08 March 2017

Batete and Parc Nacional (or, Small Town and a White Elephant: The Sequel)

House opening onto a square in Batete, Equatorial Guinea.
[From our August 2016 visit to Equatorial Guinea.]

Sandwiched between two bizarre white elephants (the massive, apart-from-us deserted Moca Hotel; the Parque National, recently constructed by Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo) was our visit to Batete, a small hilltop town in the south of Bioko Island in Equatorial Guinea.

Madonna and child, Batete.
Visiting the former Spanish Guinea, we were forced to rely on our long-forgotten Spanish classes. Approaching an old colonial outpost notable for its old church (constructed mostly from wood in 1887), we expected more of the same. We asked a couple of older ladies where the old church was and were promptly informed, “There is no new church! That one's been here for centuries.”

Mural recounting an early meeting between local peoples and foreign clergy.

We passed a number of downtrodden yet beautiful colonial buildings (despite the oil boom, Equatorial Guinea has preserved a large number of charming buildings) and crossed a small square. An older lady called after us, and soon was inspecting our Tourism Permit (despite warnings that this would be checked repeatedly by surly soldiers in a country with an infamously paranoid leadership, this was the only time we had to show this particular document). She then started calling out in pidgin English, sending men in various directions in search of the church key.

The Batete church's main entrance.

In a somewhat remote portion of Bioko, we were surprised to hear multiple people speaking to each other in pidgin English. Our impromptu host, Mary, explained that many Nigerians had come to work on Bioko Island (then Fernando Po) in the 1940s and 1950s. Mary, in turn, had lived in Nigeria for 14 years, in Lagos, Port Harcourt, Calabar and Aba.

Some of the stained glass is original to 1887.

[Under the first post-colonial president, Francisco Macias Nguema, Nigerians were arbitrarily arrested and several died in police custody, prompting Nigeria to evacuate all their citizens. Macias also persecuted the original inhabitants of Bioko, the Bubi people, and banned a people that relied on fishing from using boats.]

Batete church interior.
Despite several searches, the key did not turn up so we set off with Mary (who was greeted throughout town by kids exclaiming “Abuela!”) to the church. It was quite a beautiful building, if a bit worse for wear like so many older buildings. From outside the entrance you can also just see the ocean down below (not very dramatic in pictures on account of rainy season cloudiness). While we did not enter, one of the men who'd searched for the key helped prop up a window and we stood on a ledge for a view of the inside, which was quite charming and seemed to received a fairly recent paint job.

Commemorating the church's centennial.

Afterwards, Mary took us for a tour of a boarding school. One of the Paraguayans that help run the school, Antonio, was kind enough give us a tour. They have an active gardening and farming program, which the students help with.

Boarding school in Batete.

Screams don't teach.
Equatorial Guinea's flag, coat of arms, and a talking drum in the school's auditorium.

One last charming building in Batete.
We then caught a taxi back down the hill to Luba and onwards to Malabo. With a few hours to kill until takeoff, we decided to check out the new Parque Nacional in Malabo II. The massive park's construction had finished the month before, and many features (some bathrooms, a couple of buildings) were not yet completed. All the same, the setting was truly bizarre, especially considering the old church in the hillside town we visited earlier that day.
Parque Nacional, with presidential statues and choo-choo train people-movers.

Closeup of the president. If he's this well preserved he may well stay on for
the additional years ("37 + 37") the billboards around town call for.
Upon entry we walked across a large granite square (passing an amusement park-style train for taking families around) to a massive statue of Nguema Mbasogo. He looked out beneficently on the square, and we headed off to check out the manicured lawns complete with music spouted from speakers variously disguised as rocks, mushrooms and tree stumps.

The pagoda house, Parque Nacional, Malabo.
We then traipsed around the grounds for a couple of hours, admiring the manicured lawns, (transplanted?) trees, statues based on the art of EG's different ethnic groups, paddle boats, fancy bathrooms, artificial islands representing the three smaller islands between Bioko and the mainland, and of course “First Lady Planked Road.”

Golf cart stopping at the science section of the park, notable for its rainbow rings and marble orbs (they represent the solar system).
A nice backdrop of the park (until Malabo II completes its planned range of multistory buildings for bureaucrats and oil workers) is Pico Basile, the volcano that rose up to form Bioko Island. It's part of an arc of volcanoes stretching from São Tomé and Príncipe into the western Cameroonian highlands incorporating Mt. Cameroon, Mt. Manengouba and Mt. Oku.

