São Toméans

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São Toméans

LOCATION: Sâo Tomé & Príncipe
LANGUAGE: Portuguese, Angolar, Príncipense, São Toménse, Creole dialects
RELIGION: Christian (80% Roman Catholic, 15% Protestant, 3% Muslim)


São Toméans live on the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe off the Atlantic coast west of Equatorial Guinea and south of Cameroon and Nigeria. São Tomé is the Portuguese word for St. Thomas. Portuguese explorers stumbled upon São Tomé in the 1470s. The first wave of Portuguese settlers came to the island in the 1480s. It consisted of several thousand Jewish children forcibly taken from their parents and converted to Christianity. There were also exiled undesirables in Portuguese society, known as degradados, who were banished there, such as convicts and prostitutes. The new settlers soon brought African slaves to the islands to work on sugar plantations.

By decree of the king of Portugal, Jewish settlers and other degradados were allowed to marry slave women in order to increase the population of the island. Their offspring were promised freedom from slavery. The population increased dramatically, creating a large free African and mixed-race population. A new cultural entity was born from the intermixing and intermarriages between the Portuguese settlers and the African slaves. As such São Toméans are culturally a Luso-African creole people who trace their descent from Portuguese settlers and African slaves.

São Tomé and Príncipe remained a Portuguese colony until its independence in 1975. The Movement for the Liberation of São Tomé and Príncipe (MLSTP) took power from the Portuguese in 1975 and ruled the islands as a single-party state until in the elections of 1990 when the MLSTP was defeated in multi-party elections. During the post-independence era, there has been a substantial immigration of new arrivals from Angola, Mozambique and Cape Verde.

Today, six different ethnic groups of São Toméans can be identified based on whom they descended from. The first group is the Mestico. These are mixed-blood descendants of African slaves brought to the islands from Benin, Gabon, and Congo during the early years of settlement. They are also known as “filhos da terra” or “sons of the land.” The second group is the Angolares, who are said to be descended from Angolan slaves who survived a 1540 shipwreck near the islands. Today, their main livelihood is fishing. The Forros form the third group and are descended from freed slaves after the abolishment of slavery. The fourth group is known by the name “Servicais.” These are contract laborers from Angola, Mozambique, and Cape Verde who have come to the island to make a living and hope to return home. Tongas, forming the fifth grouping, are the children of contract laborers who are born on the islands. The final group is the Europeans, largely of Portuguese origin. The São Toméans are thus made up of peoples with many different ethnic backgrounds.


The islands of São Tomé and Príncipe are located in central Africa about 200 miles west of the coast of Gabon and Equatorial Guinea and south of Nigeria and Cameroon. They are located right on the equator in the Gulf of Guinea. They are two tiny volcanic islands with an area of about 400 square miles. The topography is mountainous with tropical climatic conditions and two distinct wet and dry seasons.

The mountainous topography of São Tomé rises to about 2,000 m (6,640 ft). This geography results in swift streams radiating down the mountains through lush forest and cropland on their way to the sea. Along the coastal areas the climate is hot and humid with average temperatures of up to 27°c (80°f). Given their tropical climate, the islands experience ample amounts of rainfall ranging from 101 cm to 508 cm (40 in to 200 in) per year, with the rainy season lasting from October through May. The volcanic soils are rich for the production of plantation crops such as sugar.


Portuguese is the official language and the language of education. However, there are several other dialects that are simply known as Luso-African creole spoken by Africans with quite a substantial number of words from Portuguese. São Tomeans refer to their creole language by different names, the most popular of which is Forro. Apart from Portuguese, there are three main creole dialects that are spoken by São Toméans on the two islands, namely Angolar, Príncipense, and São Toménse. All three trace their origin from Kwa and Western Bantu languages. Angolar is spoken on the southern tip of São Tomé and has its origin in Kimbundu of Angola, Kongo, Bini, and Ndingi. Príncipense is the creole spoken on the island of Príncipe, while São Toménse is the creole spoken on São Tomé.


Among the São Toméans, poetry has become a major vehicle for narrating historical events. Poetry and stories tell of the discovery of the islands by Portuguese explorers, early Portuguese settlements, and the slave trade that saw large numbers of Africans arriving on the islands to boost the islands' population. There is also a well developed set of plays and performances, all of which are designed to convey the rich history of the various ethnic groups that arrived on the islands in the 15th century. For example, masked performers in colorful attire accompanied by drums, flutes, and dancers entertain the audience with Portuguese historical plays.


São Toméans are largely Christians, with the majority being Roman Catholics (80%). Protestant and evangelical churches account for 15% of the population and 3% are Muslim, with the rest having no religion or practicing some indigenous African traditional religion. Many of the African population still retain their beliefs in ancestral spirits that can be traced back to the homelands they were uprooted from during the slave trade era. It is, therefore, not surprising that while believing in Christianity, São Toméans of African descent also practice rituals that are not sanctioned by the Church. For example, the Forro ethnic group practice a communal ritual called djambi in which an entire neighborhood or village gathers to drum, dance, and witness spirit possession. Traditional medicine men are also readily available to provide divination, healing, and protection from evil spirits.


