Country Facts #4: Gabon to Ireland

This week: UFO sightings, unfortunate rabbits, time travel, suicidal cults, sinkholes, toxic sludge, and Wyclef Jean.


Gabon – For a time during its oil boom in the 1980s, the largely impoverished African nation of Gabon was thought to be the world’s biggest consumer of champagne per capita, so great was- and is- the corruption in its powerful elite. The Gabonese president during this era, Omar Bongo, ruled for 41 years until 2009, the sixth longest stint in power in any country in the past century. READ MORE

Gambia – The authoritarian president of the Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, is amongst the world’s most colourful leaders. He has added a third day to the national weekend, claimed he could cure AIDS, and declared his intentions to rule the country for “one billion years, if Allah says so”. Justifying his extreme opposition to homosexuality, Jammeh stated, “I have buffalos from South Africa and Brazil and they never date each other”. (2017 update: he’s gone, off into exile with £9 million from the Gambian state coffers and a selection of luxury cars). READ MORE

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No policy pledges necessary when you’re an eccentric African dictator – Yahyapropaganda / Soman / CC-BY-SA 4.0

Georgia – Joseph Stalin may have been even more tyrannical murderer than Adolf Hitler, killing tens of millions of people while in power, but unlike Austrians, many people in Georgia are actually quite proud of their most famous ever citizen. There are a number of Stalin statues and monuments all across the country, and according to polls  45% of Georgians have favourable views of the former Soviet leader. READ MORE

Germany – An unfortunate side effect of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was the fate of the rabbits that had thrived in the uninhabited death zone between East and West Berlin. As the barriers protecting their habitat from the city were torn down, thousands of the terrified creatures were trampled or starved to death. An Academy Award nominated documentary was even made about their plight, using them partly as a metaphor for the experiences of the East German people in the aftermath of reunification. READ MORE

Ghana – Though it is one of the more affluent and progressive nations in sub Saharan Africa, Ghana is in many ways a very traditional country, and like many of its neighbours belief in witchcraft remains rife. Around 1,000 Ghanaian women accused of being witches are held in several camps in the rural north of the country, where they are exorcised of their perceived condition by tribal leaders and kept safe from vigilante attacks. READ MORE

Greece – Despite increasing levels of irreligiousness, the Orthodox Church continues to wield a lot of power in Greek society. Unsurprisingly, the discrepancy between the teachings of a 2,000 year old church and the realities of 21st Century life has created some problems. One of the biggest is that Greece still does not have a single crematorium, largely because of objections from the church. As a consequence, many Greek cemeteries are at full capacity, and bodies are usually exhumed after just three years in the ground. The high cost of having bones stored is too much for many in the cash strapped country, and the exhumed bones are often eventually dumped in mass graves if no one is able to pay for further storage. READ MORE

Grenada – F1 star Lewis Hamilton’s paternal grandfather Davidson Hamilton was born on the Caribbean island of Grenada, emmigrating to the UK in the 1950s. Clearly the driving bug runs in the genes: when Hamilton Sr returned to Grenada he became a bus driver in his hometown. READ MORE

Guatemala – Guatemala City, capital of the nation of the same name, has twice made headlines around the world in recent years when vast sinkholes opened up and swallowed the land above them. In 2007, an extraordinary 100m hole appeared on the surface, destroying everything above it and killing five people, while just three years later another huge sinkhole only a few blocks away took another 15 lives. The sinkholes occur as a result of a combination of factors, especially heavy rainfall and leaking sewers. READ MORE

A giant sinkhole caused by the rains of Tropical Storm Agatha is seen in Guatemala City
Guatemala City’s terrifying sinkhole -. Crazy Sinkhole / User:The Bricks / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Guinea – Despite sharing a name, the tropical West African nation of Guinea is not the home place of the guinea pig- the cute little rodents are indigenous instead to the Andes Mountains of South America several thousand kilometres to the West. But their does seem to be a tenuous connection between the two: guinea pigs are said to be so called because they originated somewhere far away from Europe, with Guinea used as a suitable synonym for an exotic faraway place. READ MORE

Guinea-Bissau – Guinea-Bissau has been described by the UN as Africa’s first “Narco-state”. Thanks to its strategic location midway between South America and Europe, and a corrupt government happy to turn a blind eye for a share in the profits, the country has recently become an increasingly popular transit point for Colombian cocaine. One tonne of cocaine is estimated to leave the country for Europe every single day. READ MORE

