Speaking In Public, Dancing In Public

Batuku has been a consistent presence in me and Adam’s Peace Corps experience from the start. Batuku is thought to be the oldest Cape Verdean musical genre. It is performed by women seated in a semicircle, with homemade drums on their laps, and a dancer or two standing before the group. (Sometimes men participate as well.) The singing is in a call and response format. For most of the song, the dancer stands in place and shuffles her feet in time with the music. Toward the end of the song, she starts shaking her butt, while holding her upper and lower body rigidly in place. Batuku started with drumming and dance brought to the islands by continental Africans. The Portuguese government and the Catholic church tried to suppress it because it was seen as “African.” Nowadays, it’s extremely popular—most towns have a group, which is usually formed as an arm of a community association. I had heard about Batuku before I came to Cape Verde and I was very curious. I didn’t have to wait long to see it; only a couple weeks into PST I caught a performance in the Assomada town square. But truth be told, I was underwhelmed at first.

I started to gain appreciation for Batuku during homestay. Our Pre-service training required Small Enterprise Development volunteers to develop a small community project. Through a community meeting, Adam and I learned that the Batuku group wanted help improving its organizational management, with the ultimate goal of making money through performances and CD sales. Through the project, we developed friendships with the batukaderas and I saw the social significance of Batuku groups. The women invited us to their practices and to a baby shower, where I saw the music performed with passion and joy.

At the baby shower. For celebrations, people often dance to Batuku with a bottle of wine on their head… I don’t know what it means.

The group played at our dispidida (going-away party), and I very quickly learned that there is no way I can escape being ‘invited’ to da kutornu (dance). Which is fine, because Batuku is way more fun when you’re a participant, rather than a mere spectator.

This was in front of my largest audience yet, at Parents’ Day.

Don’t be mistaken. They are laughing at me, not with me. It’s a constant.

After Adam and I got to site we became acquainted with a local community association that is focused, among other areas, on growing tourism-related business in town. Adam and I had already seen that many tourists—domestic and foreign—pass through our town, but that local residents don’t benefit much from the traffic. Cape Verdeans come here to relax in the waterfalls during the rainy season, and they stop to eat and drink. The vast majority of international visitors, however, drive through town in buses to visit the National Botanic Garden as part of volta di ilha (‘round the island) tours that rapidly pass through a handful of major attractions. To me and Adam, it seemed that the tours lacked opportunities for the tourists to interact with and learn about the local culture and people. We started to think about ways that we could work with the community association.

Then we had a visit from the Batuku group from our homestay town, and a project idea fell into our laps. The group came to our town to celebrate their second anniversary. Their visit is a story unto itself, in which forty women—from schoolchildren to grandmothers—arrived in an open bed truck with all the makings of a feast, right down to the napkins and birthday cake.

Singing Happy Birthday to the group.

After eating, we walked to the botanic garden, where the women were going to see the sights and play a few songs. As we entered the garden, we saw a tourist bus loading up to depart. The tourists were intrigued by our drumming, singing, reveling parade. Their guide got excited as she realized this opportunity to explain and demonstrate the musical form of Batuku. That evening, Adam and I talked about how cool it would be if our town’s Batuku groups could earn a little money by performing at the Botanic Garden, as part of the group tour packages.

Walking to the botanic garden.

Pretty soon, we learned that Peace Corps Cape Verde would be closing, and we decided to advance the Batuku project as a secondary project. We pitched the idea to the community association president, and he linked us up with the Batuku group. We had hoped that the group members would have a central role in negotiating the project, but in the end time constraints and formalities meant that Adam and I did much of the groundwork. Adam and I consulted with them continually as the project advanced. We located an interested tourism agency, and the next step is for the association president to negotiate details.

The project got some attention recently at a tourism forum hosted by our local camara (county government). The theme of the forum was “Partnerships and Synergies for Touristic Development of [Our Town].” In the midst of feeling nostalgic about leaving, I was happy for the chance to present my and Adam’s community project publicly. Naively, I formatted a few snapshots to act as a backdrop while I spoke, and outlined important points in my notebook. As the forum opened, I realized that I was to present at the end of a program that included the National Minister of Tourism, the Director of Tourism for Santiago Island, two Master’s candidates in Tourism, and the conselho’s (county’s) head of tourism. Yikes!

In the end, it went fine. I followed my notes and stuck to simple vocabulary. There were a lot of familiar faces in the room, and despite being at the end of the program, people were smiling and engaged. In Cape Verde, questions do not follow each presentation. Instead, the speakers form a panel after all the talks are over, and audience members take turns commenting. The panelists take notes and reply with short speeches that address individual comments and synthesize themes. It’s a type of public speaking that I have no practice in doing, but… Surely you can guess where this goes? Yup, I was expected to participate in the panel, too.

My mind betrayed me during the comment period, wandering back to the first formal meetings Adam and I attended during our service. My palms used to sweat just from the pressure of introducing ourselves! I would list vocabulary words to look up later and scribble furiously to note their context, including who said what and their tone. But mostly I paid attention, recorded who said what, and how I could respond. There were a number of really interesting discussion points, but I kept it basic and stuck to a few generic sentences, considering that I was surrounded by more qualified experts.

During the lanxi (snack) after the forum, a few people congratulated me on a presentation well done, and complimented our project. I hope that the association is able to reach an agreement with the tour agencies, and that the story I presented planted an idea in someone’s mind!

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