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The Bite and the Embrace

A Letter from Malabo

by Recaredo Silebo Boturu.

I’m writing from here in the city of Clarence, or, if you prefer it, Santa Isabel, or, if it’s more comfortable, the city of Malabo. I am here in this tiny city surrounded by greenery and filled with shantytowns and apartment buildings, entrenched and choking from the heat and the stench. It’s a city whose seas and coasts are being strangled by the hand of a lethal enemy that insults their splendour with what is called development.

I am in Malabo, where the oil industry is booming. Africa is apparently rising, but it’s hard to see here at sea level. Malabo has always stood apart from cities elsewhere on the continent. Maybe it’s because this is the capital of the only African country that uses the language of Cervantes as its means of communication. The origin of the city’s name, however, points to a history deeper than colonialism. Malabo pays homage to the last Bubi King. The Bubis were the first to arrive on the island of Bioko, but now Fangs, Annobonese, Bisios and Ndowés also inhabit Malabo. On the streets, the language of El Príncipe de los Ingenios (The Prince of Wits), the author of Don Quixote, competes with the local languages and Pichi, a creole born of the slaves of Sierra Leone…

Malabo is a city that both bites and embraces you. It drowns you and takes you in. It is a city heaving under the concentration of many nationalities, swimming through the mud, trying to catch a whiff of the petroleum’s fumes and its new-found promise of wealth. But it also has a lot of history. Like other cities, Malabo has an old town that is slowly being destroyed in the name of modernity. The names of Malabo’s streets make historical references, but its inhabitants and taxi drivers don’t know the streets’ names so when someone wants to go somewhere they refer to some church, some business headquarters, some ministry.

I wouldn’t be able to tell you the name of the street I’m currently standing on. Instead I would highlight some landmarks, describe the scene. I would say from the street I’m standing on I can see a Bugatti with no licence plate racing toward its destination. I can see a truck filled with 20 Chinese men in orange overalls attempting to hide their tired brows and friendless faces from the sun with their small hats.

Maybe I would tell you about the woman. She is on the other side of the street, dressed in popo, with a little boy strapped on her back. I recognise her. She is the woman who sells beignets and juice on the streets of Malabo. I’ll catch her later, but for now my eyes wander further to where some labourers are raising a ruckus. They’re trying to close down part of the highway, so as to fix a sewer, without being run over. The matter is urgent, the sewer has been spitting up faeces for two months, but the disgruntled motorists in their motorised piles of junk have their own urgencies.

One street away, I can hear a fire engine’s siren, probably hurrying on its way to put out the flames of the fire that has devoured one of the many wooden makeshifts that line the roads. Fires in the city are almost as constant as the “publicity” posters that line the streets: always the same man, the same name and surname, with the same face but different poses, now happy, now stern, now proud, different posters with just one purpose. Nothing.

Today the posters are stern. Some commemorative event is approaching and that’s when all of society’s layers wake up. Officials are suddenly readily on hand, ordering the city’s inhabitants to tidy up, to paint their houses and sweep up the ashes from the fires. All this has to happen in the next 24 hours so that when the guests arrive they will find everything in order.

This is how it is in the city of Clarence, or, if you prefer it, Santa Isabel, or, if it’s more comfortable, the city of Malabo. This isn’t Texas, but there are a lot of people here who wander around with pistols on their hips. Malabo isn’t London, but many of its citizens show off their brand-name clothes and shoes, and the women wear aguacate, fake hair from some deceased Asian or someone who offered to cut theirs to sell it in exchange for a few dollars. Many girls wear fake eyelashes too. They flutter in the heat. Who do they hope to seduce in this city?

Malabo is nowhere and it’s the centre of the world. Here there are many businesses helmed by African brothers and sisters, Europeans, Americans and Asians. We, the natives of Malabo, seemingly can’t compete. We are told we don’t capitalise on tourism – our resources, our seas and coasts, our streets with historic names that no one knows. We don’t know how to sell our city. This is not true. Ask anyone from Malabo and they will tell you to come over and enjoy Malabo: its sunny days, its rainy days, its silent and noisy nights. Malabo at night smells like fish on the coals and Senegalese rice.

I love Malabo. If you make it here you will like it too. The face of the president will welcome you. If you are lucky he will be smiling. In Malabo you will find the Chinese workers, the foreign oil businessmen, and the girls with fake eyelashes. But you will also find a small welcoming community of artists. Come. We are easy to find. We are on the street, across from a woman dressed in popo, a burst sewer pipe, a stalled truck. Just follow the fire truck’s sirens.

Here in Malabo, we’re waiting for you.

covers togetherThis story features in the new edition of Chronic Books, the supplement to the Chronic. Through dispatches, features, interviews and reviews, we explore the reach of public relations and petrodollars.

To purchase in print or as a PDF head to our online shop. Copies coming to your nearest dealer now-now. Access to the whole issue and Chronic online archives is available for $28 for one year or $7 for a month.

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