PRONUNCIATION: ee-kwuh-TOR-ee-uhl GHIN-ee-uhns
ALTERNATE NAMES: Equatoguineans
LOCATION: Equatorial Guinea (island of Bioko, mainland of Rio Muni, several small islands)
LANGUAGE: Spanish (official); Fang; languages of the coastal peoples; Bubi, pidgin English and Ibo (from Nigeria); Portuguese Creole
RELIGION: Christianity; African-based sects and cults
Equatorial Guinea is a country in Africa. It is made up of two main areas: the rectangular-shaped island of Bioko and the mainland, Rio Muni. Portuguese explorers found Bioko around 1471. They made it part of their colony, Sao Tomé. The people living on Bioko strongly resisted the slave trade and attempts to occupy their homeland. The Portuguese gave the island and parts of the mainland to Spain in a treaty in 1787. Equatorial Guinea gained independence in 1968. It is the only sub-Saharan (south of the Sahara Desert) African country that uses Spanish as its official language.
Since independence in 1968, the country has been ruled by the Nguema family. Equatorial Guinea's first head of state, Francisco Macias Nguema, was Africa's worst despot (cruel ruler). He murdered politicians and government administrators and executed people who supported his political opponents. He exiled (banished or forced to leave the country) most of Equatorial Guinea's educated and skilled workforce. One-quarter to one-third of the population was murdered or exiled during his rule.
In 1979, defense minister Obiang Nguema Mbasogo (1942–), Macias' nephew, overthrew his uncle in a coup (forced overthrow of a government). Obiang Nguema Mbasogo eventually executed his uncle, Macias. As of the late 1990s, Obiang was still in power, ruling with members of the Esangui clan dominating the government. He won three fraudulent elections (1982, 1989, and 1996). Exiles (people living outside the country against their will), mostly living in Cameroon and Gabon, have been hesitant to return to Equatorial Guinea. They fear they would not be able to live and work in safety in their homeland because of human rights abuses, government corruption, and weak economy.
Besides Bioko island and the mainland, Equatorial Guinea also includes a cluster of small islands. Elobeyes and de Corisco lie just south of the mainland. Rio Muni is situated between Gabon to the south and east, and Cameroon to the north. Bioko is part of a geologic fault line that includes a range of volcanoes. Mount Cameroon (13,000 feet or 4,000 meters) in neighboring Cameroon is only 20 miles (32 kilometers) from Bioko. It is the highest peak in west Africa, and is visible from Bioko on a clear day.
Both the mainland and the islands receive abundant rainfall—more than eight feet (three meters) annually. Three extinct volcanoes form the backbone of Bioko, giving the island fertile soils and lush vegetation. The mainland coast is a long beach with no natural harbor.
As of 1996, Equatorial Guinea's population was about 431,000. One-fourth of the people live on Bioko. There are a number of tribal groups in the country. The Fang (also called Fon or Pamue) occupy the mainland, Rio Muni. Bioko's population is a mixture of several groups: Bubi, the original inhabitants; the Fernandino, descended from slaves freed on the mainland in the nineteenth century, and Europeans. Malabo (formerly Santa Isabel) on the island of Bioko is the capital of the entire country. Bata is an important regional capital on the mainland.
Spanish is the official language, but many people don't understand it and don't know how to speak or understand it. Inhabitants of Rio Muni speak Fang. On Bioko, the islanders speak mainly Bubi, although many island people use pidgin English.
The Fang tell many stories and folktales featuring animals as characters. One animal in these fables is as clever as the fox, wise as the owl, and diplomatic as the rabbit. The islanders call him ku or kulu , the turtle. One tale concerns a divorce and child custody case between a tiger and a tigress. Each animal of the forest discusses who should get possession of the child. In the tradition of male dominance, they believe the tiger deserves parentage, but before deciding, they want to consult ku. The ku hears each side of the case, and asks them to return the following day at lunchtime.
When they return the next day, ku appears in no hurry to give his opinion. Instead he bathes in a large mud puddle. Then he cries as if overcome with grief. The animals are mystified and ask him to explain. He replies, "My father-in-law died while giving birth." The tiger finally interrupts with disgust, "Why listen to such rubbish? We all know a man cannot give birth. Only a woman has that ability. A man's relationship to a child is different." The ku replies, "Aha! You yourself have determined her relationship with the child to be special. Custody should be with the tigress." The tiger is unsatisfied, but the other animals believe that the ku has ruled correctly.