São Toméans celebrate a number of public and religious holidays throughout the year. The most important ones are New Year's Day on January 1, Martyrs' Day on February 3, Labor Day on May 1, Independence Day on July 12, Armed Forces Day on September 6, Agricultural Reform Day on September 30, All Saints Day on November 1, and Christmas Day on December 25.


Rites of passage among São Toméans are largely determined by membership in the Roman Catholic Church. Soon after birth, the newborn is baptized as the first rite of passage. As one gets older, he or she goes through the Catholic Church rites of first Communion, confirmation, and so on. Children also attend the modern school system.

Some African traditions have survived the test of time as rites of passage. For example, the Forros believe that the spirits of the dead are never disconnected from the world of the living. They thus follow a strict form of funeral rites, similar to that practiced by Africans on the coastal zones of Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. Once a death occurs, all adults except pregnant women are expected to participate in ceremonies of singing and dancing. A goat or a chicken is often sacrificed with the blood poured on the dead. At the cemetery, the corpse is buried in the grave in the fetal position to signify that it will rise and be reborn. Thus, the dead are considered to be part and parcel of society, necessitating the offering of sacrifices to placate the spirits of the dead until they are reborn.


Similar to other ethnic groups in Africa, São Toméans value good conduct. Age brings with it seniority and, therefore, respect from the community. Older men and women are considered to be the keepers of wisdom and are treated with great respect and deference. Men and women with many children and/or grandchildren are treated with great respect. When greeting each other, it is courteous for one to inquire about the health of an individual and his family.


Poverty is one of the major problems affecting the living conditions of São Toméans. Many live in abject poverty, but the rich oil finds off the waters of these two islands have great potential to raise wealth and, therefore, improve living conditions. However, corruption is another obstacle in translating the new-found wealth into something that benefits all.

Houses are typically made out of local materials, with brick or cinderblock walls and iron sheets as roofs. For the poor, the walls of houses are constructed either of mud or planks made from timber with the roofs covered by galvanized iron sheets. The poor live in shanty towns with few amenities and dilapidated buildings. Wealthy families live in modern houses or in old colonial bungalows. Run-down old colonial bungalows are often occupied by the poor.

Life expectancy in São Tomé is 63 years up from 56 years in 1970, a decent increase at a time when many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are experiencing declining life expectancies because of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Almost all children receive vaccinations for tuberculosis, polio, measles, DPT, and Hepatitis B.


Given that almost 95% of São Toméans identify themselves as Christians, marriages are conducted in the Christian tradition and are supposed to be monogamous. Polygamy is not an accepted norm, although it is practiced in rural areas to a lesser extent. In spite of this, many men and women have several partners concurrently or over the course of their lives. Poor women often have visiting relationships with several men. This affords them a little income to subsist on and take care of their children.

In rural areas, women are responsible for taking care of the household chores, such as farming, gathering wood and water, preparing food, and raising the children. Fertility rates in rural areas are quite high, with a total fertility rate of over four children per woman. In the city, women live better lives in comparison to their rural counterparts. They have fewer children and may compete for male-dominated jobs.


São Toméan dress is similar to Western forms of clothing. Men will normally wear pants, shirts, suits, neckties, shoes, and so on, depending on the occasion. Women also generally dress in Western fashions. Some women may dress in traditional garb, consisting of a blouse and a loin cloth that they wrap around their waists to below the knees. Boys and girls prefer to wear the omnipresent jeans and T-shirts. São Toméans will go to great lengths to wear colorful and descent clothing during religious ceremonies and holiday celebrations or festivals.


Given their location surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the main source of protein is fish. The fish is taken with carbohydrate rich tropical root crops, such as yams and cassava, as well as plantains and bananas. Tropical fruits, such as man-goes, guava, papaya, and citrus trees, are widespread and quite abundant. The favored national dish among the São Toméans is stew with traditional palm oil.

Spices are used to add taste and color to dishes. There is also a diversity of vegetables that are used in fixing delicious São Tomé dishes. Goat, lamb, beef, chicken, and wild monkey form the main meat dishes that are taken with rice, spices, raisins, almonds, and honey. One of the classic ways of preparing chicken is to stew it in a peanut and tomato sauce. Another tasty São Toméan meat dish is chicken marinated in an onion-mustard mixture. The Portuguese influence in food preparation can be seen during important occasions, such as weddings, baptisms, and funerals, when São Toméans prepare lavish tables with a large array of dishes for all to admire. For the wealthy families, the dishes may be served with bottled beverages and wines, while the poor have locally made palm wine and cane alcohol.

Most food needs to be imported. Many of the people are subsistence farmers, producing inadequate amounts for their families. As a result, a small proportion of the population suffers from malnutrition. Food insecurity is a direct result of the plantation system of agriculture that was introduced during the colonial era and continues to this very day, where cash crops, such as coffee and cocoa, take precedence over food production.


