27 March 2016

A Picture of Cape Verde


In the islands of Cape Verde off the coast of West Africa there is an institution called the aluguer. Perhaps ‘institution’ is too weak a word. The aluguer – from the Portuguese verb ‘to rent’ – may at first sight seem nothing more than a shared taxi in the form of a Toyota van or a flatbed pickup truck. In reality the aluguer is the backbone of society and economy: not just a bus but also an informal courier and messaging service, a small-scale cash-banking network, an ambulance, a limousine, and a theatre on wheels. Take an aluguer through the cobbled streets of Mindelo or the mountain roads of Santo Antao and you will see more than the view.

Not that the view is to be disregarded. Cape Verde is an archipelago of ten volcanic islands lying in the Atlantic several hundred miles south of the Canaries, and like all volcanic landscapes the visual drama is extreme. The older easterly islands are eroded wind-beaten platforms of lava dust. The younger islands to the west, where the mid-Atlantic tectonic hotspot manufactures new territory every few million years (the volcano at the heart of Fogo island is still smoking after an eruption in 2014), are mountainous with deep cut valleys where terraced farmland is carved out of the hot rock.

Everywhere the aluguer turns there are reminders that Cape Verde was formed in a fiery geological catastrophe. When part of the erupting island of Fogo collapsed into the sea around 70,000 years ago it created a tsunami 800 feet high that visited Africa, Europe and the Americas as well as submerging all of the Cape Verdean islands. But there were no inhabitants of Cape Verde then; the islands were not discovered until the 1500s, when Portuguese mariners stumbled upon what turned out to be a useful staging post on the growing trade route to the New World as well as to West Africa, from where the colonisers extracted gold and slaves. Today the descendents of those slaves are the citizens of Cape Verde, a country like no other in Africa: orderly, increasingly prosperous, rigorously democratic, and free of almost any kind of strife. Crime is rare, as is dishonesty. Despite the harsh landscape – or perhaps because of it – Cape Verdeans seem to have been born to a more generous spirit than most of the world.

The driver of the aluguer is Antonio, although he is also a master of ceremonies, DJ and entertainer. The vehicle built to carry eight or ten passengers will end up carrying more like twenty, and they all have to be picked up from backstreet apartments and cinderblock houses in the small town of Ribeira Grande on the island of Santo Antao, which lies at the mouth of one of the great valleys that tumble down from a dead volcanic crater. There is no scheduled public transport anywhere on Cape Verde’s roads, but it is not needed. The aluguer drivers know everyone and their plans, and no one who needs to travel will be left behind.

Here is a grandmother who with a gesture makes it clear that the front seat rightly belongs to her, dislodging a bearded and dreadlocked young man who cedes his place with a smile. Here is a grandson whose job is to balance the ten-litre plastic bottle of village rum sealed with several yards of sellotape. And then there are the passengers who are not sitting in the sunshine at their doors as arranged, who have to be called down, or raised by mobile phone, or perhaps a shout must be sent through the town. Luggage is stacked on the roof, and then more luggage is stacked on the roof, and the seats fill up with men in rakish hats and ladies exquisitely turned out, and more luggage follows, until the last pineapple and the last guitar is stowed and it is time to leave, while Antonio performs impossible feats of multi-point turning on the hillside.

Leaving is the characteristic experience of Cape Verde. The islands are not self-sufficient, nor have they ever been since the arrival of people. They cannot produce their own power (solar and wind generation have yet to become economic), and there is not enough soil and not enough water to grow food for the half million inhabitants. Although the warm Atlantic waters are alive with tuna, marlin, octopus and valuable shellfish they are little exploited, due in part to the lack of developed ports with safe anchorages. Unemployment is high, especially among the young. Leaving is what people do to survive. It is part of Caboverdeaindade, the feeling of Cape Verdeanness, the feeling that you are continually pulled between being forced to leave when you want to stay, and being forced to stay when you want to leave.

As it happened many of the passengers in Antonio’s aluguer were on their way to vote in the general election – a journey which for some involved an hour’s ferry trip to the neighbouring island of Sao Vicente (there is no airport on Santao, the winds which harass all of Cape Verde’s islands having proved dangerous enough to close the airstrip). In the event the results announced last Monday proved a surprise: the incumbent PAICV government which has the advantage of revolutionary credentials dating from independence in 1975 was removed from power by a large margin, having been in office for a decade and a half.

This was a vote for change, although in truth there is not a great deal to choose between the PAICV and the incoming MPD government. The former are somewhat more statist, the latter somewhat more laissez faire. In any case the election was entirely peaceful, and will probably make little difference to the islands. The last few years have been good to Cape Verde. The economy has grown, tourism having benefitted from the unrest and violence in North Africa. Although Cape Verde has been through a mighty property boom and bust (there are several ghost towns of unoccupied apartment blocks awaiting investors, and permanently abandoned developments stripped of their fixtures and fittings), the tourists and the beach hotels keep on appearing. Last year tourist arrivals outnumbered the entire population of Cape Verde.

Above all there is no great issue at stake in politics, or in society. Cape Verde did not have an indigenous population when the Portuguese arrived. As a result there is no ethnic or religious divide, and whatever grievance exists as a result of a history of slavery has somehow been sublimated. Anyone who tries Googling the islands will soon learn that virtually nothing ever happens here to trouble the news headlines. There is a minor but unpleasant drug-trade problem (Cape Verde has become a distribution hub between South America and West Africa), although the biggest difficulty the islands are likely to face in the near future comes from the presence of the zika virus, and the damage that might do to tourism. But one middle-aged woman I consulted on the matter of the general election explained ‘it doesn’t really matter who is in power, only this lot have been in government for too long and that isn’t good for anybody.’ So out they went.

But that is to anticipate. Antonio is still manoeuvring his aluguer between two or three large segments of a pick-up truck which is in the process of being welded whole in the narrow street. The last of the passengers is racing down to catch the ride to Porto Novo, holding out a hand for running high-fives with those left behind. Someone is blocking the way with a cart or a crate of something, a matter that is confronted with the invincible good humour and impeccable manners that are seen everywhere in Cape Verde. And then it is time to move, off down towards the black boulder bay where the surf throws up its own clouds, on to the twisting coast road that clings to the burnt rock above the blue sea, and down to the ferry terminal – the scene of so many departures.

Richard Walker is a journalist and communications advisor to financial companies.