Most Equatorial Guineans believe in some form of Christianity, but traditional beliefs still exist. Traditional African religion holds that a supreme being exists along with lower-level gods in the spirit world. The lower gods can either assist people or bring misfortune to them.
On August 3, Equatorial Guineans celebrate the overthrow of president Francisco Macias Nguema in the golpe de libertad (freedom coup). A parade around the main square of the capital city of Malabo is led by the president's motorcade accompanied by motorcycles and elite guards on foot. Delegations of singers, dancers, and musicians from Malabo and the villages follow in the procession. Guitarists, drummers, and women in grass skirts are among them. Perhaps the most outrageous characters in the parade are the "lucifers," dancers in tennis shoes wearing looping horns, colored streamers, pompons, leopard-skin cloth, a pillow stuffed in the pants, and seven rear-view mirrors taped to the nape of the neck.
The elaborate funeral rites of Bubis show their belief in the hereafter (life after death) and in reincarnation (return to life in another form). Villagers announce a death by drumming on a hollow log at dawn and at dusk when the community observes a moment of silence. Someone reads the most important accomplishments of the person who has died. No work except the most basic tasks (such as digging yams for the daily meal) may be performed until the funeral is over. An elder of the village chooses women who will wash the corpse and embalm it with a red cream, Ntola. All adults except pregnant women participate in ceremonies of singing and dancing, and accompany the corpse to the gravesite. The mourners sacrifice a male goat and pour its blood over the corpse during the trip to the cemetery. The corpse is then placed in the fetal position in the grave so that it may be born again. Family members leave personal objects for the dead person to use for daily labor in the hereafter. Even if valuable objects are left in the grave, they are not often stolen. Grave robbers are punished by amputation (cutting off) of their hands. After burial, mourners plant a branch of a sacred tree on the grave.
Equatorial Guineans are very friendly people. They readily shake hands and greet each other. They love to share a story or joke with their peers. They also show respect for people of status. For example, they reserve the Spanish titles of Don or Doña for people of high education, wealth, and class.
Prior to independence from Spain in 1968, Equatorial Guinea was progressing. Its exports of cocoa, coffee, timber, foodstuffs, palm oil, and fish generated more wealth in Equatorial Guinea than in any other colony or country in west Africa. President Macias's violent government, however, destroyed the country's prosperity.
By the late 1990s, about four-fifths of the population made their living doing subsistence agriculture in the jungles and highland forests. The average income was less than $300 per year, and life expectancy was only forty-five years.
Diseases are a major cause of death. About 90 percent of the people get malaria each year. Many children die of measles because immunization is not available. Cholera epidemics strike periodically because the water system becomes contaminated.
Electricity is on for only a few hours at night. The paved roads are full of potholes because there is no road maintenance.
In the north, houses are rectangular and made from wooden planks or palm thatch. Many houses have shutters that keep the rain out, but allow the breezes in. Most houses are one-or two-room structures without electricity and indoor plumbing. Beds may be polished bamboo slats lashed together and mounted on larger bamboo posts.
On the mainland, small houses are made of cane and mud walls with tin or thatch roofs. In some villages, the cane walls are only chest high so that the men can watch the goings-on of the village. Women and girls wash clothes at streams or wells. Then they hang them up or lay them out on a clean section of the yard to dry. Children are expected to help carry water, collect firewood, and run errands for their mothers.
The family and the clan are very important in Equatorial Guinean life. On the mainland among the Fang, men may have several wives. They generally marry outside of their clan.
On Bioko, Bubi men marry within the same clan or tribe. Bubi society also is matriarchal—people trace their lineage by their mother's line. Bubis therefore place great importance on having girls because they perpetuate the family. In fact, Bubis consider girls to be the eyes of the home— que nobo e chobo , the "paper" that perpetuates the family.
Equatorial Guineans do their best to look sharp in public. For those who can afford them, Western-style suits and dresses are worn for any professional or business activities. Businessmen wear three-piece pin-striped suits with vests and neckties, even in the extremely hot, muggy weather of the island. Women and girls go out neatly dressed, wearing pleated skirts, starched blouses, and polished shoes.
Children in the villages wear shorts, jeans, and T-shirts. Tailored dresses are also popular for girls. Women wear bright, colorful loose-fitting skirts with African patterns. They usually wear head scarves too. Older women may wear a large, simply cut piece of cotton cloth over a blouse and skirt. People with little money often make do with secondhand American T-shirts and other clothing. Many people go barefoot, or wear flip-flops or plastic sandals.
