São Tomé, February, 2016

Extracted from notes made during a cruise from Barbados to Cape Town. It seems important to mention that a flying one-day visit is no way to form an accurate impression of a society, but one day was all we had in each of the countries we visited down the west coast of Africa in early 2016. These notes, drawn from immediate experience, are nothing more than vignettes. And you know what they say about first impressions …

São Tomé, capital of the island state of São Tomé and Príncipe, is a calmer side of Africa- a  town of parks and avenues and stately buildings left over from Portuguese colonial times. Yes, the usual atrocities occurred and the islands were largely populated by slaves brought in to work the sugar plantations, but there’s more of a sense of order and contentment than we saw in Togo and Benin. It obviously benefits a lot from outside help. After independence in 1975 it had 15 years of communist rule, with mainland China providing significant aid, but lost the Chinese money when São Tomé voted at the UN to recognize Taiwan, so now Taiwan has taken over the heavy lifting (it even has an embassy here, while the US makes do with its embassy in Benin). Lots of poverty still, and a strong sense of unseen discipline of the citizenry – street stalls are theoretically banned, though the marketplaces are so congested a blind eye is turned on street traders: I’d be curious to know how they define democracy here.

The day we visit, the teachers are on strike for an improvement in their base salary of 50 euros a month. The fishing village we stop at is not much more than a shanty town, but the kids are happy and playful (well, school’s out) and fisherfolk actually ask to have their photos taken. (continue reading below)

We stop in the village square to watch a dance and music show about olden times, with characters dressed in all kinds of strange clothing (one wearing a gas mask, another an old army greatcoat, others in red jumpsuits) to depict a story about the Portuguese colonizers and local kings (it had the character of the old English Mystery Plays, with the addition of relentless music and frenetic dancing, but otherwise nothing you’d expect in terms of what we usually think of as music and dance of Africa).

At another show, in the main square of São Tome, the overall feel was like an African version of the old mummers shows, pounding music accompanying a group of (again) oddly garbed characters (a bride with her train, a man in a top hat and morning suit, various officers and officials) all of whom each dance an introduction to themselves and a welcome to us, then dance fierce little conflicts that I suppose add up to a story, though I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what. I sat beside a local girl of maybe 12 or 13 to watch this show, and she seemed as mystified and delighted as I was.

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