing food for him, and that was that. I also noticed there were a large number of single mothers, hence father-less children.
Gerson Konu also organized literacy courses, which were very successful. It was not long after Independence and so everyone was enthusiastic, eager to learn and do things. During that period, there were a lot of discussions on politics. I also participated in work-camps in Ghana; they appeared to be more advanced and more active than the ones in Togo. I was offered a job as interpreter (from English into French) at a meeting in Accra, but I discovered that that country was more developed and had its own interpreters.
Before coming back home, I thought that I should see a little more of Africa. I had very little money and I was so used to being independent that I decided to hitch-hike back via Abidjan (Ivory Coast) which was very daring. I was picked up by various trucks, and got busses (when they were available). Hotels were too expensive for me, so I slept with SCI friends, missionaries - and once with French people who had a typical colonial mentality. Once, I camped on a camping ground for travellers. I was alone. There were tom-toms playing, and people were singing. I could see them dancing in the bright moonlight. I was a bit frightened. After this experience, I preferred sleeping like the other travellers, on the ground under the bus.
Today, it would no longer be possible to travel in that way because soldiers stop cars and busses and ransom the passengers, even when people are going to market ( I saw this sort of thing happen when I went back in 1972 and 1991).
I finally took the ship in Abidjan and arrived in France in January 1962, it was freezing cold, I only had on a summer dress and sandals.

North Africa

In France, I went back to studying sociology. I kept in touch with Gerson Konu (who died in 2006), and am still in contact with the Togolese teacher and with the families of some of the villagers who live in France. Some of the villagers also came over here; one of them as a political refugee. I don’t participate in the ‘Women and development Group’, but I fully agree with what they do; I always insisted that priority should be given to the use of local resources.
I thought of going back to work in Africa again, but with my degree in social work, I would have had to teach Government officials’ wives how to use powdered milk. I was not at all interested. I also thought of doing community development work in Niger, but it did not materialize, and was offered a job in Togo as assistant director of a school training for social workers, but I was afraid of having difficulties with the European community there. I remember once that a friend had problems when he was working there with UNESCO for having socialized with African people!
Waiting for a decision on that job in Togo, just after Algerian Independence I went to Algeria to join the workcamp in El Khemis, near Tlemcen (see Jean-Pierre, David and R.L). I went down by car with two SCI volunteers. I remember that we stopped in a coffee shop where there were only men. As we were leaving, we were told that the coffee had already been paid for, and one of the customers told us in French "And tell them that we are not savages".
I was a member of a team of three volunteers doing tuberculosis control. There was also a doctor and a dentist with us. We toured the villages, doing skin-tests and inoculations. There were queues of men and women (veiled, but I noticed they were not when they were out in the fields). To start with, we were not in the main camp at El Khemis, and we slept in Tlemcen, the main town, but that required a lot of driving and we got very tired. So, in the teeth of opposition from the doctor, the team decided to sleep out on rooftops in the villages. He said we were crazy and would get sick. Sometimes the villagers invited us in for a couscous. On Saturday evenings, we would go into Tlemcen, for a shower (we had to wash in buckets the rest of the time) and an ice-cream. On Sundays we would go to the beach up on the coast.
We were very well received by people. Only once when we were doing our rounds, were stones thrown at us and landed on the roof of the car. It turned out they were being thrown from another village and the people stopped when the Algerians who were with us talked to them. I felt that even if the Algerian people are very violent sometimes, they don’t have any resentment against the French, whereas some of French people are still angry with the Algerians, even today. They are also very hospitable. I used to work with Algerians in France during the War of Independence. Some of them were called up, sometimes they deserted. I made housing applications for them, and the civil-servants would respond by saying, "So, you are looking for accommodation for your niggers are you?"
In Tlemcen sometimes we heard cries during the night. We were told not to be afraid as “it’s only a woman whose family has just been murdered, and she’s gone mad".
In 1964 or `65, I went on a camp in Morocco and again in the `70s and a little later to a kibbutz in Israel (but not with SCI). In the `70s, I went to Tanzania again with SCI, to a ‘Work and Study Camp’ where we worked with farmers picking tea, and planting corn. I am not sure it was a very useful job; we did not have the know-how. Exchanges with the local people were limited, because they only spoke a little English. I was pleased to see a lot of mud houses, because I am very much against the houses concrete with corrugated iron roofs which were beginning to appear everywhere like in Togo. They are expensive and badly insulated. Houses made of mud and palm branches don’t cost anything and are much more comfortable.

I did not get any training before going on these workcamps. Prior to going to Africa, I had only read a few books about Africa and seen Jean Rouch’s anthropological films .On the other hand, I didn’t feel that I really needed any training, maybe because I can easily adapt to any kind of situation and environment.


I have learnt a lot from these experiences and that is why when I retired I agreed to take up SCI again. I am a one-day-week volunteer in the Paris office nowadays. For the rest of my career, I did child welfare work in the Paris suburbs. I have done exciting work and had altogether an exciting life. Thanks to these experiences, I have had the opportunity of getting to know all kinds of people from various social backgrounds that I would otherwise never have been able to meet. My first workcamps had an influence on my choice of career, since I took up my first job with immigrants. I have visited various countries. I had the possibility of seeing, in a concrete way, what one otherwise only heard about through the press or the radio; this helped me get a better understanding of the way other peoples react.
I realized that one can live with very few resources, while in Western societies you are almost obliged to own a lot of things, if you don’t want to appear different from other people. But I can live very well without a TV set or other things that I have nowadays.
What is special about SCI? Initially, there was the idea that more knowledge of other people allows one to understand and to accept things, which could help us achieve a little more for peace, in our jobs and in our lives. But: what about today?
I used to be very much in favour of manual work, but now I sometimes feel that workcamps – maybe not so much in Africa – are now more simply an opportunity for young people to meet one another; a way of keeping them occupied. I feel that hard work brings you more than just doing odd jobs. Maybe workcamps, in the Balkans for example, can be enriching. Or in Africa, getting a better understanding of the lives of African peasants?
Maybe after all, I need to update my experience in order to appreciate what is really happening. Perhaps my impressions are misguided.
Concerning camp discussions, a few decades ago, we had lively discussions on issues like communism or the Algerian war. And there were more emergency relief workcamps after disasters, because unlike today, there was very little government provision and organization. In my time, this work was done together with the people in a spirit of solidarity. I am not sure whether this is still the case today.
During the workcamp I did in Italy, there was this Palestinian volunteer, a very nice guy. I kept his address and when I went to the kibbutz, I visited him and I used to spend all the week-ends with them. It was not so easy. It was striking for me to see that it was the few Arabs in the kibbutz who were building the shelters. There were also a few Druses; I was looked down on because I was friendly with them. I had lots of ideas about social work in Africa and I got in touch with UNESCO. Their reaction was "Another girl who wants to take advantage of the high salaries of UN organizations!" So I walked away, slamming the door loudly behind me.

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