Wedding rituals of S. Nicolau
One of the most interesting aspects of the island's culture is the traditions surrounding engagements and weddings, which continue to this day unaffected by the winds of change. Everything begins with the boy's conquest of the girl, which follows strict rules. The boy throws a small stone to show his interest, which she picks up and puts in her pocket as a sign of her acceptance.
The next step is for the boy to write the girl a letter. Curiously, the function of the letter is not so much as a declaration of love, but essentially to serve as proof in the event of something unexpected happening. This is followed by an exchanged of gifts, called the "sinal de krensa", of sentimental or monetary value.
The girl's virginity is an important issue, possibly because of Sao Nicolau's past role as the center of the country's Catholic Church. Still at the early stages of courtship the boy has to know whether his bride-to-be is a virgin or not. So if she is, she presents him a closed flower, but if she is not the flower is open.
When the young couples have been courting for some time, the boy eventually asks the girl's hand in marriage. The girl takes the first step by telling her mother everything about her boyfriend's intentions. If the mother is happy with the boy she tells her husband, who takes the final decision. If the boy is an honest worker from a good family, the father will give his consent.
The girl then has to tell him how her parents reacted. The engagement is officially celebrated in the girl's house. The boy finds two or three trusted people to accompany him, who might be his godfather, father or someone else. The chosen for the mission take with him a liter of rum (Grogue), while the girl's parents make their own preparations for the visit.
On the chosen day the parties meet, and begin by discussing trivial everyday affairs. Finally, the spokesman for the boy's party asks the hand of the girl for him. After a brief silence, the girl's parents call her into the room and ask if she had consented to them asking her hand. If she says yes, the proposal is accepted.
The event is celebrated the next day with the liter of rum brought by the boy's party. The engagement will normally last a full year.
Eight days before the wedding work starts on the (pilagem), firewood is being gathered and the (xerem) are being prepared. The pilagem consists of preparing the corn for the xerem and fill the intestines of the goat.
The xerem is one of the main ingredients for the celebrations, accompanying the main dish of goat stew. When the corn has been worked into coarse flour it is cooked like rice – first with oil and then mixed with water until the xerem is obtained, mixing all the Verdeans with a wooden spoon.
There are two characters who mastermind a wedding from beginning to end. The "(majordomo)", is a respected person who enjoys the complete confidence of both families, and is the prime mover behind the preparations and the festivities. He is who receives the ("bandejas") sent by the guests a few days before the wedding, and he is arbiter in any dispute arising between the families. The ("bandejas") are the presents, but presents with a difference: they are dishes for the wedding feast, especially goats, hens and cakes.
The goats have their horns decorated with flowers, the hens have ribbons around their necks, and the cakes are decorated in bright colors. This is the beginning of the preparations for a (boda), or a wedding on Sao Nicolau. One of the distinguishing characteristics of a wedding on the island is the goat stew served at the banquet. But the goats are only slaughtered two days before the wedding.
The second central figure in the organization is the (bokera). She is a woman who enjoys the confidence of the mother of the bride and acknowledged as being best fitted for the job. Her first task comes a few days before the wedding when she prepares the told or nuptial chamber where the couples are to spend their wedding night. On the night of the wedding there is dancing.
The band of local musicians entertains the guests and then at given moment strikes up a lively tune to distract their attention. This is when the bokera guides the young couple out of the room and leads them to the chamber. Decorated with stars made out of shiny paper, the chamber is all prepared to receive the couple for their first night.
The bed is done out in style which will vary depending on the wealth of their families, but never without a white sheet. The stars are used again next day by the guests who wear them on their shoulders when they go to visit the newly weds.
Virginity and the idea of purity occupy a position of fundamental importance in the marriage rituals, and the consequences are various. The following day, if the bride was a virgin, the bridegroom will let off fireworks, announcing that "he was the first", and the bokera shows off the sheet stained with blood, symbol of purity.
