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Will time spare the cocoa plantations of Sao Tome and Principe?

From the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century, the cocoa and coffee plantations were at their zenith.

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End times: Will time spare the cocoa plantations of Sao Tome and Principe?

“In the old days, you would open the door, and it would be a hive of activity. Now it’s all closed down,” sighs 89-year-old Agida Lucia.

She gazes down a paved road winding through the vegetation, and a smile returns to her lips as the memories flood back.

“Over there was the canteen. Up there, the foreman’s office. There was a terrace and a big house. There were the seamstresses, the hospital, the cinema -it was grand.”

Time has not been kind to Agostinho Neto, where once cocoa was shipped out to the world.

From the end of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century, the 30 cocoa and coffee “rocas” (pronounced ro-ssas), or plantations, on Sao Tome and Principe were at their zenith.

Before World War I, the rocky Portuguese-ruled archipelago in the Gulf of Guinea, off the western coast, was the world’s leading cocoa exporter. 

“There were 20,000 inhabitants in the villages and 33,000 living in the rocas, which had immense economic and political power,” said Fernando d’Alva, a historian and professor at the University of Sao Tome and Principe (USTP).

“The rocas were perfectly organised. People lived better inside them than outside, they had electricity, medical care, the railway and luxuries — as well as a well-oiled feudal system.” 

Independence

No Sao Tomeans worked on the plantations themselves but some did hold management positions. 

The rocas’ agricultural workers came from other African nations, as Sao Tome had a steady supply of slaves passing through as the last staging post on the trade route before ships left for the Americas.

After the slave trade was abolished in 1876, the workers became “contract” employees, brought -often by force – from mainland colonies Angola and Mozambique, as well as Gabon and the Congo.

Independence came to Sao Tome and Principe in July 1975, 14 months after a movement among officers in the Portuguese armed forces led to a military coup in Lisbon toppling an authoritarian regime in favour of democracy.  

It is hard to match the state of the plantation today in what is now one of the poorest countries in the world with the glorious recollections conjured up by an elderly former employee.

Whatever is left of the prosperous past has been looted or is rotting away as the forest takes over.

“In the old days, we would work a lot, but we could eat every day,” recalled Lucia, who is of Angolan origin.

“Today, everyone lives their own life, nobody helps each other. We live here like animals -if you have nobody to give you food, you die of starvation.”

While her 19-year-old granddaughter Sheila prepares snails for eating, the old lady fancies that “things could go back to how they were, that the Portuguese return.”

Sheila expresses nostalgia for this past she never knew, saying that she would like to study law and fight for “heritage”.

That heritage would include the hospital, described by another resident with a motorbike-taxi as “one of the best on Sao Tome… The state’s to blame for doing nothing to keep it in shape.”

Abandoned

Former workers now live in what is left of the hospital building. Its roof is crumbling and tiles and whole walls in adjoining buildings have disappeared.

“People come and cart off bits of roof, beams, walls and then they say it is the state’s fault,” says Willy, who escorts visitors around the site in exchange for a few dobras, the local currency.

After Sao Tome gained independence in 1975, its new Socialist regime nationalised the rocas.

The decision -which coincided with rising competition from former British and French colonies on mainland West Africa -was disastrous.

“It didn’t work, the skills were lacking and there were too few technicians who understood the production methods,” said historian D’Alva.

Once multiparty politics was introduced in 1991 and liberal economics followed, the state offered concession agreements to the private sector on plantations. Some found takers, but Agostinho Neto was among those left to rot.

For the 1,300 people still living on the roca, there is a glimmer of hope. In March, the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP) announced a plan to refurbish the rocas.

Lucia and her granddaughter remain to be convinced.

“They’ve often said that things will change. But we’re still waiting,” said the old lady.

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Malawi’s gay community – a tale of fear and stigma

Most Malawians are Christian or Muslim, with religious education that often describes homosexuality as taboo or a sin.

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Malawi's gay community - a tale of fear and stigma

Fearing persecution after being outed as gay, Adil fled Malawi.

Leaving behind his well-off Muslim family and four-year-old son, he headed for South Africa, where he became a sex worker to survive.

“The laws that we have in Malawi are incriminating. I wanted to get away from here. I had to take my chances,” the 29-year-old told AFP. His full name is withheld for fear of homophobic retribution.

For two years Adil laboured as a male sex worker in the tough streets of downtown Johannesburg, eventually returning home.

His case highlights the problems in Malawi, a holdout in southern Africa where legal liberalisation for gays is otherwise gaining speed.