The staple foods of Equatorial Guinea are cocoyams ( malanga ), plantains, and rice. People eat little meat other than porcupine and forest antelope, a large rodent-like animal with small antlers. Equatorial Guineans supplement their diets with vegetables from their home gardens, and with eggs or an occasional chicken or duck. Fish are abundant in the coastal waters and provide an important protein source.
Formal education at all levels is in very bad shape. In the 1970s, many teachers and administrators were killed or exiled. In the 1980s, only two public high schools, one in Malabo and one in Bata, existed. In 1987, a study team sponsored by the United Nations found that of seventeen schools visited on Bioko, not one had blackboards, pencils, or textbooks. Children learned by rote—hearing facts and repeating them until they are memorized. In 1990 the World Bank estimated that half the population was illiterate (could not read or write).
A traditional Fang musical instrument, the mvett is a harp-zither made of three gourds, the stem of a leaf of the raffia plant, and cord of vegetable fibers. The fibers are plucked like guitar strings. Mvett players are highly respected. Other insturments include drums, xylophones made by stringing logs together and striking them with sticks, and the sanza, a small piano-like instrument with keys of bamboo that is played with the thumbs.
Bubi society divides people by function: farmers, hunters, fishers, and palm-wine collectors. Most Equatorial Guineans practice subsistence farming (growing only enough for their own consumption, with little or none left over). They grow tubers, bush peppers, cola nuts, and fruits. Men clear the land, and women do the rest, including carrying 190-pound (90-kilogram) baskets of yams on their backs to market.
Equatorial Guineans are avid soccer players. They also maintain a keen interest in table tennis, which they learned from Chinese aid workers. Equatorial Guinea participated for the first time in the Olympics in 1984 at the Los Angeles Games.
Like Africans generally, Equatorial Guineans enjoy socializing with family and friends and do not need invitations to visit each other. It is common to see them playing cards, checkers, and chess with friends. Almost any occasion will spark dancing and singing. No formal party is needed. Men especially go to bars to socialize and drink. Various African musical styles from Makossa of Cameroon to Congolese music are popular with young people.
Equatorial Guineans also listen to the radio and watch TV, although until 1981 the country had only two radio stations. One was on the mainland and the other on Bioko. Both broadcast little except political propaganda. Since then, the Chinese have built new stations that include broadcasting in Spanish and local languages. The stations also play music from Cameroon and Nigeria.
Television has remained under strict government control for fear that it would spur democracy. Two media directors went to prison in 1985 on charges of conspiracy to promote human rights.
Most of Equatorial Guinea's cinemas have fallen into disrepair or are used for government meetings. In the late 1980s, the capital city of Malabo had two non-functioning movie theaters used for government events. In 1990, the entire island of Bioko had no functioning cinemas, bookstores, or newsstands.
Folk art is rich and varies by ethnic group. On Bioko, the Bubi people are known for their colorful wooden bells. The makers of the bells embellish them with intricate designs, engravings, and shapes.
In Ebolova, women weave baskets more than two feet high and two feet across to which they attach straps. They use these to haul produce and garden tools from their field. Equatorial Guineans make many hats and other objects, especially baskets of all kinds. Some baskets are so finely woven that they hold liquids such as palm oil.
The Equatorial Guinean government, like many African governments, faces the challenge of stimulating the economy, providing jobs, ensuring social welfare, building roads, and instituting rule of law. Equatorial Guineans are becoming impatient with corruption and political violence. In 1993, members of the Bubi ethnic group from Bioko founded a movement to seek independence for the island.
An international drug report accused the government of turning Equatorial Guinea into a major marijuana producer, and a shipping point for drug trafficking between South America and Europe. In 1993 Spain expelled some Guinean diplomats for smuggling cocaine and other drugs. Although mugging, armed robbery, and murder are seldom heard of in Equatorial Guinea, excessive drinking, wife beating, and female sexual abuse are reported frequently.
Fegley, Randall. Equatorial Guinea. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 1991.
Fegley, Randall. Equatorial Guinea: An African Tragedy. New York: Peter Lang, 1989.
Klitgaard, Robert. Tropical Gangsters: One Man's Experience with Development and Decadence in Deepest Africa. New York: Basic Books, 1990.
Internet Africa Limited. [Online] Available http://www.africanet.com/africanet/country/eqguinee/ , 1998.
World Travel Guide, Equatorial Guinea. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/gq/gen.html , 1998.