Archives For Equatorial Guinea

VI Strong!

October 6, 2017 — Leave a comment

Once upon a time – long, long ago – I lived on a beautiful little volcanic island, covered in jungles of ceiba, mahogany, palms and giant stands of bamboo like rows of drill pipe that lie in neat piles in oil service company yards. Bioko, in the Gulf of Guinea. For those who may not be familiar with West Africa, Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, is on that island though President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo would dearly love it to be in his home town of Mongomo, well away from the threat of a coup d’etat, perhaps staged from the sea. Think of Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs of War and you’ll get the picture.

Living there for nearly three years was arguably the most challenging experience of my life – not least because of the lack of culinary supplies though boatloads of San Miguel beer were regularly unloaded at the docks. A ‘keep the man on the street drunk and he won’t worry about basic human rights’ sort of ethos. And what I couldn’t do with an aubergine was nobody’s business.

Cement and sand were also in short supply. Both, as the most inexperienced builder will attest, are fundamental to construction of any kind. One might struggle with the concept of sand being unavailable on an island, but believe me when I say you do not want your home built with black sand. It might take a month for streaks of black and a purplish grey to leach through any number of layers of paint – rather like varicose veins creeping uninvited up aging legs.

Cement was in fact the tipping point for signing a contract on our home. The tawdry monetary details had been settled, but still, but still, the landlord – a crafty and not entirely reliable banker – held out. In the round about way of African negotiations it became known that a bag of cement would seal the deal. Not the size of one from say, Home Depot, or B&Q. No, no, the bag in question needed a forklift and a crane to maneuver it into place.

Why this fixation on building materials?

Well, on our walk along Buffalo Bayou this morning, Clyde and I noticed one such bag of cement. It was large enough to cause a certain amount of consternation, and a lot of barking for my companion. It is being used in the construction of a much-anticipated cycle and walking path around the University of Houston Downtown. It will allow a pleasant circulatory ride, or amble, and negate the need to back track to one’s starting point. Across the banks of the bayou, by Allen’s Landing, which as any Houstonian will tell you, is the birth place of Houston, are mountains (I exaggerate only a little) of soft yellow sediment sand. Deposited by the swirling wrath of Harvey as rain pelted into already soggy land and overflowed already swollen waterways, the sand left the banks of the bayou looking like naked dunes. It has now been scooped up by dinky little red backhoes and piled underneath the bridge, presumably to be used elsewhere.

Now I have a home on another island, this one in the Caribbean. St Croix is also in need of building materials. Not because of poor governance as in our West African home, but because she has been ravaged by nature. Hurricane Maria, a Category 5, ripped roofs, stripped trees, tumbled power lines and crumbled walls as she blew in all her rage across the edge of the island. Remember a fury of her magnitude can stretch 150 miles with hurricane force winds and another 150 miles of lesser winds. For an island of just under 83 square miles that is enough to wreak catastrophic damage – which Maria did.

And so sand and cement, or lack thereof, again take on an importance not necessarily commensurate with their normal value, in one of the places I call home. These seemingly simple commodities delivered promptly to our Virgin Islands, will help rebuild the infrastructure. So too will jungles of ceiba, mahogany and palm regrow to once again entrance and shelter the resilient inhabitants who, despite Irma and Maria’s ill-temper, have remained VI Strong!

Following My Feet

September 9, 2016 — 1 Comment

I am inherently a lazy woman. But I do walk. You might remember from blogs of a few years ago that we used to be owned by Miss Meg, a beautiful blue heeler, mixed with a few other breeds. She walked me every day. Her chosen route was along the bayous or through the woods and, because her free running gave me pleasure, I was happy to comply. Now, however, when I walk the forests or the fields or the great outdoors in whichever country I happen to be in, I find that, once I have admired nature’s beauty, it does little to inspire me.

And so I have come to realize I am a street walker!

I pound the pavements with a sense of purpose until the first interesting or novel thing catches my eye. And I stop. Often I untuck my phone from wherever it is stuffed, take a photo then off I march again. I stop for people too.

There is no route. I follow my feet. Just sometimes these feet of mine have led to places I should not have been. To sights I should not have seen. A man masturbating in the ruins of a colonial building crumbling into the waiting Bahia de Malabo. A copulating couple under a Houston bridge was an embarrassing encounter. A man stumbling from De Wallen, part of the infamous Rosse Buurt (Red Light District) in Amsterdam, to die at our feet was a bit of downer. Fortunately my husband was with me on that particular occasion.

On a recent visit to wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen I found myself in the “free state of Christiania”. In existence since 1971 when abandoned barracks were taken over by squatters, it is now a governed community funded partly by proceeds from its cafés and handcrafts. The open sale of cannabis was banned in 2004, however signs demanding no photographs give a clue as to the possibility of wayward behaviours. But I am middle aged and exude respectability from every pore and so, more often than not, I am left alone. Not in Christiania. Or the wrong part of Christiania anyway. On one corner I was offered drugs, and on another, sex. I politely declined both.

I find I have different walks for different countries. Walking in Equatorial Guinea required an African amble. Westerners are so often in a hurry. With no time for the pleasantries required to ease the conversation into the more serious business of negotiation – whether for a cucumber or a contract. Good morning in any language, accompanied by a smile, goes a long way in international relations.

Days after an attempted coup in Malabo, I walked through N’mbili Barrio, a shanty town of rutted roads, open sewers, sporadic electricity, no running water and bars. I was a volunteer English teacher in the school and had been advised not to go as the streets were unsettled, and the market still closed – always a harbinger of civil unrest. I have though never taken advice very well and so I went to class. I was a little apprehensive but, as I pushed through the chicken wire, I was met by three of ‘my boys’. “We wark wid you today, teacher,” they unisoned.

A somnolent stroll allowed me to blend in, as far as is possible for a white woman in a black country. People were used to seeing me. And those three youths sent a message to any troublemakers in the barrio – I nearly cried at their kindness. I don’t for one minute presume I was accepted, but I was tolerated.

My wanderings have introduced me to the prescribed wonders of cities dressed in all their finery, but also to the side streets where people live. It’s there along the little alleys, in the local cafés or markets, that we get a glimpse of the soul of a town or city.

Downtown Houston might not have those labyrinthian lanes but it has an energy of its own. As always it’s about the people. And yes, sometimes even the hobos. Cities cannot function without the high powered financier or oil baron. Socialites or philanthropists. Councilmen or clerics. They have little time to stop jogging. But neither can cities  function without the street cleaners, the janitors, the myriads in the service industries who make our lives easier. And as I walk the streets, usually early, it is these people who smile at me, who greet me in accented English. And I am humbled. We are so often worried we will be accosted, we forget to smile.

Today, two young men sitting on the curb, one white, one black, grinned and called out “Mornin’ Momma! God bless you.”

No wonder I follow my feet!

The Voting Process

February 24, 2016 — Leave a comment

In November 2002, at a reception in a small despotic West African country, I met an American purportedly in the country to advise the president on running true and fair presidential elections, to be held a couple of weeks hence. I was told the president had been strongly urged not to claim a win of over 87% of the vote. His suggestion was however ignored. The PDGE (Partido Democrático de Guinea Ecuatorial) won by a resounding 97.1%. The next presidential elections held in 2009 were won by the same party with a slightly smaller margin of 95.36%.

Now the cynical among us may consider those elections rigged. President Teodor Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and his family have after all been in power since October 12, 1982, and Equatorial Guinea is not a country known for her openness, freedom of the press, or human rights.

Having lived in a number of Continue Reading…