Trifonia Melibea Obono, of Equatoguinean nationality, is a writer, researcher, and teacher specializing in gender and women’s issues in Africa. She studied Political Science and Journalism at the University of Murcia. She says that in journalism she learned to question, investigate, to extract information; in political science, she came to understand the social structure of the world in which we live. After graduating, she did a Master’s degree in International Cooperation and Development. Currently, she is doing a Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Gender Studies and Equality Policies at the University of Salamanca, while working as a professor at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences of the UNGE (National University of Equatorial Guinea) in Malabo. She is also part of the Center for Afro-Hispanic Studies of the UNED.
In addition to her academic career, Trifonia Melibea Obono has published several books and short stories included in literary anthologies that address women’s rights and the situation of gender issues in Equatorial Guinea. For example, in La herencia de bindendee, published in 2016, she addresses the gender inequality of the Fang tribe, which is her tribe of origin and the majority tribe in Equatorial Guinea. She has also written La bastarda (Flores raras, 2002) and La albina del dinero (Altaïr, Casa África, 2017), and she is a regular contributor to different media, both in her country and abroad. The journalist, writer, and academic explains that, in her books and articles, she tries to answer the questions that were never answered when she was a child and to draw how power structures function and are sustained in her country, a territory in which religion continues to play a fundamental role in constraining the rights and development of women and where they have formal rights, “but not real ones”. A country, Equatorial Guinea, where tradition is still a very powerful element that designs the different models of socialization.
Without going any further, and in some of her journalistic articles, Trifonia Melibea Obono has addressed the issue of marriage in her country. She has referred to it as “a ritualized form of prostitution, of selling bodies”. “(…) In my country there are two types of prostitution: the official one is where people with miniskirts hang out on the sidewalk looking for clients. Everyone recognizes this type. Then, there is unofficial prostitution that is not recognized, but normalized. It has to do with the exploitation of women through marriage and traditions”.
When talking about Equatorial Guinea -a former Spanish colony and province; independent since 1968- one cannot fail to mention one name, that of Teodoro Obiang, the Head of State who has been in power the longest in the global arena, not counting monarchies. This translates into forty-three years in power. He is currently in his eighties. The last general elections were held in November 2022 and Obiang won with 96.31% of the votes, even though experts and international observers do not consider this result valid and consider it fraudulent. During all these years at the head of the country, Obiang has exercised power with an iron fist and has not hesitated to imprison dissident voices that have questioned his leadership, that have brought to light the corruption of the elites, or that have simply fought for the establishment of a real democratic system and respect for human rights.
Without going any further, one needs only speak of the recent case of Julio Obama, of Spanish and Guinean nationalities who, in January 2023, died after being tortured in a Guinean prison. e had been imprisoned on charges of planning a coup d’état against the president and sentenced to sixty years in prison. Investigations point to the involvement of one of Obiang’s sons, Carmelo Ovono Obiang, according to the Spanish National Court. This is not an isolated case and Teodoro Obiang’s regime has been called dictatorial by many international powers. Since the independence of the African country, the Spanish government has maintained a relationship that has worked in stages: sometimes tense and sometimes cordial. The strategic relevance of the country, the social, historical, and cultural ties, and the country’s shift, during the 1990s, to an economy based on the export of oil and natural gas, have been the main factors in the relationship between the two countries. A large part of the Equatorial Guinean diaspora resides in Spain. José Naranjo, a journalist installed in Africa for years and a good connoisseur of the country, wrote in 2018: “The appropriation of the State apparatus and the systematic plundering of natural resources for their benefit has characterized the behaviour of the small elite that has governed this country since 1979. That politicians known to everybody and Spanish businessmen are accomplices of a dictatorship that does not hesitate to use all its repressive machinery against opponents and citizens who dare to disagree raises, at the very least, serious moral doubts. Human Rights Watch also makes this point and sums up the situation in the African country well: “Huge oil revenues fund luxurious lifestyles for the small elite surrounding the president, while a large proportion of the population continues to live in poverty. Mismanagement of public funds and credible allegations of high-level corruption persist, as do other serious abuses such as torture, arbitrary detention, and unfair trials.”
Trifonia Melibea Obono’s activism and academic activity focus on the women’s situation and the LGTBIQ+ community in Equatorial Guinea. Women’s rights are formally represented in the country’s Constitution, but in the civil, political, social, and economic spheres, equality between men and women is still a chimera. Human trafficking, violence against women, early and forced marriages, poverty among rural women, gender stereotypes, school dropouts, and unsafe abortions continue to be part of the reality in Equatorial Guinea. In addition, the data on indicators provided by the Obiang government -when they are provided- are often opaque.
Regarding the situation of the LGTBIQ+ community, Trifonia Melibea Obono recently wrote: “The trafficking of LGTBIQ+ people for sexual and labor exploitation in the Republic of Equatorial Guinea occurs in a unique way. Families, wrapped up in the ancestral definition of homosexuality as a disease, a haunting, a possession of evil spirits or a product of bad education, feel unhappy when they discover that in theirs if there is a sexually dissident person.” Even though homosexuality is not legally penalized in the country, the oppression and marginalization to which LGTBIQ+ people are subjected are constant.
