Reflections on a trip to Equatorial Guinea, an opaque and unknown country
For some years I had been wanting to make a trip to Equatorial Guinea, a country that was largely unknown in Spain even though it had been a Spanish colony until 12 October 1968. After having travelled through a good part of the African continent in 15 years of travels in Africa, I had yet to visit what was once the former Spanish Guinea.
Equatorial Guinea is perhaps the least visited country in West Africa. Its secrecy and the great difficulty of obtaining tourist visas for most travellers (with the exception of US citizens) made a trip to Equatorial Guinea an eternal journey: more on that later.
What about Equatorial Guinea? Why is it so unknown in Spain?
Shortly after coming back from our trip to Equatorial Guinea in September 2022, the guys from the Espacio de Afro Conciencia in Madrid told me that they were going to programme the documentary film by Manoliño Nguema, with a subsequent colloquium on the political and social situation in Equatorial Guinea. I couldn’t miss it, they told me. This documentary film revealed to me the great unknown that I had about Equatorial Guinea and the lack of information and visibility that exists in Spain about this African country.
Equatorial Guinea, reserved matter
The big answer I was looking for was the following: after the independence of Equatorial Guinea and the electoral victory of the anti-Spanish Francisco Macias Nguema, Franco declared any information about Equatorial Guinea to be classified. This meant that for many years the publication of any news and information related to Equatorial Guinea was forbidden. From that moment on, what was once Spanish Guinea ceased to exist overnight in Spain.
The exodus of Spanish colonos from Guinea in 1969
Francisco Macías, the first elected president of Equatorial Guinea, quickly became one of the most bloodthirsty dictators in the world. In 1969, this forced the Spanish colonists living in Guinea to quickly leave the country. It is estimated that more than six thousand people fled, with only the clothes on their backs, within a week. To this day, Equatorial Guinea remains an enigma for Spaniards. All these facts, I suppose, embarrassed the old Spanish dictator and hence, the decision to hide any news.
Trip to Equatorial Guinea: so near and yet so far away
There is no African country that historically has been closer to Spain and at the same time is one of the most unknown. I don’t remember this country being mentioned at all in my school days. Nor do I remember relevant press reports, unlike former colonies such as Cuba or Venezuela. It is difficult to know why this opacity is maintained in the Spanish State, what is certain is that to this day, no news, good or bad, comes from this country. As a result, Equatorial Guinea remains a total stranger to the vast majority of Spaniards.
One of the aspects that surprised us the most on this trip to Equatorial Guinea was the incredible commercial relationship between Spain and Equatorial Guinea, with many, or the vast majority, of the businesses and products being of Spanish origin. The main Guinean supermarket chain belongs to the Mahou family for example (the beer one). One can quickly imagine the concept: of invisibility in terms of information and openness in everything related to business…
One begins to understand the country and to get answers…
Opening Equatorial Guinea to tourism
Equatorial Guinea is a country that experienced an economic explosion thanks to oil. This allowed the country to develop in just a few years, providing it with acceptable infrastructures compared to its neighbours. Without a doubt, Equatorial Guinea experienced some glorious economic years and many Guineans and “expatriates” benefited from this bubble and the concept of easy and fast money.
As Manoliño Nguema points out in the documentary: “here no one makes a living from culture, here no one makes a living from theatre, here no one makes a living from music, here NO ONE MAKES A LIVING FROM ANYTHING”..
To get an idea of the country, it should be pointed out that almost all the workers in Equatorial Guinea (those who sell in the boutiques, the mother who cooks in the street, the lady at the market, the mechanic…) are from neighbouring West African countries. Burkinabe, Malians, Senegalese, Cameroonians, Guineans from Conakry, etc. and also many Spaniards who travelled there years ago in search of opportunities and business. All of them, or the vast majority, are undocumented or in an irregular situation … but that is another matter.
Oil and the international economic crisis
The uncertain future of fossil fuels and a deep international economic crisis are influencing a supposed opening of the country to tourism by its rulers, with the aim of diversifying the economy. Making it easier to obtain tourist visas to enter the country, eliminating travel permits, “softening” police controls on travellers and all those aspects that make a trip to Equatorial Guinea extremely complicated.
So, is it now easier to make a trip to Equatorial Guinea?
No. The truth is that as of today (autumn 2022) there is little change in terms of tourism in the country. The ease of visa conditions are not real. Once my passengers’ dossiers were submitted to the embassy with all the necessary requirements, we were faced with many obstacles and continual delays. One of my British passengers was also refused a visa when we had met all the requirements. The land border crossing from Gabon took hours and a lot of “high level” paperwork even though we had the visas. Arrival in Corisco was tedious, with hours of negotiations. At the check points, travel permits are still being asked for even though they are not compulsory. Perhaps this will change in the coming months (or years) with a so-called visa-online and orders from above not to make it difficult for travellers and that these orders will be enforced “on the road”. But that will be further down the road, perhaps.
