Monday, 1 September 2014

African Chiaroscuro

San Joaquim: some fifty souls braced together against poverty in a few dilapidated concrete houses - leftover from, and a reminder of a “glorious” past. A time when there may have been more wealth, but it was still not allowed entry into the homes of the labourers. 
Pigs, dogs, ducks, goats and chicken share with their fellow human residents a rather small central courtyard filled with screams, swine shit, smoke and little else . Being far from the capital, somehow forgotten by the developers and politicians, nobody has ever bothered to bring electricity to San Joaquim. Thus every evening the village dozes off soon after darkness has fallen, in the await of a new day, which won’t be much different from the previous one 
But tonight is different.  Some money has been found, some petrol has been bought, to quench the thirst of the old, battered generator (the only handout from a distant government) and …“let there be light!”.

The inhabitants of San Joaquim, despite being among the poorest on the island of Príncipe, 
are also the warmest and friendliest people I met here

It is not exactly Las Vegas, but the usually bleak village is, for once, somewhat illuminated and that is enough for the unpredictable to happen. From those same smoke-stained houses from which you would expect nothing but scarcity and frugality to surface, the  inhabitants  suddenly  drag out two massive speakers, a TV and a DVD player…and let the music play! . Only a few venture out of their homes looking for an unusually late night (the generator will be turned off at 9 pm). Some of them, made bolder by some extra glasses of palm wine, dare to show their moves, while others do their best to sing along. At 21:00hrs sharp, with a precision worthy of Cinderella’s spell, the village drops once more into the dark and into silence. 

The following evening I try my luck again and walk the few hundred metres that stand between my camp and the village but all is quiet. The money has finished, the generator has drunk the last drop of petrol and any light has vanished with the sun. Darkness cloaks the village, but as I turn a corner I can make out a dim glow and some life. A small gathering of people, puppies and ducks are consuming their evening meal around a dying fire in an evocative scene, reminiscent of the play of light and shade in Caravaggio’s paintings. And for once I am glad, albeit selfishly, that power (electrical and political) has forgotten San Joaquim.

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