It gained independence from Portugal on July 12th, 1975. The currency is named the dobra, coming from the Portuguese word meaning, ‘to fold.’ Where you’ll find the bostrychia blockage bird, believed to be the world’s smallest ibis. There are four national languages: Angolar, Forro, Portuguese and Principense. The country has an average temperature of 27 degrees and an average life expectancy of 65. And it’s Africa’s second smallest country, in terms of population, and the smallest Portuguese speaking nation on Earth. Today, we’re visiting the Chocolate Islands, São Tomé and Príncipe.
The Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe is an island nation in the Gulf of Guinea, just off the western equatorial coast of Central Africa, consisting of two main islands. It is the 171st largest country on Earth at 372 square miles, between Comoros and Kiribati, with the 176th largest population with 187,356 people, between Samoa and Saint Lucia. The motto of the country is Unidade, Disciplina, Trabalho, which is Portuguese for, United, Discipline, Work.
The islands were originally uninhabited when the Portuguese arrived. They were discovered by João de Santarém and Pêro Escobar, who led Portuguese navigators to explore the islands, deciding they would be good locations for bases to trade with the mainland. São Tomé was discovered around 1471 on December 21st, the day of Saint Thomas or São Tomé, with Príncipe discovered around 1472, given the name Santo Antão, Saint Anthony. 30 years later, the name was changed to Ilha do Príncipe, the Prince’s Island, referencing the Prince of Portugal to whom duties on the island’s sugar crop were paid.
The green of the flag alludes to the plentiful vegetation of the country, whilst the yellow symbolises the tropical sun and cocoa, a key agricultural crop for the nation, at one point making the country the world’s largest cocoa producer, earning it its chocolatey nickname. The two stars represent the two islands, whilst the red evokes equality and the struggle for independence. On February 3rd, 1953, hundreds of native creoles known as forros were massacred by the colonial administration and Portuguese landowners. The forros believed the government intended to force them to work as contract labourers, to which they objected. The government blamed the unrest on communists and ordered the military to round up the forros, turning into a bloodbath that saw the death of hundreds of forros. This stoked national sentiment and galvanised a struggle for independence. The Portuguese resisted for a while but eventually did the right thing and granted independence. All this struggle is now symbolised in that red on the flag, a flag, no less, designed by one Manuel Pinto da Costa, who would go on to become president. A remarkable piece of design indeed.
São Tomé and Príncipe are islands rugged in nature, with the exception of a few small coastal plains. Mountains, flat terrains, steep hills and ravines, are all typical of the character of the interior. Swift streams radiate down to the sea through the mountains of both islands, through lush forests and fields of crops. The heavily forested morros, the steepest of hills, dominate the landscape. The isolated and underdeveloped islands ooze beauty and warmth eternal, forever wonderful.
The people of this colourful and religious nation are, predominantly, of African and mestiço descent. The influence and legacy of hundreds of years of Portuguese rule is strongly visible in the culture, customs and music of the country, fusing European and African influence. Music dominates here, beating like the soul of the nation, vibrant and effervescent. The locals are known for the ússua and socopé rhythms, whilst on Príncipe, one will find the dêxa beat. Tchiloli, meanwhile, is a dance performance telling a dramatic tale, whilst the danço-Congo offers a similar combination of dance, music and theatre.
The Leoninos band are often described as the godfathers of the popular music on the island, often regarded as spokesmen for the people of São Tomé and Príncipe, championing the very culture the Portuguese were quick to suppress and denigrate. The Leoninos song ‘Ngandu’ spoke up against the colonists, resulting in the song being banned from the airwaves. In their wake came the likes of Os Úntués, fusing American, Argentinean, Congolese and Cuban musical influences with the native sound, introducing the electric guitar and other such innovations. Music has diversified, too, with the Mindelo group blending the rhythms of the land with the rebita style, found on Angola, to form puxa. Musicians from here are now prevalent, gaining great acclaim, from Camilo Domingos, to Filipe Santa, to Gapa, amongst others.
The other great love is, of course, cuisine and the customs such brings. Traditional palm oil stew is the national dish, whilst fish is a staple of the native diet, often served with breadfruit and mashed, cooked bananas. You’ll find a wide variety of fish on offer here, even flying fish. Even buzios are a common snack, large land snails. Tropical fruits, such the avocado and pineapple, as well as guavas and papaya, are significant components of the cuisine, as is the use of hot spices. At baptisms, funerals, weddings and other ceremonial occasions, one will often find a lavish table set in the Portuguese manner, with a large array of dishes, said to draw the admiration of the guests. You’ll find many special dishes and drinks, from arroz doce, a traditional breakfast food prepared with sweet corn and coconut, to carioca de limão, a drink prepared with lemon peel and hot water, to estufa de morcego, a bat stew delicacy often served on saint’s days and during the many fiestas one will find here. Oh, yes. They eat fruit bats. Lots of ‘em. And monkeys, come to think of it…
It’s easy to see São Tomé and Príncipe as a poorer nation rapidly developing and evolving still, rarely visited by the tourists, a market they are trying to tap into more and more. It’s only been 26 years since the first free elections here, and the image we have of this country is often defined by what has happened in its eclectic and often tragic history. But, despite that, it has many treasures to offer, many jewels in its crown. Perhaps its greatest treasure is its people, kind and friendly, easy going and welcoming. Proud of their country and eager to show it off to the world. You’ll often find a local asking you what you think of their country, and one mustn’t ever forget to answer that question with the usual response, “Mutio lindo,” meaning, “Very nice.” Manners and etiquette are important to the locals, as is social status. Elders are treated with particular respect. It is expected that you greet someone and enquire about the welfare of the person’s health and family. Being allowed to enter a person’s home is a great privilege extended to others as a mark of honour, also true of being allowed into someone’s garden. The locals are conversationalists and it’s likely you’ll see many of them chatting in the street or over a garden hedge or two. This is a safe place, a gentle place, a place of warmth and joy, a place with a future that could be ever so bright. A future I’m sure will arrive, some day, some day…
São Tomé and Príncipe is a gorgeous country with much to offer, such as the tiny and adorable island of Bom Bom, and the extraordinary raw force of Boca de inferno, a natural blowhole often described as ‘Hell’s Mouth.’ The black cliffs of rock topped with a ribbon of green combine to create a glorious sight of extreme wonder. Then there’s the lovely beach at Praia Inhame, a tropical oasis ringed by trees of palm and blue crystal waters, the fine sand sandwiched between radiating illecebrous gorgeousness.
And then there’s São João dos Angolares, a tiny town nestled amongst the effervescent treetops, surrounded and cradled ever so gently, like a newborn in its mother’s arms. This secluded and enchanting place is ethereal, oozing a unique charisma and charm all of its own.
But my favourite sight of São Tomé and Príncipe is the striking monolith of Pico Cão Grande, a giant sheer vertical protrusion of rock from beyond the Moon, an alien craft crashed head first into a wild and exotic jungle. So alien and prehistoric this landscape is, one finds oneself sucked in by the majesty and beauty on show. 1,000 feet high and quite unlike anywhere else, this beginningless and incicurable monument dominates the landscape, a powerful and mighty symbol of strength and grace at the heart of a bonére and sumptuous vista of green. Magnificent. Truly magnificent.
São Tomé and Príncipe. The country of heritage, joy and monkey meat.
Images (Click on Them to Enlarge)
1) The flag of São Tomé and Príncipe
2) Pico Cão Grande [the big thing on the right]
3) São João dos Angolares
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