visited 56 states (24.8%)
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In Malabo, I did notice a few photography studios as I wondered about. There must be some legality if business existed to develop prints. I’m told the price was for one print is 500 XAF, or just over $1. I looked surprised and repeated it. The shop owner confirmed I wasn’t mistaken. How is this so? I was shocked at how expensive it was. (I had also encountered the same type of situation at the post office when I asked how much it was to mail a letter internationally. To Europe, the cost is 325, to countries in Africa, 275 and to the rest of the world, 375. However, Equatorial Guinea does not have any coins. The lowest paper denomination of the Central African Franc is 500, therefore everything is priced starting at 500 and goes up from there. Even stamps. Just because the official price is lower, there’s no way to make change, so you must pay 500.)
I was told that the difference lies with foreigners taking pictures, versus locals. Locals are permitted to take pictures, so long as it’s not of the Presidential Palace, Parliament, Radio or TV broadcast centers or any of the government ministries. Foreigners are, however, strongly encouraged (and some in government say it’s mandatory) to get a special authorization from the Ministry of Tourism. Without this, government police are almost certain to harass foreigners taking pictures and may even confiscate the camera. What the hell, I thought, I’d just go to the ministry and see what the story was.
My first visit to the office was uneventful. The Ministry of Tourism is not a new, shiny building. It’s tucked away in a slum part of town called Africa 2000. I get the feeling not many tourists actually make the visit. I ascend the stairs to the third floor and find one man sitting at an old metal desk that looks like it belongs in a middle school. The man is friendly, but tells me that the person I need to see, and everyone other than him for that matter, has gone home for the day, and doesn’t think they’re coming back. It’s 2pm. I leave and return on my last day in town carrying my passport just in case. There’s heated debate as one man states that there’s no way I can get permission on the same day, but that it may be possible to get permission for next week. As he’s done saying that, I’m led into the Director of Cultural Affairs’ office and situated next to a man getting a permit for a photography shop. The Director is staring perplexed at the MS Word template that already is written, and is obviously contemplating how to reword the document. He asks me what my intention is. I tell him I’d like to take a picture of the central Cathedral, nothing more (by this point, I’ve scared myself so badly that it’s impossible to take pictures that I’ve reduced expectations of anything beyond this). He looked surprised as he says, “That’s it?”
“That’s it,” I confirm.
He counter offers with an invitation for authorization to take any picture I want. All I have to do is bring back a photocopy of my passport, two pictures, and 80,000 XAF (or about $175). I almost laugh and gag at the same time. He tries to justify his payoff as a government tax. I tell him I’m leaving in the evening and there’s no way I will pay that. He reconsiders and says, “Oh, well then for the day, you can take any picture you want for 50,000 instead.” $115, what a deal. Considering the payoff for a few minutes afterward, I come to my senses and realize how absurd the situation is. I return to my hotel room, grab my camera, and snap away. No questions asked by the military police sitting a few yards away.
I arrived in Malabo on a Sunday afternoon. The heat is oppressive. The airport exit is quite: no taxi drivers bombarding passengers for a ride into town. I find a couple guys sitting in the shade and one leads me to his car. As a former Spanish colony, Equatorial Guinea is the only country in Africa that speaks Spanish and remains the official language. Building a rapport with the driver, I finally breach the question of taking pictures; I’ve been told that photography is illegal and that special permission is necessary from a Ministry. My driver dismisses the claim, but then shows me in actions of snapping a picture then quickly hiding the camera and looking around to make sure no one saw. I decided I’d stray to caution and ask around first to get a better feeling for the controversy.
I took the afternoon to walk the streets. Malabo is situated on the Bay of Malabo and up against a mountain range set with lush jungle greenery. The buildings survive from colonialism and Spanish colonnades dominate the architecture, albeit in disrepair. The city is quiet, slow-moving and people sit on park benches in Plaza de la Independencia outside the Central Cathedral and just opposite the Presidential compound. Siesta is still observed between the hours of 1pm-4pm as all small shops close.
On Tuesday, my first day of work, I notice a growing military presence along Avenida de la Independencia. Around 1pm, State Police Toyota Tacoma pickup trucks start to block each intersection leading into the main thoroughfare through town. Police track down owners of cars parked along the street and are told to move out of the way. I continued to work, but found the road to the airport had been blocked, and I returned to town for another few hours. School kids and shop keepers lingered outside and hung off of balconies overlooking Av. Independencia. I asked one girl what was going on. She nonchalantly replied, “The president is coming.”
I decided to sit and watch. Official vehicles had been racing up and down the road for hours now, flashing lights and honking as they screamed through town. At 5pm, an army strong motorcade emerged down the road from the airport. Wailing sirens and lights. Two Special Forces trucks led with 10 or so men in the back, each with trained AK47s on each part of the road as they whipped passed. In the middle of the 40-50 car convoy (I stopped counting after a while), I saw Obiang as he skirted past in his presidential Mercedes Benz. The dust settled, my ears cleared, and the woman next to me gets up and says, “that’s it.”
