Exiled from Equatorial Guinea, a visiting professor awaits the time he can return home

Sunday, May 11, 2008 | 6:22 p.m. CDT; updated 1:44 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Professor Donato Ndongo pauses before beginning his class, The Literature of Equatorial Guinea, on May 5.

COLUMBIA — Donato Ndongo can’t go home. He hasn’t seen his country since 1994, and no one knows if he will again.

This political exile, historian, journalist and novelist will give up his post as visiting professor in MU’s Spanish department this summer and return to Spain — but that is not his home either.

To learn more

Donato Ndongo WHAT: Donato Ndongo will read from and sign copies of his novel “Shadows of Your Black Memory.” Admission is free. WHERE: Columbia Public Library WHEN: 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 13

To learn more about Equatorial Guinea: Mother Jones, Putting Lipstick on a Dictator, May 7, 2007 TIME Magazine, Despot’s Fall, 1979 The Nation, U.S. Oil Policies in The Kuwait of Africa, April 4, 2002 Mother Jones, A Touch of Crude, January/February, 2005 U.S. Department of State, Country Report on Human Rights Practices, 2007 Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook Equatorial Guinea, 2008 Books — “Shadows of Your Black Memory,” by Donato Ndongo, translated by Michael Ugarte — “Los Poderes de la Tempestad,” by Donato Ndongo, not available in English — “El Metro,” by Donato Ndongo, not available in English — “The Wonga Coup,” by Adam Roberts — “Small Is Not Always Beautiful,” by Max Liniger-Goumaz — “Tropical Gangsters,” by Robert E. Klitgaard

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Ndongo, 58, is from the tiny Spanish-speaking West African country of Equatorial Guinea.

Before leaving MU, Ndongo will read from and sign his book “Shadows of Your Black Memory” at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Columbia Public Library.

“Shadows,” the first of his three novels and the only one available in English, was translated by MU Spanish professor Michael Ugarte. Ndongo doesn’t have faith in his English when lecturing groups, so Ugarte will accompany him and translate at the reading.

In seven semesters teaching at MU, Ndongo has made hundreds of Spanish students aware of the richness and tragedy of his country.

Becca Allgire, a junior sociology and Spanish major, studied with Ndongo this spring.

“It’s different because he cares so much about it,” she said of Ndongo’s class on the history and literature of Equatorial Guinea. “He’s lived it. He has that personal knowledge that makes class more interesting, and that makes me care more.”

The early years

For Ndongo, the only way to understand Equatorial Guinea today is to look deeply into its past. The country, a small mainland and five populated islands in the Gulf of Guinea, was the only Spanish colony in West Africa.

“They (the Spanish) didn’t take the blacks from Africa to take them to America or other places,” Ndongo said. “The Europeans simply enslaved us in our own country, and this had to be noticed in the lives of the people because people weren’t free to do what they wanted.”

Ndongo was born into this colonial situation in 1950 in the mainland town of Niefang. The people of Equatorial Guinea were schooled to think of themselves as Spaniards and fascists. As Spain moved toward giving its colony independent rule, it encouraged Equatorial Guineans to educate themselves in Spain.

In 1965, at age 14, Ndongo went alone to Spain to complete an education intended to make him a leader of his country.

“I was the only black student in my high school,” Ndongo said. “I went to towns where it was the first time they had seen a black. Some people were afraid; others went running.”

But Ndongo doesn’t blame the Spanish who ran from him.

“It wasn’t racism; it was simply that they had never seen something like it,” he said.

The beginning of exile

It wasn’t an easy world to live in, but Ndongo’s constant goal was to return to Equatorial Guinea when his education was finished. Those plans were destroyed when Equatorial Guinea quickly achieved independence and Francisco Macias Nguema was elected the country’s first president in 1968. Macias ran for president as a nationalist, but he would become known as one of the most violent dictators in history.

Macias was aggressively anti-Spain, to the extent that no one in Equatorial Guinea could receive letters from family members studying there.

“Many people died because they received letters from their families in Spain,” Ndongo said. “So after this situation I couldn’t write letters because I knew if there were a letter from me in Guinea, my family would suffer. So I went many years without any type of contact with my family.”

Macias closed the country to the rest of the world, evicting all the Spanish and closing the country’s borders.

In turn, Spain pulled all its money from the Equatorial Guinea’s banks.

Africans who had European educations became government targets and fled or were killed. As one of these European-educated people, Ndongo knew that returning home would mean death.

Equatorial Guinea collapsed, and in the power vacuum Macias became an absolute ruler. According to an August 1979 Time Magazine article: “Macias presided over a reign of terror that took the lives of some 50,000 Guineans and drove perhaps 150,000 — one-third of the remaining population — into exile.”

Ndongo made a life in Spain. As the only African most of his acquaintances had ever met, he became used to answering questions.

“This gave me the key to my profession, this curiosity that made people ask so many questions,” he said. “I had to give explanations continually about my culture, and I noticed that I had a certain ability to explain things to people, and this in a way confirmed my vocation as a communicator.”

Ndongo became a student of journalism and history, and by his early 20s he was working for major Spanish publications and publishing short stories.

A bitter return

At 28, Ndongo had been away from his home half his life. News of the horrors of Macias’ rule filtered out of the country to the exiled community, but it was nearly impossible to get information about family members. Ndongo came to believe that his father was dead, and he didn’t know what had become of his mother and 10 siblings.

