Monday, April 28, 2008

Cape Verde

Listening to Cesaria Evora, by far the most famous Cape Verdean in the world, takes me back to Cape Verde and reminds me that I've been meaning to write about the country since I started here. I have some knowledge of the place because it was one of the countries for which I was desk officer in the last phase of my career at the Peace Corps. It's a fascinating place I'd know nothing about otherwise, and getting to know it was definitely a highlight of my career. I got to the country twice, once in 1998 on my "desk trip," (what amounts to a forced march a desk officer must take at least once, visiting as many volunteers at their sites as possible in all the countries s/he works for, a week per country, all at once. I had three countries, so including travel time, I was traveling, non-stop, for a month. That's worth an entry on its own!) On that trip, I got to the islands of Sal (where the international airport is), Fogo, where there is an active volcano, and the main island of São Tiago, (the Portuguese rendering of Santiago) which hosts the capital city, Praia. I went again in 1999, spending a month as the acting director of Peace Corps operations there, spending all of my time in Praia.

Cape Verde, as you can see from the illustration, is an archipelago; it sits about 600 miles straight west of the city of Dakar, Senegal, a series of flyspecks in the Atlantic. The islands were uninhabited until their discovery by the Portuguese in 1444. The name they gave it, which means "green cape," is a mystery, indicating either drastic climate change in the past 500 years, or that the discovery was made during the islands' extremely short and unreliable rainy season. However the name applied at the time, it's misnomer now. Most of the year there is little green to be seen on the islands; what you do see instead are fantastic moonscapes virtually untouched by water erosion, craggy peaks overlooking incredibly beautiful beaches. The island of Sal, named for the salt produced there, is especially barren. As home to the international airport, it hosts an impressive tourism infrastructure of hotels and restaurants, frequented mostly by Europeans; it's the first, and in may cases the only, place seen by visitors to the country. For all the empty landscape of Sal, the tourism there is a rare source of good employment for Cape Verdeans, whom the government is doing everything possible to keep in the country, but that is a losing battle. The Cape Verdeans outside the country outnumber by hundreds of thousands the 450,000 who live there. Most of the diaspora are young men who follow the well-trod route to Europe and the U.S. to seek better lives. The biggest Cape Verdean community in the United States (in fact, the biggest U.S. community of all Portuguese speakers) is in southern Massachusetts.

Cape Verde exists as a country because of the slave trade. The Portuguese used it as a holding area, essentially a depot, for people brought from all over West Africa to be warehoused before they were auctioned and forwarded to the New World. Its history can only be called tragic. The people who live there now are descendants of the slaves owned by the Portuguese colonists themselves. While it is considered an African country, the strong Latin influence left by the Portuguese lends the place more of a European/Caribbean feel than distinctly African, and Cape Verdeans identify most strongly with other former Portuguese colonies; not necessarily with Africans first, but with other Lusophones, from Brazil to Angola. The local language, Kriolu, which you are hearing when Cesaria sings, is a mix of Portuguese and the various African languages brought by the original slaves. Given the paucity of rain, the lack of jobs and the general poverty, it is a hard place to live. All Cape Verdeans who live in the country have relatives who are living outside it.

In spite of everything, Cape Verdeans in the diaspora love their uniquely beautiful country and most of them would return there permanently, instead of merely visiting it, if they could. Wherever they live, they know how to have a good time. A party in Cape Verde means two things: dancing and grogue, a home brew made from sugarcane, and it flows freely and lethally. It's usually served in a huge basin mixed with ice, sugar and lime. It goes down so easily you don't realize what's hit you until it's way too late, and the melting ice only makes you think the effect is weakened. (I speak from experience!) The local music is called morna, a relative of the Poruguese fado. It's melancholy, sort of akin to our blues, and can be about lost love or nostalgia for home. Technically, Cesaria is a morna singer.

I'm so sorry I have none of my own pictures of the country to share. At the time I retired, I made the decision that pictures I took on my trips were more useful to whomever succeeded me on the desk than they would ever be to me, so I left them at the office. So stupid. I regret it now, but there you have it. If you google Cape Verde images you'll get some excellent, evocative pictures, and Cape Verde Peace Corps volunteers are great bloggers, so if my words here pique your curiosity, a little exploration will be fruitful.


Nan said...

Interesting post. I found your description of the geographic and cultural context - somewhere between West Africa and the Portugese apt in painting a picture of the slave trade.

On another note, you reminded me that my good friend Peg spent two years in Senegal in the Peace Corps . . . can't remember the years now - but maybe 1988? 1990? She and I corresponded, and I have been looking for the packet of letters I saved from her from those years - for a couple of years now. They are in a "safe" (read, lost) place somewhere in my house.

Ralph said...

I have a collection of letters like that too, Nan, onloy they're being "kept" in someone else's house. I hope I can get them back some day.

Anonymous said...

I'm impressed with having a great job that pays you travel to all those countries. God, who wouldn't have wanted THAT job? Sounds so refreshing to spend a month a year in a different place with Peace Corps family all around you. Good job posting that one!

Ralph said...

Z&M, give me a chance and I'll bitch and moan about it, but you're right. It was in many ways a dream job.