So, is it worth travelling to Equatorial Guinea?
The answer is always Yes. Any trip is always worthwhile as it gives you the opportunity to see the reality with your own eyes, as long as (in the case of accompanied travel) the person showing you the country wants you to SEE it and get to know it in depth, and that is not easy. And I don’t mean seeing some beaches, some colonial towns or some nature reserves, I mean getting to know the reality of the country. For me that is basic.
During my trip to Equatorial Guinea, I sometimes had the feeling with one of our local guides that I was meeting government escorts, who only told me about the “goodness” of the country. It was mind-boggling.
Unlike any other African country, whether considered democratic or not, the citizens of Equatorial Guinea have a “certain” fear of the authorities. They will find out…”, “it’s not right…”, “they will tell us…”, “then they will come…”, “you can’t…” is the constant during a trip to Equatorial Guinea or pre-trip. With this constant fear of the “consequences” it will be difficult to access critical and truthful information about what is happening in the country and to move freely. This is certainly another important aspect to take into account. As always, if you make an effort and persevere and let go of your companion’s hand, you will eventually discover the secrets of this country. Bear in mind that it will be difficult to travel or move around Guinea on your own for the time being, at least beyond Bioko. It is not impossible, but it will take effort and time.
What does a trip to Equatorial Guinea offer: landscapes, wildlife, colonial heritage, traditional culture?
For Spaniards, Equatorial Guinea has an obvious attraction. Speaking and communicating in Spanish on the African continent is wonderful. Delving into a shared past through people, characters, stories and places is a delight. Making friends who will show you the true realities of the country is a privilege. Travelling through the beautiful jungle country on good roads is something unheard of in this part of the continent. Enjoying good hotels, good service and good gastronomy in many occasions, a luxury if we take into account where we are geographically.
The beaches of Equatorial Guinea are excellent and on the island of Corisco we can say that they are paradisiacal.
Equatorial Guinea is certainly an interesting country.
Having said that, and being honest, I have to say that whoever comes to Equatorial Guinea will not find the sensations and experiences offered by its neighbouring countries. There is nowhere near the wildlife of Gabon, nor the richness of traditional culture found in Cameroon. Nor the facilities with which Sao Tome and Principe welcomes the traveller.
A trip to Equatorial Guinea is different, something like a more similar experience to taking a few drops of lysergic acid and starting to hallucinate with the “surreal”. And that also COOLS a lot and makes it different. Apart from the bureaucratic “trip”, which is not insignificant, we have to tell you that the only wildlife you will see will be on restaurant plates or chopped up in the markets.
Travelling around Equatorial Guinea you will come across mega-projects focused on tourism. Super hotels, luxury resorts, dozens of congress pavilions, etc, are being built all over the country and especially in Bioko, in the expectation that thousands of visitors will come in the coming years, both for tourism and business.
Of course, visiting some of these incredible facilities with luxury hotels, theme parks, huge hypermarkets, meeting centres (not even in New York), swimming pools, “cultural theme villages” and hundreds of other eccentricities seen all over the country, is a full-fledged hallucinogenic trip.
I have a feeling that such facilities are likely to appeal and be very attractive to the affluent African traveller or tourist. Time will tell.
Traditional culture in Equatorial Guinea
Accessing traditional Guinean culture is not easy. Guineans are reluctant to show or even talk about their traditional practices. After decades of national Catholicism and “culturicide” by the Spanish colonial authorities, any traditional cultural manifestation is somewhat socially stigmatised. As a result, some are carried out half in secret or disguised as Christian practices. At least that’s the feeling I got. It is true that Fang, Bubis, Bengas, Playeros, etc, preserve some of their traditions and practices but you have to coincide with the dates indicated.
Colonial and historical heritage of Equatorial Guinea
Welcome to what for me is the country’s great attraction. It is undoubtedly worthwhile to wander around the many villages, especially on the island of Bioko, which preserve, in better or worse ways, the country’s historical heritage. To walk through the streets of Batete, Luba or Moca, or to visit the Sampaka Farm, is to walk through the history of Africa and also the history of Spain. The flavour and the atmosphere is undoubtedly very special. In every building and with every chat with a local, the imagination flies fast and light to times gone by.
Talking to the locals of Luba and Trinidad, the current landlady of the old Jones Hotel, is a glimpse into the fascinating history of Maximilian Jones and other important “fernadinos” from Liberia and Sierra Leone, who were the driving force behind countless projects on the island. It is also to delve into the dark depths of the illegal slave trade of the era…..
Will I travel back to Equatorial Guinea?
Of course. I like countries that are rarely visited and those that have a special “micro-climate”, and this one does just that. I have made good friends in the country with whom I would like to continue sharing beers and good paellas, and who I am sure will continue to tell many interesting things to the travellers who accompany me. We will continue to walk through those beautiful historic villages and enjoy the impressive jungles and coasts of Equatorial Guinea.