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Equatorial Guineans

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 has recently gained prominence around the world as one of the smallest African states now awash in oil. Prior to this discovery, it was one of the least-known African countries comprising the rectangular-shaped island of Bioko (formerly Fernando Po) and the mainland, Rio Muni. Portuguese explorers landed on Fernando Po in 1471–72 and made it part of the commercial sphere of Sao Tomé. The islanders 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. However, Spanish administration of Fernando Po only began in 1858. Nevertheless, Equatorial Guinea is the only sub-Saharan country that uses Spanish as its official language.

In the latter 19th century, European missionaries and descendants of Liberians, Sierra Leonians, Nigerians, and liberated slaves (Fernandinos) developed large cacao, coffee, and tobacco plantations on Fernando Po. Cameroonians, Fang (from Rio Muni), more Nigerians, and Liberians immigrated to the island to work the plantations. However, in 1976, the island was greatly depopulated when the government expelled 25,000 Nigerians. After the coup in 1979, Obiang Nguema renamed the island, Bioko, but the residents have resisted this name. Since 1979, Nguema has resided as head of state on the island, protected by his praetorian guard of 600 Moroccan soldiers.

Since independence in 1968, the country has been ruled by the despotic Nguema family. Equatorial Guinea's first head of state, Francisco Macias Nguema, Obiang's uncle, was Africa's worst despot. A Fang from the Esangui clan on the mainland, he dissolved the country's multiparty system in 1970 and replaced it with a single party, the Partido Unico Nacional de los Trabajadores (PUNT). Macias murdered politicians and government administrators, executed members of the opposition, and exiled most of Equatorial Guinea's educated and skilled workforce. One-quarter to one-third of the population was murdered or exiled during his tenure.

In 1979 defense minister Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Macias' nephew, overthrew his uncle in a coup and eventually executed him. Obiang has ruled since with members of the Esangui clan dominating the government. He has won a series of fraudulent elections, the last in 2002. Legislative elections in 1999 and 2004 also were dismissed as highly flawed, and in May 2008 legislative and local elections of a similar ilk confirmed Obiang's firm grip on power.

Since 1981 at least seven real or imagined coups have been attempted. The most recent occurred in 2004, implicating Mark Thatcher, son of the former British Prime Minister, for having bankrolled the coup attempt. Rumors in 2008 reported Obiang as suffering from cancer and perhaps willing to step down in favor of his son Teodorín, who served as Forestry Minister. Despite a thriving economy fueled by oil, Equatorial Guinean exiles have been hesitant to return to the country because of persistent human rights abuses, corruption, and crime.


Besides Bioko island and the mainland, Equatorial Guinea comprises several small islands. A cluster of small islands—Elobeyes and de Corisco—lies 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 extending from the island of Annobon (Equatorial Guinea), some 700 miles to the southwest, all the way to Tibesti in northern Chad. A range of volcanic relief is apparent along this line including Mt. Cameroon (13,000 feet), only 32 kilometers from Bioko and visible from there on a clear day.

Both the mainland and the islands receive abundant rainfall—more than eight ft annually. Three extinct volcanoes form the backbone of Bioko, giving the island fertile soils and lush vegetation. The Pico de Basile rises to more than 10,000 feet above sea level. The mainland coast is a long beach with no natural harbor. A narrow coastal plain rises sharply to a forested plateau, and small ranges of low mountains reach nearly 4,000 feet in elevation.

Equatorial Guinea's population is about 616,000 (est. 2008), one-fourth of which lives on Bioko. For its physical size, the ethnic composition of Equatorial Guinea is unusually complex. The Ntumu Fang occupy the mainland north of the Mbini river and the Okak Fang live to the south of it. Together, the Fang peoples form the majority (80–90%) of Mbini, and the Kombe, Balengue, and Bujeba tribes occupy the coastal areas. Bioko's population is a mixture of the Bubi, its original inhabitants, the Fernandino, long-settled immigrants from nearby West Africa, and Fang migrants, who now dominate the military and civil service. Malabo (formerly Sta. Isabel) on the island of Bioko is the administrative capital for the entire country. Bata is an important regional capital on the mainland and was periodically the site of the national government for three or four months each year in the 1980s.


Spanish is the official language. Well-educated Equatorial Guineans speak Spanish Castilian with a proper lisp. Inhabitants of Rio Muni speak Fang and languages of the coastal peoples. On Bioko, the islanders speak mainly Bubi, although many island people use pidgin English and Ibo (from Nigeria). The 1,500 residents of the island of Annobon speak Portuguese Creole.


