Richard Heller Meets Students at Liceo Nacional, S. Tomé

Kids. Phot by Richard Heller

Kids. Photo by Richard Heller

The Liceo Nacional, the main high school of São Tomé. It is on the Marginal on the east side of town, facing the water.

The main Liceo building was built by the Portuguese in 1969. It is pink and looks pretty, but it is also concrete and badly ventilated.

Temperatures in the classrooms – often with 60 or more pupils in them – regularly reach over 100 degrees F (38 degrees C is far less expressive) and on the day I visited two teachers had fainted and been forced to go home.

The Liceo has over 6000 pupils, who often have to be taught in two shifts or even three. Competition for places is intense but so too, sadly, is the drop-out rate, evidenced by the number of school age children who are street vendors.

There are fees, and although these sound small to foreigners they bite hard into the budgets of poor families, especially when they have to add books, stationery and the cost of the simple but smart uniform.

Children under tree. Photo by Richard Heller

If pupils drop out, so too do teachers. Salaries are low (and occasionally not paid), stress is high. Tertiary education is very limited and to gain a teaching qualification Santomeans have to go abroad. Not surprisingly, many do not return.

As elsewhere in the country, the Liceo has many gifts or projects from overseas donors and some are half-finished or disused. The US navy presented a complete gymnasium – it was being used as a store room.

The pupils get plenty of exercise in their extensive grounds: on a short visit I saw four soccer or netball games in progress. One soccer game took me back to my childhood: they were playing with a tennis ball. That version encourages very fast players with great ball control.

It made me sad that the country currently plays no international football (FIFA threw them out because the national team did not have enough money to play away matches).

I visited a few classes but it was hard to judge the quality of the teaching, partly because I didn’t speak Portuguese and more importantly, because the pupils were excited by the foreign visitor. I did see pupils doing homework in corridors and in the grounds, which suggested commitment (and a lack of suitable space at home.)

The Liceo is extremely strong in art and design, and rightly proud of the pupils’ brightly coloured murals and their outdoor furniture. (The whole country seemed highly gifted artistically: public buildings and places are regularly adorned with murals or statues, private buildings, even shacks, are handsomely decorated, and local furniture and household goods are very well made).

I was told that the pupils do most of the maintenance of the school facilities and equipment themselves.

Photo by Richard Heller

The Liceo is achieving against steep odds. It is the main hope of a high school education in a poor country where nearly the population is under 15.

Its hardest task (I was told) is to persuade many pupils to finish their education when prospects of further education or a worthwhile job seem very remote.

The Liceo would appreciate more contacts from overseas, including partnerships with other schools.

I cannot give an email address – so can only suggest writing to the Principal, Liceo Nacional, Avenida Marginal 12 Julho, São Tomé, São Tomé e Príncipe.

(See this website or phone up the school: + 239 2222184– editor).


Richard Heller is an Oxford graduated British author, journalist, speechwriter, ghostwriter, editor. His novel A Tale Of Ten Wickets is available on Amazon.


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