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Africademics ‘Life Stories’: Trifonia Melibea Obono

By Carolina Nvé Díaz San Francisco

“People who want to obtain a doctorate while residing in Equatorial Guinea have to move to live outside the country or do it remotely.”

Trifonia Melibea Obono

Trifonia Melibea Obono is a journalist and political scientist with a Master’s degree in International Cooperation and Development from the University of Murcia, Spain. Her professional life is devoted to writing, research and teaching. Tireless activist and self-proclaimed feminist, she fights for the rights of the LGTBIQ+ collective and women in Equatorial Guinea through the Somos Parte del Mundo (“We are Part of the World”) collective. Her novel La Bastarda is the first novel by a female Equatorial Guinean writer to be translated into English. She is currently a PhD candidate in gender studies at the University of Salamanca, Spain. The interview was conducted by Carolina Nvé Díaz San Francisco. The views expressed are those of the author.

Welcome to our space, Trifonia Melibea. How would you describe yourself?

The doctoral thesis, literature and activism have made me a person living between Malabo and Madrid. I am a writer, yes, but I define myself primarily as artivista and not as an activist, because I express through art what I think and what I would like the world to be, and what I think it is better for women and sexual minorities. Perhaps for that reason my literary work and my dissertation focus on gender studies and the legal protection of LGBTIQ+ communities.

Let’s start from the beginning, with your education in Equatorial Guinea. What can you tell us?

During elementary school, primary, secondary, and high school, I was not very clear about what I wanted to be because of my age. It is difficult to know what you want during early and late adolescence. What I do remember is an anecdote that happened during my stay in Bata, at the boarding school La Salle, an institution that was created to train qualified teachers. The educational program included, in addition to academic training, a set of activities. I liked literature. I loved reading.

Once a week, a recognition was given to the person who checked out the most books from the library. And I was always among the first people who read the most books and that is why I think the director of the institution liked me. However, my relationship with the management of the entity was not always friendly because I was very naughty and not always respectful of the rules. For example, during sewing time, I used to hide under the bed with a book, and the nuns used to come almost immediately looking for me shouting “Where are you?! Where are you?! The others are sewing, come here!” And I was delighted under the bed until one day, one nun found me and grabbed me by the legs and pulled me out from under the bed.

These anecdotes are of special interest. Despite the antics, I was not kicked out of boarding school, although on occasions, the issue was raised resulting often with a “not for now.” The time was never right. Peers asked many times “Why not if she is so naughty?” “No,” the board insisted, “she has something.” I never knew what they meant. To this day, I keep wondering about “that something” they saw, and I didn’t. When I meet again with the directive of the boarding, I will inquiry.

During boarding school, I was more concerned with playing, with distracting myself. I love playing with books. I love reading and learning about stories. I loved reading Mundo Negro magazine, and especially Donato Ndongo’s articles. Thanks to one of our most renowned writers, I connected with Africa. 

I did not know there were Guineans that had come so far, but through books discovered that there was another Guinea that was not the official one, and that drove me crazier, interested, curious every day. I wanted to know more. That curiosity for life and knowledge acquisition helped me start my degree, my master’s and progressively go onto my doctorate, my current occupation. For me, life is a constant challenge.

What subjects you did you focus on during your degree?

I studied two degrees, one in journalism, the other in political science. In journalism, my work focused on the analysis of the local journalism where I was at the time. Corruption was the chosen theme for my thesis in political science. There was a time in Spain when Marbella was known as the mecca of corruption, and one of my professors specialized in corruption issues. I admired him a lot for his risky job. I read a lot about corruption in Spain.

I did not like the score of my final job in politics. I passed with a very low grade and for that reason, I went to see the teacher, I was curious. I could not afford to fail, and I explained: “Professor, how can I fail if I come from a corrupt country. I do not need to learn much to learn about corruption, I have lived it.” He started laughing.

Then, during my master’s, I went deeper on the topic because Western academia is based on “all corroborated, numbers, figures, statistics.” However, in Africa, in Guinea, life follows other rhythms. These rhythms got me during my master’s while undertaking research work about Spain’s financing towards Equatorial Guinea and aimed at religious organizations working in the education sector. I chose a very poorly documented sector. It was the first stumbling block against my own identity. I had to ask myself several questions: “I am Guinean. Why? What is going on?”

All my peers and colleagues could access the internet and collect reliable data about their countries. I saw myself naked in front of a group of students, not because I was stupid. Now that I think about it, I should have used my head instead my heart at the moment to do a research job.

