Africa is funny. May I say that? It was in Swaziland that I heard, for the first and last time, a Dolly Parton album in its entirety. In Cape Verde I saw perhaps the last surviving framed portrait (this was 1994) of Mikhail Gorbachev. I picked up a hitchhiker in South Africa who smelled of beer at 9 A.M. on a Sunday and who broke a long silence by muttering, "I am so angry." Not quite so lucky in the Sudan, I arrived after a sanctimonious coup d'etat and at my hotel there was nothing more than "the very finest in international soft drinks."

Personally, I prefer uniquely domestic soft drinks, like the Inka Cola you could get in Ecuador, which was a totally inappropriate shade of yellow. But I digress. My theme is Africa, not South America. And this time, I went to the Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe, a true challenge to the humorist. For this country is recreationally African.


Visitors may call this or that part of Africa "really" African, but I can't be bothered. Ceuta, a Spanish city on the African mainland, is really African - if you dispute that, I don't care. São Tomé is "recreationally" African because its industry is recreational begging. Just making conversation, Santomeans say, "Give me money." Or, "Give me a ballpoint pen." Or, "Can I have your sneakers?" This last as I was tearing down my campsite on a beach. The kid saw my sneakers just lying there, so why not? Heck, I wasn't actually wearing them.

I said, "No, I need them," and the matter was dropped. Santomeans are peaceable. Anyway, the Taiwanese will probably give you their sneakers. I'd never seen a Taiwanese flag before, but in São Tomé I saw dozens, each one flying above an aid project. There was the Taiwanese ambassador on local radio, discussing a roadbuilding initiative in very good Portuguese. And there in the café across the street from the U.N. compound were Chinese, all at one table, all drinking beer, and all wearing baseball caps. I liked the baseball caps. It just wouldn't have been the same without them.

The U.N. compound was just about the biggest building in town, and that was only proper. It was also proper that I never saw anyone entering or leaving it. The real action was next door, at the comparably large Nigerian embassy. São Tomé, heaven help us, believes it is about to become an oil exporter, or (as I am fond of saying about this country with 160,000 people and six gas stations) a net oil exporter, and Nigeria is going to be doing all the heavy lifting. The deal is that it give 40% of the proceeds to the Santomean government. Nowhere in this picture do you see a Santomean actually producing wealth.

It wasn't always so. In 1913 this Travis-County-sized country accounted for one-sixth of world cacao production. Plantation owners built hundreds of miles of private narrow-gauge railways to ship out their produce. Then Portugal evacuated in 1975, the owners left, and that was that. The railways have completely disappeared. Chocolate is virtually unavailable. Everything is virtually unavailable. I was amazed to learn that Brazilians sometimes visit São Tomé. Brazilians would never go someplace where you can't shop. Unless, as it turns out, they're missionaries. I'd never met a Brazilian, even an evangelical one, who didn't have Wal-Mart tastes on a Wal-Mart budget. Guess I need to meet more Brazilians.

The far-seeing Santomean would probably be studying to become a petroleum engineer, something which is applicable to his country's current situation and also makes him marketable abroad. But portable labor is the last thing a Santomean wants to be. The Portuguese empire always had trouble finding people to do the work, those who did the work pretty much had to be enslaved first, and nobody wants to relive the bad old days. And why should you? A Swiss NGO will give you free goats, and a really cute German girl will audit your husbandry of them. Shoot, I'll give you Grapenuts. The Santomeans I so favored were extremely pleased. Eatin' Grapenuts is like suckin' on BB's, but suckin' on cassava is much worse.

Or - this might be the real Santomean view - it's exactly the same, except Grapenuts are free and cassava isn't.

A Santomean who was having a beer at 9 A.M. - is this Happy Hour in Africa? - told me fruit in the jungle is free. (To those readers uninterested in beer, I apologize for mentioning it so much, but the fact is that it is an omnipresent African detail, maybe even in the Sudan too, depending on the piety of the government du jour.) You can, and most locals do, subsist just fine in São Tomé. Indeed, coconuts and jackfruit literally fall from the trees, and one could easily kill you. I like to think the Tourism Ministry keeps secret statistics on visitor casualties. "Just what," they must coolly wonder, "are the odds?"

I measured them carefully, for my head was an important piece of expedition equipment and it would be embarrassing to have it flattened while I was standing twenty feet from my tent taking a leak. In a place so deficient in amenities, you need your head, because you could only have come for intellectual reasons. Mine were to practice Portuguese and to see if any flowering plants could sense night length accurately just miles from the Equator. I was analytical. Chatting with a woman who was carrying a couple of two-by-fours on her head, I made crisp mental notes. "Lumber orientation: sagittal! Relevance of this fact: none! Except if the orientation were transverse, she couldn't walk between two banana trees!"

The Santomeans I asked said plants blossomed year-round, meaning they were insensitive to photoperiod - so much for that idea. I can't imagine returning to São Tomé. A Santomean who urged me to asked me what my opinion of the place would be in a week's time. You're reading it. This guy also asked me to send him some books in English. I agreed. Mistakenly assuming that charity was as recreational for me as panhandling was recreational for him, he then gave me a long list of things to send. I wrote it all down, but it would have been fine Portuguese practice to say, "Look, I've had a copy of Richard Brautigan's Loading Mercury with a Pitchfork rattling around my closet for years, and that's what you're getting!"

Postscript: I mailed the book on July 12, 2003. The coup was on July 16, 2003.

© 2003 J.A.Hutter

Other travels