Botswana this week joined Angola, Mozambique, Seychelles and South Africa on the path towards decriminalising homosexuality, with a verdict by its High Court to scrap decades-old anti-gay laws.

These landmark cases “set an important framework… which will hopefully be emulated elsewhere in Africa,” Anneke Meerkotter of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) told AFP.

But “hopefully” is the key word. Elsewhere on the continent, the picture is quite different.

Last month, Kenya’s High Court upheld laws punishing “carnal knowledge… against the order of nature” by up to 14 years in jail. Chad and Uganda have also introduced or toughened legislation.

‘Unnatural offence’

In Malawi, a conservative religious country, the situation seems particularly entrenched, say campaigners.

Its penal code expressly criminalises same-sex relations as an “unnatural offence”, punishable by up to 14 years in prison. 

Human Rights Watch (HRW) last October said Malawi’s laws fuelled a climate of fear, arbitrary arrest, violence and discrimination against gays. Many young people, like Adil, are cast out of their families because of their sexual orientation.

Gay rights burst into the news in 2010 when a couple was jailed for gross indecency after holding the country’s first same-sex public “wedding”.

Then president Bingu wa Mutharika said the pair had committed a crime against Malawi’s culture, religion and laws. He later pardoned them on “humanitarian grounds” after a meeting with the UN secretary general.

When Joyce Banda succeeded him as president in 2012, she promised widespread reforms to the colonial-era legislation and even announced a moratorium on arrests for those breaking laws that criminalise consensual same-sex conduct.  

‘Ignored’

But after Banda lost a 2014 bid to stay on as president, these gains were reversed, say campaigners.

Under Bingu wa’s brother Peter Mutharika, who recently won his second presidential term in office, “this group of people have just tended to be ignored,” gender activist Beatrice Mateyo said.

Activists have been waiting since 2013 for the courts to set a date for a hearing to repeal the anti-gay laws.

“Malawi has several court cases that are lying in the courts and we hope the case scenario of Botswana is also going to inform the legal processes here in Malawi,” Gift Trapence, head of Malawian rights group Centre for the Development of People (CEDEP) told AFP.

Mateyo believes religious conservatism has played a core part in perpetuating stereotypes and anti-gay hostility.

Most of the 18 million people in Malawi are Christian or Muslim, whose religious education often describes homosexuality as taboo or a sin.

In 2016, about 3,000 Christians marched through Blantyre and Lilongwe, carrying signs saying “Homosexuality is abomination”. 

“We are seen as a God-fearing nation, so society tends to skew towards religion where you are seen as a sinner… And if you are of a different sexuality then you are perceived as a sinner,” Mateyo said.

People who are not heterosexual, “will rather remain in the closet — hidden.”

“For the very few people that are open, life is very difficult because people tend to label them.”

‘Just want to be safe’

Twenty-eight-year-old Sarah, a lesbian who is also intersex, meaning there is no self-assignment to gender, said everyday tasks in Malawi were like walking on eggshells.

“I’m scared of being attacked, even in public spaces,” said Sarah. “You go to the bank, they look at your ID… you have to prove that you’re this particular sex that was assigned to you at birth.”

Sarah has a three-month-old relationship with a local woman but said, “I cannot take her to the local market to buy vegetables because that’s going to start another issue.”

CEDP, working with activists, set up four drop-in centres in Lilongwe, Blantyre, Mzuzu and Mangochi in 2016.

Equipped with a recreation room, gym, large kitchen, medical centre and 24-hour security, the centres support around 2,000 people.

“When we are here, we know each other,” a 27 year-old carpenter who declined to be named told AFP at the centre, his partner seated next to him.

Once a week, he walks 30 kilometres (20 miles) to the Lilongwe drop-in house to collect condoms, thus escaping condemnation by people in his neighbourhood.

Adil returned to Malawi after contracting HIV in South Africa. He was unable to stay there because as an illegal, he had no access to treatment.

The centre has been a haven of hope in Malawi, he said.

“In this space you can wear whatever you want, you can feel any way you want because this is the only safe space that you have.” 

“But out there it is hard.”

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Late Kenyan writer and human rights activist, Margaret Ogola gets Google doodle

After a protracted battle with cancer, the legendary humanitarian, writer, medic and nationalist succumbed to the illness in 2011.

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Late Kenyan writer and human rights activist, Margaret Ogola gets Google doodle

For many Kenyans, reading would not have been as engaging had they not bore witness to the sheer brilliance of Margaret Ogola.

“The River and the Source,” a required reading for the high school leaving national examinations (KCSE) from 1999 to 2004 offered a generation of young Kenyans nostalgia and immersion.

