Cycling on Sao Tome, by Gregor Heinric

Cycling on Sao Tome,

by Gregor Heinric

Sir / Madam:

I recently noticed a quite good WEB-entry on S.Tome residing on your WEB pages.

(i) You might wish to add an information that a symposium on STP was held at Cologne University (Germany) on April 7, 1995. All papers presented, mostly in German, some in Portuguese, were recently published in "ABP - Zeitschrift zur portugiesischsprachigen Welt" No.1, 1996 (Frankfurt : IKO)(ISSN 0947-1723)

(ii) Below please find a travel and country report that I wrote and that might be of interest to you.
Kind regards

G. Heinrich


Cycling on Sao Tome :

Land of the First Plantations and of the Last Slaves

(by Gregor HEINRICH*)

Flying out to the West African microstate of Sao Tome and Principe is not that easy. Not only are the two islands not shown on most living-room globes, but more often than not even seasoned travelers seem to be oblivious of a place which is roughly no more than twice the size of Andorra. Independent since 1975, the republic is now showing signs of waking from its latest Rip Van Winkle slumber.


The Airbus from Lisbon has deposited its passengers on the apron in the hot Sao Tome night. On the small baggage carousel - the minimum an airport requires to qualify as "international" - the bicycle completes a quick circuit, eliciting incredible amazement. The customs officials note down the make and ask whether it will be staying. Even before it has left the airport, people are already bidding. Not that there are no bikes on the island; but the recently imported and ever lovingly polished Chinese models are heavy and have no gears. Most of the cycles are still new and in the local currency, the dobra, would fetch the equivalent of about US$ 100, four times what a teacher earns in a month. On a bike you are not simply restricted to riding around the small capital, with its old, generously laid-out avenidas that have with time become bumpy and on which you rarely meet a car; in particular the island's main sites, the old plantations, known as rocas, are just a leisurely ride away.

It's only 12 km from the town up to the coffee hill, the Roca Monte Cafe, the only coffee plantation still in operation, at an altitude of 700 m. But you may well find yourself taking a whole day to get there. And when you do, it's worth riding and pushing your bike a little further, to a hotel with a fantastically clear view and, just beyond, in the rain forest, one of the many waterfalls on the island.

The subsequent descent is terrifyingly quick. >From Sao Tome the road climbs slowly to Trindade, 7 km away. Along the route, the Portuguese-built houses increasingly give way to the traditional abodes, built on stilts to protect them from the tropical downpours. Most of the people get around on foot, smartly dressed if on the way to work or, like many children, barefoot if they belong to the not so well-off.

At streams there are always women busy doing the family laundry. The soap they use is manufactured with coconut oil and soda on the island, one of the few domestic consumer products. In the grass along the banks, I discover, as previously seen on many a torso, not only faded Michael Jackson T-shirts but also new garments sporting the image of Bill and Hillary Clinton. What initially appears to be skilful propaganda proves to be merely old throw-away campaign garb which, via many middlemen, ended up in Libreville in Gabon. There the shirts are subsequently bought up by retailers, with dollars obtained on the market square in Sao Tome from foreigners and bundled to the mainland in small boats.

Trindade itself may be just a hamlet in our eyes, but it is still the second-largest town on Sao Tome. A parish was founded here as early as 1508, and when Dutch pirates stormed the town of Sao Tome around 1640, causing much destruction, Trindade was even a diocesan town for a year. Today the island's President has his residence on a hill overlooking the place. The blue-painted house, with its wonderful view of the ocean and the small island's peaks, which rise to above 2,000 m, was once occupied by the Governor of the colonial power of Portugal.

Beyond Trindade, the road leads through the tiny settlement of Batepa. Like all the towns and villages, it has a small open festival arena. As I rode past, the teachers were being taught mathematical set theory on the stage and, alongside, in an improvised classroom, small children were brooding over big numbers. The school building proper was being freshly painted.

In the festival arena itself I am addressed by Felipe. From there he guides me through more than just small fields, past medicinal and magical herbs, about each of which he has a tale to tell. We meet Pedro, the palm-wine extractor, who each day draws about five litres of sweet juice from the tops of his palms. He has taken a lease on ten of the trees. For three months he can extract the juice which - through fermentation in the open air - becomes palm wine, known as vim pema.

Felipe then also takes me to see his uncle. The torture scars on his legs are vestiges of the electric shocks endured during the 1953 uprising. At the time, the rumor arose that the colonialists wanted to force the native population into working on the land. The rebellion was bloodily suppressed: some 1,000 blacks and one white man fell victim to the "Massacre of Batepa".


A much gentler ride is afforded by the barely perceptible gradient of the road leading up to Guadalupe, to some of the old plantations which in former times were the source of the country's wealth, bestowing schools, roads, water and health care. Admittedly, it was not colonialist sweat which soaked the earth in that period. Nevertheless, there is no denying the beauty of the lordly mansions of these nostalgically dilapidated estates, with their whitewashed columns, houses in blue or yellow against a tropical backcloth, a lasting reminder of injustices which were proclaimed to the world so loudly that on many a plantation the owners responded with the construction of almost palatial hospitals.