Pico Basile, as seen from Parque Nacional.
While Parque Nacional was certainly a nice diversion and a welcome bit of green space (it's much larger than the closest competition I've seen in the region – Bois Sainte Anastasie), one does wonder about the amount of money lavished on this Central Park of Malabo. For a country with an average per capita income around $12,000, the country could easily afford to uplift its people. Instead, the vast majority of the population languishes in poverty.

First Lady Planked Road. I'll let the sign do the talking.

Once it got dark we headed over to the airport for our 20 minute flight back to Douala. Ferry service certainly seems like a good idea (a Cameroonian colleague of ours took a much longer ride from Limbe to Calabar, staying quiet as much as possible so she could pass as a Nigerian...), but Nguema Mbasogo has a similar dim view of boats and ships as his predecessor Macias did.
Bridges of Parque Nacional by night.

27 February 2017

Moca – A Small Town and a White Elephant

Since we planned to visit Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program, we got in touch with the Drexel and UNGE-affiliated organization for tips on where to stay. It quickly emerged that the only game in town – well, a 30-minute walk outside town – was the Hotel Moca.

After combining on rides in a van with an exuberant Moroccan mother-daughter(?) duo, we eventually arrived at the hotel from the nearest significant town of Luba. To our surprise the Moroccans did not enter the hotel but instead walked straight ahead past a barricade into an enormous walled compound.

After settling in and finding no other guests but plenty of agreeable hotel staff, we traipsed back into town to find some food and drink.

The road back into Moca from Hotel Moca.
The first bar we found had a couple of surprises. First, it was run by a Cameroonian woman. She moved to Bioko Island five years ago, after a dispute with the Cameroonian education ministry led to the shutting down of the private school she ran. So now she was in Moca running a bar and general store, along with a couple of sewing machines for additional income. She also got satellite TV and was kind enough to share some coulacasha stew with us while we watched CRTV. The Cameroonian channel coincidentally featured the Fondom of Oku, including interviews with the Fon and his son, David, who showed us around the palace in March 2016.

The Fon of Oku and his son.

After a few beers we then walked back to Hotel Moca.

The turnoff towards Hotel Moca at night.
The next day we went on a hike with a couple of BBPP volunteers from the U.S., along with Fermin, who guided us up the hill for a view of Lago de Biao, the crater lake outside Moca. Since it was the rainy season the visibility was variable. The hike wasn't as arduous at Mt. Oku or Mt. Manengouba, and we had an informative time talking with Fermin, Dan and Dana about the local agriculture, BBPP's other projects (including drill tracking and recording turtle egg laying in December), and the state of the bush meat trade on Bioko Island. BBPP makes tallies of the amount of bush meat for sale in local markets (small antelope and large rodents being the main sellers). The government's enforcement of a bush meat ban has varied, but at times has had the effect of making the bush meat trade more lucrative.

It was a misty and overcast stay on Bioko Island!

After our damp hike we decided to decamp once more to the Cameroonian bar, where CRTV was now showing the Olympics. Cameroon's ladies volleyball team (who won the African championships on home soil a few months before to qualify for Rio) were a spirited team but could not overcome the Russians (I assume this is a sport with less doping than others).

Allez les lionnesses!

We then headed back to Hotel Moca for dinner. It turns out the Moroccan ladies live and work on the compound of a palace belonging to Teodorin, Nguema Mbasogo's son, who has a taste for expensive cars and palatial residences in Europe and California. Most of his cars and homes in France were seized by French authorities in an anti-corruption drive; his father appointed him vice president of Equatorial Guinea in the hopes of bestowing diplomatic immunity on him, but that has been unsuccessful so he is based in EG these days. One of his previous positions was as Minister for the Environment while simultaneously owning large stakes in timber companies.

Aside from referring to Moca as a "city," the sign was quite accurate.

There were several other Moroccans in Moca, working at the (usually vacant) palace and (also largely empty) Hotel Moca. There were of course Equatoguineans on the staff, too, but I remain curious about how a large number of Moroccans migrated to southern Bioko Island for work.

