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Mark Stratton | Issue 51 | 51 april-may 2002
For a fleeting moment I thought a ghost had entered my room. I’d woken with a start and sat bolt upright as all three sets of the bedroom’s ageing shutters had crashed open. With a history forged from brutal colonialism and slavery, São Tomé may well have a queue of anguished souls stirring in the afterlife.
Perhaps an embittered African slave seeking a way home, or maybe the exiled Portuguese cocoa baron returning to reclaim his plantation at Bombaím where I now slept. But with all due respect to the supernatural, it was a wild tropical storm that was responsible for my awakening, not a ghost from centuries past. And, far more chillingly, the bedroom ceiling had begun to leak rain like a sieve.
Travellers to the Democratic Republic of São Tomé & Príncipe are few and far between. United in obscurity, São Tomé and its diminutive neighbour are two pinprick islands in the Gulf of Guinea, 320km from Central Africa. Hovering just above the equator, they barely register in most atlases.
Portuguese navigators chanced upon the islands sailing southwards down the West African coast in 1470. They were mopping up a string of volcanic islands, and claimed São Tomé, along with the Azores, Madeira, and Cape Verde, as a colonial possession. What they found in the 15th century was probably little different to the picture today; a pristine island of volcanic pinnacles cloaked by rainforest, bordered by sandy beaches almost too paradisaical to be true.
But what they didn’t find were people. São Tomé was uninhabited. It was to be Africa’s tragedy thereafter that the Portuguese had a contingency plan to populate the island’s embryonic sugar-cane roças (plantations). Once São Tomé town was established in 1485, the slave ships began rolling in.
More than five centuries later I arrived in the capital, which is in parts colonial chic and in others resembling a tropical cyclone victim. Signs of crumbling neglect are everywhere. Elegant, multicoloured townhouses, with pantile roofs and finely carved, latticed verandas, sit between weather-beaten wooden shacks with paint-flaked Mediterranean-style shutters.
When to go: As a whole, the climate is equatorial and maritime, therefore hot and humid all year round. There are two rainy seasons, February to May and October to December, which produce three or four heavy downpours a week. These are often nocturnal and leave clear air, blue skies and temperatures of 28-31°C. The dry season, or gravana, from June to September, tends to be cloudier with moderate temperatures.
Health and safety: As expected in equatorial Africa, thought should be given to polio, tetanus, typhoid and hepatitis jabs. A yellow fever vaccination certificate is technically required, and malaria, including the malignant falciparum, is present, so precautions need to be taken. Bottled water is available on the island.
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