The 21st Century may be unofficially the Asian Century, thanks to the rise of China, Japan, and India, but in terms of population growth, as well as–in some countries–economic growth, the 21st Century also belongs to Africa.
There are a few countries leading the African century. Some are oil-rich, others have a strong financial sector. They include Zambia, Nigeria–if it’s able to evade the talibanization of its northern territory–and Equatorial Guinea, the second smallest country in Africa, and an oil-rich one. For its size and its oil, it’s known as the African Kuwait. Pictures and videos showing the fast development that these countries are currently undergoing, challenge every stereotype about African countries living in misery that we have inherited as Westerners that grew up watching the CARE fund-raising campaigns. That is the old Africa.
Equatorial Guinea in particular is putting in place a process of offering high-quality education to all of its youth, building modern hospitals and preparing health care professionals–with the help of Cuba, Israel and other countries–and diversifying its economy in order to ensure that the country can continue prospering after the oil boom. This overarching philosophy and future-looking vision is being called Horizon 2020. The female mayor of the capital city of Malabo, in a recent interview, boasted of how efficiently her country is run, of how the mindset of Guineans is changing, and of how she was able to transform her city and turn it into a bastion of cleanliness that promotes good public health.
But Equatorial Guinea is a fascinating example of the new Africa, to me at least, because it’s the only independent African state where Spanish is the national language. The fact that literacy among the youth is at near 100%, that education is such a high priority for the government, and the fact that such a high percentage of its population is under the age of 15, makes EG the ideal case study for an emerging African country. Oil was discovered in the nineties, and although initially the country’s dictatorship used the revenues mostly for its lavish lifestyle, today the country is spending a huge amount in the social sector and in never-ending large-scale construction projects. Malabo’s skyline now resembles one of a Western country.
It’s also emerging in terms of the formation of its proud identity as a Hispanic African nation. Nearly everyone speaks Spanish there, and the accent is quite distinct from most of the Spanish speaking world. Most Hispanic American countries inherited mostly an Andalusian (southern Spain) accent due to migration, but Equatorial Guinea’s colonization happened differently and late in the colonial era, and so the young country speaks a Spanish closer to the Castilian spoken in Europe, yet distinctly African thanks to a strong influence from the native, tonal African tongues spoken by the various ethnicities in the country. Unlike Fang, Bubi and other local languages, Spanish is not a tonal language … at least outside of Guinea. No Spanish dialect like it exists, even in parts of the Caribbean that received many Africans.
The youngest generation of ecuatoguineanos, as they’re called in Spanish, is the first one living in the new African century as a developed or nearly-developed country, the first ones to enjoy educational opportunities never before available and to see a growing middle class as a defining feature of what it means to live in Africa. Hip-hop, reguetón and rap are among the cultural forms that unite them.
As a side note: the only world celebrity of my acquaintance of Guinean ancestry is actually a Spaniard, the soulful diva Concha Buika whose deep voice and visceral style of singing are unique only to her. There is no language in my mind as beautiful as Spanish, and yet in her jazzy voice Spanish music reaches new heights.
Guinea’s place in the Hispanic world is unique particularly for Black Hispanics in the Americas, whose identities were forged within the context and experience of slavery, rebellion, syncretism, and exploitation. Yet curiously, because their country is so small, Guineans look to the Americas for inspiration much more frequently than Afro-Hispanics look to Guinea, which is a proud, independent and free example of the self-chosen marriage of Spanish and African civilizations.
It might have been easier for Guineans–for reasons of trade and cultural integration–if, upon founding their new country, they had chosen French as their national language and assimilated into the rest of their region. But they had been Spanish citizens for over a century, and Spanish is the only language that all the ethnicities had in common, and it was neutral among them whereas the imposition of the language of the Fang majority might have produced ethnic hostilities and resentment, so they chose Spanish as their national language. French is co-official for pragmatic reasons in GE, but very few speak it fluently. Without Spanish, there is no Equatorial Guinea.
In recent years, EG announced that it will soon inaugurate its own, independent, national branch of the Academy of the Spanish Language. The only other country pending to have one is Israel, for its Ladino dialect of Spanish. This constitutes a coming of age for a relatively new Spanish-speaking country founded in the sixties that is still undergoing the formation of its own identity. The entire country is, literally and culturally, a project under construction, and I’m very much looking forward with optimism to its future prosperity and to its future cultural contributions to the larger world.