The Fang tell many stories and folktales through the personage of animals. These tales serve to illustrate lessons of life. 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 opines on who should get possession of the child. In the tradition of male dominance, they believe the tiger deserves parentage, but before rendering a verdict, they want to consult the ku. The ku hears each side of the case and asks them to return the following day at lunchtime. When they are assembled the next day, he appears in no hurry to give his opinion and instead 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 was unsatisfied, but the other animals agreed that the ku ruled correctly.


Most Equatorial Guineans profess some form of Christianity, but many African-based sects and cults persist. For example, the Bubis practice a syncretic religion where indigenous beliefs and Christianity have been joined in a monotheistic religion.

Though not a religion per se, Macias invented his own personality cult, which he attempted to inculcate through the Catholic church. In 1974 he ordered priests to read the following message during the mass: “Never without Macias, always with Macias. Down with colonialism and with ambition.” He decreed that churches hang his portrait in their sanctuaries. Inscribed was the message: “Only and unceasing miracle of Equatorial Guinea. God created Equatorial Guinea thanks to Macias. Without Macias, Equatorial Guinea would not exist.” He recruited youth spies to report on “subversive” clergy and expelled, imprisoned, and executed bishops, priests, and pastors suspected of resisting. In 1975, he closed all mission schools. Obiang has permitted freedom of worship, but surveillance and repression of the clergy continues.

Equatorial Guinean religions are similar to African religions elsewhere in that they revolve around a supreme being and lower-level deities in the spirit world that may assist or bring misfortune to people. To guard against misfortune, the Fang invoke guidance and protection from ancestors who held leadership positions when they were living. The Fang carry their skulls and bones with them as relics for communicating with the ancestors' spirits.

Equatorial Guinean sects are infamous for their alleged human sacrifices and necrophagy. A report in 1926 claims that the Fang tore out the hearts and genitals of their victims, sometimes eating them. In 1946 one observer claimed that Fang sorcerers practiced cannibalism during ceremonies. Reports on one sect claimed that members had to take turns bringing in cadavers, or if one was not available, to kill a victim or otherwise be killed. The rationale for necrophagy is that one acquires the attributes and the power of the person ingested.

The earliest European accounts of necrophagy date from the mid-19th century. It is not clear however, the extent to which the slaving middle men, the Ndowe, invented stories to scare the Fang and the Europeans, both of whom came to depend on the Ndowe for slaves. Moreover, European explorers may have misunderstood the significance of human skulls and body parts found stored in and near Fang homes. It is possible that what Europeans saw was earlier evidence of a modern Fang cult. The Fang still conserve skulls and body parts as relics to which prayers are addressed and transmitted by the ancestor to God. The remains also scare away evil spirits, but they are now hidden in secret places out of public view.


Equatorial Guineans recognize 12 public holidays. Independence Day is October 12, but a special celebration is reserved for Armed Forces Day, August 3, which also is known as the golpe de libertad (the freedom coup that overthrew President Macias). On that day, in the main square of Malabo, the president's motorcade passes flanked by motorcycles and elite Moroccan guards on foot. They run to keep pace carrying walkie-talkies as they go. After the government ministers have passed, delegations of singers, dancers, and musicians from the barrios of Malabo and the villages take their turn. Guitar-ists, 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. Cuban laborers of African descent from the 19th century imported the costume and the tradition.


Equatorial Guineans of various ethnic groups mark life's passages—birth, puberty, marriage, and death with rites and rituals because these bridge present generations to the ancestors, who may be invoked for assistance, guidance in decision-making, and protection. The Fang communicate with ancestors viarites performed in secret societies. Elders initiate new members into secret societies to which outsiders may never belong, nor even observe. The Bubis of Bioko offer sacrifices of buffalos, sheep, goats, chickens, and ducks and sometimes saltwater fish on rites of passage occasions.

The elaborate funeral rites of Bubis show their belief in the hereafter and in reincarnation. Villagers announce a death by drumming on a hollow log. The drums at dawn and at dusk sound while the community observes a moment of silence. Someone reads the most important acts of the defunct. Only the most basic tasks such as digging yams for the daily meal may be performed until the funeral is over. A designated elder of the village chooses women who will wash the corpse and embalm it with a red creme, Ntola. All community members except pregnant women and children participate in ceremonies of singing and dancing and accompany the corpse to the grave site. Before taking the corpse from the house to the cemetery, the mourners sacrifice a male goat and pour its blood over the corpse. This is repeated several times on the way 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 with the defunct, which will serve in the hereafter for daily labor. Grave robbery is punished by amputation of hands. After burial, mourners plant a branch of the sacred tree, Iko, on the tomb.


