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Immigrant Life in Equatorial Guinea
Disclaimer: The costs of many of the items in this article are from consistent hearsay of interviewees. It is difficult to verify many of the costs so the most consistent answers have been used. All amounts are quoted in USD despite the currency of EG being CFA1.
Over the last three years I've spent the majority of my time working in the oil state of Equatorial Guinea in West Africa. Despite the country's small size2, it produces a vast amount of oil which constitutes the majority of the $19.81 billion in GDP in 20113. This great wealth is split among a small percentage of the population all of whom are in power.
The consistent drilling by companies has lead to good work opportunities. The small native population of less than a million people4 has a difficult time handling the work requirements due to educational and health hurdles. Because of this set of circumstances Equatorial Guinea (EG) is an appealing work opportunity for expats.
Well educated expats from other African and developed world countries occupy the higher level positions. The remaining jobs, where there is little or no prerequisites, are sought after by people of surrounding countries with no opportunities in their home state. I've commonly met people from Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Nigeria, and Mali.
Malabo, Equatorial Guinea
Road to Equatorial Guinea
The road to EG takes many forms and can be riddled with traps and danger. It is difficult and costly to acquire proper documentation for a work visa. The easiest method, if you have a decent amount of money, is to acquire a one month tourist visa for $140 with no intention of leaving after arrival. What isn't apparent is this visa usually requires a bribe of $500-$1,000 to an EG embassy official. After securing the document, a bus will take you to Doula, Cameroon. From there a boat will get you to the EG capital of Malabo on the island of Bioko.
Another option is to take a bus to Benin and pay about $1600 for a fraudulent visa and flight to Malabo. The cost of the bus from Ghana to Togo to Benin (a common route) is about $50-70 per leg. Upon arrival in EG it is very likely the police will harass you as you pass customs, requiring an additional bribe of $50-100. Even if the documentation is legitimate the police will often demand additional payments.
If you are unable to secure a visa (legitimate or fraudulent), the last option is to take the illegal boat from Doula, Cameroon. Without a doubt, this is the riskiest option in regards to safety but the cheapest option. The boats carry 100-150 passengers despite the capacity for 50. For approximately $500 you get a spot on the floor and additional amounts can be paid for a chair. Higher charges apply to women since they have a tendency to scream or panic when the boat lands on Bioko. Why would someone scream in this situation? The EG police guard the coast and begin firing immediately upon any unauthorized boats trying to make land. The boats from Cameroon always travel under the cover of night and take precaution to remain as quiet as possible.
When the boat is discovered, if at all, often times determines the number of survivors on the boat. Boats that land unscathed are usually the result of the right people being paid off. Whether this is not an option is a total gamble. Sometimes an entire boat makes it safely and while other times not a single passenger survives and the boat sinks. Many times after making it to land the illegal immigrants are discovered and fired upon. I met a girl who hid under the bodies of others through the night to stay hidden from the police. She then hitch hiked to town the next day. It is a difficult task to make it from the shore to the city because of the thick jungle and few roads.
Life in Equatorial Guinea
Malabo, and most of West Africa, is very expensive. Some countries, like Gabon and Angola, rank among most expensive countries in the World. This has a lot to do with most goods being imported as well as poor logistics. For example, in Malabo a box of cereal from the grocery store costs about $8. Most locals and illegal immigrants eat chicken and rice or fish and chips from local restaurants for about $3 a meal. Most eat twice a day to save money. Rent and electricity for a small bedroom in the shanty complexes is about $70 per month.
Common forms of work for the newly arrived include security for compounds, construction, and physical labor. One individual cited being paid a combined $450 per month for two security positions that required, in total, 18 hours a day for 6 days a week. These salaries are just enough to get by while being able to save a little. Despite the low pay these positions are still better than the work they would have found back home. One other important cost to note is the $2 it costs to take the taxi to and from work.
Once established, most of the immigrants will start to try to find a way to get fake residency documentation or work visas. It is extremely difficult but if the documents are acquired there are good opportunities with oil companies, embassies, and other companies.
Police and Informants
In the little spare time the immigrants have, watching football (i.e. soccer) on TV at one of the local bars is a common activity. A beer is only $1, which isn't a bad price for a little enjoyment. The problems come in the form of informants and police. Informants, hired by the government from Morocco or Israel, will hang out at local bars trying to find out your background casually. The also try to coax others into insulting the government at which point you'll be taken to the local jail. I've personally seen a couple of informants even at the nicer bars in the city center.
In addition to the informants, illegal immigrants need to be wary of police raids. Every so often the police will raid shanty towns trying to either steal money or arrest people. Most residents of shanties keep enough money available to keep out of jail. For those captured without proper documentation they would expect to pay $100. Even those with proper documentation are forced to pay $10-20.
Once arrested the person will either be put in jail, deported, or allowed bail, depending on the mood of the government. Inmates from further countries, like Ethiopia, are usually deported to Cameroon due to costs. If posting bail is an option, it will cost $400 to $1000 for an offense involving documentation. Inmates accused of stealing will have to pay more. Most often those accused of stealing are innocent and forced to plead guilty to avoid beatings. A common tactic of the police is to beat the soles of inmates feet because then it will be difficult for them to work. If the inmate insults the police it is possible they will kill them. Death from the police isn't the most common way to pass away. Starvation and disease is rampant in the jails. Inmates depend on friends or good Samaritans outside the jail for food, which typically consists of a couple pieces of bread.
The big goal for these people is to either find a good job with proper documentation or save up enough money to bring back to their family. Saving money is as difficult a task as earning it. The high cost of living compared to income and constant harassment from the police leaves little to save. What money is saved is hidden. Banks are not completely trustworthy as the government has drained the accounts of those who gain a little power to fight back and claim made up, ridiculous reasons. Another option to hiding money is to send it back home using underground versions of Western Union. The cost is 10% per transaction and is difficult to arrange.
When the time comes to leave the most common method of carrying money out of the country is hiding it in a unique object. The money will be transferred to Euros, rubber banded, wrapped in plastic, and hidden in the object. It is illegal to take CFA out of the country or any currency value over a certain amount. Even when abiding by the law, the police will often confiscate the money anyway.
I've been amazed by the lengths inhabitants of Africa will go to just for the chance of a decent job. The risks and costs seem to far outweigh the benefits but there are few alternatives. Every so often, an entire family will have enough success to send one family member to the US, UK, or another developed country.
I would like to personally thank the people who shared so much with me. Sadly, I will not be able to name any individual as this can only lead to harm. I'm planning on showing my gratitude for one individual in particular by sending him to school.
1 - The CFA (Central African Franc) is used in Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Republic of the Congo. Approximately 500 CFA = 1 USD. No exchanges outside of West Africa accept CFA because of the unstability.
2 - 28,051 sq km making is slightly smaller than Maryland according to the CIA World Factbook.
3 - GDP according to the CIA World Factbook.
4 - On the CIA World Factbook the population is stated to be 685,991, but this is most likely a very rough estimate due in part to the turbulent history of EG.