Approaching the dormant entrance!
We had a nice enough dinner while the national TV channel showed an aerobics program, and otherwise relaxed after the hike to Lake Moca. Each morning the rooms were made up, even if no one stayed the night.

Nice long hallways to ride your tricycle down!
One pleasant surprise of the trip, given the warnings of guidebooks and travelers, the BBPP staff, and the ordinarily difficult tourism permit process, was that we were stopped very infrequently by soldiers. Apparently after the latest coronation of Nguema Mbasogo (“37 more years!”), a new group of ministers were considerably more relaxed in the aftermath. Quite a contrast for a country that is shifting its capital to the mainland to better head off coup attempts – the most famous being the one bankrolled by Margaret Thatcher's son in 2004. I'm a little surprised Nguema Mbasogo would do this, given that all of the oil is near Bioko, but I suppose being close to one's hometown and surrounded by kinsmen has its appeal – witness Yamoussoukro, or Gbadolite, Mobutu Sese Seko's hometown (which benefited from government largesse even if it never became DRC's capital).

24 February 2017

Tips for Getting Your Equatoguinean Tourism Permit

The Equatoguinean Cultural Center had taxidermied rats drinking in a bar (see the San Miguels for the Spanish colonial influence), not to mention several more in the display playing banjos. They're surrounded by cocoa pods, as cacao was a major export in colonial times.
According to both the Bradt guidebook and the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program project we planned to visit, acquiring a tourism permit in Equatorial Guinea (the visa is free on arrival) to travel anywhere outside the capital Malabo is an onerous task, often unsuccessful and costing around 15,000-20,000 CFA (approximately $25-33) per person (to be fair the price is very reasonable when compared to what western countries charge Equatoguineans when they apply for visas.

Cheery welcome at Internet Hostal, Malabo.
On our August 2016 return leg from São Tomé &Príncipe we stayed at Internet Hostal in Malabo, a dingy Chinese-run hotel with an attached Internet Cafe and free in-room desktop computers. The most entertaining element of our stay was the middle-aged Chinese woman whose only statements in Spanish were “Paga dinero” (with evolving intonation giving it meaning as a question, statement, demand or threat), with the occasional “Vente mil” and “Salir manana?” thrown in for good measure.

Casa Verde - prefabricated in Belgium in the early 19th century, and once a Portuguese consulate.
View from the eaves of Casa Verde. Teodoro Obiang Nguemba Mbasogo had recently been reelected. Many other billboards called for "37 + 37" - they want 74 years of his rule, no doubt.

The next morning, we started off with a taxi to the Departamento de Turismo y Cultura for the tourism permit. As we headed through Malabo II/Dos, where many new buildings for ministries are being built, with attendant highrises and estates for big men and oil workers and executives, it was difficult to gauge traffic – our driver was forced to slow down at all stop signs since high concrete walls meant there was no visibility.

Beautiful old houses abounded in Malabo.
We then meandered off the road onto a dirt path and Blair was certain we were about to be mugged in the bushes. The taxi's underbelly got snagged on a hill but the driver pressed on and we drove on to a pavement/sidewalk and turned left. It quickly became apparent that we were going the wrong way on a divided highway. This must be a routine occurrence, as opposing vehicles in the fast lane moved over without honking at us. A kilometer later we reached a roundabout where we resumed driving on the right side of the road.

Barbershop sign: Nelly giving President Barack Obama a haircut.
We reached our landmarks (Camera de Comercio, Arab Contractors) then crossed a footbridge toward the “social housing” where the ministry was located.

Spanish colonial era map (produced in 1944) of Bioko Island. Our main southern stops were Luba (formerly San Carlos) and Moka (name unchanged, although the spelling varies).
This was a fairly large group of government/public/social housing apartment buildings, so a kindly snack vendor pointed us in the right direction. After passing the pool/bar for Communitario Candy and knocking on a few doors, we bumped into a very helpful functionary outside one apartment block. Taking a moment to greet her and ask how she was doing that morning was reciprocated in kind, as she showed us where to go, made copies of our entry stamps, and asked the department secretary to type out our handwritten letter listing the places we would like to visit.

