Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Despite its proximity to Gabon, São Tomé is nothing like the Africa I've known so far (many people will tell you that Libreville has little to do with Africa anyway). The island was colonised by the Portuguese, who left behind decent architecture and immense plantations. The city of São Tomé must have been a real pearl fifty years ago - it is full of lovely old fashioned buildings, most of which are, sadly, starting to fall apart. This roughness, this raw beauty is both enticing and saddening. Libreville's architecture practically non-existent, I fell in love with this town.

The capital is the only real city on the island. Most people live in villages comprised of wooden huts (no electricity, no running water) or they have adapted the old plantations and live in the buildings left by the Portuguese (in the hospitals, for instance). Wherever you go, there are pigs and goats and AIDS posters. People are poor, very poor. Don't get me wrong, however. I'm not trying to paint a picture of a poor African country, whose unhappy citizens need European help. Believe me, I could not be further from that, and later on I will explain why. For now I'm just trying to give you enough information to imagine the children running around barefoot and playing with a waste bin or throwing stones at a sick dog. Because this is their reality.

Keen observers as we are, we have noticed one or two things about the people of São Tomé. First of all, they are terribly nice and open. They talk to you, they smile, they say hello in the street. Once, when we got lost in the little streets on the outskirts of the city, a guy took his motorbike, told us to follow him and got us out onto the main road. So nice. On the other hand, if your destination is not just around the corner, you might have some trouble asking for directions. The natives have great problems with giving them. They distinguish between "up" and "down" but not "right" and "left". They can't read the map at all but they will stare at it and invent things to please you. Usually the conversation runs more or less like this:

- Excuse me, Angolares?
- Angolares? Ahh, Angolares. Yes. (they look expectantly, waiting for the question which you think you've already asked but you haven't)
- Yes. How do we get to Angolares? (no mental shortcuts this time)
- You must go that way and then go like this and like this. (several vague hand gestures, indicating the direction)
- Straight, right and left?
- Yes, yes.

And then it turns out it was "straight, left and right" or "straight, straight and left". People say yes to everything.

We have also found out that workers are generally little efficient. We had learned that in Gabon but in São Tomé the helplessness of "professionals" is at times astounding. We stayed in a fifty-euro-per-night hotel for one night, where the bathroom light would automatically go off after four seconds, so you had to start waving your arms frantically for it go back on (imagine the fun I had shaving my legs!). The receptionist, apart from sending us in the direction completely opposite to where the restaurant was, made us endure the following:

- We would like to pay please.
- 50 euros.
- We would like to pay in dobras.

- I don't know how many dobras it makes.
- We do. It makes 1 225 000 dobras.
- Yes. (He takes around a minute to go through his receipt booklet. He gets to the last page.) My booklet has finished.
- Oh. Can you get another booklet?
- I will call my boss. (It is 10 pm. He tries calling.) Oh, no. My phone is not working. I don't have credit.
- (...)

- Do you maybe have a phone? With credit?
- We will pay tomorrow.

Apart from slow to zero service and communication problems, there is yet one more thing you should be ready for when you visit São Tomé. The kids. Barefoot kids coming up to you, taking your hand, repeating without understanding: Amigo, doce doce doce! (Friend, sweets!). And then they snatch your empty water bottle, Give me this! Give me something! Give me! This is what they were taught: they are poor and so they deserve something from the rich white people. You've no idea how persistent they are. And how hard it is to say no. And you must say no, you must. Because these children reflect the whole country's attitude. The people are passive, expectant. They don't want to work, they don't respect work. They want to eat and sleep and have things, but they never learned to earn them. The country relies on international help (80% of its budget), while the citizens never show any initiative unless there is a project, a magical word, which brings them foreign cooperation money and well-being. Of course, all projects end, white people leave, and there is noone to continue the work, the natives just don't want to do it when nobody is sending cash anymore. With the government indifferent to the people's needs, the ONGs are still at work and thus the vicious circle closes.

São Tomé is God's greatest project, a lady from Cabo Verde told us, but that's it with projects. Now it's time to get up and go to work. Changing people's mentality is, however, a rather daunting task, which takes decades of very hard work. It's not money we should share with the poor African states, it's our education and experience that they need. But how do we pass that on? In the next entry I will tell about a project that might last long after the white people have left.

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