Bring on the Elephants

So the dream continues. The Nzalang have navigated their way safely through the group stage thanks to euphoric victories over Senegal and Libya and a disappointing defeat to Zambia. The Elephants from the Ivory Coast, the strong favourites to win the tournament now wait for the boys in red on Saturday.

The levels of anticipation couldn’t be any higher in the capital, Malabo, where the game will be played to a packed stadium.

The last 10 festive days have whipped the country up into a near delirious state. Few could have expected such a festival of football or the delicious victories, which have planted a surreal sense of optimism in the team, especially given its lowly ranking at 151 in the world. The enthusiasm behind the team has made a mockery of the rankings and the momentum behind the Nzalang has invaded the small nation, now totally focused on the next game.

Surely they won’t be able to pull off the shock of beating the team led by Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, Kolo Toure and Yaya Toure?

Together these football superstars earn more in a week at Chelsea and Manchester City than the entire Nzalang first team earns in a year.

The generous $1m bonus paid to the Nzlang for their extraordinary victory over Libya is a weekly occurrence for these four premier league superstars.

The odds are stacked against the Nzalang but who would bet against another miracle. Through application anything is possible and its the ‘can-do’ attitude that has invaded the country that has been the most incredible result in this topsy-turvy tournament.

Vamos Nzalang.

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Vamos Nzalang

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Few could have expected such a wonderful atmosphere and a fantastic response from Equatorial Guinea’s national football team – the Nzalang on the opening game of the Africa Cup of Nations in Bata.

The country is flying after its national team beat Libya 1-0 in the first game of the tournament being jointly hosted by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.

It has been a whirlwind few days in Malabo and Bata as the preparations for the tournament reached their culmination.

Teams have been arriving from all over Africa over the last few days, with Northern Sudan, Libya, and Burkina Faso based in Malabo.

With many of the traditional Goliaths of African football missing – Cameroon, Nigeria and South Africa – there is a feeling that it could be the year that the smaller nations, the David’s of the continent, make a mark on the bi-annual tournament.

The opening games were no exception with the players selected by Brazilian coach, Gílson Paulo, responding accordingly.

Ranked 151st in the world, few outsiders expected Equatorial Guinea to make much of an impression in their first appearance in the tournament.

Losing their coach a month before the competition was not seen as the best way to prepare for their Cup of Nations debut but once again this country has managed to confound its critics.

The team fought like lions throughout and finally got the goal they deserved with five minutes left. Both the team and its passionate support have been walking on air ever since.

As if to underline the giant-killing atmosphere at this tournament little old Zambia, recorded a historic 2-1 victory over Senegal in the following game.

The stage was set for the team’s heroics by a glittering opening ceremony in the gloriously refurbished Nkoantoma stadium that left little doubt that this small nation was taking its responsibilities as the host nation seriously.

The 40,000 spectators lucky enough to get a ticket for the opening spectacle were treated to a cultural smorgasbord that included a two-hour concert that featured local artists Anfibio, Besoso, Poen, Sandra Star, Yuma and Pili la Peligrosa.

A generous offer of a $1m bonus for a win in the first game may have been at the back of the players’ minds, but a team put together at short notice was undoubtedly moved more by the uplifting atmosphere within the stadium and the outpouring of national pride that comes with such events.

I haven’t lived here long but there can’t have been many happier days in the country’s history than this one.

Long live the Nzalang! Bring on Senegal and Zambia.

Mongomo Gets A Spiritual Lift

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It is interesting to note how the petro-dollars flowing into Equatorial Guinea are finding their way to every corner of this small country.

As well as a construction boom in Malabo and the country’s second city, Bata, there are some remarkable projects underway in smaller cities like Mongomo to the east of Equatorial Guinea’s continental landmass.

Much of the development in this charming little town is linked to the president, Teodro Obiang’s personal association with the place.

The long-standing president was born here and travels frequently to Mongomo for more relaxed meetings with prominent figures from home and abroad and to be close to his family and fellow Fang tribesmen.