Equatorial Guineans love to tell stories and to joke around, but they also show respect for people of a certain status. For example, they reserve the title of “Don” or “Dona” for people of high education, wealth, and class. This might be a government minister, a plantation owner, or an important businessman. Equatorial Guineans are very ebullient people. They readily shake hands and greet each other. The typical morning greeting is the Spanish, buenos dias.


Living conditions in Equatorial Guinea have fluctuated greatly over the years. Prior to independence in 1968, the country was a showcase for exports of cocoa, coffee, timber foodstuffs, palm oil, and fish. Then President Macias' corrupt regime systematically impoverished the country through political repression and neglect. By 1990 the country had to import staple foods such as palm oil and fish. About four-fifths of the population reverted to making its living in subsistence agriculture in the jungles and highland forests. Average income by the late 1990s was less than $300 per year, and life expectancy was only 45 years. Many children died of preventable diseases like measles.

All this began to change in the mid-1990s with the discovery of off-shore oil. In 2008 with a current daily production of some 400,000 barrels a day, Equatorial Guinea boasted the fourth-highest per capita income in the world. Its gross domestic product (GDP) per capita was $44,000, putting it ahead of Switzerland, Canada, and Britain. Life expectancy rose to over 60 years. However, because a few senior government officials own most of the businesses and control most of the country's wealth, oil dividends do not reach the vast majority of Equatorial Guineans.

About 50% of the population lives in poverty without access to potable water and sanitation. On the main island, small rectangular wood plank or palm thatch houses lack electricity and indoor plumbing. Simple beds are made out of polished bamboo slats lashed together and mounted on larger bamboo posts. On the mainland, huts 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 and usually 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 critical institutions in Equatorial Guinean life. It is important that people know their ancestry and family life is geared toward perpetuating the lineage. Marriage in Fang society is exogamous and descendance is patrilinear. Families are polygynous and men may have several wives, mainly for prestige and for economic reasons. Bubi society is primarily endogamous, meaning that people marry within the same lineage. Bubi society also is matriarchal—people trace their lineage by their mother's line. In ancient times, Bubis were allowed to marry a sibling as long as he or she did not have the same mother. Bubis therefore place great importance on having girls because they perpetuate the family. A family without girls would risk extinction. Thus, Bubis consider girls to be the eyes of the home, que nobo e chobo, the paper that perpetuates the family. The boys are thought of as the pillars of the house because they sustain the household.

No reliable statistics exist on the percentage of households headed by women or how many women work in different sectors of the workforce. Nonetheless, women typically do the housework and bear five to six children. Men customarily assume authority in the household because, as one Bubi proverb says, “a chicken never will crow at dawn.”


Equatorial Guineans do their best to look sharp in public. For those who can afford them, Western-style suits and dresses are de rigueur for any professional or business activities. Businessmen wear three-piece pinstriped 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, though tailored cloth dresses are popular for girls. The women wear bright, colorful loose-fitting sarongs 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 sarong. People with little money often make do with secondhand American T-shirts and other clothing. The wearer is usually oblivious to what a T-shirts says, including sometimes very bawdy messages. Many people go barefoot, or wear flipflops and plastic sandals.


The staple food of Equatorial Guinea is coco yams (malanga), plantains, and rice. The island coco yams are among the tastiest in Africa and grow well in Bioko's rich soils where rainfall is plentiful. People eat little meat other than porcupine and forest antelope, a large rodent-like animal with small antlers. Equatorial Guineans typically supplement their diets with vegetables from their home gardens and with eggs or an occasional chicken or duck on special occasions. Fish are abundant in the coastal waters and provide an important protein source in an otherwise starchy diet. Many people cook on open wood fires, either on the floor of their houses or in the open yard.


Formal education at all levels has suffered much under the Nguemas. In the 1970s, many teachers and administrators were liquidated. Many Spanish teachers, most of them priests, left the country in 1978 to return later. Cuban and UNESCO-funded teachers also left the country because of assassinations and ministerial paralysis. In the 1980s, only two public high schools existed, one in Malabo and the other in Bata. In 1987, a UNESCO mission found that of 17 schools visited on Bioko, not one had blackboards, pencils, or textbooks. Children learned by rote hearing and repetition. In 1990 the World Bank estimated that 50% of the population was illiterate. But in 1993, no one could provide statistics on basic indicators such as primary-school enrollment and number of schoolteachers. Fortunately, there has been some windfall from oil revenues, and modest investments in education have improved school infrastructure, teacher capacity, and quality of curricula.


