Two dollars a day - how I was disappointed in Equatorial Guinea
When I was invited to visit Equatorial Guinea, I simply couldn’t say no. On one hand, it is a long and expensive trip, possibly even dangerous. On the other, a chance to see the real Africa: with its mercenaries, dictators, malaria and starving children.
At least, that was my impression of Equatorial Guinea after researching this country on the web. The same president has been in power since 1979 – despite an extraordinary number of coups. Most of the country lives in absolutepoverty. The country is the number two African oil exporter and yet 80 percent of the slightly less than 700 thousand population lives on two dollars a day.
I first heard about the “2 dollars” from a question famous journalist Christiane Amanpour asked the Guinean President, Teodoro Obiang, in a CNN interview. Of course he tried to deny it, saying that “it’s completely fabricated” and arguing that his detractors certainly haven't visited Equatorial Guinea for themselves, but what else would a dictator say, I thought at that point.
I was ecstatic. I would take pictures of extreme poverty. At night I would interview the brave dissidents, who would be risking their life and limb by talking to me. I would show the contrast between the oil-drunk oligarchy and the ordinary miserable life in Equatorial Guinea. I would make Christiane Amanpour jealous.
In reality, it was a big disappointment from the start. There were no crowds of beggars following the foreigners, no jeeps full of beastly oppressive militiamen. There was no dirt, nor foul smells; all those exotic African elements I was expecting were missing. In fact, I had the feeling that I wasn’t in Africa at all.
The roads are better than those in Europe, cars are more expensive and the people are definitely not hungrier than the Europeans. Unlike in most European cities today, I did not find any paupers on the streets. Maybe they had all been driven away, like in Moscow before the Olympics?
Nevertheless, my first impression was that there were not a lot of people on the streets in general. Later I realized that this is due to the overabundance of new housing. There is a staggering number of construction projects going on, and in particular multi-storied residential houses, built by Chinese contractors. An average apartment is 50-60 sq. meters, priced at 30 to 40 thousand dollars. A lot of them remain vacant, as I was told people are not in a hurry to move in, despite the subsidies and flexible payment options sponsored by the government.
Another strange thing: most of the workers in the city are foreigners. Waiters, cooks, constructors and even fishermen are from Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Mali, basically from anywhere in Central Africa. As it was pointed out to me by a local acquaintance, Guineans only seek work in management, and shy away from blue collar labor. Of course, the Guinean population is quite small, but even so not everybody can be a manager or a high-ranking government official.
“President Obiang puts his own relatives on the best positions,” a young man sitting in the shadow of a supermarket with a can of beer, complained to me, “What about those of us who do not have such good parents? What are we supposed to do?”
"How about finding a job?" I was tempted to ask, but did not want to offend the dissident.
After a couple of days, I became convinced that the main problem in this country is not poverty but mentality. One cannot eradicate poverty without changing the mentality first. What is the alternative, throwing money from helicopters?
And, by the way, again on the “2 dollars,” the local supermarkets are bursting with customers, and the prices are not different from those in the expensive shops in Moscow or Kiev. Two dollars will buy you a bottle of soda, a cheap beer, a pack of spaghetti or a can of tuna either in a supermarket or from a street vendor. The cost of one (admittedly, very big) pineapple in the fruit market in Bata is six dollars.
Even on a superficial level, Equatorial Guinea does not resemble at all the country described by the foreign press. It is not the scary and bloody boiling pot. A little bit absurd: yes. Everyone pretends to be the big boss, and as a result has to eat imported French apples and buy overpriced pineapples, when they actually grow right there, just across the street. The President, who understands that the oil prosperity will not last forever, calls the citizens to learn to work, but this only upsets those citizens who were not lucky enough to be born in the same village as him.
My impression is that the main supporters of Obiang are the foreigners who work here and I don’t mean the multinational oil companies, but rather the blue collar workers, the skilled professionals and the small business owners. They know the meaning of unemployment, particularly nowadays. Guinean GDP per capita is now above that of Spain, which several decades ago was the colonial power here. Today Spaniards are trying hard to work in Guinea, but face tough competition from Americans, Canadians, Chinese, Lebanese, Turks, Israelis and French.
“This commercial center was built in the last half a year, as well as these offices,” said Oleg Pavlenko, a Russian engineer working in Equatorial Guinea pointing at the streets of Mongomo (a town on the east of the country), “And five years ago, even the road we are driving on did not exist.”
“Everybody wants the current president to stay in power for longer,” says Oleg Dobrenko, a Russian entrepreneur. He is building a two-store restaurant in front of his house.
Oleg started his business on credit obtained in the local bank.
“Life is good here,” he says, “I don’t know any other place where you can buy a house with two bathrooms for fifteen thousand on a ten year term.”
When I tell him that I was informed before coming here that an average income in Equatorial Guinea is of two dollars per day; he only laughs.
- Reprinted with permission of Irina Baranovskaya