In 1979, Macias was overthrown and executed by his nephew, Teodoro Obiang Nguema.

Obiang promised an end to tyranny, and Ndongo, along with many other exiles, went home.

Ties were renewed between Spain and Equatorial Guinea, and Ndongo learned that all of his family had survived and still lived in Niefang.

In October 1979, he stepped off a plane in Malablo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea.

“The first impression was of desolation,” Ndongo said. “It was as though a gale had passed through Malabo, or through all of Guinea, Bata or whatever city, and left skeletal houses and spectral people.”

Ndongo reunited with his family and his homeland.

“I recovered my family environment, I recovered my landscapes, I recovered the smell of the land, I recovered everything that had been with me from my infancy,” he said.

This recovery inspired Ndongo to write “Shadows of Your Black Memory,” the story of a young boy who leaves his home in Equatorial Guinea to study in Spain. The novel follows the protagonist to Spain and back to Equatorial Guinea. Ndongo says the book is not autobiographical, but that it relies much on his own experiences.

The conditions in Equatorial Guinea left Ndongo in a state of shock. He keenly felt the loss of the country’s culture. There were no museums, there was no cinema, there wasn’t a single library.

“I noticed that to try to reconstruct the country, one had to begin with moral construction, that Guineans could recover their desire,” he said.

Ndongo became director of Equatorial Guinea’s Hispano-Guinean Cultural Center from 1985 to 1992. There, he tried to gather and reassemble the art, stories and history that had been lost during and after the country’s colonial period. Spain funded the center, even buying a generator so movies could be shown.

In 1992, Ndongo took a job as the Equatorial Guinea correspondent for Agencia EFE, one of Spain’s major news agencies.

Ndongo says that although the government often tried to impede his work as cultural director, his work as a journalist prompted increased threats.

“Nobody knew what happened in Guinea because there weren’t journalists there to inform about it,” Ndongo said.

One of his early stories was on a mass arrest.

“In December of 1992, the government detained over 100 people, among them priests, students, professors, political opposition. And they were barbarically tortured,” he said.

As Ndongo disseminated stories like this around the world through Agencia EFE, the government became more aggressive toward him. Ndongo said that after a government official threatened him at gunpoint, his employer ordered his return to Spain.

“Agencia EFE told me to leave Guinea because they didn’t want my cadaver,” he said.

In 1994, Ndongo fled the country, and he hasn’t seen it since.

Oil and dictators

Ndongo initially went to Gabon, where he attempted to open a news bureau, but it was not successful. It’s very difficult to get anything done there, he said. He returned to Spain, where he wrote his second novel, and by 2000 he began working as director of the Center of African Studies at the University of Murcia. He remained until there until 2004 and came to Missouri in 2005.

In the meantime, Obiang’s grip on the country remains tight. According to a 2007 U.S. State Department report, Obiang and his family dominate the government, and the 2002 presidential and 2004 parliamentary elections were “seriously flawed.” The same report adds that “abuse and mistreatment of prisoners during or immediately after arrest remained persistent problems in some police precincts. Beatings were most frequently reported.”

Despite these reports, the U.S. and Equatorial Guinea have close ties, Ndongo said. The U.S. embassy there recently reopened.

On April 12, 2006, when Condoleezza Rice met Obiang in the U.S., she said: “Thank you very much for your presence here. You are a good friend, and we welcome you.”

The two countries have good reason to continue their relationship. In 1995, large oil fields were found in the Gulf of Guinea, and today Equatorial Guinea is sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest oil producer. The U.S. is heavily invested in extracting and using this oil.

Plans for the future

Meanwhile, Ndongo waits for the day he can return home. He remembers his culture through his novels, hoping these will help his fellow citizens remember, too.

Ndongo’s three novels, “Shadows of your Black Memory,” “Los Poderes de la Tempestad” and the recently published “El Metro,” are foundational works in the developing literature of his country. The first two are part of a trilogy; Ndongo plans on writing the third book when he returns to Spain. Ndongo has no favorites among his novels.

“Books are like children, I suppose,” he said. “You love them all equally, and you can’t have a preference.”

Flore Zéphir, associate chairwoman and chairwoman-elect of MU’s romance languages department, says that as the department’s first writer in residence, Ndongo has brought a unique perspective to the school.

“Donato speaks from the heart,” she said. “Donato writes from a perspective that is so non-European, that really reflects life in Africa. … When I started reading that with my students, it was a real eye-opener.”

Above his work, Ndongo looks forward to rejoining his wife and two children who have not been able to get visas to visit the U.S.

Ndongo hopes that teaching American students about his country will lead them to an awareness of the economic and political power this country holds over so many parts of the world. He also firmly believes that a word from the president of the United States could change his country for the better.

Ndongo retains his status as a refugee in Spain, even though he could become a Spanish citizen.

“I am sure that if I were a Spanish citizen, my books, the focus of my life, wouldn’t be so distinct,” he said. “I would be comfortable. And I don’t want to be comfortable. It’s an idealist position, it’s a stupid position, but it’s mine.”

Sara Shahriari is a master’s student at the Missouri School of Journalism and a student in Ndongo’s class The Literature of Equatorial Guinea. She is an associate editor for Adelante, the Missourian’s bilingual publication.

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