It would have been smarter if I had chosen one issue with available data. To choose Guinea as a theme for research work means to choose failure, and I still fail with my PhD, because I tell you, in order to do research in Guinea you need a PDGE ID card (Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea), and if you do not have it, you cannot investigate freely. And at my university, they scold me: “Melibea, continue with your work.” I remember last year, when I went to see my tutor after so long without seeing each other, she commented “Listen, a few days ago we talked about you because we did not know if you were alive or in jail.”

Why a PhD? Because we need research work to substantiate our laws. We need public policies that solve our problems. Without research work, a well-done research field work, any law will be a superficial norm, a “copy and paste” law from a Western country brought to Equatorial Guinea. The entire Guinean regulatory framework is Francoise. I think we need to investigate and to do documentation work so that when the lawmakers, the men who govern here (because men rule in this country) want to change things

How did you choose your doctoral program, where, and why?

Since the beginning, I chose the gender perspective. I’m in the Department of Law at the University of Salamanca, and the first thing I chose was the customary marriage. Why? Because there is no law or feminist studies to address this issue that creates so many problems. Women are stranded at the legal level in terms of marriage and many other topics.

Women have no rights here. They don’t. We do not have rights within the ones inherited from our ethnic traditions. We do not have have rights within the ones inherited from Francoism. We do not have rights anywhere. The issue of women does not interest the political elite.

It is true that there exist diverse information about the protection of women among certain ethnic groups. The Bubi ethnic group, for example, has declared itself matriarchal. However, all ethnic groups in Equatorial Guinea pay homage to patriarchy. Everyone.

Returning to the topic of my doctorate, I say that during field work, I found the first problem: lack of knowledge about mother tongues. In Equatorial Guinea, we do not know all about our ethnic groups, we just live together. At school, we do not learn about mother tongues as part of the Guineo-Equatorian identity. 

The second problem I encountered is called “scholarship,” which here, these scholarships are destined to rich families. 

I am a Guinean woman, and my passport means “you are nobody” because of where I am from. It is very difficult. I had to travel to talk to women about marriage and its consequences. I did not want men to tell me about their lives, I knew what they were going to tell.  When I saw myself in that situation, I changed the topic of my PhD dissertation.

We have a history in our country that we cannot hide.  We have serious issues with illiteracy, and it affects more to women than men, indeed, in my third book La Albina del Dinero,I approach the drama of women during the regime of Macias and Obiang, how they fled to Gabon, Nigeria and Cameroon, and in recent years to Europe. In those countries, they worked (that has not changed much) especially in two sectors: home and prostitution. These women have many stories to tell, but I want them to tell me those stories in their languages, in ways they can speak, so I had to change the subject of my PhD dissertation.

Doing a PhD is solitary work, and in Guinea, a lot more. If you carry out field work is because white people give you money. If you work to protect human rights, it is because white people offer you money. In my case, it is believed that the Western embassies and all the whites in the world pay me every end of the month because of LGTBIQ+ related issues. It is hard. At the moment, my work focuses on the practices of conversion from homosexuality to heterosexuality.

My PhD is my most solitary student’s cycle. Satisfaction comes at times because you research a topic you are passionate about and you contribute with something positive to your society.

Does this mean that you are also collecting other bibliographic resources or similar studies being undertaking in other countries about the practices of conversions?

Many coincidences, yes. For example, corrective rape is practiced in many black African countries. Families and society have reached to an agreement: for a woman to stop being a lesbian she has to be raped. The family looks for the rapist.

This reminds me of a section from the documentary Fidel Lemoy that the organization Somos Parte del Mundo (We are Part of the World) and to which you belong, brought to light this year (2020) and where an example is mentioned about these forms of violence conducted by priests, and how some actions are actual rape…  

These actions are rape for victims and not for society. Society mandates that, first, you have to be heterosexual at all costs. And as highlighted in the documentary, Guinean society blindly trusts religious authorities. It is recommended that everyone see the documentary when it can be broadcasted. COVID-19 can be an inconvenient for that. To Equatorial-Guinean sexual minorities is a very sensitive issue.

Although you have already mentioned it before, could you list the challenges faced during your work as a doctoral student?

The first challenge is COVID-19. The deaths caused by the pandemic, the cost of traveling. That is the first challenge.

The second challenge is called Equatorial Guinea. How do you investigate in a country that is not tolerant of research? “Where do you want to take this information?” it is what is always wondered.

Equatorial Guinea is my main challenge. I remember that once, I wanted to interview a lady who lived in Sampaka, she passed. She was an elderly woman. I wanted to interview her about the role of women during the process of independence. His grandson arrived immediately. He asked me who I was. “Where is the document that the authorities have issued for your work. Go away. I do not want problems.” It is very difficult to investigate in Guinea because everything is politicized. Everything is considered to be anomalous.

In Equatorial Guinea, we must be aware that each person has in their mind a definition of what the country means. And I have mine. I think that the Guinea that is diverse, respectful, and tolerant will get there one day, but we have to do things now in order to reach to that.