Meanwhile, we have reached Roca Bela Vista. Built at the turn of the century, the big pink two-storey house towers over the surrounding plantations. A balcony running round the whole house not only enabled the owners who lived here to step out into the fresh air but also provided them with a vantage point from which to observe the work going on in the courtyards and what was happening in front of the other buildings. In the immediate vicinity stood the rather more modest buildings of the foremen; and a bit further on, little better than stables, the quarters of the workers and their families.

As with every other major roca, the village-like complex includes a church, a school and a hospital: a world in its own right. Today, barely twenty years after the withdrawal of the colonial power, many of the island's old plantation buildings stand rotting. The young people on the roca have little interest in their state of disrepair. They find life here boring, dreaming of the for us seemingly near but for them oh so distant capital of Sao Tome and complaining that their last football has burst and they have nothing more to play with. There is also extreme poverty. Far beyond the pretty buildings of the roca, in the workers' districts, where a mother is delousing her child, a handful of tomatoes on a window sill are ripening in the sun, the pots over the fireplaces are empty and even women washing their laundry don't represent a photographic idyll, two babies were offered to me for purchase.

The administrators running the rocas are having difficulty finding buyers for their cocoa. Until the collapse of the Soviet empire, almost the island's entire cocoa production went to East Germany; there was no quality control. The economists followed the ideas of the Cuban, Soviet and East German advisers. To dry the cocoa, much valuable wood was thoughtlessly burnt. Now things are to change. Special trees for firewood are being planted on the roca. The 70 kg sacks with better-quality cocoa are today shipped to Libreville. But many a concern is still incapable of covering its costs.

Riding southwards along the coast past small beaches on which the fishermen have

stacked their dug-out canoes in rows, you first come to Santana. On many of the vessels, outboard motors have replaced the old small sails. Some 10 km further on, two giant satellite dishes protrude through the coastal palms. Bill the Texan is the "antenna man" at Voice of America, which after unrest in Liberia has taken out a thirty-year lease on an extensive stretch of land here. Both satellite dishes are only provisional, says Bill. "Back there we're building two really big antennae, and with them we'll be able to beam radio and TV into West Africa accurately at any time."

Otherwise there is only one domestic radio station. You notice that Sao Tome is not a reggae country. The landlord of the small Ostramar restaurant, for instance, prefers romantic Brazilian love songs on cassette; apart from that, the radio and the discos play a lot of music from the Cape Verde Islands and by the few home-grown bands.

They have problems getting guitar strings, relates Vicente, the guitarist in the group Africa Negra, after the festival in the parque, a meeting-point where many celebrations and concerts are held. Instruments and equipment are acquired only through having connections, in Europe or Gabon, he says. In the town there's no specialist shop, and the stuff is expensive too. On the radio you can sometimes hear even jazz, a musical donation from France. Local radio is too impoverished.

Voice of America set up its hypermodern transmission boosters right next to the old ones of Radio Nacional. On the flat spit of land on which the antennae stand, salt used to be extracted in former times. Not far from there, the Chinese attempted to start up a rice project. They did not, however, take into account that the local menfolk feared that they would lose their manhood if they had to work with their legs in water. The project failed. Rice has long since been imported, as is, surprisingly, most of the food. Even during periods of economic prosperity, when the country was flourishing and bringing in record revenues for its colonial masters, apparently no efforts were made to lay down the basis for self-sufficiency in food.

But in the meantime, eleven aid organisations have set up agencies on the island, and advisers are constantly flying in and out. Marinho, a Portuguese businessman I meet on the way back from a day trip, has another interest in the island. He settled here a few months ago. "Here you have peace, here it's paradise," he says; it is his intention to set up a secure half-way centre for trade with West Africa: "the African continent is close, a big market, but it's troubled."

The inhabitants of Sao Tome themselves have put their hopes in tourism. Although the island cannot survive without cocoa, according to the President, with nothing but cocoa San Tome would collapse. However, what they are interested in is not mass tourism, people in search of a quick tan, but ecotourism. The town's old fort today houses a museum. Amazing items from the ecclesiastical history of the island are to be found there, along with furniture from the old roca mansions as they used to be, including ceramic Art Nouveau water filters.

And the future? Will it just be a repetition of historical patterns? Riding along, you always see curious faces. It's worth stopping, to experience first-hand what hope is. What was it that the people of Sao Tome say again? "Sao Tome sa glavi" - Sao Tome is beautiful. And where there is beauty, there is hope.


Gregor Heinrich
Basle (Switzerland) [] -- The article merely reflects
the personal views of the author.

Hardcopy publication of this text only with prior permission of the author.


Date: 07 Aug 96 12:15:43 EDT From: "Gregor C. HEINRICH" <100303.100@CompuServe.COM> Subject: Sao Tome Message-ID: <960807161543_100303.100_JHF102-1@CompuServe.COM>

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar
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