Cachupa, Cape Verde’s national dish, is a slow cooked stew of hominy and beans. Preferably, it is cooked over a wood fire so that it gets infused with smoke. Fish or meat, whatever you might have, help it to stick to your ribs. In our town in Benin, cooked hominy and cooked beans are sold seperately as meals in themselves. Combined into one dish with a fried egg on top, each bite takes me back to Santiago. This quick version doesn’t come close to our host mother in Cape Verde’s cachupa, but Guta would be proud nonetheless.
This past July Adam and I moved to Benin to complete our second year of Peace Corps, and for the second summer in a row, life was turned upside down. Truth be told, day-to-day life here in Benin was really mundane at the outset. This is mostly because Peace Corps training filled up six days per week, with the same routine every day from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. Being in training also meant I had Peace Corps taking care of all of my needs, and that I interacted mainly with Americans. Still, there have been a few times over the past couple of months that I’ve looked around and realized how truly remarkable my standard has become. For instance, it’s normal for me to…
- Get from place to place on public transportation that consists of either riding on the back of a dirtbike in traffic where bigger always wins, or cramming into a 16-passenger van—16 being the absolute minimum number of passengers—with street vendors flocking to the open windows at every station, stoplight, or traffic snag to sell snacks, clothing, cosmetics, or plastic baggies full of cold water (5 cents!).
- See 7-year-old girls walking alone through town with their baby siblings slung on their backs, or transporting 20-liter bowls of water on their heads… or both at once.
- Purchase two heaping plates of rice, beans, gari (dried and pulverized manioc), and egg with sauce for less than $1.00 (a plate for me and one for Adam). While we sit and eat lunch, it’s normal for an old woman to emerge from her concession (basically, a shared front yard) and totter over with her cane to talk to the lunchstand mama… wearing only a pagne (cloth) wrapped around her waist.
- Buy a pineapple at streetside stand for 20 cents. It’s also normal for the stand to be staffed by a young kid who will then use a long, sharp knife to peel and chop the fruit.
- Ride my bike to a colleague’s house for a training activity, and pass through a Beninese funeral celebration on the way. This consists of a tented street party with food, drinks, families in matching outfits, and a DJ making shout-outs to the guests to earn tips.
- Communicate in French (albeit not very well). This includes communicating in French during classes for a local Beninese language, Gun (pronounced ‘goon’)—my third Peace Corps language.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Adam and I are into the final countdown in Cape Verde: we leave for Benin in less than one month.
I’m incredibly excited to see what Benin is like, what our new host community is like, what our jobs are like (we don’t know any details yet, just that we’ll be in the Community Economic Development program). This time I’m eager to learn new languages (we’ll learn French and I think also a local language). On the other hand, the reality of leaving is setting in, and I’m sad. I have pre-emptive sodadi for the people and places that I’ve come to know here: our neighbors, our friends, our routines, our mountains.
Though I’ve prohibited myself from thinking in ‘what-ifs,’ I can’t help but think that if we stayed here another year, we could apply all we have learned and that things things would get a whole lot more interesting as we moved along with our primary project. And that life in general would get a whole lot easier as we applied our experience and improved our language. A couple of things—both negative and positive—have happened in the past couple of weeks to make me sad that we’re leaving.
Adam and I went to Santo Antao on vacation last week (photos, photos, photos, photos!), and on our first day back in town we visited our elementary school to touch base with the principal and see the garden. Most of the garden was empty and that the gota gota (drip irrigation) equipment was not yet installed in some new sections. These things are understandable, and there are good reasons for them—the irrigation technician has been too busy to spend an entire day at the school, and the school staff is planning to plant everything at once once the new sections are hooked up. These are normal wrinkles, but they show me that there is a place for me and Adam on this project. The fact is, the garden project is a lot of work for the principal and teachers, and on top of that they’re trying to do new and different things. We have the time, the ideas, and the experience to help, and I’m disappointed that we can’t.