The cultural heritage of Bioko dates to Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. Archaeologists have discovered stone tools such as axes and hoes. At this time, stone mortars and pestles also were in use. People made jewelry from snake vertebrae woven with raffia to make armbands and bracelets. The precolonial period was unproductive in cultural growth because of the severe depopulation of Rio Muni and the islands during the slave trade.

Fang art and magical beliefs are closely linked. The main traditional instrument of the Fang, the Mvett, typifies this relationship. The name “Mvett” also applies to the Fang sagas. The religious-mystic order of the Bebom-Mvett is the caretaker of the “Cycle of Legends of Engong.” The “Cycle” is for the Fang nation what the Old Testament is for Christians and Jews. The Mvett instrument is a harp-zither made of three gourds, the stem of a leaf of the raffia plant, and cord of vegetable fibers. Mvett players are highly respected by Equatorial Guineans of Fang background.


Bubi society is divided by function: farmers, hunters, fishermen, palm-wine collectors, and, in former times, the royal police of the supreme chief. A supreme priest blessed the yam plantations and protected the sacred fire. Bubis traditionally refused contact with Europeans and refused forced plantation labor in coffee and cocoa.

In rural areas, most Equatorial Guineans still practice subsistence farming. They grow tubers, bush peppers, cola nuts, and fruits. Women do four-fifths of the work. Men clear the land, and women do the rest, including carrying 187-pound baskets of yams on their backs to market. Along with the oil industry has come a variety of new jobs at the ports and in services such as bars, restaurants, and domestic work. However, because oil production is off-shore, the number and types of good-paying jobs are limited, and most of job creation has been in low-paying unskilled work.


Equatorial Guineans are avid soccer players. They also maintain a keen interest in table tennis which they got from Chinese aid workers. The assassination of the minister of youth and sports in 1976 greatly paralyzed organized sports in Equatorial Guinea. At independence, there were some 40 soccer fields in the country, which were rebuilt in the late 1970s and early 1980s by the Spanish. The Spanish also sent professionals to retrain players at a level required for international competition. Equatorial Guinea participated for the first time in the Olympics in 1984 at the Los Angeles games.


Like Africans on the continent, 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 pubs to socialize and drink. Various African musical styles from Makossa of Cameroon to Congolese music are popular with youth.

Part of the reason for this vibrant socializing had to do with restrictions on electronic media. Until 1981 the country had only two radio stations, one on the mainland and the other on Bioko that broadcasted propaganda and personality cultism for the Nguemas. Since then, the Chinese built new installations that include broadcasting in Spanish and local languages. The stations also play music from Cameroon and Nigeria. Today, the BBC and Radio France International are available on FM broadcasts from Malabo and are popular.

Television has remained under strict government control for fear that it could become a democracy tool. In 1982 most of the 200 color televisions in the country were owned by Spanish technical assistants. By 1984 the number of televisions had risen to 1,500. In the late 1980s, 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. Today, to get information and entertainment that otherwise would be available on TV, Equatoguineans spend hours in dozens of Internet cafés in Bata and Malabo listening to music, reading news and opinions on websites of exiles (which are critical of the government), and generally accessing a window on the outside world.


Folk art is rich and varies according to 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. Musicians ring these bells by turn or in combinations during the folkloric dances of the Kacha.

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 from their fields and garden tools. Equatorial Guineans make many hats and other objects, especially baskets of all kinds, from raffia and palm leaves. Some baskets are so finely woven that they hold liquids such as palm oil.


The oil boom has created new jobs, but along with the influx of wealth has come a number of social problems. Equatorial Guinea is ranked as the tenth-most corrupt country in the world and is a staging point for drug trafficking between South America and Europe and a destination for trafficked children. Trafficked persons come from neighboring Benin, Nigeria, Gabon, and Cameroon, and work as farmhands and household servants. Girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation either as domestic servants or in the commercial sex trade. By 2008 the government had taken steps to get children off the streets and to control trafficking, but the lack of hard data made it impossible to determine the extent of the problem.


The status of women is improving gradually. However, in rural areas women still perform most of the household and agricultural work, and excessive drinking by men, wife beating, and female sexual abuse are reported frequently with little will on the part of the police and courts to prosecute the perpetrators. These problems have reached the attention of the president's wife, who led a campaign in 2007 to raise public awareness on spouse abuse. The government also launched a major crack-down against prostitution to curb trafficking.

Progress in education for girls is being made. By 2008 women and girls had a literacy rate of 78% (compared to 93% of males), and girls' enrollment rates were climbing with 81% as many girls as boys enrolled in primary, secondary, and tertiary education. Also in 2008 there were 20 women in the 100-member parliament and six women in the cabinet including the Ministers of Labor and Women's Issues.


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—by R. Groelsema

Equatorial Guineans

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