“Can you go to Malabo on Friday?”
Not exactly the kind question one expects at 8 a.m. on a Monday in the heart of all things suburbia--otherwise known as Bethesda, Maryland.
It was the assignment everyone was suddenly “too swamped” to take. Malabo, in the words of my veteran supervisor, was the "weirdest place on earth.” By his account, six years in sand-stormy Sudan would be more pleasant than a six-day assignment in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea.
Aside from that sunny comparison, I had at my imagination’s disposal four facts about this location: it’s the only Spanish speaking country in Africa; photography is punishable by jail sentence; the government is renowned for torturing opposition supporters in “Black Beach;” and most of the population is extremely poor while foreign oil extractors live comfortably on Pleasantville-style compounds.
It was just the kind of place I wanted to spend Christmas alone.
My bosses needed a Spanish speaker to coordinate startup for a USAID project there, and it all had to be completed within two weeks, or else I’d be spending the holidays on Strange Island.
Before I knew it, I was floating in a sea of long faces and alligator skin attire at the Paris Charles de Gaulle airport. About 30 men, not so fresh off their flight from Dallas, looked like they were waiting for the Devil to swing by and escort them back to Hell. Everyone, from the pilot to the rotund man named Jimmy sitting to my left, had one thought plastered on his face: What’s a woman doin' on this plane? Maybe she’s confused and thinks we’re goin’ to New Guinea in South 'merica.
After a few half-comatose and extremely disorienting realizations that the silent, deep indigo view I repeatedly awoke to was indeed the Sahara, and that all my sleepy co-passengers were indeed from America's Heartland, we descended upon Malabo.
The electricity-less terrain we’d just passed made the island of Bioko look like Vegas on steroids, with dozens of oil refinery fires thrown in for good measure (environmentalists seeking an image of natural resource exploitation at the height of its fury need look no further).
On that cold night under heavy rain an immigration officer looked me up and down with an unhurried, menacing grin. He gripped a bulky machine gun and posited his main question--the one thing every border patrolman must know: "Why are you without your husband?"
Welcome to Malabo.