Two weeks ago, while at a conference in the capital of Praia, the Peace Corps medical officer pulled several volunteers aside and told us, “there’s be an outbreak of conjunctivitis here on Santiago, chances are it will probably be on the northern islands soon.” This harbinger of the sickness to come was accompanied by a complimentary bottle of vizine and the advice to “wash your hands.” On arriving in Sao Nic, the pink eye had already asserted it’s presence; a quick survey on the walk to school yields dozens of bloodshot eyes and accompanying coughs. Locally, the malady is known by two names: lampada and “wyndek”, the latter of which takes it’s name from a popular dance song from the continent; it would be akin to calling your whooping cough “stanky leg” as in: “beware of the stanky leg, I hear that it’s been making the rounds.” Needless to say, being confined on a small tropical island that features high-temperatures and a culture of close body contact has encouraged the rapid spread of the sickness. It would probably be a fascinating case-study for an epidemiologist to relate how the specific anthropology of Sao Nic, where even distant friends shake hands and kiss on the cheek or dance as close as humanly possible, affects disease transmission. Sometimes it feels like people are intentionally trying to give it to you. Actually, in the case of my student Mikksolin, they are; today on walking across the polivalente, he told me, “Teacher, I have the wyndek and I’m gonna give it to you, one-hundred-percent certainty.” This was accompanied by an aggressive gesture with his index finger alternating between his sunglass-ed eyes and my face, which might be his technique moving forward this week. It all lends an especially surreal ambience to a place already steeped in the otherworldly: going out to bars to find people wearing sunglasses at night, the most mach of men wearing their wives’ shades to hide their embarrassment or the occasional dog that looks like it could be affected. Or just rabid. Regardless, there’s a zombie-like appearance of those who have it and it’s made me fantasize about having some sort of aerosolized purell which I could use like a blowtorch to push the infected away from me. There was something especially comic about walking passed the PE class this afternoon, which looked like the undead performing calisthenics.
If you’re trying to explain the “experience” that is life, does it make the sense to use the broadest strokes possible or a composite of disparate images to final paint a comprehensive portrait. We all have our own solutions, but there are moments that protrude above the others which define the landscape itself. Here are a few such salient features of life in Cape Verde, connect them as you will.
Two professionals, a fifty-year old foreigner and the other a twenty-three year old Cape Verdean, Valdir, had coffee with me last week. Somehow they got on the topic of loves, lost and found.
Valdir- “I don’t like clubs, I don’t like bars, I just want to go home with my wife.”
David- “Now you’re not telling the whole truth, you have that pikenha”
V-“Now you’re lying”
D-“Well, prepare yourself for two years of virgindom.”
Luis and Djudja, friends since infancy, are both outsiders within our town. Luis grew up in Sao Vicente and Santiago and is the regional director of Cape Verde’s largest private company; Djudja is entering her final year of dental school in Portugal. We discussed development in Cape Verde, the limits and the goals. Part of the conversation ranged over the problems that arise from companies (namely the national electricity provider and airline) being state-owned. And there were the larger questions of whether having resources can be a blessing or a curse, such as in Nigeria. It really made you aware of how often we’re out here trying to squeeze water from a stone and how oddly successful Cape Verde has been at it. Somehow we got back onto more personal topics, especially how strong willed Cape Verdean women can be. Then Luis ended with this gem of a quote, “A woman with a knife is an eminent danger.”
Another Luis, this one the English Coordinator for Tarrafal, is an unabashed anglophile. “My people are from Scotland, you know?” he’ll say and then push the bridge of his glasses up his nose. “Attention, I have say something,” Luis puts his finger in the air, “tomorrow, we will have a nine am tee-time.” Nevermind that no one knows what “AM” means, nor “tee-time” and that the “golf course” here is only sand and dirt and sticks are used for “clubs”. “I have a collection of golf balls,” Luis continues, now as an aside, “there are ten now.” Finally, as we discusses the vestiges of the English influence on the northern capital of Mindelo, Luis extols the virtues of their “first class cricket and golfing facilities”; apparently, if you complete their course, each golfer’s name is given a plaque inside the “clubhouse”. One can imagine…
A dockworker sat beside me on a packing crate and tried peeling adhesive off his hands. “This crack cocaine is getting to be a problem in Tarrafal,” he mused, “it’s everywhere.” “Really? I’d never heard of it being around until just now.” “Sure it is, you just open the paper and the rock is sitting there in front of you with a little powder around it.” We did not find our rhythm and we didn’t have time to because the boat was leaving and he had to go.
