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Saturday, April 1, 2023

Idyllic Sao Tome

The economy of Sao Tome is heavily dependent on agricultural exports and tourism

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Raghu Gururaj
Raghu Gururaj
Ambassador of India to the Republic of Sao Tome and Principe

SAO TOME: In many ways, Sao Tome is poetry in slow motion and a breath of fresh air. There is nothing cosmetic about the place. The plethora of epithets used to describe Sao Tome is certainly no exaggeration. Unspoilt, laid back, idyllic, untouched, magical, dramatic landscapes, pristine, colonial charm – they all fit the bill.

Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

Landing in Sao Tome was like setting foot into some nature documentary. Driving from the airport into the city, the natural beauty becomes immediately evident. Along the coastal drive, one can see quaint fishing villages, glorious beaches lined with palm trees, canoes, and luscious landscapes.  

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The outskirts of the city are dressed up in green blankets of banana and cocoa plantations. Nature is bountiful here. Cashew trees grow nonchalantly across the city. So too pomegranate, guava, plantain, mango, and papaya trees. Where ever I went, I was not able to avoid a peek of the ocean or mountain or a lush cocoa farm.

The second smallest country in Africa, after Seychelles, the twin islands of Sao Tome & Principe straddle the Equator off the coast of the Gulf of Guinea. They were uninhabited until the Portuguese discovered them in 1485. They wanted to cultivate sugarcane because of which Sao Tome became an outpost of the slave trade. Jewish children from the Iberian Peninsula and nearby Congo became the source of slave plantation workers. 

Sao Tome: The Picturesque Island

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Sao Tome is a culturally diverse country. Though stratified by ethnic groups and social status, Sao Tomeans are largely united in their way of life. Sao Tome and Principe’s constitution provides for freedom of religion. The population is predominantly Christian (80% Catholics and 15% Protestants). 

Sao Tomeans trace their ancestry to Africa and Portugal. Portuguese is the main spoken language, but I was pleasantly surprised to encounter many English-speaking Sao Tomeans. Sao Tome is somewhat un-African. For one thing, the only noise pollution comes from the constant chirping of birds and the incessant sound of waves across the city. The refreshing smell of the sea follows you. 

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Daily life in Sao Tome is really ‘leve leve’, meaning ‘take it easy. A large billboard at the airport reminds visitors to take it easy. For most of us who are used to the hustle-bustle of modern city life and the pressure of today’s work culture, it does take some adjusting.

There is no such thing as a traffic jam in the city. During so-called peak hours, the main thorough fare has only a handful of cars and motorbikes. With no traffic lights, one can get by seamlessly and quickly without using the horn. 

Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

Though Sao Tome became an independent country in 1975, it still retains much of the 16th-century colonial architecture. As you amble into the city center, one cannot but be charmed by the tropical simplicity of this African city. What is captivating are the faded, yet alluring colonial splendor of old colonial buildings with carved wooden wraparound balconies, arched windows, balustrades – many of which have been restored in bright vibrant colors. 

Portuguese architecture in Sao Tome

Portuguese style colonial tiled houses dot the coastline. It may not be uncommon for many residents, including me, to wake up to the sounds of waves lapping the shoreline.

The city center is the only place where there is a mild buzz. Teenagers sporting caps and nicely suited white-collar workers mingle together. Healthy looking and chirpy school children with braided hair can be seen buying stuff from street vendors and mothers with babies slung behind their backs walking with unhurried languid ease. Bright yellow taxis jostle for space with motorbikes and shabby-looking jeeps. Moneychangers and telephone card sellers squat on street corners, while shoppers haggle with a variety of street vendors. It is a common sight to see women selling huge tuna fish in cane baskets.

Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

Despite their modest means, crime is low in the city. Sao Tomeans are very unassuming, uncomplicated, amiable, and respectful. They spontaneously greet everyone in the street with a wave of their hand or head or greet in Portuguese. The men and women look pleasant and agile in their T-Shirts, shorts, and skirts. Very few dress formally.

Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

What is noticeable is the exceptionally high skill level of their carpenters, electricians, gardeners, painters, and those in other vocations. The city has several tiny shops and galleries that display exquisite traditional wood carvings, mask making, jewelry from seashells, paintings, and traditional ornaments.

Though Sao Tome depends heavily on external aid, it enjoys high social indicators. At 71 years, STP’s life expectancy is higher than its neighbors.  The literacy rate is 93%, while 97% of its population has access to improved water sources. 87% of its urban populace has access to electricity. It is another matter that the whole country runs on a giant generator.

Also Read: MEA Appoints Raghu Gururaj As The Next Ambassador To Sao Tome and Principe

The economy of Sao Tome is heavily dependent on agricultural exports and tourism.  Despite its undeniable appeal as a tourist destination, Sao Tome and Principe remain one of the world’s least-visited countries.  This can be attributed to its remote location, lack of connectivity, and visibility. But if you are looking to balance your vital health indicators and doshas, Sao Tome is the place to be.  


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