Visiting the Island of Bioko, in Equatorial Guinea
By Annie Chen
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
Equatorial Guinea, a small country sandwiched between larger neighboring countries of Gabon and Cameroon, is often overlooked and forgotten.
As the only Spanish-speaking country in continental Africa, it is linguistically isolated and yet, has a unique tie-in with the rest of the region’s history and culture.
When my friend in Malabo invited me over for the holidays, I couldn’t say no and found myself on the island of Bioko after a brief 25-minute flight from Douala.
History and Colonialism of Equatorial Guinea
The first Portuguese explorer to stumble upon Bioko was Fernão do Pó, and among other places in West Africa that he gave his name, the island was also originally dubbed Fernando Poo.
The British empire came next, giving the original name of Clarence Town to the capital city of Malabo for a decade and a half. When the Spanish took over in 1846, it became Santa Isabel, after Queen Isabel II.
In 1973, when the country gained its independence, the president chose to honor the last Bubi king by giving his name of Malabo to the city.
Remnants of its colonial heritage are still evident all over the city. A large Centro Cultural de España en Malabo (CCEM) stands in the heart of the city, boasting several classrooms, an extensive library, and artwork on display from local artisans.
The Plaza de Independencia is next to the Presidential Palace, was formerly a central hub for the capital city, and was the site of its declaration of independence in 1968.
A large circular water fountain still stands in the center with arches and typical Spanish tiles looping around the small plaza.
Church of Malabo Equatorial Guinea
In front stands the Catholic Cathedral of Santa Isabel de Malabo, which the locals will stubbornly insist on calling the Church of Malabo. Completed in 1916, it’s considered the most important church in the heavily Catholic country.> Unfortunately, it was closed when I passed by but many other Spanish colonial-style buildings with high columns and open courtyards can be found all throughout the town.
La Casa Verde is a well-known building for its stark contrast in architecture, but it was under renovation and completely covered in a tarp when I passed by.
Due to the surrounding influence of the countries with French colonial history, the majority of Guineans choose to study French as a foreign language.
This is more prevalent on “el continente” than on the island, Malabo residents pointed out. Since they tend to speak more Pichinglis, which is an English-based creole language,
English is equally tempting to gravitate towards there. Nonetheless, the Institut français de Guinée équatoriale is a massive landmark with several activities, a small artisanal market, and a popular restaurant.
Local Ethnic groups
Rounding out the trifecta is the Centro Cultural Ecuatoguineano, which my friend joked was strangely placed within the country instead of in other countries to educate other nationalities about Guinea Equatorian culture.
A fashion show by a local clothing designer was about to take place when we visited the central courtyard space, and dozens of teenagers were lounging around the entrance where benches and shade provided a relaxed environment. Around the walls of the colonial structure were painted coat-of-arms of various tribes of the country.
What most caught my eye was a schedule pinned to the bulletin board near the entrance–every evening, there were classes given for several of the more spoken local languages.
Unlike many other countries where local languages are being phased out in light of the more internationally spoken languages, the cultural center boasted multiple choices for Fang, Bubi, Annobon, and many others, everyday for 1.5 to 2 hours each.>
Home of the Fang
The country’s largest ethnic group, Fang, lives primarily on the continent and is said to be more forest-oriented. My friend, and his family members that I spent time with throughout the trip, are all Fang and switched effortlessly and regularly between Fang and Spanish.
The Bubi is a water-oriented group mainly living on Bioko island, and the Annobón originate from the other island of Equatorial Guinea with the same name.
Annobonese, speaking a Portuguese-based creole language, are also a water-based people. An old tradition that one acquaintance told us of was that the Annobonese used to leave newborn babies on the beach for a night within the first week of their lives.
If they were still there in the morning, then they were meant to live and be on Earth. If they were no longer there, then the water spirits had reclaimed them.
The Annobonese are also well-known for their facial and arm markings. Parallel lines, generally two or three together, are traditionally left on the sides of their faces or upper arms to identify one another.
My friend, in pointing out various Annobonese throughout the week, was also quick to note that there were many reasons someone might have a scar on the island.
For instance, he himself had a line running down vertically from his right eye and had been told different stories about its origin.
One was that his grandmother wanted to be able to distinguish between all her grandchildren, as Guinean families are quite large and many men have multiple wives.
An alternate story spoke of his mother’s miscarriage and my friend’s twin was lost during labor, so to honor his memory, she left a scar on the remaining twin’s face.
Holidays and Religion
As we navigated the city, street names and landmarks at large turnarounds often boasted key dates in the history of the country.
For example, August 3, also the name of a major boulevard in town, is the date when the sitting president Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo assumed power in 1979.
My friend cracked that he’d been in power longer than 10 U.S. presidential terms. Billboards and advertisements for parties for October 12, their Independence Day, were still up at all the major intersections.
November 17th was Saint Isabel’s Day, and December 8th is the country’s national day.
No Driving on Christmas
On Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, we encountered a new obstacle. Cars are banned, from midnight to midnight, in order to prevent drunk drivers from getting into accidents. Certain cars were permitted to drive if they had the proper authorization, which required a hefty amount that no one would be specific about when I asked.
While the country is largely Roman Catholic, and regular baptism and communion parties on the streets or parking lots in massive tents with blasting music were constant reminders, there is also a small Muslim community. Approximately 2% of the country is Muslim, and a Moroccan woman I befriended noted that she rarely saw any others but on specific holy days, she’d spot the occasional hijabi strolling down the main boardwalk, the paseo maritimo.
The paseo maritimo, a wide and open space running about 2.5 km along the coast, is a popular place for Guineans to enjoy the evening air and fresh breeze. While in the daytime it’s too hot and the spread-out cafes, playgrounds, and snack stands are fairly empty, the well-paved path is packed with popcorn vendors, children holding onto balloons and sticky lollipops, and teenagers taking selfies in the early evenings.>
Once, I spotted two people on a carriage pedaling down the promenade, and I asked why there weren’t more bicycles for rent.
