As the people of São Tomé and Príncipe celebrate 47 years of independence, A Quick Ting On Plantain author Rui Da Silva movingly reflects on the nation's rich history of revolution, music, and culinary delights.
1975. The year of the Rabbit. The year that Carl Douglas sang “everybody was Kung Fu fighting” with so much zeal. And regrettably, the year that Margaret Thatcher was elected leader of the Conservative Party. More importantly though, and on a far more positive note, it was the year that São Tomé and Príncipe finally gained its independence.
The story of the colonised and the coloniser is not a pretty one, and never should it be. Themed, amongst many things, by dehumanisation, forced labour and other acts of evil, the hardships that colonisation brought to Africa are the reasons why all over the continent, the days of independence are celebrated with widespread and serious vim. While the nation of São Tomé is tiny in comparison to its regional neighbours, the passion is the same.
On January 4th, 1596, Rei Amador — the slave-turned-king who led São Tomé to its most significant slave revolt — was captured, imprisoned and executed. No twists, no turns. Over 350 years later, the attitudes and sentiments that once swept over the island again found themselves in the closed fists of the São Toméan people. The 1953 Batepa massacre, which saw over 1,000 São Toméans killed by Portuguese colonialists, spoke to a painfully sincere desire to restart the story of the nation.
In 1974, the Carnation Revolution in Portugal brought about the end of the Estado Novo regime; change was on the horizon. A new left-leaning politics harvested an anti-colonial consciousness that lay the foundations for the PALOPs (Portuguese-speaking African countries) to finally rid themselves of colonial rule. Amongst those countries was São Tomé. The MLSTP (Movement for the Liberation of São Tomé and Príncipe) were to take over power and declare national independence. The years of subsequent dictatorship is a story for another day.
The bandeira which went on to represent the nation was born. A triband of green and yellow, representing the rich vegetation of the land and the tropical sun; a blood red triangle at the hoist, representing the struggle for independence; and two black stars, representing the two islands that make the country.
As I write these words, I make the admission that none of these things ever really meant much to me growing up. You couldn’t ask me who Manuel Pinto Da Costa was, despite the amount of times I heard his name in conversations at dinner parties. And I would be hard-pressed to know what the 12th of July even was, let alone why it was important.
The words “I'm São Toméan” didn't arrive on my tongue without great effort over the years. The journey of that privilege started with the stories told by my mother, her sisters, cousins and childhood friends alike. My mother, born in the shimmers of a São Toméan sunrise, grew to love the islands as the tropical fairytale land that I imagined it was through her stories. The fruits that hung seemingly within arm’s reach of her mouth. The multitude of fish, glittering in the breaks of the ocean waves. The stories of magic and myth that were heard throughout the towns, for better or for worse. The people, she said, felt like family although they were just “so and so” from “around the way.”
My mother’s memory of her childhood speaks of a São Tomé that a boy still finding himself in the concrete jungles of North London could only ever dream of. The water we learned to swim in came with a price tag and a one-time-entry past the Finchley Lido barriers. It was not the water my mother found herself lost in after waking from bed. My 5-a-day was not her 5-a-day. Her local superheroes did not don Nike Air Max and Lot29 apparel. The closest I ever got to magic and myth was Sneakbo turning into a pigeon.
Therein lied the heavy task my mother had of convincing the boy in the mirror that the story of São Tomé is also his own. A tough task, of course, but when the culture of a people as relentless as those in São Tomé needs to travel 3,556 miles and 18 years into the future, rest assured it will.
Through the music: the unexplained excitement in my bones when Camilo Domingos’ ‘Puita Cua Tela’ blares through the speakers, or the countless times I’ve felt less than for not knowing how to dance like São Toméan uncles and aunties.
Through the food: the sense of identity I feel from my olfactory nerve when Calulu con Banana is served on the table. My predisposition to Banana Pão (Plantain), which for many in the nation is a marker for a ‘true’ São Toméan, is now well-documented.
And through the Leve Leve lifestyle: the original ‘soft life’ lifestyle that pumps within my every fibre.
There are so many ways in which my identity — who I am and who I will be — is indebted to my São Toméan background. All that’s left is for me to go.
Till then, on this day, I thank all those who came before me, especially my mother, for allowing there to be meaning behind “British-São Toméan.
Rui Da Silva is a sound artist, writer, and creative producer focused on telling immersive stories and creating engaging experiences through various disciplines. His work has been featured in Grazia, Delish, and on BBC Radio London. A Quick Ting On Plantain is his debut book.