"There's a little bit of the world in Cabo Verde", one of my travel mates stated as we released the umpteenth exclamation of wonder and awe at the exquisite scenery. We marveled at how much of the landscape, mirrored the most beautiful
parts of other exotic places in the word and yet, how unique it is beyond any other. Only God could pack so much beauty into such relatively small areas as the islands that make up the archipelago of our motherland. Of the five members in our delegation from Massachusetts to Cabo Verde, it was the first time two of us were setting foot on the land that we'd heard so much about and had longed to see.
As a third generation Caboverdiano in America, I felt as if I'd traveled back to the root of my beginnings. Unlike my companions, I had not grown up in the culture or language of Cabo Verde. There was a part of me that was hesitant that I could feel 'at home' in the land that my great grandparents left, over 100 years ago. My grandfather was just shy of his 90th birthday when he passed away, almost four years ago.
I can remember he and my grandmother once having a disagreement and hearing him say 'Oh mother, that was in the old country!' I wondered just what was the 'old country' but being a child, I knew enough not to ask that question and reveal that I had eavesdropped on their conversation. I remember visiting relatives 'down the Cape' and hearing the adults speaking a different language. I remember my grandmother admonishing my uncles for speaking that other language in her home; 'We're in America and we speak English', she'd say. I remember hearing my uncles snickering behind closed doors, speaking that language in hushed voices and quickly figuring out that the words they were using weren't acceptable in polite company, even if Kriolu was allowed.
My grandparents weren't ashamed of their origins; there was just this determination to be un-hyphenated Americans. It wasn't until recent years that I realized that indeed, my grandmother and my mother did pass along our Caboverdean heritage, through the foods they cooked; through the family values; even color schemes in our homes, reflected the richness of our culture.
Times were different in the 60s, 70s and early 80s. There were great and terrible family rifts when the subject of 'who' we were came about. Some said Portuguese; others said Caboverdeans and still others simply assimilated into being African Americans.
I remember pretty much always being the darkest, in a grouping of cousins. I remember the one time I did say aloud that I was Caboverdean and being told I didn't 'look' Caboverdean. I remember once, slipping and referring to the porch as the 'veranda' (the one word my grandmother never anglicized) and having my friends look at me like I was from another planet. I remember tucking away a piece of me, to be what seemed most acceptable to the rest of the world.
Now, I was about to unlock all that had been buried through the years and generations. When I stepped foot upon Nha Terra, my spirit wept, because I knew, I'd unlocked the treasure of my rich and beautiful heritage. Taking my first breaths in Cabo Verde, felt like I'd been given the chance to make a second journey through the birth canal and to be reborn.
That Cabo Verde is beautiful was no surprise to me. I'd heard it over and over again, as friends and associates relayed stories about the islands. That Cabo Verde was beautiful beyond what words could explain or pictures could capture, often left me unable to do anything but to catch my breath and say "Oh my God!" over and over again. At one point, I felt I would simply perish in ecstasy, should I see one more vision, more beautiful than the last.
My first visit was a one of mission; a commitment to help make a difference in the lives of children and families. As a board member of Cabo Verde Children Inc., my maiden voyage was one in which times of sightseeing pleasure had to be snatched in between meetings with CV-based partners, supporters and to pay respect to and receive the blessings of the political decision makers in Praia and surrounding municipalities.
It was during a visit with children in Santa Cruz, that I looked off into the distance and the thought occurred that perhaps God made the land so beautiful, to help keep the people from feeling completely hopeless in the midst of such a challenging of life.
The poverty in Cabo Verde was a subject that people here tended to glance over, when reflecting. It tended to be generalized. Being there however, my soul was wrenched as I saw little children, playing in muddy water; eating as flies swarmed about their beautiful faces; traveling barefoot, for miles on the black cobble stoned roads, carrying whatever might bring a few escudos, to be sold along the roadside or in the nearest village.
The eyes of the "crianças", were like diamonds, flashing in the brilliant sun. They were poor, but for the most part, loved. Many of the older children, those in their teens, and especially, young women, had lost the shine of innocence. There was often a somber resolve in knowing that where they were, was likely to be where they'd always be. I will never forget the haunting look of a young lady we drove pass, on our way to Santa Catarina, she was sitting in the front of her dilapidated cement cylinder home. There were several little children running about. The young woman was beautiful, but her golden brown eyes looked almost empty, as she peered out towards the road, as if she were looking at a blank wall. The poverty in Cabo Verde is as disheartening, as it's beauty is inspiring.