“Alex, where have you been lately? It’s been a while since I saw you,” Alvarinha mentioned over coffee. “I was in Praia for a conference.” “Did you bring me a monkey?” (apparently this is the natural question to ask) “No.” “We already have a monkey in Malika,” Elbino chimes in, “me”. “But seriously,” I persisted, “have there ever been any monkeys in Sao Nicolau?” “Yes, there was one out in Lumbinho, but it’s dead now.” “What happened?” “It had a tendency to bite people in the house and run through the streets, picking up cobblestones and hurling them at people. They had to put him down.” “Oh”. “It wasn’t all bad, though, we got to eat him afterward.” I suppose the most disturbing aspect was that Elbino insisted, or rather Portuguese only features, the masculine pronoun rather than “it”.
Finally, to climb up the hill to our zone of Lombona, the highest and furthest from the center of Stantxe, you must pass the neighborhood store, Djacinta’s. There’s always a group of men sitting on the stoop drinking at night and god forbid you should try to pass them without stopping to talk. The other night, Amadeu, a local carpenter pulled me over: “Alex, you’re a bandit,” then a pause, “Actually, you’re king of the bandits.” It was an off-centre joke, but then he finished, “but you’re our king of the bandits.”
Yesterday, after six months of strife, Ribeira Brava’s community pool opened. Thanks to the generosity of property owner Antonio, our local Camara municipal, high school administration and engineers, community children now have a place to take formal swimming instruction. This past year, Sao Nicolau has seen four drownings at local beaches. Our hope is that this swimming pool will reduce that number drastically as well as foster a sense of responsibility in our youth to maintain a community resource.
That’s not to say everything is going smoothly: I’ve been limiting classes to 12 students (whoever signs up first at the town hall on a given day), which leaves droves of them scurrying over the retaining wall, trying to sneak in through the banana grove. I’m considering drizzling hot sauce on top of the fence as a deterrent. There are also equipment shortages, most notably bathing suits; seeing rotund Cleider pulling naked summersaults in the morning sun is not the best way to wake up.
The water is a little green and makes your skin itch, but we’re just flexing our immune systems. While the first few days have been encouraging, there’s always room for refinement. If you have some extra caps, goggles or chlorine, please contact me, we need something to keep the crocodile at bay.
It’s decidedly summer in São Nic, what with all the unfamiliar faces of returned emigrants bobbing around the praca, presidential elections and, unfortunately, the inability to get anything done. Cape Verde may very well defy every defining characteristic of the space-time continuum, case in point being that while waiting line at the market you might actually move backward. Regardless, you can still get work done if you’re willing to be patient and have other projects to occupy your down time. Nevertheless, some of the things in the pipeline have completely stagnated, such as our community pool, which is waiting on one man to send his written approval to the municipal water company to fill it. You’re left twiddling your thumbs.
So, much like consulting and banking companies are making their new employees do six month rotational stints to experience different areas of the business, I too am going to dip into other areas of Cape Verdean commerce. I’m calling it my “vocational rotation”, where I’m trying a different occupation every day of the workweek until school starts. The great thing about living in a small community in a developing nation is that people are both welcoming and humble and more than willing to take help from anyone offering, even without credentials. In America, you might have to have an MA to be a bank teller but here, well, four working limbs might suffice.
Here’s the tentative list based of professions to which I am apprenticing myself:
Notice the common “-er” suffix there, which I think indicates that these are good old fashioned trades, the likes of which are waning in more developed countries. While this experience is mostly about trying something new and understanding our community from as many different angles as possible, I’d like it to be bigger. It would be fantastic if I could pick up enough in each given job to teach it to someone else, pass it on. Another part is the good old-fashioned satisfaction of manual labor.
Today started at 4:45 at the bakery. It was brutal and I didn’t really keep up with my two friends; they humored me. Rolling dough into buns for three hours rips your forearms apart; it doesn’t help that the oven takes up an entire third of the bakery and stays hot for four days after a firing. But it was a wonderful experience, especially seeing them fire up the oven with their steam locomotive/flamethrower contraption.
The smell of kerosene kept me up all night because the window knocked a lantern over on my desk. All of my correspondence is now completely incendiary.
So I paced around the room because the, between the smell and the five hours of jet lag, there was no hope of getting sleep before dawn. I’ve already hit two twenty-fifth anniversaries and a wedding tonight, the party circuit per usual, but not particularly tiring.
Being gone for two weeks provides time for contemplation, as do six plane flights: Amman to Istanbul to Tunis to Dakar to Praia to Sal to Sao Nic. So, when you do get where you’re going, you find your mind already there if only waiting for your body to catch up.
Coming into Carthage, our plane cast its shadow over Pantellena and the strait toward Sicily, water plied by countless ships of Libyan refugees seeking asylum in Europe. In all earnestness, there can’t be better smelling flights than those going to Dakar; Senegalese tend to wear this fantastic smelling lotion that has the strongest sense/memory perception link.