It is a special place for the country, rich in flora and fauna and boasting important areas of jungle that are home to the country’s important gorilla population, animals that demand a special place in the country’s collective psyche.

A similar story to that of Bata and Malabo is unfolding in Mongomo’s construction industry with key government buildings being developed in a bid to de-centralise decision making away from the island of Bioko.

In this vein, the South Korean giant, SsangYong Engineering & Construction, the company handed the task of building the Marina Bay Sands Hotel Complex in Singapore one of the world’s most stunning buildings, has been handed a contract to build a complex in the city that has been dubbed the Mongomo Leader’s Club.

Since last year, South Korean politicians have been regular visitors to the country lobbying for important construction contracts as well as a participation in oil and gas fields and a second LNG train from the island of Bioko.

The country’s diplomatic efforts have resulted in an important breakthrough in the construction sector with the Mongomo Leader’s Club set to become the first building constructed in Equatorial Guinea by a South Korean company.

The company reported that it received a construction contract worth US$77 million to build the club, which will occupy an area of 7,530 sq m, comprising two units, a four-storey structure and another separate two-storey building.

Fitted out on a par with the very best five-star hotels, including a reception room for the president’s exclusive use, a VVIP theatre with a capacity for 150 people, a beauty salon, a restaurant, a conference hall, a fitness centre, and a small casino. No expense will be spared with a build cost of approximately $10,500 per sq m.

Not far from the luxury complex is the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Mongomo, the latest addition to Equatorial Guinea’s rapidly expanding collection of landmark buildings.

The expansive baroque religious temple with a capacity to hold up to 8,000 people and an area of 2,000 sq m was constructed by the Italian company, Moquinen Venture, over a period of five years at a cost of €13.5 million.

Equatorial Guinea’s official religion has been Roman Catholic since 1883 and significant investments have been made to restore many of the country’s churches in the last decade. These government-funded improvements to churches and progress in the country’s record on human rights have helped overcome historical difficulties between the government and the Catholic Church HQ in the Vatican.

Nigerian cardinal Francis Arinze, the president of the Pontificate Council for Inter-religious dialogue, represented Pope Benedicto XVI at the inauguration ceremony, which was also attended by five Cardinals, 45 Bishops, and some 300 priests from Central African region.

On the same day, the country’s minister of public works, Demetrio Elo Ndong Nsefumu – one of the busiest men in the country judging by appearances at the opening of new buildings almost every day – managed to combine work with pleasure when he tied the knot with María Jesusa Nchama Asumu.

Time to Explore

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Adjusting to life in Africa has been fascinating, if a little hectic, but fortunately there are a host of interesting places to get away from the construction boom underway in Malabo and Bata.

While most of the country’s expatriate employees spend much of the their free time at the exclusive surroundings of the city of Sipopo, playing golf or enjoying the best beach on the island, there are many other places to visit in this small but diverse country.

Most of Equatorial Guinea’s 28,051 square kilometres of territory remains untouched by the country’s breakneck development, which means that there are some wonderful spots to get away from it all and savour its impressive natural reserves.

On the island of Bioko itself, the trip to the towering volcano, Pico Basile, that serves as the imposing backdrop to the city provides a welcome change.

Reaching heights of 3.011 metres allows you to pass through all the different variants of rainforest on display in this part of the world. If you make it to the top the 4,040 metres-high Mount Cameroon on the mainland of neighbouring Cameroon can be seen looking out over the east of the island on a clear day.

If it is beaches you’re looking for then the sun-kissed islands of Corisco and Annobon serve up a perfect change of scenery and a dramatic shift in the rhythm of life.

Efforts to develop these two islands as tourist destinations for the local population and international visitors have heralded important investments in infrastructure of late.

In the larger of the two islands, Annobon, a new airport was inaugurated in October 2010.

A new port has also been constructed as well as hotel infrastructure to help open the island up to tourism. In total, the government has invested $400m in Annobon’s development.

