Carlos Alberto Jr.’s Poverty — A Realistic View of São Tomé e Príncipe

Girls carrying clothes

Girls carrying washing basins with clothes, on their way home. Photo by Carlos Alberto Jr.

The scene is impressive. Hundreds of women washing their clothes in a river. On a road to one of the Roças (plantations) of São Tomé.

The river crosses the island, and then flows into the Atlantic. Clothes are hanging on the rocks, and on the bare soil.

When done, the women, and children, mostly girls, with basins on their heads, take the clothes back home.

Washing Clothes in a River

Women Washing Clothes in a River. Photo by Carlos Alberto Jr.

A ‘Poor’ Country

São Tomé and Principe is a poor country.

One literacy program for adults, a 2-year course created by the Brazilian government, in partnership with São Tomé, graduates 15 thousand pupils.

Inflation in 2009 was 19%. Dobra, the currency, is worth almost nothing. To buy one dollar, you need 16 thousand Dobras. A loaf of bread costs five thousand Dobras.

Money exchange is done at banks, and on the street. In the city center, men rub their thumbs to signal cash exchange, when they sight a visitor.

The roads are bad, bumpy. Any trip to the interior takes a long time. In a village, when the car slows down, children and adolescents, reach out and ask for candy.

Along the way there are hundreds of these shouts: “sweets, sweets, sweets.” When we say we don’t have any candy, they ask for a notebook, a book, a pencil, a pen, a ball, a folder. The requests are usually preceded by the word ‘white’ pronounced in several ways: ‘branco, blanco, banco, brranco’ (as if they had a French accent).

Unemployment is high. As elsewhere in Africa, there are many street vendors. About 80% of the budget of São Tomé and Principe comes from international aid.

The Politics

The election timetable is almost annual. Legislative elections are planned for 2010. Presidential elections for 2011.

Each election, the country has to pass the hat among the international community, asking who can organize elections. This puts pressure on the country to review its system, and hold coinciding elections during the same year.

It seems there is much oil in the territorial waters of São Tomé, but the population has no details. They don’t know the size of reserves, or how the process is being conducted.

The Angolan Connection

Angola and Nigeria vie geopolitical influence on São Tomé. Sonangol, Angola’s oil company, bought 35% of the National Oil Company of São Tomé National Fuel and Oil Company (Empresa Nacional de Combustíveis e Óleo – ENCO).

They say it is forbidden to film and photograph the government palace.

Well, here it is.

The National Palace. Photo by Carlos Alberto Jr.

I may still get caught at the airport, accused of taking pictures of the Palace.

In Angola there are also these things. It is forbidden to take photos of the Government Palace, the National Bank of Angola, the ministries.

They say that South Africans went to Angola as tourists, took pictures, and then bombarded the city. Luanda was never bombed. They’ve created a myth, and it lives on. It’s a tiring myth.

The Angolan government is building a huge embassy in São Tomé. Several floors, facing the sea. A Portuguese businessman, told me that senior figures of the Angolan government are buying bars, restaurants and building hotels in Sao Tome.

The Portuguese businessman: the Angolan asked me the price. I said it was 3.5 million euros. He asked me how much was the price in dollars. Angolans think only in dollars. His wife liked the place. It’s even pretty. It cost me about 600 thousand euros to build. It’s gonna make me some good money.


Some Statistics

  • About 160 thousand people live in São Tomé and Principe. The GDP is approximately U.S. $ 197 million and will decrease by 4.2% in 2009 because of the international crisis. The GDP is as follows: agriculture (16%), industry (14%) and services (69.9%).
  • The country imports all its consumption. The trade balance shows a deficit imported U.S. $ 88 million and exported U.S. $ 8 million last year.
  • The country was once world’s largest producer of cocoa. Now there’s lack of investment in research and production improvement in the industry. Exports of cocoa today is U.S. $ 3 million.
  • Life expectancy at birth in São Tomé is 68 years. Every woman has on average 5.3 children. 73% of the country is Catholic.
  • Outside of the capital São Tomé, there is almost no lighting. Lamps and candles light the night for those who have no money. Small generators guarantee the wealthier a little light and a fan or air conditioning for the islanders who live in the middle of the equator.
  • In the ranking of corruption prepared by Transparency International, São Tomé e Principe peaked at 121 in a total of 180 countries.

Carlos Alberto Jr. is a journalist for TV Brasil, and in the past years has visited and written about 15 African countries. This story was first published in September 2009 in the Diary of Africa (Diario da Africa).