Here I am, on this tiny island, as close as I will probably ever get to the centre of the earth, if it were flattened and spread out on the ground, like a map. São Tomé and Príncipe—two islands in the Gulf of Guinea—hug the equator and lie seven degrees off the prime meridian.
And yet, São Tomé is as far as it can get from the world we inhabit. There is no regular supply of daily international newspapers, the buildings have the worn out look of decaying post-colonial grandeur of provincial towns, the street lights often don’t work and most roads are empty at night. You can see the stars easily at night, because glimmering city lights don’t brighten the sky.
São Tomé was named after Saint Thomas by Portuguese explorers who discovered the island on his feast day
The world wants to help São Tomé. It is what the world calls a ‘Heavily Indebted Poor Country’, and enjoys favourable terms from international financial institutions so it can schedule its debt repayments without denying socio-economic benefits to its population of 160,000. Its debt burden is $300 million (approx. Rs1,180 crore, with a debt-to-GDP ratio of 600%), and it ranks 126th out of 177 countries measured by the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Index.
The island’s past is full of misery: Half a millennium ago, Christian clerics expelled Jewish children to São Tomé; there they worked on plantations with other slaves and indentured labourers brought from elsewhere in Africa. Slave ships leaving Angola for Senegal and Ghana, before crossing the Atlantic, sometimes stopped at São Tomé. British authorities accused the Portuguese government of using forced labour in São Tomé until the 1950s. The island became independent only in 1975; for 15 years, its deluded leaders opted for a Marxist government, which impoverished the island further. Coups, while not as spectacular as in other parts of Africa, are not unusual here; the week before I arrived, special forces police officers trained in Angola had rebelled, seeking certain payments they claimed were their due but were denied.
And yet, its people look outwardly happy. As elsewhere in West Africa, the Lebanese are present, running hotels and serving pita and shawarma. It attracts few tourists because many of its beaches are rocky, although a friend who went for a swim tells me the lagoon was fantastic. Santomeans—as the local people call themselves—still turn up by the dozens at the airport to see planes take off and land; a kind of miracle we take for granted but which still seems so rare in these parts.
São Tomé may suddenly become rich. Oil has been discovered in the Gulf of Guinea, and experts think this just might bring some prosperity to the islands. Signature bonuses signed by oil companies, even before a drop of commercially viable oil is found, have already dwarfed the country’s exports. Nobody wants São Tomé and Príncipe to become like neighbouring Nigeria, where 50 years of oil production have left the country poorer than it was at the time of its independence. Using wealth from natural resources wisely to benefit the people is the new development mantra.
Peripatetic poverty-buster Jeffrey Sachs has visited these parts, leaving his mark in a state-of-the-art law that sets up an oversight committee and requires strict auditing requirements. Sustained consultation with the local community is part of the bargain. All very sensible.
We are at a workshop on oil revenue management. And then, Mangae gets up. Mangae comes from the district of Caue—the island’s largest, but sparsely populated—with hardly any motorable road. She says: “You want me to navigate the Internet, but the only thing I know how to navigate is the sea. You want me to participate in consultations, but the only consultation I know is with my doctor when my child is sick.”
Just as the laughter and applause die down, the lights go off in the hall. And we are meeting in the National Assembly. I step out, and look outside the corridor; it is pitch dark everywhere. Eventually, lights return, but the meeting has disbanded for the day.
We make a major assumption when we think that merely because something is available on the World Wide Web, it is accessible to everyone, everywhere, all the time. Mangae reminds us why that is not so. The problem is not of Internet access. My hotel has wireless Internet access which connects me, albeit slowly, to the world. In the lobby of the premier hotel in town, I constantly hear the trilling sounds of Nokia’s ubiquitous ringtone and the start-up gong of the Windows operating system. In such surroundings, it is easy to confuse the world as one. Mangae reminds me of the other world.
The issue is not merely one of digital divide and fixing it by handing out cheap laptops or cellphones that act as computers or providing a laptop for every child. To use the laptop, the child needs education. But she also needs electricity to charge the battery, and electricity costs money; it does not appear, wireless, magically, inside the laptop.
By placing information, products, ideas, discussions and materials on the Web, as many businesses, individuals and international organizations now do, they may assume, smugly, that they’ve talked to the whole world. But they have only talked to people like us.
And then there are people like them. Like that lonely fisherman I see, sailing away from the bay, as the sun rises. He will be happy if he finds some barracuda, unless some fishing trawlers from the developed world have already preyed on his shore. He would like to talk to us if we’ll listen. But he doesn’t have an email address; he doesn’t do Skype; and he can’t navigate the Internet. But he sure knows how to navigate the sea.
Write to Salil at email@example.com