“Every time?” I ask.
“Every time.” She responds.
Equatorial Guinea is comprised of three independent landmasses. The mainland is sandwiched between Gabon to the south and Cameroon to the North and the Gulf of Guinea to the west. It’s approximately the size of Rhode Island. The other to parts of the county are two islands, Annobon and Bioko. The second of which is where the capital, Malabo, is located. The Ethiopian Airlines flight attendant announces we’ll be departing Douala for Malabo. Flight time, 22 minutes. I have enough time to nod off to sleep before the plane starts to descend over the water.
Equatoria Guinea is the only previous colony of Spain in sub-Saharan Africa. In the late 1960s, the small country gained it’s independence from Spain and held their first democratic elections. Unfortunately, as John Ghazvinian writes in Untapped: The Scramble for Africa’s Oil, “the wrong man won.” Francisco Macias Nguema, a clinically diagnosed schizophrenic sociopath claimed victory and announced himself “President for Life, Immaculate Apostle of Steel and Unique Miracle of Equatorial Guinea.” His policies were disastrous. Macias declared the word “intellectual” illegal and banned the use of lubricant to be used at the power plant, claiming that magic was to be counted upon to operate the machinery. He banned western medicine and relied solely upon African black magic and herbal remedies. And when people started fleeing Malabo by sea, he disbanded the fishing industry and made boats illegal. Moreover, as Ghazvinian writes, “in 1975…Macias celebrated Christmas Day by lining up 150 of his political opponents in a soccer stadium and shooting them dead while a brass band played Mary Hopkin’s 1960s anthem, ‘Those Were the Days, My Friend.'” It’s not surprising then that one-third of the entire population died during Macias’ rule.
On August 3, 1979, Macias was disposed in a military coup led by his nephew, Brigadier General Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, and was executed. Obiang has ruled Equatorial Guinea ever since. When oil was discovered in he mid-1990s, Western governments pressured Obiang to allow opposition parties to participate in elections. In 1996, Obiang won with 99.2% of all ballots, in 2003 with 97% and was reelected just last year. The government in Malabo is a known violator of human rights and Obiang himself is often referred to as a thug as he leads a tightly controlled military state.
For further reading about Equatorial Guinea (as I’ve referenced it multiple times on this trip), turn to John Ghazvinian’s Untapped: The Scramble for Africa’s Oil, pp. 170-206. Disturbing and entertaining reading.
When I arrived in Douala, Cameroon, I took a stroll around town. Just after 5pm, the district of Bonanjo was relatively quiet. Stores were already closed for the day, but a few people were roaming about the streets. The architecture immediately took me back to Hanoi, Vietnam: a strong French colonial presence in design and construction permeates throughout the central buildings. But it’s not just the architecture that reminded me of Asia. Men push popcorn carts along the central green space, motorcycle taxis putter about, and there’s dense humidity in the air.
Unfortunately, the coming days would be filled with work; crisscrossing the city from point to point, carefully passing through busy intersections with disabled traffic lights. My driver for the few days, Oscar, absolutely loved Congolese rap music, especially Fally Ipupa. More specifically, he loved just one of Fally’s songs. At the end of my fourth day of work, I had every line memorized. Before departing for the airport, we ventured to a poor district of town were music vendors sat under umbrellas with ramshackle computers teetering on top of crates and makeshift tables. Oscar got out and returned with four CDs of various Congolese, Cote d’Ivoire and Cameroonian music.
Each day, Oscar would take me to a different local restaurant. We had Ndole, a type of sauce which is made from boiled shredded bitterleaf, melon seeds and peanuts and is served with meat and shrimp. Another day, we arrived to the port district of the city to a beachside local restaurant. Oscar picked out two sole fish from a lady selling them out of a cooler next to the restaurant; they’re brought to the kitchen and prepared inside the restaurant. We negotiated to 6000 XAF (or about $14 – not quite inexpensive) for the two fish and enjoyed a nice breeze off the water while taking in a few cold beers.
Gabon is one of the wealthiest nations in Africa and attributed its success to the former president, Omar Bongo, who held office for 42 years. Bongo was the longest ruling non-monarch leader in the world at the time of his death and maintained a controversial grasp on his consolidated power by bringing opposition leaders into his fold. Last year his son, Ali Ben Bongo, took over as the Gabonese President-elect.
