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Thursday, December 8, 2022

Sao Tome’s Unique Cultural Traditions

The island's diverse population heralded the emergence of a hybrid European-Creole culture

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

SAO TOME and PRINCIPE: Tucked away at the far end of the African mainland, the remote islands of Sao Tome and Principe present interesting cultural traditions. In many ways, they have been largely influenced by the origins of different strands of early Sao Tome society and colonization since the time Portuguese explorers landed on these empty islands in 1475.

Among the other early settlers were a sizable number of Jewish children who were forcibly separated from their parents and converted to Christianity. There was also a small group of exiled convicts.

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Upon landing, the first Portuguese settlers were confronted with the multiple challenges of an alien climate and diseases. With no farming experience, they could not produce crops. They brought African people from Congo, Cape Verde, Benin, Angola, and Mozambique, who were forced into sugar, banana, and cocoa plantations as bonded labourers. Soon, Sao Tome also became a transit point for the slave trade to other countries.

The Jewish settlers married African female labourers from the plantations. When a royal decree from Portugal accorded free status to all Jewish settlers and the African women married to them, they assumed a separate identity as the children of the land. As Luso Africans, they formed a core component of a future hybrid Sao Tome society. The anti-slavery law of the 16th century created the Forros, a distinct group of liberated African plantation slaves.

Hybrid European-Creole culture

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The island’s diverse population heralded the emergence of a hybrid European-Creole culture. But the formation of national identity took concrete shape only in the 19th century, with the decline in the importance of the plantation economy and the gradual blurring of ethnic and racial distinctions.

The legacy of Portuguese rule is visible in the culture and customs of Sao Tomean Creole society at many levels. The most obvious is the Portuguese language, which is widely spoken. The Forro, the Luso-African Creole language, is also popular and contains many Portuguese words.

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Christianity is the other major Portuguese influence, where the holy cross, the Trinity, and some emblems of Portuguese royalty are national symbols even today. Symbols of local African cults and rituals, such as red cloth, iron, and wooden dolls, have an equally important place in local society.

Unique blend of African and Portuguese cultures in arts

The performing arts and theatre of Sao Tome are classic examples of the synthesis between African and Portuguese cultures. The Danço Congo is a popular dance theatre form, known for its highly expressive choreography, colourful costumes, and almost frenetic movements. Usually performed on festive occasions, this art form was brought to Sao Tomé by Congolese workers in the 16th century. In those days, it was not so much favoured by the colonialists as they felt it was too crude.

Photo Credit: Sao Tome and Principe tourism department

Tchiloli, the most popular theatre tradition of Sao Tome, is a localised theatre form adapted from the mediaeval Portuguese drama of the Tragedy of Charlemagne. It was introduced by the barons of sugar plantations for their entertainment. 

Photo Credit: Sao Tome and Principe Tourism department

With the adaptation of some local elements, such as costumes and choreography, it evolved into an Africanized performing art. The rhythms of their other local dances were influenced by Portuguese ballroom dancing.

Similarly, city architecture bears a pronounced Portuguese character. The city is replete with buildings of colonial architecture, so reminiscent of other Portuguese colonies like Goa. The Santomean cuisine exhibits the influence of the culinary traditions of Africa and Portugal. Since the local cuisine has developed around the products locally available, such as tropical fruits, beans, taro, maize, fish, etc., the African influence is more pronounced.

But there are areas where Portuguese influence has been minimal. Sao Tome’s music has retained a strong local character. The trailblazers of Sao Tome music were the Leoninos band of the early sixties. Before its independence in 1975, the group was banned for a while for its perceived anti-colonial tenor. But soon, it evolved into a popular band and was considered the voice of the people of Sao Tome in the 80s. 

Sao Tome’s Rumba music, fondly called MamaJumba by the locals, is authentic, with roots in Mozambique. The popular arts and crafts of Sao Tome, like a landscape painting, wood carving, mask-making, basket weaving, etc., are purely African and bear no Portuguese influence.

One would expect that their close association with the Portuguese at a human level over the centuries would have totally influenced their social customs and daily life. That is not really the case. Even though the African tribal belief system coexists with Christian values, their cultural mores are more influenced by their African descendants from many countries. 

The polygamy culture in Sao Tome

Sao Tomé is still a society where polygamy is not uncommon and polyandry is widely accepted. There is really no stigma attached to these two conjugal arrangements. Other aspects, like households headed by castaway women, women’s abuse, cultural mores, loose wedlock, children born outside marriages, etc., characterize the local society.

Sao Tomean society had a positive impact on Portuguese colonization, providing stability and social order, which is manifest today in relatively healthy social indicators. Almost 40 percent of the total workforce in Sao Tome is comprised of women. They enjoy a lot more personal freedom and better social status than women in many other African countries. Female employment relative to the population ratio is almost 30%, while women represent 41% of the total workforce. While the woman of Sao Tome bears a lot of responsibility, she also has a lot of power in her personal life.

Photo Credit: Instagram

In modern times, Portugal has become a strategic partner for Sao Tomé and Principe. As a founding member state of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries, Sao Tome will benefit from its association with Portugal and its association with Lusophone countries.

Also Read: The Quiet Women Revolution in Sao Tome


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