Then she leads the guests in a rendition of the song "sab e devera" ("it really was good"); everyone is carried away with emotion, not least the parents of the bride. The mother weeps for joy while the father orders another round of rum to drink to his daughter's chastity.
When the bride is not a virgin the tradition is curious. The bridegroom appears the next day with one leg of his trousers rolled up above the knee, and he may if he wishes reject his wife and return her to her parents. The bokera is once again important here, working to bring about a reconciliation, which she hardly achieves.
"Arma Caldera" - Follow Up
This is almost the end of the celebrations. It only remains for the godparents to cook the first meal. From this moment on the newly married couple take charge of their own livelihood. They listen to the advice of their parents and godparents who wish them peace and prosperity in their new home.
Most distinguished son of S. Nicolau
In the center of Vila da Ribeira Brava, in the Praça do Terreiro, next to the parish church, stands a memorial bust. "Deciphering the whispered prayers in the old cathedral church", in the words of Osvaldo Alcantara (Baltazar Lopes da Silva), the bust was placed there by the people of São Nicolau, on June 15, 1884, in memory of Dr. Julio Jose Dias.
Jose Antonio Dias was a wealthy landowner and governor of the island. He married Dona Maria Tomasia Leite, who in 1805 bore him a son, who they named Julio Jose Dias and who was destined for a distinguished career. As we read in an article by Francisco Lopes da Silva in Noticias of May 1, 1990, "when he reached the right age, he set off for Paris to study medicine, full of bright hopes for the future, hopes which proved well founded".
The fact of going to Paris was unusual in itself, as few families on the islands could afford such a luxury. Having completed his studies at the most famous university of the day, the now Doctor Julio Jose Dias followed the route established by so many other Cabo-verdeans and "returned to his native land, turning down all the opportunities which would of surely have offered themselves anywhere else, choosing instead to dedicate himself to the poor people of his island", Lopes da Silva wrote.
Known as Doctor Julio, he gave his life's work for his "island brothers", providing medical treatment for all, free of charge. Consultations and medicines were given at his' own expense, and he shouldered the medical problems of the whole island until when the first government Medical Officer was appointed for São Nicolau.
As a doctor, he performed almost miraculous cures, given the scant resources of the time. The year of 1866 was one of great changes in São Nicolau. It was also the year in which the Doctor revealed his true generosity of spirit. The Seminary-High School had been founded by decree, but a building still needed to be found to house it, and the search extended to all the islands of the archipelago.
In an act of selflessness, Doctor Julio gave up his "grand house in Vila da Ribeira Brava, and moved to a smaller house he had in Cachaço, where he lived his last years". The Seminary-High School was installed in São Nicolau, thus marking a new era in the island's history.
Doctor Julio shared his wealth with others to extent of dying a poor man in his isolated house out of town. An instance of this is his gift in 1867 of a spring to the Municipal Council, making it possible to bring piped water into Ribeira Brava. At the same time he made donations to the Santa Casa da Misericordia (a charitable institution) in Madeira thereby helping the poor and helpless in an island far from his own. In civic life he occupied several posts, without ever drawing a salary.
Most notably he was Director of Public Works, in charge of major projects such as the Preguiça quarry and the church of Praia Branca. At the age of 68, on September 2, 1873, Doctor Julio came home at the end of an afternoon. "He began to climb the stairs. When he reached the top he paused to take in the view over the valley of Ribeira Brava.
It was a look with the first signs of sadness, and tears formed in his eyes. One by one he looked down at the familiar places, Agua das Patas, Campinhio, Cruzet....
Finally his eyes came to rest on the Eastern Point. With a smile which seemed to be not of this world, the grand old man collapsed in the hands of his lifelong companion and wife, Dona Ana Rosa, who had borne him eight sons, and said calmly, "Ana, I'm going to die!" This is how Francisco Lopes da Silva describes the last episode in the life of one of São Nicolau's most distinguished sons. But his memory is kept alive on the bust in the Praça do Terreiro.
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