The National Library had a section focused particularly on Equatorial Guinea, featuring videocassettes of the series Poldark.
The letter needed reformatting (which the secretary again did for us), and we needed to go buy 1,500 CFA worth of polisas de solicitud (request stamps) at the Funcion Publica ministry up the road. Of course, the latter “could only be sold for 2,000 CFA” but, considering how kindly everyone in the Turisma apartment treated us, it was a small price to pay given the reputed difficulty of getting tourism permits.
Santa Isabel Cathedral, with ceiba tree (one of EG's national emblems) water fountain.
This difficulty was confirmed when workers at BBPP got in touch with us for tips after subsequent tourists struggled to get their tourism permits. So we really were quite fortunate.

Cine Mar, longtime cinema and concert space, used by Nguema Mbasogo for public trials, including that of his uncle Francisco Macias Nguema, who he deposed in 1979.
One interesting thing about Malabo was that very few Equatoguineans remarked on our presence in their city; virtually none, in fact. It could be connected to the fact that there is a large population of expat oil workers around Malabo (during years of higher oil prices, there have been direct flights between Houston and Malabo – according to a parent at our school conditions in the Gulf of Guinea are quite similar to those in the Gulf of Mexico).This nonchalance represented a contrast to Cameroon, where touts in Douala and Yaounde are quite talkative and pushy, and to São Tomé and Príncipe, where comparatively gentler people were still apt to come up and talk with us. In Malabo, we may as well have been in New York City.

Plaque commemorating Cuban dissidents deported to Bioko Island (formerly named after Fernando Po) in 1869.

19 February 2017

Museu Nacional and CACAU

Final post from our August 2016 visit to São Tomé and Príncipe with two places of interest in São Tomé town!

São Tomé and Príncipe's Museu Nacional is in the former fort San Sebastiao, built by the Portuguese in 1576 to fend off attacks by the French and Dutch. Outside the museum are three statues dedicated to three founders and/or discoverers of São Tomé, who arrived in 1470. The historical consensus is that the islands were deserted when the Portuguese arrived, and people were enslaved and brought over from Angola to grow sugar.

Fort San Sebastiao, site of the Museu Nacional
of Sao Tome and Principe.
After sugar production declined in favour of cultivation in Brazil's richer soil, the colony was largely left alone for a time, and escaped or freed slaves and their descendants were able to live relatively independently. Once cacao was introduced in the early 19th century, Portuguese returned en masse and usurped the land of free São Toménse and imported more enslaved people from Portugal's other colonies and, once slavery officially ended in 1869, then roped freedmen into indentured servitude.

Interior buildings of the fort and museum.
We had an informative tour, particularly since the lady who showed us around spoke French. The museum included many liturgical artifacts, wooden furniture, images of the various plantations, and the turtle room displaying the several species that lay eggs on the islands as well as the threats they face. Set in the old fort, the museum also had nice views of the bay and São Tomé town.

The one with the Prince Valiant haircut is Pedro Escobar, among those who discovered
Sao Tome and Principe. Compared to most places that were "discovered," the
 islands actually seem to have been uninhabited when they arrived.
The most striking room of the museum was one devoted to the massacre of Batepa, reprisals in 1953 by the Portuguese against São Toménse who were protesting against forced labor on the plantations. As you can see from the pictures, photography was limited to outside the fort.

View of Ana Chaves Bay from the Museu Nacional.

We also visited CACAU, or Casa das Artes Criacao Ambiente Utopias (“House of Arts, Creation, Environment and Utopias”), an arts center that provides training, residences for artists, and exhibitions on the art, culture and history of São Tomé and Príncipe.

A principal exhibit during our visit focused on tchiloli, or “the tragedy,” which tells the tale of how Charlemagne's son Dom Carloto killed his best friend Valdevinos while they were out hunting as Carloto had designs on Valdevinos's wife Sibilla.

Further information on the tchiloli phenomenon in Sao Tome and Principe.

What apparently follows (we missed the main tchiloli peformance season by a few days) is a courtroom performance featuring many political intrigues amongst courtiers maneuvering for influence after the murder of Valdevinos.

The pictures on display at CACAU were of actors in tchiloli performances and their families. According to the exhibit, all characters are portrayed by men, in accordance with medieval tradition. It is a popular play in ST&P, and is performed by troupes on both islands.

The tchiloli roles are hereditary and passed down from one generation to the next.