The road from the airport in Libreville sweeps along the coast. Stoplights function at surprising regularity, and 90% of traffic abides by the signals (others speed through unbothered at a cool 45 miles per hour). A row of governmental buildings lines a hillside that seems to have been designed to attest to the wealth of the country. (This is not to say the buildings are pretty. One of these is a ministry, presumably of agriculture, that has made the building take the shape of giant metal tree and incorporates putrid browns, yellows and greens to accentuate the designer’s theme). There are also fewer taxis patrolling the streets; more people own cars, thus private taxis are not the norm as they would be in Congo. Here, the experience of taking a taxi is more aligned with group hitchhiking for payment than anything.
My first experience leaves me politely dropped off to the side of the road once the driver figures out that my destination is further than he wants to go. I ask cab to cab, “Tropicana?” Two people in the back stare at me as the driver looks ahead and refuses with a, “no.” It’s sweltering. It tops 39 degrees Celsius, or about 101 Fahrenheit. My shirt has long since been dry. It takes ten more minutes before I concede and change my destination.
On another occasion, I exited a real estate meeting in which we were discussed appropriate budgets for expatriates exceeding $5600 per month and squeezed into a shared taxi. The two women in the back seat shifted over and made room for me. Everyone in the taxi seemed to get along like they had known one another for years and I felt as if I had just joined a family road trip. Most likely it was out of shared snickering at my expense. I got out and offered a dollar for the lift.
Because of the comparative wealth in Gabon, many neighboring countries have a strong presence in Libreville. Primarily, taxi drivers come from Cameroon and Nigeria. I found my opportunity to continue my discussion of salaries when I met a driver named Timothy. Timothy, a broad-smiling Cameroonian, explained the differences of basic earnings to rent expenditures between his home country and Gabon. In Cameroon, monthly rent is approximately 50,000 XAF (or about $112) compared to 100,000 ($225) for the same standard in Libreville. However, when he takes into consideration his potential monthly pay, he stands to earn 300,000 ($670) per month if he had stayed in Cameroon but between 500,000-600,000 ($1,120 – 1,335) in Libreville.
Timothy stressed that to have a future in Cameroon, it’s necessary to first have a great deal of money. There is no upward mobility, yet in Gabon, opportunities are greater; at least enough to save a portion of an income.
My cab departed the hotel and took the back way to the airport to avoid traffic congestion on the main road. The tiny Corolla surged along the sandy road that wound its way through a shanty neighborhood. We passed a group of women sitting in wooden dining room chairs conferring under a large tree, a man who had to take a break after struggling with a pile of wood slung through his two-wheeled cart, and destitute street-side sacks selling apples for 50 francs (about 12 cents).
The airport is a mess of confusion. A baggage handler approached me, began yelling in French and grabbed at my bag. There’s a service in Congo where it’s accepted that the airport has such people to check in for you, grabbing your passport and luggage and allowing you to cut the line. A nominal fee is expected. Having gone through this in Brazzaville and saving only a couple minutes but getting dirty looks in the process, I saw that the line was only a few people, so declined respectfully (or forcefully). The desk clerk said I could check in directly at the gate, and pointed to security. Looking confused, I turned and presented my passport and receipt for the flight to the officer. Muttering something in French, he shouted, “no travel!” I returned to the desk. Now, the same man agreed to check my bag, but still doesn’t give me a boarding pass and instructs a guy who has accompanied me back to the check in counter from the security desk that I am to be allowed through. This time, a new security manager is fronting the line. He yelled something in French, to which my entourage replies, as best as I can tell, that I’m okay. He let me pass.
As I prepared to put my items through the x-ray, I realized there’s no metal detector. I quit fussing with removing all the metal I’m carrying. I attempt to put my bag into the machine, but am cut off by two other people forcing their way though. I oblige. One of them has put a wrapped machete onto the conveyor for examination. I walk to the other side of the machine to collect my bag, but no one is looking at the screen; they’re too busy confiscating hair spray products from the man in front of me. Five bottles in all. The machete and me pass with no problems.
An announcement overhead sends people swarming toward the doors that lead to the tarmac. Pushing and shoving, there is no decorum about the process. It’s like being thrown into a stampede. There’s a foot of room in front of me and someone steps in to fill it. The crowd recedes at another announcement than thrusts again. At this point, the flight is an hour late. I finally squeeze out through the doors and onto the tarmac when a military officer wearing a barret and black Ray Bans stops me. I’m told I can’t go without a boarding pass. I try to explain I was never given one. I wait.
Apparently, as people explain in broken English, the ticket system had broken down just prior to my check in. They tell me to give my name to the agent manning the gate. He scribbles down my first than last. A woman working for the airline explains, “in case something bad happens to the plane.”
A few days into my trip I found myself sitting in a salon in Brazzaville waiting to be given a haircut. It was then that Nabir, a Lebanese man there to pass his day with his friend, learned that I would be traveling to Pointe Noire. He summoned a camera phone picture with excitement and said, “When I show you this, you’ll want to go today.” He held out his phone: a sunset over the beach illuminated two huge oil platforms in the distance. Looks like heaven.
