Monday, February 11, 2008

Equatorial Thoughts #2: Sao Tome & Principe

This is is one of 13 countries around the globe through which the equator passes, which makes it a fit subject for those of us endurinng yet another blast of arctic air.

It's kind of a remarkable story. A tiny African nation – in fact, the smallest – with a colonial past like many others. The Portuguese ruled here for centuries, creating cocao and coffee plantations overseen by Portuguese masters and worked by slaves snared on the African mainland. Missionaries converted them to Christianity. A long sordid chapter, the effects of which are still felt throughout Africa.

The population of Sao Tome and Principe (about 157,000*) includes descendants of all these groups – slaves, slave-owners, missionaries, merchants, revolutionaries. Even on these tiny volcanic islands off the coast of Gabon, there are no fewer than eight political parties.

Independence from Portugal was achieved in 1975 and self-rule has been evolving since, including a failed attempt at Marxist government. The current constitution was adopted in 1990. A couple of coup attempts have been mounted, but bloodshed and violence were avoided through international mediation. Imagine that.

With all those strains of a difficult history and a youthful and sometimes fragile democracy, the Sao Tomeans have managed to remain at peace with each other, which is more than can be said for many of its neighbors.

Before the latest elections in July 2006, the country even had its own version of Carol Molnau.** Maria Silveira was head of the country’s central bank and held the positions of Prime Minister and Finance Minister all at the same time! That’s efficient! So far as I can tell, she’s still head of the central bank of Sao Tome and Principe (has been since 1999).

You can fly from Lisbon to Sao Tome for 750 Euros and stay at the Miramar Hotel (which appears to be the sole hotel on either island) for between 112 and 150 Euros a night. The hotel bar is the Graziano (probably not named for the famed prize fighter).

The name of the hotel reminded me of the following poem by Ed Dorn (from "Hello La Jolla"):

Suppertime Down South

The ceaseless jets of Miramar
Make their planar way to the Islands
They scatter the bones of the pygmy mammoth
It is some remote substitute for blood they seek
They are a niusance of zipping mosquitoes.

They are on their exhuberant bombing runs
That is their work, a craft long disused
And they are under the gladsome,
Old-fashioned control of their pilots
Who, it is related, get very high and crazy
On the shocking hits of acceleration
And then return to the ground somewhere
Around suppertime, shout a lot,
And lift drinks to it in the officers' club.

Dorn's Miramar is aMarine Corps Air Station near San Diego, and I believe his Islands are a few small ones off the southern California coast which at one time were in fact used for target practice. Quite a contrast to the peaceful islands of Sao Tome and Principe.

* About the same as the metropolitan statistical area surrounding Waterloo and Cedar Falls, Iowa.
** For those not from Minnesota, Carol Molnau is our Lt. Governor and also serves as the Commissioner of Transportation. Initially, I thought it was a good move on the Governor's part. Lt. Govs usually don't do much, Ms. Molnau had served for years on legislative committees focused on transporatation, and it would save a little money. Well, Ms. Molnau has had a rocky tenure, punctuated rather emphatically by the collapse of the I-35 bridge last summer.

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