My friend explained that credit cards weren’t commonly used in the country or accepted, and no other form of identity or security deposit would be worth more than stealing a bike so it wasn’t a sustainable form of recreation.
The Ceiba Tree
At one of the main turnarounds at the beginning of the paseo maritimo, and dotted throughout the city, the image of the ceiba tree can be found.
Reaching up to 75 meters tall, the enormous trees are a symbol of pride and the name of the country’s main airline and bank, as well as on the flag.
There are no branches until the top canopy, which is instantly recognizable from far away. While it doesn’t bear any edible fruit, the leaves and bark are used for medicinal purposes, and it’s highly illegal to cut one down.
One of the family-oriented places to visit, also more popular in the evenings, is the Malabo National Park which opened in 2016 right next to the international airport. A one-stop shop in the span of 870,000 m2, there is plenty of green space, multiple playgrounds, an ethnic customs zone, restaurants, and bicycles that can be rented to ride within the vicinity.
It costs 500 CFA ($0.80 USD) to enter and small islands over the lake connected by bridges that light up at night, water fountains and artwork make for an ideal photography session.
Nguema’s Lasting Influence in Equatorial Guinea
Markets in Luba
Towards the edge of town, two main markets take up several blocks. The Central Market is jam-packed with knick-knacks ranging from hardware to clothing to children’s toys crammed into narrow, covered walkways.
We ended up behind the market where the food section began, and found a small, dark space with a low covering and narrow wooden tables exhibiting basic vegetables, fruits, spices and cardboard signs reading off the prices by weight.
The nearby Cemu market has a more open-air environment with rows of tents propped up with metal bars. The second-hand clothes and household necessities gave way to the food market, where I initially just half-glanced at the goods and vegetables. At one point, however, I looked down and stopped in my tracks.
Baby Crocs and Turtles
A clump of tied-up baby crocodiles and turtles was lying on the ground, blue strings binding their snouts and legs together. My friend pointed out the smaller ones would start from 40,000 CFA (approximately $65 USD).
As we continued, a vendor noted that prices were more expensive than normal during this period because of the upcoming holiday season, and I recalled spotting live pigs on the street that someone had also told us started at 50,000 CFA ($81 USD) depending on the size.
A few steps later, I paused again when I saw several tarps on the ground covered with dead animals stacked up next to each other. After closer examination, I identified a hare, some type of wild cat, a local antelope, a marmot, several bush rats, and a porcupine.
The largest animals, on one side with their tails draped around, were black colobus monkeys, which are in danger of extinction.
The vendor cited 20,000 CFA ($32 USD) as the starting price and pointed at a local butcher on the other side of the fence if we wanted the meat to be prepared for us.
The smallest animals, on the other side, were pangolins, which I knew were eaten in some parts of the world as prized meat but had never actually witnessed being sold before in a marketplace.
Out of Malabo
On the other parts of the island, there are a number of places to visit. Some aren’t easily accessible or open at all to the public. For example, very few public transportation options exist to reach Moka, although there is said to be a wildlife center that occasionally lets tourists enter and explore.
In Ulreca, the turtles of the beaches down south lay their eggs between November and January, but the path is only traversable with a rented 4×4.>
A One-Hour Bus Ride to Luba
Instead, I grabbed a bus to Luba from the station, which is little more than five vans in the Los Angeles government housing compound waiting to fill up and leave. It costs 2,000 CFA ($3 USD) a person, and the driver crammed 13 people into 8 spaces.
Over the one-hour ride, I glimpsed wooden tables with bush rats and antelope for sale on the streets, hanging from their tales.
We made a stop when some of the other passengers wanted to buy lontron, and I followed them outside to see what it was. A table on the side of the road was filled with long, green stalks that were tough and semi-prickly.
I asked to try one, and the vendor gave me an entire stalk, explaining that it grows on trees and that he considers it to be their national fruit. The locals claimed that they’re juicier and thicker on the continent, but the one I tried was 1.5 inches thick and had to be cracked open by twisting it to access the edible component inside.
Inside the casing, I spotted at least 7 or 8 subsections of this soft, fluffy white fruit, each with a large black pit. It was subtly sweet and strangely dissolved in my mouth, like a tougher, chewier cotton candy.
The Town of Luba
Luba is the island’s second largest town, midway down the western coast of the island, and has a history of being a key port for the logging industry. Waterways run through and under the town, so I caught locals playing, washing laundry, swimming, and bathing regularly in the canals.
Most popularly, locals will travel towards Luba from Malabo and pull off the highway 10 km beforehand for Arena Blanca, a beautiful white sands beach that’s relatively clean and untouched.
The straight 0.5 km is filled with bamboo trees on both sides lining the quiet path, and my friend commented on how much cheaper it is to build with than wood but permits are required to cut them down and bring them back to Malabo for sale.
Grilling Fresh Caught Fish
The shore has a handful of women grilling freshly caught fish with charcoal, shacks selling cold drinks, and a dozen plastic chairs wedged into the sand.
The two edges of Arena Blanca are marked with massive black rocks that cut the current and waves down, and the water, due to the volcanic nature of the island, is warm far out into the ocean.
While the fishermen were cleaning the long slippery eels, another boat pulled up with a catch of silvery swordfish.
As I listened and watched the hagglers descend on the wooden pirogues, calling out numbers and orders in a mix of Spanish, Bubi and Fang, I reflected on how many people underestimate the intrigue of the country, its island capital, and the one-of-a-kind blend of African culture, Spanish colonialism, and tropical paradise.