On a happier note, we went out visiting last weekend and got to stop for a couple of hours at a particular neighbor’s house for the first time. For whatever reason, we hadn’t had the chance to stop in before, though we’ve meant to. We got to talking about some of Cape Verde’s traditional foods, and either Adam or I mentioned that we hadn’t yet tried kamoka, which is roasted, ground corn that you can eat in lots of different ways—in coffee, yogurt, with corn meal, and more. (To be honest, I lose track.) Our neighbor’s son silently stepped out and returned a few minutes later with a bag of kamoka for us to bring home (homemade from the family’s own corn). Wonderful! Next thing we know, grandmom steps out without a work and returns shortly with a bag of ovu di tera (chicken eggs from free-ranging chickens). In the space of ten minutes, Adam and I were pretty much set for the week’s breakfasts. (Since then, I’ve been given eggs at least three other times. We haven’t had serious rain for months, and all the fields are picked clean, so I guess eggs are the month of May’s fixon kongu.)
This hospitality and generosity also makes me sad to leave, but in a much nicer way. Our week away in Santo Antão, including our time visiting other Volunteers’ sites, made me come home with fresh eyes. I have slowed down this past week and tried not to take anything good for granted. I’m trying to stop and chat longer, spend more time people watching in town, and visit more.
To help me remember my year here and the people I have met I’ve been collecting seeds from friends and family (and wild tomato seeds), and I’ll plant them back home in the States.
I’m also trying to figure out how to transport my rock collection. Heh.
Amidst all this, I’m incredibly excited that we’ll be welcoming a group of students from North Star Academy (where Adam worked before joining Peace Corps) for a week-long visit to Cape Verde. The students will be studying food security, building a tire garden in our satellite elementary school, and learning about the culture of Cape Verde. They are top students and awesome kids, and it’s going to be a fantastic trip! Preparing for their trip has me busy, but I’ve enjoyed running around work and town to organize things. In order to plan the best trip I can, I’ve been trying to see our town through the eyes of the students and teachers who will be coming. In this way I’ve started to remember my first impressions, and I’m trying to savor things while I can.
For a long while I felt like an outsider here. Despite (perhaps because of?) the morabeza, I am still a guest. Lately, however, I recognize that I have a unique role in our community, and that people do consider me a neighbor, even if I’m a temporary one. People call dibs on the papayas from the trees in my yard. They shout for me on the way past my house to go work in their fields. They tease me about being lazy when I don’t show up for aerobics class. Casual conversation here often consists of simply guessing at where a person is going… more and more, the woman who sells candies by the chapel—who keeps track of pretty much all of my comings and goings—is getting it right about me.
After only 19 days of limbo (thank you Peace Corps for busting your butts), the decision came in last week… we have been offered a transfer to Benin! As planned, we’re going to accept. Adam and I will travel directly to Benin to join an incoming class of trainees in late June to re-train in our new host country, but we will keep our job titles (Community Resource Mobilizer for me, Small Business Advisor for Adam).
Many of you responded to my last post with wonderful comments, emails, and Facebook messages; thank you all for the encouraging thoughts! One negative thing I will admit to is that Adam and I did a massively crappy job of naming this blog. In honor of new opportunities, please contribute your suggestions for a new blog name in the comments section so we can represent better beginning this summer!
A little over a week ago, the Peace Corps Regional Director for Africa and Country Director for Cape Verde called the Santiago-based volunteers to Praia to make an announcement: after 24 years, Peace Corps is closing its program in Cape Verde. (Volunteers on the other islands were consolidated as well and notified by telephone.) The official US government term for the transition is “graduation.” The decision was made after a worldwide programmatic review; Cape Verde is one of six graduating host countries. The decision is based partly on the fact that Cape Verde is not one of the world’s Least Developed Countries and on the funding available to Peace Corps worldwide. The agency wishes to focus resources on the poorest of the poor. Our program will close in September 2012.