One of the factors contributing to this situation is the strong implementation of ethnic traditions and the role and power of the Church. “The rejection of the homosexual is underpinned by the fact that ‘it is not African’ but ‘White people’s customs’ (…) Homophobia is indeed on the rise because of the influence of evangelist churches, yes, but not only this: the Catholic Church is no exception, and the history of homophobia confirms this. However, the Bantu culture is not flexible with sex-affective diversity. In the Guinean ethnic groups, homosexuality has specific names, all with approaches of exclusion and violence”, explained the activist in an interview.
How did you become interested in gender issues?
I have been interested in it since I was a child. My family and I belong to the Fang ethnic group, which is the majority in Equatorial Guinea. The culture of silence in this ethnic group is brutal, especially when it comes to women’s issues. As a child, I was quite naughty and always asked too many questions. I was silenced and I learned to do so but also to observe what was going on around me. Girls accompany mothers everywhere, to women’s bathing areas, to spaces where they talk about everything that happens in the village and the country. At university, I could not find answers to the questions I had been internalizing since I was a child, but I was equipped with the scientific tools to investigate. I understood that cultural silence is designed to subjugate women; it is a strategy for the subordination of women.
In an interview a few years ago you said that in Spain you were “the Black woman” and in Equatorial Guinea, you were “the Spanish girl”. What is it like to live halfway between these two worlds?
It used to hurt me to be called “la blanquita” in Equatorial Guinea. I thought I belonged to a community, but suddenly I was confronted with the misogyny of this community, which considers that a Black woman cannot be cultured. This is a misogyny that applies to Black women. Knowledge is identified with the White woman; hence the complex that many Black women have.
Have you found yourself in racist situations in Spain?
I have a text in which I talk precisely about this. In this country, a Black woman is considered either a prostitute or a domestic worker, and in certain places, they treat you as if you don’t understand the language: with gestures or speaking more slowly. That’s when you realize that they are taking you for a fool. On the street, I have received many offers of sexual content. I have also encountered racism in institutional spaces because there are people who have not yet understood that you can be Black and Spanish. Every time I go to a place, be it an office or a hotel, I am spoken to in English or French. In the collective consciousness, the Black and Spanish woman or the Black and educated woman does not exist. This is one of the great stigmas we suffer from.
In the last decade have you seen any changes in the role of fang women and the perception of the communities?
Changes? Yes. The changes started to happen gradually from the 1990s, when oil exploitation started and people began to arrive and demanded a certain standard of living. From the 2000s onwards, young people started to flirt with social networks and the Internet and discovered that there is a whole world beyond the one we have here. Many women began to study, leave the country, meet new references, and so on. The changes, however, do not originate in public policies or political will, but in social dynamism. Change is inevitable and now women can access schools or social networks. Progress cannot be stopped. In Equatorial Guinea, a large part of the population watches the news on the BBC, French channels, and Spanish television. They constantly see women who have come a long way by being themselves. Our television shows a model of virtuous women that no longer exists. Today’s women are the fruit of social changes.
What role does religion play in the development of women in Equatorial Guinea?
It plays a fundamental role. Religion is one of the reasons for the stagnation that has occurred in the emancipation of women. When religion has promoted education, for example, it has done so with limitations. It has also systematically denied the right to abortion. The religious leadership does not want to break the glass ceiling.
You are an activist for LGTBIQ+ rights.
The obligation to protect any vulnerable group in a State belongs to the public authorities of that State. This is not the case in Equatorial Guinea, where there is not even the slightest political will for the LGTBIQ+ population to be protected. Families with LGTBIQ+ members are convinced that their sons and daughters, their brothers and sisters are sick, and do not hesitate to resort to any kind of violence to ‘cure’ them. Therefore, to the violence that has been exercised against this collective, we have to add ethnic traditions. It is said that before the Whites arrived, there were no such ‘behaviors’, but this is not so. What I mean is that here, ethnic structures can be as violent as State violence. A person belonging to the LGTBIQ+ collective has no protection neither from the family, the judicature, nor from the school, or anyone.
Why, with the relationship that has existed and still exists, do we know so little about Equatorial Guinea?
Because in Equatorial Guinea there is no interest to be known. Some time ago I attributed a lot of responsibility to Spain, but I no longer do so. In Equatorial Guinea, we have no international media or correspondents, and the social networks are under control. There is someone who has no interest that what is happening here is known, and this is not Spain’s responsibility. In Africa, we should change our strategy and start questioning our rulers. We have been educated in hatred, as the colonized peoples we were. We have an education based on white hatred. Okay, I get it: the Whites did this and that, but what have you… what have you done as a Black ruler? African leaders are not interested in making Africa known because that’s the only way they can continue to do whatever they want. As a country, you have to make yourself known. We would need a channel like Euronews to show the reality of African countries, but no ruler is interested.
In November 2022, there were general elections. After forty-three years in power, Obiang won again, with 96.31% of the votes. He is the Head of State who has been in power the longest, not counting the monarchies. How do you feel about it?
I imagine that I live it like the rest of the people of Equatorial Guinea. What was done in November 2022 is what has always been done. I cannot say that I have lived through any democratic election. I am forty years old, and I have not experienced elections.