Friday, 11 November 2016

Passing through former colonies in West Africa


Traveling is really good for the soul and, not only are we physically transported to far off places, moods and people but we also experience rapture, wonder, and excitement. 

I just came back from Sao Tomé et Principé from a week-long holiday with Haresh and Kavita. I've always wanted to visit this 2-island nation since I read a description in a volume of Lonely Planet. 

Portuguese is spoken on the island and, being English speakers, we had somewhat of a challenging time communicating with the hotel staff, taxi drivers and restaurant waiters. On our first day on the island, we were taken to the Museum on a disorganised hotel tour where our guide was really only a driver couldn't translate what the caretaker of the Museum was saying. The caretaker was an old lady who had worked at the Museum for many years and, it was unfortunate we couldn't understand her. She spoke some French and we exchanged a few sentences after I mustered some high-school French and from mine and my family's time in Sénégal in the 90s. 

Portuguese was everywhere, no? Besides being mode of communication, it was on sign boards, restaurant menus and mannerisms. The island's name is Saint Thomas in Portuguese. Names are all in Portuguese - whether people, streets or towns. 

As an English-speaking tourist, Portuguese became an obstacle but we soon learned to communicate in non-verbal ways and, were happy to be in a completely different space. On our second day and third days, we struck lucky and had an English-speaking local guide who helped us to see his country from his point of view. We really enjoyed our lively conversations about colonisation, history, and the future of tourism. 

We met so many Portuguese tourists. We drank Portuguese wine. I heard spoken Portuguese, a language that I really enjoy hearing. 

I photographed the city's past-coloured colonial-era buildings and, was charmed by the picture-perfect views of the small town of Sao Tomé. We compared the São Sebastião Museum to the slave castle forts in Elmina and Cape Coast in Ghana and the Maison des Esclaves in Goreé Island in Sénégal. 

São Sebastião Museum is well preserved and, is quite charming with its pastel yellow colours in the inner court yard. Nevertheless, it is a symbol of slavery and colonisation and one cannot but be horrified and disturbed by what it represents. 

Passing through former colonies in West Africa is a living lesson in history. Step into Ghana and, you'll experience an Anglophone society with a street named after the Oxford Street in London, British Banks, and, of course, everyone speaking English. Friends who have come back from Sénégal often mention the French charm and French influence on local bakeries, restaurants and cuisine. Some will even go as far as to say that the locals have acquired their charm and grace because of the French presence. And, here in Liberia, one cannot miss the Americanisation or mirror image of American-style institutions, state, anthem, and dress. 

Sao Tomé made me deeply reflect on the legacy of slavery, colonisation, cultural and historical devastation, and, the imperialism of European languages. 

We visited a colonial-era coffee and cocoa factory where we shown how coffee and cocoa beans are sifted and roasted. It struck me that Europeans - and, indeed the rest of us - consider Swiss Chocolate or Italian coffee the best when it should be said that European technique of chocolate making or Italian style of drinking coffee is the best. There is no such thing as European coffee or European chocolate. It doesn't grow there nor do Europeans break their backs to grow and nurture it or have ever been enslaved to harvest it.  It should be referred to as Sao Tomean coffee and Sao Tomean chocolate, for example. 

We met many Portuguese and other Westerners during our touristic excursions, all of us busy in our scenic holidays. The Portuguese travellers were easily able to navigate the island because everyone spoke their language. They could even drink Portuguese wine and, watch Portuguese programmes on TV. They could meet other fellow Portuguese. They have direct flights back home and, probably could acquire good travel deals. They can enjoy the tropics of their former colony and, wonder how much guilt they feel that their forefathers exploited this land and, used it as a trading post for human souls. 

Sao Tomé's capital is utterly charming with its colonial buildings and cobbled roads. But many of them are crumbling and look like they have been abandoned. In fact one could see decay in the city on closer look with broken bannisters or and boarded up old buildings. Sure, the roads going through the rainforest are well paved but one could see shacks along the way. Slum-like dwellings were adjacent to the fancy hotel resort on Ilheu Das Rolas where tourists could enjoy fancy facilities and experiences like scuba diving. 

The hotel where we stayed is a Portuguese hotel chain. 

Is Sao Tomé really benefitting from its tourism industry and, most importantly, who is really controlling it? 

Our passionate conversations with our tour guide - a young Sao Tomean fellow with aspirations to set up a vibrant tourism agency - confirmed to us that there is a resentment against the former colonial masters for their exploitation and, for still controlling their economy. I was quite amused when Fernando pointed out that history tells us the islands were uninhabited before the Portuguese arrived but how come there are 4 main ethnic groups? He had worked for some of the main hotels before but now wouldn't work for a Portuguese employer because they don't pay well. 

What was the language and culture before the Portuguese arrived?

Language imperialism is one of the most striking legacies of colonisation and empire. 180,000 folks on the islands of Sao Tomé and Principé speak Portuguese because Europeans imposed this language on slaves and their descendants  for hundreds of years. 27 million folks in Ghana speak English because the British colonised their land and, it's the official language of government, trade, and education. 10 million Guineans speak English because the French controlled that part of West Africa. 13 million Senegalese speak French and French-style bakeries are in every corner of major cities. The same country engulfs tiny Gambia which by fluke was a British territory and therefore, English is spoken there. 

African languages have survived colonisation but I couldn't see any trace of local languages in Sao Tomé at first glance, being there only for a week. 

My experience in Sao Tomé showed me a small former European colony, a small poor country that relied on exports of coffee and chocolate and tourism. I saw abandoned colonial buildings and, a country that relied on European trade and, seemed to be dominated by Europeans still. I could see that middle class citizens of the former colonial master could still enjoy the island as tourists but wondered how many ordinary Sao Tomeans could just pick up and land in Lisbon to enjoy the sights and sounds. 

I am fully aware that my observations are merely perceptions from the surface but after Senegal, Ghana and Sao Tomé, there are certain things common to former European colonies that form a pattern: slave castles and forts, European languages that serve as lingua franca, colonial era buildings,    the independence square, presence of European residents and businesses, and ghosts of slavery. 

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