You mentioned earlier that you read books by Guinean authors. Did you have the opportunity to read women authors from Equatorial Guinea?

I read Ekomobut I understood almost nothing. The director at the boarding school told me: “Relax, you will understand.”  I read the poems of Rachel Ilombé. At that moment, it was not as carefully put together as the critical edition compiled by the university professor Benita Sampedro on our author: Ceiba II (Poesía inédita) by Raquel Ilombe del Pozo Epita (2015).

Raquel was the first woman to address the topic of “homeless and without country” women, the woman who lives in between several worlds, the rejected woman in several worlds. For example, when I go to Spain, I am the black one, I always say it, the black one. Back to Guinea, I am the white one. Raquel Ilombé already said it, before independence and after, and I did not understand it, perhaps because I did not have enough maturity to understand it. I think she wrote the book for us. And Ekomo to me is an unmeasurable dare. I do not know how this woman dared to publish such a book at that time. She was lucky that nobody understood her at that time. Perhaps, that saved her life, and was the cause of her death: loneliness, isolation, exclusion. Guinea killed María Nsué. Guinea knows how to kill her artists.

Could you say something about doctoral programs and your notion about forms of colonization and decolonization within the system of higher education in Equatorial Guinea?

People who want to obtain a doctorate, residing in Equatorial Guinea, have to move to live outside the country or do it remotely. The National University of Equatorial Guinea does not offer training for master’s, postgraduate programs, or PhD’s.

The government of the UNGE is a government composed by men. The government of the Republic of Equatorial Guinea is a government of men. Everything related to the exercise of power in Equatorial Guinea is a matter for men, women here cook, clean, and we are crazy, the crazy women with the dissidents of the patriarchy.

The educational system in Equatorial Guinea is still of a colonial nature. Why? Because in the Franco era, in colonial times, education —and quality education— was in the hands of missionaries, and now, the best educative centers in the country remain in the hands of missionaries and international aid workers. What has changed? Nothing.

When I was in secondary and high school, I read more Spanish books in literature than books written by Guineans. Today, Guinean youth studying at the high school level have easier access to a book from Quevedo than to a novel written by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel. What has changed? Folklore has changed and we are independent. However, independence is not a discourse, it is the exercise of power. It is true that Guinean people have created educational centers, but if the population, from the political elite to the rest of the population, can choose between a center run by missionaries and other composed by Guinean population, they rather choose the missionary educational center. What has changed?

And why the University of Salamanca?

Well, I was very late in everything. I was pregnant and very tired, so I sent applications with the idea to say yes to the university that offered me a place first. Then, I realized that the University of Salamanca was one of the best universities in the country, but in the beginning, that was not my criteria.  I was pregnant, I had a very difficult pregnancy, and Salamanca turned up. That was it. There are no further explanations.

What are your main goals? Where are you going towards to? What do you want to achieve with this PhD?

To be alive. I do not know if I will still be alive. Yesterday, in an activity that we had been preparing for a long time, we went to ask for a space at a ministry. They told us that yes, everything was fine, but suddenly, they called us back and told my companion and me: “Listen, you have to come, there is a detail in the program that needs to be changed.” Then, we went. The detail that needed to be changed: “No, that girl cannot be a speaker in the activity because it does not meet the profile.” That is the problem, that girl can not go to give a talk in public because she is a lesbian. They did not say that, but that was the reason. A lesbian cannot appear speaking in front of a decent audience. Is that lesbian educated? Yes. Does she know how to express herself in public? Yes, but she is a lesbian. I do not have to explain to anyone whether I am a lesbian or not.

In a different Guinea, to be a lesbian should not be a reason for discrimination or for talent waste because a person is not like the way women should be. All women are not the same. To us, these discriminatory acts, that give at the same time power to our rulers, represent the end of our writers. Some have died due to alcoholism, others have died —and continue to die— in exile, others due to political repression, because Guinea does not know how to value beyond prejudice.

What are my goals? Stay alive, because I do not know if tomorrow, they will… not only say that I cannot give a talk because I m a lesbian. Perhaps they will say next time something like: “We are going to take her to jail, let’s kill her, because she is a lesbian.” And I am not going to leave here because I am not a heteronormative woman. Equatorial Guinea is large and diverse. We fit all.

Thank you very much, Trifonia Melibea, for your time and your words. 

Carolina Nvé Diaz San Francisco is a Hispanoguinean medical anthropologist based in Boston (USA) at the Disparities Research Unit (Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School). She is also a member of Massachusetts of Women of Color Coalition (MAWOCC), and a PhD candidate in anthropology, currently working on mental health care cultures in Equatorial Guinea.