POSTCARD: The Brain Drain, Neo-Colonial Style

MALABO, Equatorial Guinea—When a friend first told me about Pedro*, I was immediately captivated by his personal biography. The son of a Spanish mother and an Equatoguinean father, Pedro is what locals here call, perhaps anachronistically, a mulatto—a “mixed” person.

But it wasn’t merely the legacy of Spanish colonialism captured in Pedro’s DNA that enticed me to meet him last weekend. Rather, I learned that Pedro, raised and schooled in Spain, had come back to the country of his father to work and raise his own family. To me, Pedro’s story seemed like the exemplification of the “brain drain” in reverse. I surmised that, having come back to Equatorial Guinea, Pedro gave up what is, in materialistic terms, a comparably more secure life in Spain.

In fact, Pedro used the same phrase—“anti-brain drain”—to characterize himself. Instead of reaping the fruits of his immigrant father’s move to Spain, Pedro told me that he had opted not to follow in the footsteps of his older brothers and make a life for himself in Madrid or Barcelona. He wanted to invest his own human capital in Equatorial Guinea, where his paternal grandmother still collects wood for cooking and continues to bathe in a stagnant stream near her rural home, he said.

But if Pedro’s conception of the brain drain in reverse is that which applies to all former expatriates and their descendants who return to this country, then Equatorial Guinea ought not to rejoice anytime soon.

After about an hour of conversation, Pedro began to speak very candidly. Living here is “shit,” he said, before adding (and later showing me) that he has two large-scale business projects in the works: a hotel and an apartment complex for foreign workers.  Having invested a personal fortune in both ventures and having “tolerated” life in a developing country to see them to completion, “no one can spite me for driving a Ferrari,” Pedro said.

The presence of foreign companies—mostly American oil giants, including Exxon Mobil—in Equatorial Guinea is stifling, to say the least. These corporations have such a stranglehold on the Equatoguinean economy and exist in such high numbers throughout the country that many locals call Malabo—the epicenter of this foreign investment—a “mini-America.” That American flags hang below many taxi rearview mirrors here speaks to the validity of this claim.

My observations aren’t meant to be self-righteous. Rather, I (optimistically) hope they induce serious reflection. Equatorial Guinea suffers from a dire lack of basic infrastructure. From hospitals to schools, the country’s relatively small population lives in an ironically impoverished state—ironic because Equatorial Guinea possesses enviable supplies of natural resources, including oil, gas, and gold.

The regrettable reality is that this wealth has by no means benefited Equatoguinean society like it could. For one, blame the fact that one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s most money-hungry dictators, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, reigns supreme in Malabo.  But there’s also something to be said about American complicity: Under President Obiang’s watch, American oil companies are exclusively exploiting the country’s vast energy resources, prompting our government to turn a blind eye toward the rampant inequality and dearth of democracy that are hallmarks of this country.

In light of such a bleak (and well-documented) picture, to learn of Pedro’s definition of anti-brain drain was disheartening. Pedro isn’t “investing” in Equatorial Guinea by helping to build the country’s primitive health care system or insufficient education sector. He, just like the thousands of American and Chinese foreign workers here, is merely investing his human capital into the same system that continues to ensure extreme wealth for the few and inhibiting impoverishment for the masses.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy.

Ahmed N. Mabruk ’11, a Crimson news executive, is a history concentrator in Mather House.