The 600 m extension to the airport’s runway allows it to receive airplanes as large as the Airbus A320 and helped reduce its reliance on Equatorial Guinea’s Djibloho, the ship that has kept cargo and people moving between the country’s remote territories for more than a decade.

The Djibloho, has become something of an institution for the country’s inhabitants shuttling them to and from the different corners of the country on a daily basis.

Equatorial Guinea’s local airline Ceiba now offers services to the island, which is located 595 km south-west of the island of Bioko and the capital, Malabo.

Following a similar approach a runway and high-end beach villas are being built on Corisco in time for the Cup of Nations. While Annobon boasts a small local population of about 1,900, Corisco has had little development or human populations of note until work started on a tourism complex last year.

It was not always the case and long-forgotten aspects of the country’s rich history have been uncovered in the race to make Corisco habitable once more.

Those planning a return to the island encountered archaeological evidence of its importance to early European visitors earlier this month when they discovered the archaeological remains of an abandoned port and village constructed by some of the first Europeans to arrive in Africa.

What could be the largest and oldest necropolis in central Africa is believed to date back more than 2,000 years and point to the presence of predecessors of the Portuguese who discovered the island of Annobon in 1472.

Along with its neighbouring islets Elobey Grande, Elobey Chico, Corisco, has for decades, been fiercely disputed by Equatorial Guinea and its neighbour, Gabon, more for their importance in defining the limits of both countries’ offshore oil reserves than their idyllic beaches.

But a realisation of the finite nature of the country’s oil riches and the untapped potential of tourism in the country has placed greater emphasis on the latter in recent years. Beyond the country’s beaches there are also plans to build on the biodiversity of Equatorial Guinea’s different territories.

Some 60% of Equatorial Guinea is covered in largely pristine rainforest rich in flora and fauna. Efforts to preserve the thick rainforest from over-logging have been stepped up in the last few years including an initiative to designate 21% of the country’s territory as protected areas to preserve the biological, physical, technological, economic, cultural and social treasures they represent.

National Parks like the Monte Alen lowlands, a 200,000 hectare area on the mainland populated by gorillas and Pico Basile a 33,000 hectare park that covers most of the south of the island of Bioko as well as the Monte Mitra-Altos de Park, home to pygmy elephants are all preserved for environmentally-sensitive tourism.

Moving along the Rio Muni throughout the country’s mainland and following the path taken by Miguel Gutiérrez Garitano in his award-winning travel book, ‘La Aventura del Muni’ presents the more intrepid traveller with an intriguing insight into the continent’s rich cultural history and phenomenal natural treasures.

Bem-Vindo a Guinea Equatorial

Portuguese has become the third official language of Equatorial Guinea, a sign of things to come in one of the most multi-cultural countries in Africa.

Equatorial Guinea’s surprising multi-cultural boom comes hand in hand with the construction bonanza that has sucked in workers from all over African continent and beyond, adding to the number of languages spoken in the principal cities of Malabo and Bata.

After the country’s official language of Spanish and second language of French, Portuguese has jumped ahead of other more widely spoken languages such as English, Russian, Mandarin and Arabic, largely due to its proximity to Spanish and the close ties the country is building with other African nations.

Angola, Sao Tome and Principe, Cape Verde, and Guinea-Bissau all speak Portuguese as does one of the fastest emerging developing countries Brazil, which has shown a strong interest in developing closer ties with the African nation.
Few other African countries have embraced or attracted so many different nationalities to their shores. The official population has surged to 1.6 million people from 600,000 in the last 15 years.

Much of the population growth has been a result of Equatoguineans returning home to share in the country’s newfound prosperity but the vast majority comes from the influx of foreign workers involved in the oil business and the growing numbers of construction workers and engineers being sucked into the building boom that has resulted from an impressive program of infrastructure improvements being funded by the government.