I was discouraged at the amount of human litter that blights village, beach and countryside. While I heard echoed again and again that the priority is hunger and better housing conditions, the issue of litter and pollution are not just esoteric, but hold serious health risks, especially to bare-feet children playing in the sands at the beaches of Praia, the birds, fish and the eco-system throughout the islands. Pollution also has an economical impact. Tourists with money to spend will not flock anywhere they need to maneuver broken glass, trash and other refuse.
(If not for my need to stay focused on the mission of CV Children, a 'Keep Cabo Verde Clean' campaign would have my full backing. Perhaps someone reading this article will be inspired.)
In Cabo Verde, I 'saw' me. I saw the faces of my mother and my grandparents; my children, cousins and friends of Caboverdean descent. Unlike here in America, where Anglo influenced standards of beauty, would have one think that Caboverdeans only come in one shade of light skinned and straight hair. In Cabo Verde, Caboverdianos come in every color from the alabaster white sands of Ilha do Sal to the ebony black lava rocks of Fogo.
The beauty of the people is not just in the diversity of their exterior features, but more in the unity of their spirits, linked by shared deficits and visions of a better future. While I'm sure that racism and classism exist, my impression is that for the most part, in Cabo Verde, Caboverdianos are Caboverdianos, regardless of physical traits. I was also struck by the respect that people show one another in the most ordinary of day to day transactions; Greetings of good day; nods of acknowledgement; smiles that connect one human to another; Respect and courtesy and a sense of civility and graciousness that is sorely missing in American culture.
Despite their challenges, I was in awe of the fortitude of the people. I recognized that inner-strength. It was the same strength that I depended on in my grandfather. The same tenacity that I admired in my mother and the same sense of keeping one's head held high and proud, no matter what, that I inherited from my grandmother.
During my last few days, the realization fell upon my heart that my great grandparents probably planned to return to these beautiful islands. Who could leave Cabo Verde without intending to someday return? In those days, perhaps the treachery of the journey by ship; the unexpected birth of a child, poor health or the sheer lack of funds; perhaps the famines, droughts and other ill-fated occurrences in Cabo Verde, discouraged their return. For whatever reasons, three generations later, God blessed me to return and close the circle.
He allowed me to see literally heights and depths in the land and the people. He allowed me to see the pristine beauty and the choking sludge of poverty. He allowed me to hold back my tears so that I might see the needs but also the great potential.
In the capital of Praia, I met His Excellency, S.E. Pedro Pires, President of Cabo Verde. In the tattered, ancient, Cidade Velha, I met a beautiful little girl named Esmé. I sat in the most prestigious office in all the country and was welcomed in a small Rebelado community, high up in the hills; I was given a blessing by a grandmother who welcomed us into the tiny cubicle that houses eight people and where the babies cry through the night, out of hunger. My soul soared, as I prayed to God to never let me forget the beauty, atop Forteleza, or the tranquility of the beach at Santa Maria in Sal where I sat early at the break of day, watching the fishermen preparing to go into the deep darkness of the ocean, just as my ancestors likely did; the green of the mountains, the blue of the sky; the crystal turquoise of the ocean; The music and the love of dancing; the lilting stringed melodies, filled with the romance, passion, and lust for life; El cantor, Ivo Nunes; his voice as strong as the crash of the ocean waves; a little boy, who stole my heart; Cabo Verde: too many images to list here.
The "hora di bai" (time to departure) grew nearer and I began to understand the feelings of morna and sodade; the longing to remain where every part of my being said I belonged. I know that I am forever connected to the land that nurtured my maternal family line, and in that connection, I also have a responsibility. As long as Cabo Verde is in need, Caboverdianos world -wide must do what we can to address that need. I can never return with the eyes of a visitor or the distance of a tourist. I must see with the eyes of a child seeking to assist its parent. I must roll up my sleeves and make the necessary sacrifices to do my part to help strengthen and stabilize the family. I must commit whatever gifts, wisdom and passions I have, to reaching back and participate in uplifting the next generation.
As the flight from Sal to Boston took off, I relished my last glimpses of the noite di Cabo Verde. I asked God to never let me forget the beauty of the land or of the people. I asked Him to help me stay focused and committed to the work of CV Children and I asked Him to bless me to soon return home, to Cabo Verde.