Equatorial Guinea—A Treasure-House of Surprises
By Awake! correspondent in Equatorial Guinea
IN AFRICA there is a country where elephants and gorillas still roam the jungle, where commercialism passes almost unnoticed, where children still wave at passersby. And outside of Africa, few have ever heard of it.
Its name—Equatorial Guinea—is no misnomer. The country, which is roughly the size of Belgium, nearly straddles the equator. In December 1990, I visited the two main regions: the island of Bioko and Mbini, a small slice of Africa.
My first surprise was to learn that most of its 350,000 inhabitants speak fluent Spanish in addition to their tribal languages. I discovered that it had become the only Spanish-speaking country in Africa because of one of those quirks of colonial history.
The European Connection
Some 20 years before Columbus discovered America, Portuguese navigator Fernão do Pó was exploring the Gulf of Guinea when he spotted the lush volcanic island of Bioko. He was so charmed by its beauty that he called it Formosa (Beautiful). Years later another famous explorer, Sir Henry Stanley, described it as “the jewel of the ocean.”
But for centuries the pristine beauty of the region was marred by the ugly slave trade. The strategic location of Bioko and Corisco (another Guinean island just off the coast of Mbini) made them ideal staging posts for the shipping of African slaves to the Americas. From the 16th to the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of slaves passed through these two islands.
The Portuguese claim to Bioko and the adjacent coast was ceded to the Spanish in 1778 in order to resolve a dispute between the two countries involving their territorial claims in far-off South America. Spain thus gained its own source of slaves in Africa and in turn relinquished its claims on Portuguese territory in Brazil.
But the borders were ill-defined, and Spanish colonizers were few in number. In the 19th century, during the European scramble for African colonies, France and Germany encroached on the mainland territory, while Britain coveted the island of Bioko. It was not until 1900 that the boundaries of Equatorial Guinea were finally settled, after which it remained a Spanish colony until it gained independence in 1968.
“Smiles Are Returned”
I found the people of Equatorial Guinea to be a fascinating ethnic mixture. There are the Bube on the island of Bioko, while in the two main cities, the tall Hausa stand out. They are immigrants from the north and are the principal tradesmen of Guinea. The Fang tribe is the largest tribe on the continental part of the country, and they form the bulk of the civil service. Guineans smile easily, lending truth to a Fang proverb that says, “Smiles are returned.”
Traditional crafts and customs are very much alive. I was intrigued to see how the Guineans build their own homes, albeit simple ones, from materials found in the forest. Fishermen still hew out their own dugout canoes, and they fish by this time-honored method.
Every day thousands of Guineans throng the open-air markets of Bata and Malabo, the main cities of the country. A visit to a market gave me an insight into the people and their lives. The markets sell everything imaginable—from secondhand wrenches to monkeys (monkey meat makes a good stew). Assorted bottles of potent homemade detergent vie for space with neat piles of beans and garlic cloves. In Guinea time is not at a premium, and I noticed that the stalls never seemed to shut down, at least not until nightfall or until everything had been sold.
In many Fang villages, I saw a large communal hut. I was told that it is called a Casa de la Palabra (House of the Word). This is where the villagers meet and resolve their disputes, after both sides have aired their grievances, or “words.” It has open windows so that anyone who wishes can listen to the proceedings.
The Tropical Forest—A Treasure to Preserve
But to me it is the equatorial forest that above all epitomizes Guinea. Once we were outside the towns, the exuberant growth of the jungle made it appear that we were driving through a green tunnel. Green is the color of Guinea, green in all its hues, green that glistens anew after each tropical shower. Sprawling creepers, massive clumps of bamboo, and hundreds of species of trees crowd together to form a green mantle over the land. The tropical forest—disorderly yet harmonious—is something worth treasuring on our denuded planet.
Large tracts of Equatorial Guinea still harbor virgin tropical forests, and some of these have been selected as future national parks. And the forest is not just decorative. It provides food, fuel, and even medicine for the Guineans. Not surprisingly, it is a massive tropical tree, the ceiba, that is the main feature of the Guinean coat of arms.
I could not fail to be impressed by the beauty of Bioko, a beauty that likewise impressed the early European explorers five centuries ago. It is a mountainous island dotted by volcanic craters, some of which have become lakes, thus adding to the variety of the scenery. The tallest volcanic peak on the island towers nearly 10,000 feet [3,000 m] above sea level, and its forested slopes are home to a variety of exotic birds and butterflies, which add a splash of color to the lush vegetation.
High up on the mountain, I was enthralled to watch the tiny sunbirds darting about the shrubs and flowers of the mountain slopes. The green and red plumage of the males glistened like jewels in the afternoon sun. Not unlike the American hummingbirds, they feed daintily on the nectar of large flowers or on the insects they find among the petals.
Unique Fauna of the Forest
The equatorial forest is host to an incredible variety of wildlife, especially on the mainland. Buffalo and elephants, varieties smaller than their counterparts in the African savanna, inhabit the dense jungle, but perhaps the most outstanding animal of the forest is the gorilla, whose numbers are dwindling throughout Africa. I played with a tame young gorilla whose mother had been killed by hunters. His wistful expression reminded me of the gorilla’s uncertain future at the hands of man.
Twenty-five years ago, naturalists from all over the world were surprised to hear of the discovery of an albino gorilla in Guinea. It was the first known case of albinism in gorillas. His hair was completely white, and he had pink skin and blue eyes. He was named Copito de Nieve (Little Snowflake) and was finally taken to the Barcelona Zoo in Spain, where he still delights the public.
The first thing I noticed about the forest was that few animals are actually to be seen. Many are asleep during the day, and it is only during the night that the forest really comes alive. As dusk falls, fruit bats in the thousands leave their roosts to scour the upper canopy of the forest, and fish owls begin their nightly patrol of the streams and rivers. Wide-eyed bush babies scamper from branch to branch as if it were broad daylight.
During daylight hours, it is mainly birds and butterflies that add life and color to the forest. Enormous swallowtail butterflies, with their vivid black and green wings and erratic flight, are the most eye-catching. Overhead the muted chuckling of the green fruit doves contrasts with the raucous calls of the ungainly hornbills.
On the forest floor, I spotted a blue and orange agama lizard mounting watch on a fallen tree trunk. It crouched motionless apart from the flicking of its tongue, which deftly spooned up any ant that came within reach.
I was not fortunate enough to see one of Guinea’s unique river dwellers. Along the banks and the waterfalls of the Mbía River lives the world’s largest frog, Conraua goliath. These frogs may weigh seven pounds [3 kg] or more and measure three feet [0.9 m] from head to toe. According to researcher Paul Zahl of National Geographic, their powerful legs can propel them ten feet [3 m] in one gigantic leap.
In Equatorial Guinea the setting sun is orange rather than red, a reminder that the atmosphere is not so polluted as in other parts of the world. The consumer society has made few inroads, and the trees of the forest work daily to replenish the oxygen. Such unspoiled areas of the world are few and far between. Hopefully, this equatorial treasure will remain one of them.
[Maps on page 24]
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[Pictures on page 25]
Fishermen still hew out their canoes
Communal hut (“Casa de la Palabra”) where villagers meet and resolve their disputes
[Pictures on page 26]
Pel’s fishing owl
Greater bush baby