The main protagonist’s father, Chief Odero’s words sums the narrative of the lives of three generations of women in these words: “A home without daughters is like a spring without a source”

Departing from the mainstream narrative of servility, this book projects the spirit of strong African women, while focusing on Luo values and celebrating its cultural mores, from pre to postcolonial times. It won the 1995 Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature and the Commonwealth Writers Prize, Best First Book, Africa region.

Even before authoring her first book, Dr. Ogola was an accomplished woman. She juggled between her job as a pediatrician and the medical field serving in directorial positions at various NGOs focusing on HIV & AIDS at the peak of the scourge in the country.

This was in addition to writing three more books.

Her pertinent words at the Beijing conference in 1995 continue to ring true today as they did when she first spoke them.

In a conversation on the dignity of the African woman, she posits: “Unless we recognize that each individual is irreplaceable (sic) and valuable by virtue of simply being conceived human, we cannot begin to talk about human rights.

The accidental attributes that we acquire such as colour, sex, intelligence, economic circumstances, physical or mental disability should not be used as an excuse to deprive a person of life.”

After a protracted battle with cancer, the legendary humanitarian, writer, medic and nationalist succumbed to the illness in 2011.

On Sunday, 9th June, Google honoured her in what would have been her 60th birthday.

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Kenyans protest bid to build East Africa’s first coal plant

Campaigners argue the project is a costly and damaging venture that defeats the purpose of moving away from coal energy.

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Kenyans protest bid to build East Africa's first coal plant
Greenpeace and environmental activists hold a coffin reading "coal kills" and signs as they demonstrate in Nairobi against the construction of a coal power plant in Lamu on Kenya's coast, on June 12, 2019. (Photo by SIMON MAINA / AFP)

Scores of Kenyans on Wednesday protested against a project to build a coal power station near the Lamu archipelago, a popular tourist spot that includes a UNESCO World Heritage site and boasts vibrant marine life.

The power station, which has been in the planning stages for about six years, has faced fierce resistance from activists, local communities, and the National Environmental Tribunal is to rule on June 24 on the fate of the project.

A group of about 200 protesters carrying black coffins emblazoned with white skulls, as well as a miniature chimney spewing smoke, marched through downtown Nairobi on Wednesday chanting “coal is poisonous!”

“There is no need to build centralised dirty sources of energy such as coal to answer Kenya’s energy demands, especially when the country is taking the lead in Africa with an 85-per cent renewable energy base,” said deCOALonize Campaign Coordinator, Omar Elmawi.

“With access to wind, solar, geo-thermal and tidal energy sources, Kenya’s renewable energy potential is cost-efficient and causes no harm to the people and environment.”

Campaigners argue the project is a costly and damaging venture that makes little sense at a time when most of the world is turning away from coal plants and investing in increasingly cheaper renewable energies.

“Countries are divesting away from coal and even China is moving away from coal investment towards renewable energy,” Greenpeace representative Fredrick Njehu commented.

However the government sees it as a way to spur economic growth, create jobs, and ensure Kenya’s energy supply in the future.

The bulk of the $2 billion project is being financed by China and it will be built by Amu Power, a joint venture between a Kenyan firm and Gulf Energy. Construction will be carried out by China Power Global.

Campaigners are also alarmed over Kenya’s rising debt, which currently stands at around $50 billion of which over $6 billion is owed to China.

Activists march in Nairobi, carrying placards bearing messages to denounce plans by the Kenyan government to mine coal close to the pristine coastal archipelago of Lamu. (Photo by TONY KARUMBA / AFP)

Experts have raised serious concerns about the project.

The US-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) this week released a report warning that due to a series of miscalculations, electricity from the plant will cost consumers 10 times more than estimated.

Related: Electricity supply from Lamu Power Plant could cost more than originally estimated

The report entitled “The Wrong Choice For Kenya” said the 981-megawatt facility would be a “costly error” for the country, with the 25-year contract requiring payment of $360 million annually even if no power is generated at the plant.

It says that Kenya’s energy demand growth has been much lower than estimated, due to lower than expected economic growth, and that if built the plant would be “grossly underutilised”.

“The government’s own analysis demonstrates that… Kenya’s abundant renewable resources render no new coal generation necessary in the country until 2029, at the earliest”.

Amu Power in a statement Wednesday described the report’s conclusions as “inaccurate” and said the plant would have a utilisation rate of 85 per cent.

It will be the first coal-fired power station in East Africa and will import coal from South Africa until Kenya begins its own mining operations.

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