"Equatorial Guinea is a paradise" - Benjamín Zarandona
The former Betis player lives between Spain and Equatorial Guinea, a land he is in love with and where he is currently working for the new generations of football.
“Spain has not yet discovered the paradises that Equatorial Guinea can offer”. Benjamín Zarandona (Valladolid, 1976) is sincere when asked why no one from the ancient metropolis visits Equatorial Guinea. The country was a Spanish colony until 1968 and the only nation on the continent that speaks the language of Cervantes. “When I publish photos or videos, people do not believe that there are islands, like Corisco or Annobón, that have nothing to envy to Punta Cana.”
Benjamin knows the subject. He received his African heritage from his mother, who was born in the coastal city of Mbini. It was there that his father, a Basque from Portugalete, met her while doing military service. Together they returned to Spain, and in Valladolid, they had Benjamin, who learned to love football in those streets. In the Castilian city, he began his career, which took him to the first division in Valladolid, Real Betis, and Cadiz for eleven seasons.
And one day, Guinea knocked on his door. “The president of the Federation of Equatorial Guinea came to Seville. I was already old enough to know that playing for the Spanish national team was very complicated, so I decided to play for them, where my brother was also playing”. Benjamin had never visited his mother’s homeland, but he will not forget the moment his plane landed in Malabo.
“I did not expect that reception in Guinea or that people would follow LaLiga there but they were informed about everything. When we arrived at the airport there were many, many people waiting”. He found a land of overflowing beauty, hypnotic green and tropical sun. But he also felt that they needed him: “I was very impressed by the orphanage in Malabo, those children, and from that day on I knew I needed to help.”
Benjamin believes in the transformative power of football. strength to unite the new generations and bring them a better future. For years he has pursued two goals that make it possible. The first one is to create a structure of lower categories and that children grow in values and sportsmanship: “The base is a good structure of lower categories, a league from 8 to 17 years that allows them to play every week with good facilities and trainers”.
To achieve this, Zarandona works with the Martínez Hermanos Foundation and the Real Betis Football Foundation. The first organization has planned for eight years a campus of men’s and women’s football: “300 children have come, it lasted three weeks and we did it in the Salesian school of Bata. We gave them breakfast, boots, material, they did not lack anything”.
With the foundation of his former club, he leads a group of 18 children who has twice taken them to play tournaments in Madrid and with whom he trains in the stadium of Nkua-Ntoma (Bata), in a facility loaned by the Ministry of Sports. “This project has three pillars: values, education and football. We try to inculcate values and training methodology”. Real Betis provides the brand and clothing, and he is in charge of looking for sponsors.
Another huge potential of Guinea is tourism. Benjamin’s voice gets excited when he speaks of his second country: “Equatorial Guinea is a paradise. If Spain gave us more visibility, many would choose to come and know the islands of Corisco and Annobón, their people and their culture”.
The former footballer often relaxes in them and confesses to loving the “beautiful beaches” and the “good people” that inhabit them for centuries. He would like his compatriots in Europe to set their eyes on this African emerald and let themselves be envelop by the tropical heat, stillness and lush nature that soaks it all in a blinding green.
When in Guinea, Benjamin spends most of his time on the island of Bioko, a unique place because it hosts the only capital in the world, Malabo, which is not located on the mainland of the country. Called Santa Isabel during the Spanish period, it is a historic center sown with colonial vestiges. Walking through its streets is a sensory experience of aroma, cultures, history, and the African culture.
Rediscovering the rhythm of local life and its gastronomy has been another of the gifts that he has given, he says, his return to Guinea: “The fruit is wonderful, the pineapple is super sweet, the mango and papaya too”. As pleasant as the food is, for Benjamin, the calm and well-being offered by the country: “I have been here a few years and the best thing is the people, the peace and tranquility with which one lives”.
It recognizes that it lacks to visit one of the most imposing corners of Guinea, the Ureka waterfall, one of the country’s virgin natural parks that offers a spectacle of rivers, eternal beaches, and waterfalls. While we convince him to visit this amazing place with the hand of Rumbo Malabo, he tells us the impact caused by another of the symbols of Equatorial Guinea and the island of Bioko: the Sampaka farm.
For him, this place is “a historical memory that reconciles tradition with the present.” The estate, recreated in the film Palmeras en la nieve, was a symbol of Spanish colonization and was known for cultivating and exporting one of the best cacaos in the world.
With the independence of Guinea in 1968, chocolate production in the country went into a rapid decline and Sampaka came very near to going into the history books. But with the impulse of a new generation, the iconic place has returned to its golden years and has become Benjamin’s favorite refuge.
The life of Zarandona, who lives between Malabo and Madrid, is a melting pot of Spanish and Guinean culture. “I was fortunate to be born in Spain because that allowed me to surround myself with the world of football and meet a lot of people. And thanks to my parents, I have the roots to go to Guinea and knowing the culture, and to help sports and children, which are the main thing”. He owes them both, he says, everything which he is today.
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Tasty, spicy, and delicious are some of the adjectives that define Equatorial Guinea’s food. With ingredients that cover tubers, spices, sauces, and so many flavors. However, for many still unknown.