As we drove along a desolate highway-- three immaculately paved lanes in each direction with well-manicured flower beds down the center-- I couldn’t help but be struck by the major gap in wealth that divides the country of Equatorial Guinea. Off to the right we caught glimpses of Sipopo, a community of 52 luxury villas that were built for a one-week conference of African presidents. The mansions sit empty now, reminding me of the Victor’s Village in The Hunger Games: a cluster of opulence within a country that has 60-70% of its population living at or below poverty. We passed hundreds of apartments that were probably built for the 2012 African Cup, but are vacant without a pricetag that locals can afford. Oil money has allowed the government and outside investors to profit, yet our project site didn’t even have running water or city electric.
For a country with so many foreigners coming to profit off of the oil, I was shocked at the carelessness of the airport. Upon arrival from Gabon our temperatures were taken and hand sanitizer applied before we could enter the country. That was good. They were doing their part to prevent the spread of Ebola. But before our first in-country flight we walked through a security checkpoint with a non-functioning metal detector and no airport employees to be seen. When our flight was called we were herded down several winding corridors to the tarmac where we boarded the plane and grabbed whatever seat we wanted. On our second in-country flight we stood in chaotic line to have our tickets handwritten for us. Afterwards, our three missionary hosts were allowed to bypass security and accompany us to our gate. In fact...some African travelers didn’t even have to go through security. Of course they stopped us suspicious foreigners.
Although most of our cultural experiences happened en route, our time on site did allow for a few moments unique to Equatorial Guinea. My favorite was when our cook strolled up carrying a live crocodile in her purse. Upon seeing our bewildered faces she plopped down her bag and pulled it out for us to see. After we pet it and took a few photos...she just put it right back in and walked off to the kitchen like it was no big deal. Later we all tried the croc...and then passed it to the Africans who thoroughly enjoyed the delicacy.
Another special moment was the nightly worship of the seminary students. For a half hour every evening they would take a break to sing and play instruments before returning to class. It was great to hear a Spanish version of How Great Thou Art, right after we had heard a French version in Gabon!
Overall, we only had 2 1/2 days on site to survey and master plan the seminary’s less-than 2 acre site. Our process had a unique dynamic, as three of their four directors are local nationals. Meetings had to be translated between Spanish and English, and thus took twice as long. As we worked through designs with the ministry we began to notice a few things that were truly unique to the Equatorial Guinean context. First, we discussed a building at the back of the site that was literally cut in half by a CMU wall. It was explained to us that a Senator owned the property to the rear and built the wall where he wanted it...reducing the length of the seminary’s property by several meters. Nonetheless, a new road was constructed at the front of the property several meters forward of the previous road and actually allotted them more land. In addition to the strange property conventions, the ministry insisted on a multi-level structure at the front of the property. We assumed this was meant as a status symbol, a common wish amongst our African clients, but that isn’t what we were told. According to the directors, the government will seize property without a significant presence on the main street because they are considered to be making poor use of the land.
|Existing Education Center|
|Existing Education Center|
It was truly astounding to see so many visible impacts of a corrupt government. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the disparity between rich and poor as clearly as I did in Equatorial Guinea. At the same time, however, the ministry was one of the most joyous that I’ve worked with. The directors were constantly joking around and truly committed to improving the lives of their students and the communities they reach. I am hopeful that our buildings will allow the ministry to “make good use of their land” and allow them to keep what is rightfully theirs. I am proud that EMI could go to design a world of hope.