Longtime visitors to this tiny country recall that a scant few years ago big events here were things like the occasional landing of a jet from Europe at the airfield.

Back then, naked children would come out of their houses to point in thrilled wonderment at a car. And even a couple of years ago the telephone book was so slim that many people were listed simply by their first names.In this capital city of 35,000, the jewel-like central square with its Gothic cathedral and Moorish arches looks as if it was magically lifted from a Spanish provincial town. But a block away, in trash-strewn neighborhoods, bare-chested men play checkers with bottle caps, pushing them across crudely drawn boards, and children bathe in the streets.

But now change is coming rapidly to this obscure former Spanish colony in what travel writers and geographers have often called Africa's armpit.

A petroleum boom that began in earnest two years ago has already brought 67 percent economic growth here last year alone - and it will soon rocket this land from the ranks of the world's poorest countries to the prosperity of an average Middle Eastern oil state.

At least that is the theory.

"Now it's just a turmoil of traffic here," said Sam Lyons, director general of CMS Nomeco, a small Texas oil company that made some of the first finds here, exaggerating a wee bit. "Three years ago only a few ministers had cars, and now it seems like every engineer has one, and the only decent road is to the airport and back."

But for all the talk of an oil bonanza, many of Equatorial Guinea's 350,000 people are worriedly asking: Where are we going? And it is clear that for many, the lessons of the past inspire more dread than optimism.

That this country was nearly forgotten by time is in part a function of its odd colonial history. It is Africa's only Spanish-speaking nation, divided between island and mainland provinces, situated between giant Nigeria and a number of sparsely populated French-speaking countries.

With its suffocating heat and humidity, and a rainy season that lasts eight months, the place was long known mostly for the virulence of its tropical diseases.

Isolation has been a weapon of survival for Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and his government. When a U.S. ambassador complained too loudly in 1993 about rampant human rights abuses, he was expelled on the charge that he was engaging in witchcraft. The American Embassy remains closed.

"We are happy to exchange ideas with any country about foreign affairs, but not internal matters," said a Foreign Ministry official who refused to discuss reports of corruption in government. "Suffice it to say that we, Equatorial Guineans, are all united behind our leader, and have total confidence in his ability to develop this country."