Equatorial Guinea

Original memories by Paolo C. - Words by Ilenia Gatti

* The interviewee prefered not to share a photo of himself. Photo courtesy of the interviewee Paolo C.
There’s a fine line dividing my travels for work and my journeys for the sake of enchanting photography. When I travel to take photographs, I always strive for destinations (often predictable) where people can transmit feelings, emotions and pathos through their faces and expressions. When I was invited to Equatorial Guinea for work, I expected to find an empty place, where nothingness takes over, a dry container with no suggestions or splendour. But sometimes, what makes a place great are the little details that most people neglect. I landed in Malabo, Guinea’s politic capital on the north coast of the island of Bioko, at night, in a blanket of thick unbreathable air. The airport was full of soldiers, and the majority of the structure was a clay court. Inside the spaces of the airport, old cars and tractors with tanks attached on top for the unloading of goods were driving around, as if the rooms were open streets. We were taken to a private lounge furnished in a full 60s style, with a small fridge full of drinks. We were greeted by a soldier who took us on a military twin-engined plane with a Russian pilot. There was only one cabin, divided by a red curtain into the cockpit and the passengers’ seats. I felt like I was in one of Mr. No’s comic strips. We travel during the night for about half an hour, and from the window I could glimpse the mountains underneath me. We land in Bata, the largest city of Guinea. As we got off, we were immediately taken to a small bus. The bus drives us to the hotel. A four-star hotel, which to our European standards was unclassifiable. The staff was very friendly and polite: probably just a façade because we were the President’s guests. The only perk of the hotel was that it was exposed to the beach, where single-fruit pineapple plants and coconut trees were the only inhabitants. A compact beach, which on view looked solid and pressed. A trompe l’oeil. When I touched it, it was the thinnest and most inconsistent sand I had ever had between my hands: these granules of a light-Havana colour swept away from my fingers in a matter of seconds. The beach expanded for miles, with not a living soul in sight. It was an empty terrestrial paradise. The only sign of human life resided in the small and rare rudimentary fishing boats offshore. Although taking photos there is forbidden, I could not help but get out my camera and take a few cheeky snaps. The hotel was 1km away from the city, and outside there was a small pub which pumped up the music at every time of the day and night.
Not too far away from that paradisiac beach, there were the streets with “U” shaped open air sewers full of pipes. Here and there, some fish stalls, where the food was scattered on the asphalt over a punched cloth. We never ate raw food for the whole time we were there. Even water, in order to be drinkable, had to be warmed up. The city is a jumble of self-built houses and improvised scaffoldings, with stakes of kneaded sand, used to construct the buildings. The predominant colour is cement, however most of the houses are immersed in the jungle, which is right after the city centre. In there, is a bit more modern. The city centre looks like Havana, with small shops selling every possible thing: from food, to clothes and toilets all together. The cars are fairly new and in good condition, predominantly Toyota’s. None of them have a licence plate, but they are equipped with massive stereophonic systems, almost like the car of a ghetto rapper. Of course, having a driving licence is a mirage. We were on a taxi one day, and at one point the police stops us for a check. The driver got out of the car, and without providing any document or saying a word, he lay down on top of the bonnet, arms out in front of him. His pockets, clothes, shoes were searched, and when the police let him go, he got on board and continues driving. People are cordial here, but their eyes show fear: the city is chaotic, intimidating, and under electoral campaign, not even the propagandist t-shirts that some people wear contribute to lightening the atmosphere. Fear of uncertainty. Fear of cruelty. Fear of humanity. Entering the suburbs, if you’re white, is too dangerous. We desist. From the uplands, at the end of the city and just before the arduous jungle, you can see the American villages: a completely different scenery from the sequence beach-city-jungle met so far. Here the sequence goes like a chessboard: terraced house-garden-swimming pool. Three steps ahead towards a conformed modernity. From the plane, the colours of Africa are never the same, never boring. They go from the bright yellow of the desert to the scarlet red of the sands. Intense, never ordinary, never predictable. A bit like Africa itself: the land of commonplaces that gets destroyed in the details. Now I understand, where my African bug comes from.