The monthly flow of foreign workers coming and going can be felt in Malabo’s international airport where Cameroonian, Egyptian, Chinese and Turkish construction workers queue for flights back home on one side of the airport while American and British engineers ending their three-week stretches on the oilrigs wait for their connections back to their respective homes and families on the other.

Even the Spanish community is growing following something of a rapprochement between the government of Equatorial Guinea and its former colonialist power.

Arguably the most visible group of foreigners in Malabo though is the Chinese, which seems well on course to be the largest minority in a few years.

Few figures seem available on the exact numbers of foreign workers or where they are from but judging by the number of bars, restaurants and businesses run by immigrants from China this part of the population seems to be the fastest growing of all the non-African visitors.

Large Chinese construction groups have been involved in the management of many of the city’s new landmarks, including the CEMAC parliament building, and the conference centre in Sipopo and trucks ferry Chinese workers regularly between the extensive number of buildings being built by companies like China Dalian.

Closer to the port Russian and Ukrainian seems to be more prevalent with former soviet block seafarers and engineers capitalising on their rich maritime history to develop one of the largest ship repair facilities being developed in Africa.
A surprising proportion of the country’s political elite speak Russian, a throwback to the country’s influence in Africa during Cold War and it is not uncommon to hear the locals saluting friends with a friendly ‘privyet’!

Malabo Means Business

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Equatorial Guinea’s capital, Malabo, most definitely means business. Whether it’s the corporate hotels – Sofitel and Hilton – doing a roaring trade in the city centre and close to the airport or the skyscrapers being built further east, there is no escaping the fact that the city is drawing in foreign investment and global corporate names in an impressive manner.

The investments pouring in to this small, little known corner of Africa are most clearly visible in the development on either side of the newly constructed six-lane highway that links the towns of Ela Nguema, Sipopo and Baney and ushers the money men from the airport to the capital’s most thrusting district, Malabo II.

It is here that the headquarters are being erected for the French, US, Egyptian, Swiss, Chinese and African energy and construction giants as well as new administrative buildings for international bodies like the United Nations and CEMAC – the parliament for the Central African States.

At the centre of this aspiring, modern wing of the capital is a statue dedicated to the country’s progress. It sits at the centre of a powerful cluster of buildings housing the Prime Minister’s office, the country’s most important private bank, CCEI, the Central African parliament building, CEMAC and the source of nearly all of the country’s newfound wealth, GE Petrol.

Spreading out from this nucleus of influential edifices are a range of government ministries and annexes held up as a symbol of the country’s efforts to strengthen its fledgling institutions.

A pristine Ibis Hotel and social housing blocks completed recently by the Chinese construction company China Dalian flank the banks and offices.

Further towards the airport, the illuminated twin towers of Sonagas, the state-owned gas company with a participation in the country’s Liquefied Natural Gas train, act as a beacon to foreign investors looking to get involved in the construction of a second $2.2bn LNG train.

Large tracts of land in this satellite city have been allocated to the construction of head quarters for the country’s largest foreign investors as well as a towering new Malabo HQ for the Bank of Central African States. Rococo palaces and steel clad contemporary architecture vie to establish itself as the dominant vernacular in this youthful stretch of the city.

Amongst the companies still to add their HQ to the growing list of towers are oil companies, Mobil Corporation, the largest producer of Equatoguinean oil, and Noble Energy, the energy group that is due to begin exploring for oil with Swiss trading house Glencore and GE Petrol later this year on its Block ‘O” later this year.

Their offices will sit close to a new headquarters designed by Portuguese architects, Saraiva Associados for the Ministry of Energy and Mines and being constructed, once again, by China Dalian.

Directly in front of the energy ministry will be the offices of China Gezhouba (Group) Corporation, a Beijing-based company carrying out one of the biggest projects in Malabo – the construction of a waste water, drainage and sewage treatment system in Malabo, Ela Nguema and the communities that surround the capital.

There’s no question this is where Malabo’s money men mingle with the country’s most important authorities to shape the city’s exciting future.