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Monday, February 26, 2024

Sao Tome and Principe: The Hidden Gem of Africa

São Tomé is one of the first African countries to adopt democratic reforms and constitution

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

SAO TOME and PRINCIPE: Despite being one of the most naturally endowed and beautiful volcanic islands in the world, São Tomé and Príncipe, located off the coast of the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa, remains one of the world’s least-visited countries. This can be attributed to its remote location, lack of connectivity and visibility.

In 2018, a little over 30,000 and in subsequent years, between 8000 to 12,000 tourists visited these islands. 

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However, of late, these islands are emerging from under the radar to become relatively more visible. This is primarily because the few tourists who visited have gone back completely charmed by them. They have written glowing articles, travelogues and blogs about the immense biodiversity, pristine beaches, natural wonders and the simplicity of daily life of the twin islands.

But, in addition to the much-touted touristic features of this country, there are many unique and little-known fun facts about these islands that fascinate me during my stay here, which might interest readers and future visitors.

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I found the islands intriguing and somewhat un-African in many ways. For one thing, there are no traffic jams on the street. The only noise pollution comes from the constant chirping of birds and the incessant sound of waves across the city. Portuguese culture’s obvious heavy influence on their daily lives and the architecture, being its former colony.

Apart from being one of the least visited countries, São Tomé and Príncipe is also the second-smallest and second-least populous country in the African continent, after Seychelles. Nine out of ten people live on Sao tome island, with just 6% out of the total population of 220,000 inhabiting the other island of Principe.

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A diverse population

The population of Sao Tome does not have any original native inhabitants. It comprises populations of slave ancestry largely. When the Portuguese first colonized the islands in the 1480s, the land was considered undesirable terrain since disease and food shortages were rife at the time. Slaves were picked from as far as Angola (a Portuguese colony), Mozambique, Cape Verde and Guinea and encouraged to populate the island. Interracial marriages were actively encouraged between them and the Portuguese Jews. 

Today, the population is relatively diverse and has a unique mix of the ‘Mestizos’ (people of mixed heritage, people of Angolan descent, Europeans (predominantly of Portuguese heritage) and Asians, largely of Chinese descent from Macau.

The Portuguese explorers named the island of Sao Tome after Saint Thomas as they arrived on the island on Saint Thomas’ Day. It is one of the few Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa, with Portuguese as its official language.

Tiny Sao tome was once the largest sugar producer

During the 16th century, São Tomé was briefly the world’s largest sugar producer. But the rise of Brazil as a major producer and its poor quality of sugar led to the decline of this sector. Many of the workers involved in sugar production were Jewish individuals who got expelled from Europe and slaves imported from the African mainland.

The African Galapagos

Due to its high density of endemic species, São Tomé and Príncipe have been nicknamed “the African Galápagos”. São Tomé and Príncipe is an authentic reserve of biodiversity, boasting of at least 148 types of endemic plant species, which is a paradise for researchers in pharmacology. 

Photo Credit: Youtube

Relative to its tiny geographical size and the small number of bird species in these islands (about 140), their rate of endemism is 28%, the highest in the world. It means that almost 1/3rd of its bird species are exclusive to Sao tome and Principe and do not exist anywhere else in the world. For example, one of its unique birds is the world’s smallest ibis. Sao Tome is home to the world’s largest sunbird.

The whole island is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve

São Tomé and Príncipe is one of 27 countries that does not have a single UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nor does it have a single property on the UN Tentative List of sites on its shores. However, the entire island of Príncipe and its surrounding islets has been designated as a UNESCO biosphere reserve because of its wide range of terrestrial and marine biodiversity, including a number of endemic species of plants, molluscs, insects, birds, reptiles and bats. It is also a refuge for marine life such as sea turtles, seabirds, cetaceans and coral reefs.

Another interesting piece of information is that the famous Obô Natural Park is about 300 sq km and represents 30% of the entire country. 

Sao Tome, unlike mainland Africa, does not have large dangerous animals like rhinos, lions, leopards or hyenas. However, its most threatening animal is the Santomean mosquito, which spreads malaria and kills thousands annually. 

Unique story of Sao Tome’s flag

The flag of São Tomé and Príncipe conveys many things. It has three horizontal lines of green, yellow and green, with two black stars to the far right and a red triangle to the far left. The green stands for the country’s rich vegetation, and the yellow represents cocoa, the country’s main agricultural export. 

The red flag symbolizes the nation’s fight for independence, and the two black stars denote the two islands.

The locals have a strange nomenclature to describe their annual climatic seasons. They call the dry season “less wet season”. A sharp downpour is called “shark rain”, which is a violent and strong rain that happens without warning. A thin but persistent rain is called “woman rain”.

Photo Credit: unsplash

First African country to adopt democracy

São Tomé is one of the first African countries to adopt democratic reforms and constitution. It is also the first country in Africa to adopt multiparty democracy in 1990. 

Despite its enviable natural beauty, Sao Tome and Principe remain a developing nation. The World Bank estimates that around a third of its 220,000 citizens survive on less than $1.90 per day.

But if one is looking to balance their vital health indicators and for a genuine break from a hectic modern-day life, Sao Tome is the place to be.

Also Read: The Lush Mangrove Forests of Sao Tome and Principe


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