Guyana – In 1978, 909 members of the communist cult Peoples Temple died in a mass suicide (including many forced suicides) in Jonestown, the settlement founded by the group deep in the jungle of Guyana. The increasingly paranoid cult leader Jim Jones ordered the killing of a US congressman, who had been visiting the settlement to investigate human rights abuses, before promptly initiating the wave of suicides. More Americans died at Jonestown than in any other non-natural incident until September 11th 2001. READ MORE

Haiti – Haitian born, American based pop star Wyclef Jean made a bid to become the president of Haiti in 2010, but he was barred by the electoral commission. Probably for the best since he spoke neither French nor Creole, Haiti’s two national languages. READ MORE

Honduras – The homicide rate in Honduras is by some distance the world’s worst. Figures released in 2012 showed that there were 90.4 murders per 100,000 people, with the rate in the second largest city San Pedro Sula- considered the world’s most dangerous city- around twice as high. To put the figures into context, you’re 90 times more likely to be murdered in Honduras than the UK… READ MORE

Hungary – In 2011, an industrial accident in Ajka, Hungary caused one million cubic metres of red sludge, used when producing aluminium, to flood from a reservoir in which it was being contained. The wave of mud, which initially reached up to two metres in height, engulfed several towns in the area, claiming ten lives and destroying local ecosystems. READ MORE

Toxic Spill, Ajka, Hungary
A bird’s eye view showing the dam breach – Hungary ajka toxicspill / User:Digitalglobe / CC-BY-SA 3-0

Iceland – Think Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas? Think again. In the 11th Century, around 500 years before Columbus arrived in the Caribbean, Iceland born Viking explorer Leif Erikson led an expedition across the North Atlantic to Canada. Just like Columbus, he made his discovery by accident: Leif had actually been headed for Greenland to spread the word of Christianity. But surely he’d agree finding a brand new continent was way more exciting than handing out a few Bibles. READ MORE

India – India’s poor relations with its neighbours appear to have left the country so racked with paranoia that they feel the heavens are against them. Over several months in 2012 and 2013, suspicious border guards at India’s northern frontier with China in the Himalayas reported 329 sightings of what they assumed were Chinese aircraft monitoring them from above in the evening. Only when a team of astronomers intervened did it become clear that the sightings were in fact two planets, Venus and Jupiter. READ MORE

Indonesia – Indonesia has more active volcanoes- 127- than any other nation, but while the potential for a catastrophic blow-out is high, some of them offer economic opportunities to enterprising locals. Every day, miners climb up the 2,800m tall volcano Ijen on the island of Java in order to collect Sulphur deposits. It’s difficult to envisage a more unpleasant job- it’s a four hour return journey, the return leg complete with a 90kg load of sulphur, and at the top the miners must descend into the crater with only rudimentary masks to protect them from the acrid toxic gases being spewed out. And it’s hardly lucrative, with miners earning around $6 per load. READ MORE

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Indonesia’s toxic sulphur mine – Sulphur mining at Kawah Ijen, Indonesia / Yidian Cheow / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Iran – The Fars News Agency, Iran’s state supported and somewhat gullible news organisation, has been left with egg on its face on a few recent occasions. In 2012, it ran a story first published on The Onion claiming white Americans would rather vote for then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than his US counterpart Barack Obama, before realising its error. The following year, Fars topped that by briefly claiming an Iranian scientist had invented a time travelling machine that would allow users to see up to eight years into the future. READ MORE

Iraq – One moment of light relief in the otherwise grim Iraq War of 2003 were the defiant utterances of the country’s press officer Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf. Dubbed Comical Ali in the western media, al-Sahhaf stubbornly defied in one televised interview that American forces had arrived in Baghdad even as the battle for the city raged on around him. READ MORE

Ireland –Since the 1930s, Ireland has maintained a policy of military neutrality. This was stringently enforced during World War II, leading to the peculiar case of Allied airmen who had crashed over the territory often being held as Irish Prisoners of War. One such POW, American RAF officer Roland Wolfe, managed to escape back to Britain yet was sent straight back in order not to offend the Irish government. READ MORE


If you have anything to add to any of these entries, you can offer a better one, or you just want someone to talk to, please leave a comment!

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