Education is patterned after the Portuguese system of primary school, secondary school, and university, with Portuguese as the language of instruction. Although primary school is universal and compulsory, data shows that only 78% of children are enrolled in school. One of the major challenges of the country's educational system is regional inequality between urban and rural areas. Urban schools enjoy higher standards of education in comparison to rural schools. For rural residents, secondary education is nonexistent. Some rural residents send their children to live with relatives in urban areas so they may continue their education. The country also faces a major challenge to rehabilitate its crumbling educational infrastructure.

Despite these difficulties, the country has a 79% literacy rate, one of the highest on the continent. Gender-parity in educational attainment is also near equal. The girls-to-boys ratio was 0.92 in 2000. Over 68% of children finish elementary school, but there is a high drop-out rate at the secondary level, due to their unavailability in rural areas. Up until 1996, there were no institutions of higher education on the islands. The only way for a high school graduate to receive university education was to go abroad, something many could not afford. However, since 1996 the Ministry of Education has established two institutions of higher learning in São Tomé and Príncipe. The first one, created in 1994, is private and the second one, established in 1997, is public.


Centuries of Portuguese colonialism makes the country a homogeneous cultural entity. The government has attempted to stress the country's African heritage with little success. Language, family structure, and religion are basically Portuguese. However, many African elements have been adopted in the cooking, customs, beliefs, and dress of the common people. The poorer individuals speak creole, a language that traces its origin from several Bantu languages, but with many Portuguese words.

São Tomé is a party to the World Heritage Convention, whose main aim is to preserve historic sites. For example, in the framework of the Slave Route Project, the country has participated in the implementation of the Tourism of Memory program. Storytelling reflects this heritage, with many of the stories recounting the slave trade experience. Poetry is the most highly developed form of literary expression, with historical events as the main subject. Folktales and short stories are also part of the cultural heritage of São Toméans.

The mixture of Portuguese and African heritage is clearly illustrated in dance and music. During festivals, masked dancers in colorful attire are accompanied by drums and flutes to entertain the audience. Drama is often conducted to portray Portuguese historical events. The young people prefer to dance to imported music, such as the samba from Brazil and popular music from the United States and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


Subsistence agriculture and fishing are the main activities for the majority of the people on the islands. Subsistence crops grown for local consumption include root crops, vegetables, plantains, and bananas. Industries are virtually nonexistent, except for a few processing plants for food, beverages, and soap. The timber industry through logging has contributed to the economy, but it has resulted in deforestation of pristine tropical rainforests. The two islands of São Tomé and Príncipe are endowed with natural beauty and a relatively safe environment. This could propel the country into a tourist haven, but it still remains to be realized due to unreliable air transportation to the islands. The international community is also unaware of the existence of these two islands, as there is rarely any news about them, much less travel brochures. There has been some investment in hotels and other tourist facilities in recent years.

The country is heavily dependent on an export-oriented plantation economy of cash crops, such as cocoa and coffee. In turn it imports rice, beans, and salt fish to feed the plantation workers. Cocoa is the major export, accounting for over 90% of foreign exchange earnings. Other export crops grown on the plantations include coffee, coconuts, and palm kernels.

Recently the country has run into some fortune. Billions of barrels of oil are believed to be present off its shores. Should the oil reserves come to fruition, São Tomé's economy will certainly go through massive transformation overnight. Drilling of the oil reserves is under way and commercial production is expected to begin within a few years.


Soccer is the most popular sport in São Tomé. Although the country has a national soccer team, it has not been active in international sports and has recently been removed from the FIFA World Rankings list. There are several other popular sporting activities, such as basketball, handball, volleyball, and track.


There are two television stations in São Tomé and Príncipe to provide entertainment to its citizens. Wealthy families may have access to a satellite dish that connects them to what is happening throughout the world.


Crafts are an area of interest for the government, which is trying to adapt local production to the demands of the international market. Many of the paintings by local artists depict important historical folk scenes. These paintings can be viewed at the Francisco Tenreiro Cultural Center or the National Museum.


Among the major challenges facing São Toméans in the 21st century are poverty, food insecurity, and the prevalence of malaria. Poverty is the major cause of petty theft on the islands. Consumer goods are also in short supply. Malaria remains one of the biggest health problems, although initiatives begun in 2000 have helped reduce the number of cases. There have also been recurrences of cholera.


In terms of education, São Tomé has achieved gender equality in primary school education. Nevertheless, women are still under-represented in the job and the political sectors. Although the country had a female prime minister, women are rarely represented in politics, with only 4 out of 55 deputies being women in the parliament in 2008. Data also shows that the labor participation rate was 39% for women against 80% for men. Traditional beliefs and a high rate of teenage pregnancies often reduce women's educational and economic opportunities.

Within the family, women exercise some control over their resources. Women are able to own businesses that are run independently of the husband or other male relatives. Some women have been able to accumulate a large amount of cash through the selling of produce and fish at markets. This cash is managed by the women independent of the men.


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—revised by E. Kalipeni