THE ROÇAS OF SÃO TOMÉ AND PRÍNCIPE
Tears tend to be wept for buildings and communities that once thrived but have since lost their function and fallen into disuse or disrepair, with the resultant fate of becoming forever lost to posterity. Nostalgia would seem to be a human emotion that is hard to overcome. It is certainly so with this pair of architects who, having discovered the small villages situated on the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe – a Portuguese-speaking democratic republic off the western coast of Central Africa (and second smallest African country behind the Seychelles) – cannot stop pleading for their restoration. Via an exhibition and the publication of a book on the subject, they are very much hoping that their wish comes true. Located in the Gulf of Guinea, the small African archipelago of São Tomé and Príncipe has a rich patrimonial heritage from the glorious years of the cacao cycle (1875-1975), a period during which the country became the top producer of the bean. The roças are infrastructures similar to small villages, which accommodated production as well as many other facilities involved in the making of cacao, and that are now (mostly) abandoned. The book As Roças de São Tomé e Príncipe presents 122 examples of these. The two authors, Portuguese architects and researchers, aim to introduce a new perspective to a subject tainted by its connections with colonial times, their approach focusing on the variety and uniqueness of the roças and the decisive role they played in the development of São Tomé and Príncipe. The islands of São Tomé and Príncipe were discovered in 1470 by Portuguese navigators, and remained a Portuguese colony until their independence in 1975. The word roça comes from the action of opening new territory and signifies an area of countryside ready to be cultivated. These territories were firstly used to produce coffee, and later cacao. Rather like small villages, they consisted of an assembly of houses, production facilities, and even hospitals and schools. Some were entirely self-sufficient, producing essential goods such as soap, for the inhabitants, and they generally functioned as small communities. The roças are spread throughout the two islands of Principe and Sao Tome, and all were set-up during the 100 years of the cacao cycle.
Over that time, the development of the islands soared, especially when compared with the previous centuries. “Before the roças, only the coastal areas were populated, and development was scarce”, says Duarte Pape, one of the book’s authors. This high speed of development happened because of the need to produce increasing amounts of cacao, by then the biggest monoculture in the country. These structures also reflected the hierarchies
between owners and workers, emphasised by the servants’ accommodation being positioned a level below. This system was in tune with the official discourse of colonisation. The larger roças could accommodate up to 2000 people and the smaller ones up to 300. With them came the development of ports for exporting the cacao, and also a railway network, essential for transporting the goods across land.
Thanks to the triumphant years of the cacao cycle, the islands are still recognised for their excellent cacao production, and some of the roças continue to function as “small villages with a disorganised production method, having in mind only subsistence logic”, remarks photographer Francisco Nogueira. “For some communities it’s still their livelihood.” The cultural mix in São Tomé owes a great deal to the cycle. Workers came from Cape Verde, Angola, Guinea, Macau, and Portugal, and we can still find traces of these diverse cultures in the São Tomé population today. The architecture of the roças reflects this variety; several different styles can be identified in the examples shown in the book.
RESCUING THE HERITAGE
The research project that has since turned into a book, began in 2007, when Duarte Pape and Rodrigo Rebelo de Andrade visited São Tomé and Príncipe for the first time, to collaborate with a local NGO. From this initial contact with the roças they realised that consistently gathered information on the subject was non-existent. Eventually, Rebelo de Andrade decided to write his final thesis on it, and in 2011 both he and Pape were invited to curate an exhibition on the roças for the São Tomé e Príncipe Biennial. The exhibition came to Portugal, and the idea for the book was born. “We want to perpetuate the memory of the roças, as they are a patrimony in constant degradation”, says Pape. That’s the main concern of these two men, as many of these infrastructures will be lost forever if nothing is done.
But Duarte Pape is aware that local people and decision-makers still look at the roças as exploitative constructions. “It’s been only 40 years since independence”, he emphasises. However, with this book the authors hope to point out that these are important contributions to the affirmation of São Tomé and Príncipe’s cultural heritage. And they will continue to spread the word.