Thursday, March 11, 2010


I still haven't finished telling you about São Tomé, I hope I'm not being too boring. But please allow me just one more entry, probably the last one, which will explain a bit more about the roças, cocoa and coffee plantations started by the Portuguese colonisers.

We visited only a few of them - the island is one enormous plantantion, really - and they were all rather similar. The biggest building was always the hospital (all bigger roças boasted a hospital of their own), which towered over the fields, bringing to mind a medieval castle. The most beautiful house was occupied by the administrator of the roça, who could enjoy lovely views from his vast veranda and numerous terraces. Nearby there were always cocoa or coffee driers, offices, workshops, etc. Workers' dwellings were never in view.

When the Portuguese left in 1975, it was a question of weeks. They left everything and everybody behind and the abandoned plantations, passed from the helpless hands of the government to the helpless hands of the people, slowly, one by one, stopped the production and closed. They were invaded by the workers, who saw the departure of the Portuguese as an opportunity to take their place, at least physically. They went into their houses, set up homes in cocoa driers and watched the plantations turn into ruin, bit by bit, year by year. Again, do not misunderstand me: I am not blaming the people of São Tomé for anything. They just didn't know how to take the initiative, for they had always been told what to do (the government, on the other hand, is very much to blame!). So they adapted themselves to the new situation, lived on bananas and coconuts, and waited. But nothing happened. They are still waiting.

What we found very sad was the fact that people would admit that life had been better when the colonisers were there. Everybody had work. People wore clean clothes. There was a hospital within reach. You had enough food. Life was simpler. We heard this story from various elderly inhabitants of the roças. People do nothing now, an old man told us, comfortable in the chair of the last plantation boss, they should work but they don't. We are waiting for a cooperation project. Yes, the magical project yet again.

Still, there are ideas for the plantations, too. Roça São João dos Angolares is a wonderful example. The house was adapted for a comfortable hotel (38 euro/night) and the hospital - for an art gallery and workshop. The wild coffee plantations can be visited with a guide, and the owner will greet you personally and make sure you are well attended to. Coffee from the roça is served with breakfast, lunch and dinner, the latter being the greatest attraction of all. The food is absolutely exquisite. Local specialties are served on the terrace, overlooking a beach with black, vulcanic sand. Each dinner was a true delight (for a decent price of 12 euro).

Roça Monte Café is where the Museum of Coffee, an obvious tourist attraction, has been about to open for the past few years. One of the inhabitants of the plantantion, who still remembered the Portuguese, told us that it probably never will. The cooperation project that was preparing it was not prolonged. This elderly man still made coffee and he sold us some. This is all that is left of the roça, he said, handing us a bag of coffee, a sad smile on his tired face.

We also visited
Roça Agostinho Neto, the largest one on the island. It really is impressive. Its enormous grounds are exactly as they were when the plantation worked, just more dirty, more degraded, as if an abandoned town taken out of an American horror film. We strolled along its streets, entered the buildings, followed the little railway that used to belong to the plantation. The villagers observed us, greeted us and ignorned our presence. Only the children kept shouting their mantra: docedocedoce! trailed after us, omnipresent. A chicken on the owner's statue. Laundry drying in the office windows. People sleeping in the old hospital. Two white tourists taking pictures. We were filled with contradictory emotions: sadness mixed with curiosity, disappointment with desire to explore. Probably impossible to describe.

And finally,
Roça Diogo Vaz. Yet another idea of how to adapt the plantation premises. A roça whose plantations are still tended to and whose people still have employment. And the hospital was turned into a school, which I've already told you about. An exceptional place.

Many other plantations, such as Micondo or Bombaim, offer accomodation and guides. Tourism is probably the only way to save them. There is, however, a very long way b
efore São Tomé becomes a typical tourist destination. And, as much as I want its situation to improve, I really hope it will never really turn into yet another Ibiza.

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