To most it would. Oil signals opportunity, wealth, and business in Congo. The derivative businesses associated with oil are immense: subcontractors upon subcontractors reap the benefits of the oil industry by charging extraordinary fees. However, it’s not just subcontractors that swoon over available jobs. The amount of money that goes in and out of Pointe Noire is not lost on the local population.
I met a Scottish guy, Dave, who traveled to Pointe Noire for a series of safety trainings for Congolese workers installing power lines. Discussions about local salaries are always a subject of interest for me, especially when there’s Ngok involved. Luckily, it’s a popular discussion among those who want the outside traveler to know the reality of the people. Dave and his host were able to explain that in Congo, the average day laborer earns 150,000 XAF, or just about $334, per month. In comparison, a taxi driver expects to make anywhere between 12,000 to 15,000 XAF ($26-33) per day. The taxi driver then stands to make anywhere from 300,000 – 375,000 XAF (or roughly $667-834) per month based on working an average of 25 days each month.
And then there’s the lonely man factor. The term “night club” varies in meaning from country to country. In Congo, a nightclub is essentially a hostess bar. Pointe Noire has several options, ranging from Casino, a smoke filled gambling all with slot machines and eager girls looking for a complementary drink, to Master, a bar filled with girls that are not shy to give a price for extra-marital services. 25,000 XAF for a goodnight lay, just over $55. It’s no wonder than that it’s a thriving industry and a means to capitalize off the international presence in town.
Internet connections here in West Africa have slowed my pace of visual contributions to the blog. Below are two images of Brazzaville that I’ve managed to bring to the web.
This picture was taken on a Sunday when activity around town was at a minimum. To the left was a pile of burning trash as it sloped into a creek below that ran through town. The booth is used for the Congolese lottery.
Here’s a general view of the main street that runs from end to end of Brazzaville. Again, it was taken on a Sunday. Normally, the road would be filled with green taxis, all beeping their horns in hope of some business.
I took some video when I took a bribed tour of the Catholic University of Brazzaville, but it will have to wait until I get back to 1st world internet speeds.
As the plane descends on approach into Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, rolling hills covered in tightly cropped grass spreads out below. Roads are non-existent, only footpaths of dirt link sporadic plots crops fields, erratic in size and length. There are no crops, just that these plots are slightly darker green than the surrounding hills. There are no trees.
The plane shifts to the right and the wide Congo River comes into view. Suddenly, a massive city appears underneath just seconds before touchdown. The runway is one strip of asphalt, so when the plane comes to a halt, it turns back down the runway to make an arrival on the strip. The airport is small. Everything is white tile highlighted by off-white paint. The tile runs from the floors and consumes the construction of the immigration desk. I feel like I’m in a public bathroom that would be found under the supervision of a Parks and Recreation department somewhere. Spray paint graffiti on the windows lingers. The bathrooms have no light, and as the door closes behind me, it becomes pitch dark. I realize why it smells so terrible.
Finding a cab outside, we make the ten minute drive through the city and to the hotel. Congo has undergone two civil wars since their independence, the last of which ended in 2005 after 21 years of fighting. The road to the airport feels like it is a byproduct of this time: the road emerges through dense jungle-like foliage as if the forrest around has started to reclaim the city.
In Untapped: The Scramble for Africa’s Oil, John Ghazvinian explains the reasons for the considerable disparity of poverty in a country which is within the top five producers of oil exports in Africa. While the book was published in 2007, at that time, oil exports accounted for 90% of the entire export revenue for the Republic of Congo. When so reliant on such a volatile world petroleum market for state revenue, it is no wonder why the country appears stagnant and in a process of being consumed by the jungle. Moreover, as Ghazvinian explains, in country that has discovered “the curse of oil,” the government becomes reliant on the income generated by oil to fund the state, so much so that other manufacturing and agriculture markets become underfunded and even ignored. The state starts giving jobs out to satisfy a labor force void of opportunities in other fields. As a result, as it is highly apparent in Congo, the economy becomes stagnant and lives hand to mouth off the oil fields.
None of this though is evident in Brazzaville from the surface. There are no oil workers and as a matter of fact, very few foreigners comparatively with other state capitols. Then there are the Lebanese. Every store, restaurant, hair salon or airline service counter is either under the direct supervision or owned entirely by a Lebanese man. There are some 100,000 Lebanese that live in Congo, a small number as a man explains, who sits waiting for a haircut with me. He himself has just arrived to the country from Lebanon to invest his entire savings into trucking: dump trucks and long distance haulers to cater to building projects within the country. The influence of this small middle-eastern country on the continent is very apparent to the Congolese. Their distaste for the Lebanese is palpable.
Oil, however, would be a strong and present issue once I arrived to Pointe Noire. More on that later. As I regain internet, I will follow up with more writing about Brazzaville.