On a personal level, the upshot of the news is that Adam and I won’t serve a second year in Cape Verde. We have several options, though I won’t bore you with the details. We have decided to pursue a transfer within Peace Corps. Our Program Director, Country Director and Regional Director will work to locate another country that can use our skills and experience, and we will join an incoming group of volunteers for a new Pre-Service Training.
If our transfer happens (not a given), we will be committing to one more year of service, rather than a full two years in the new place. It is bittersweet to think that I won’t serve two years in one place as a PCV—something I had held as a given. If Cape Verde has graduated beyond the need for Peace Corps, that is a good sign for the country. But I boarded the plane fully expecting to be here for two years, and since arriving I haven’t once wished it would be shorter.
I’m sad that I won’t have the opportunity to master Kriolu and Portuguese; that I won’t have another Corn-Eating Day or fixon kongu season; that I’ll have only half the time to explore this and the other islands; that I won’t see some of the neighborhood kids graduate into high school uniforms. Santiago is a beautiful place to live. I’m already feeling sodadi (a sense of homesickness and longing, well known to Cape Verdeans, who have a long history of emigration).
On top of that, graduation means another first year in another new country, with no guarantee of a second year anywhere. Adam and I could apply to extend our service after our second first year, but it’s a competitive process that depends on our performance and the programs’ budget—and we’d be competing with volunteers who will have spent two full years there. Plus, we’d be committing to a third year away from home.
In addition to the fact that I really like Cape Verde, I was looking forward to my second year here for professional reasons. The adaptation and integration process is a long one, and by many accounts, payoffs are big in a volunteer’s second year. I have gotten used to the paradigm that the first year is largely for becoming established, and the second is for action. It’s been a mental saftey blanket for me during the long and winding learning curve of the past six months, helping me stay positive and be patient.
Nonetheless, there are two sides to every coin, aren’t there? If the transfer goes through (and our Regional Director has promised to work his hardest—that transfers are being considered is already an exception), I’ll have the very unique opportunity to meet another country and experience another way of life. I might only scratch the surface when it comes to project work, but one year is a lot of time to learn about life in a foreign place. The experience of doing that twice in two years, with all the support and training of Peace Corps behind me, is not something to scoff at. Plus, cultural exchange is 2/3 of the purpose of Peace Corps, so I’ll have a boost in that department.
At this point, it’s hard impossible to tell where we’ll end up and when we’ll go there, which makes it hard impossible to plan very far ahead. Luckily, Cape Verdeans are not too hung up on planning ahead—a whole lot of things here happen at the last minute and nobody bats an eyelash. It’s just how they roll. So I think Adam and I can pull off some neat projects if we make proposals very soon. And I am sure things will only get clearer once the staff has the chance to begin working out the kinks. Right now, they have just learned that their jobs have disappeared.
After the graduation plans were announced to us in Praia, we had a short Q&A session with our Regional Director. Someone asked for advice on how volunteers can explain to our host communities that Peace Corps is over, with the fact in mind that some of these places have hosted multiple generations of volunteers uninterrupted for a decade or more. His advice was “Finish Strong.” He asked us to realize that it is a privilege that our program is graduating, rather than closing abruptly. Peace Corps more often leaves countries under emergency conditions, or with programs’ futures in limbo—as with the recent situation in Honduras—and volunteers in those cases face a much tougher situation than us. We, on the other hand, are leaving Cape Verde partly because it is stable and strong.
I appreciate the advice, and I also appreciate how hard the Peace Corps staff is working on our behalf. We’ll see what happens. I’ll keep you posted!
Ess Pais, by Cesária Évora
Ali não existe riqueza
Não há ouro, nem diamantes
Mas temos esse paz de Deus
Que no Mundo não há igual
E este clima maravilhoso
Que Deus nos deu
Vem conhecer este país
Here there aren’t riches
There are no gold or diamonds
But we have this peace of God
That has no equal in the World
And this wonderful climate
God has given us
Come and meet this country
[Please excuse the poor translation of this song; see above about mastering Portuguese. Also, I am conveniently leaving out the first verse, which says that if you don’t know Mindelo, you don’t know Cape Verde.]