“An hour after I was born everybody was already calling me Toutoune”. Which makes sense since in French, Toutoune is the female version of Toto which is the diminutive for Antoine. Toutoune’s Christian names are in fact Antoine Joseph Cyprien, and so it comes as no surprise that she is a woman of character. Yes, that’s right, three male names for a single woman! Despite her long hair reaching down to her waist – that she cut the day she turned fifty –she was twice nearly obliged to go and do military service at the age of sixteen. She only got out of it once and for all when her father, having had enough, threatened to undress her in public in front of the soldiers at the Loubère barracks!

The joyous Antoine Sam Sambo speaks of her childhood, her deeply embedded memories, and her dear French Guiana with some nostalgia. Everything is as clear and precise as if it had only happened the day before.

Born in 1937 to a Creole mother and Lebanese father into the large Saïd family, she spent her early years moving between Mana and the countryside, enjoying a good degree of freedom. Amongst her favourite pastimes with her three brothers with whom she used to play were enjoying the “mimisouk” (the sweet, spongy bit in coconuts before they germinate) and the fresh milk in the cowshed. Another one of her specialities was the fastidious, delicate process of cooking fresh eggs over a flame; skewering a raw egg on a coconut leaf stalk requires considerable practice. Another memorable activity was going off on an expedition to pilfer mandarins from her neighbour’s, who told her years later that he had always known all about it. And so it was in this village in the west of French Guiana where the war had but little effect that she took her first steps and forged her character and personality in tune with nature.

Next was Cayenne, where, initially on her own, she went to school at the Félix Éboué lycée. She lodged in various places but it was while she was staying with Mme Volmar, a former kindergarten headmistress, that her vocation for teaching took hold. Whenever she could she lent a hand to the schoolmistresses, whom she admired, including the elegant Mme Lise Ophion. It was at this stage that her father signed her up for the Scouts, once again with her three brothers.

Thanks to the insistence of her mother and support of her Scout friends, who were all teachers, Toutoune sat the exam to train as a teacher at the age of sixteen, and carried on studying at Félix Éboué and became a schoolmistress. “Teaching is in our blood in the Saïd family, and there are no fewer than 9 Saïd schoolmistresses this year in Cayenne”. At the same time she was also the first Guianese woman to practise canoeing and judo.

After this, Toutoune took on an active part in Guianese society, firstly via her teaching, a career she started in 1960. At the Samuel Chambaud school she taught over 1000 pupils about the need to protect nature: “if half of my pupils apply what I taught them, then I have achieved everything I wanted”. She was also very actively involved in associations, joining the first and at the time fledgling naturalist association in French Guiana in 1980, Sépanguy, of which she is now vice president. Together with Léon Sanite she sold the “Nature Guyanaise” magazine on street corners and organised “walking and cycling” outings. She also organised exhibitions for the general public about such things as snakes or waste, with a major highlight being the “La sortie des eaux” exhibition in 1995.

She is now retired but is still very active and remains in close touch with the education system as a member of the DDEN* “to protect children’s interests”. She is also concerned about changes to the natural environment: “I have seen French Guiana increasingly deteriorate as it has become populated. Despite the associations, nature is not being treated sustainably and people are not realising – it’s heart-wrenching! Just look at how the hillsides around Cayenne are being stripped bare”.

All we can do is hope that her messages to inform and alert people will be heeded before it is too late.