But Dakar’s all business, always, so laying over there is invitation to hit the ground running, which is really what this post is about. Peace Corps Senegal is an organization at the heart of a project that feels more vital and attainable now than ever before. In the last five years, development organizations have decided that eradicating malaria worldwide is a realistic (if ambitious) goal. Juggernauts such as the Gates Foundation, Malaria No More and the WHO have thrown their resources behind the effort and have already achieved tangible results: Insecticide treated bed-nets are being distributed in the millions, prophylaxis administered in appropriate situations and several promising vaccines are currently in testing.
Cue the Peace Corps, which this year is rolling out it’s own “Stomping Out Malaria” initiative across Africa, including in Cape Verde. Our work utilizes human capital to extend reporting networks, prevention education and case detection across affected areas in conjunction with partner organizations. In Cape Verde, that includes some very motivated and capable groups: the Ministry of Health, WHO and Globalfund, among others. While we are in the process of defining our role here, work is already being done by the Cape Verdean government to remove the threat of malaria to its people; there is the very real possibility that Cape Verde will become the third country in the modern era to completely eradicate malaria.
In this business, there is no line between work and life. I live down the street from the kids I teach in school, who I see out at night at parties before walking past their parents, whose infinite patience and fortitude I’m still trying to comprehend a year in. But, after that year, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that taking stock of what you have requires remembering on what you’ve lost, what you left behind. And, forgiving this rare dip into the pool that is personal reflection, I do remember, now more than ever, just how incredible those people who I no longer I see everyday are. It’s telling that it took me fourteen months and four thousand miles (sometimes more) to find the perspective that made you statuesque. A few people in particular, and you know who you are, I hope you have a few blue and red envelopes that give you some fraction of the appreciation I try to send, all too infrequently.
And to give people like that up, to make it worthwhile, you have to give something bigger to others who need it. This work can be that, redemption, karma, whatever you want to call it. Below, I’m posting information on the initiatives I’ve just briefly mentioned. If you’re interested in the work we’re doing here specifically, email me at email@example.com and I will try to get you involved. There are also some amazingly talented people I have the honor of working with who could use some support; many hands make light work.
“The dust hurts my eyes,” Ennui said and he huddled in the bed of the truck as we passed beneath the mountains that border the abandoned village of Fontainhas. The wind was against us and the pickup strained to climb the road leading to Cachaco and Monte Gordo. “Are you going to the funeral in villa?” “Yes.” “So is everyone, it seems.”
Death is very much a quotidian concern here and this week especially so with the passing of Mario, the former director of our high school, in a late night car accident. It’s difficult to parse out how everyone in our city and island new him, but Meica, as he was better known, was inextricably linked to the well-being of the vast majority of people here. On the day of his funeral, the sorrow that welled up in his absence was on full display.
The service and internment had to wait four days for his family to return from abroad. That delay, though inevitable allowed the ocean of this communal sentiment to swell. And, just like the ocean, the salt of our sea of grief seeks the most tender places, aggravating and compounding the pain that already existed.
In the parlor of the “house of the death”, all of Mario’s relations had gathered to mourn him. In Cape Verde, that process consists of familiar women literally wailing, long protracted and sonorous cries, for days on end. This very much flies in the face of the Catholic tradition that predominates in Cape Verde, but at such moments superstition often takes precedence. Grief may have that effect.
And it sweeps into all of the places in your life reserved for other things. I was painting a room with some friends for the last few days and the nature of the work gave us a few moments to sit and reflect. Painting is the odd activity that allows your tolerance for danger to increase dramatically in short periods of time; while a precariously positioned ladder initially gave me pause, within an hour I was rigged on what could best be described as a miniature tower of Babel: desks stacked on top of stools on top of benches. One can see how Michelangelo eventually worked up the nerve to paint the Sistine Chapel.
At one point, while I was maintaining the “crane position” to better angle my brush into a specific, paint-resisting corner, Jack began to recount the process of extricating our friend’s body from the wreck. I will not relate this instance of morbid curiosity, but the fact that this gruesome scene was retold really accentuated the specific nature of belief in Cape Verde. I had already been shown pictures of the accident; the car had been hauled through school grounds two days after as well.
All this served to illustrate the disconnect of the body and soul. Everything else was evidence of what was left behind. But sitting in the parlor of Meica’s house, with his grieving family, we lamented everything that was now gone. Maybe this is all less abstract than I’m making it out to be.
The day of the funeral, everyone in town found his own way to cope. Many took solace in drinking. Part of me feels you could make an accurate diagram of how closely men knew Meica based on the extent to which they drank that morning. Ze, a colleague of mine who taught alongside him for twenty-seven years, was in tears the entire morning.
“Guitars and women are the same,” he said while plucking his, “they are only appreciated when they are held.” Perhaps this chipped away a bit of the veneer to reveal a greater truth about the nature of sensation: that we live to touch, to be touched and yet, our lives are more often defined by the very absence of that touch we seek.
I spent the better part of yesterday afternoon dismembering a goat to be stewed at my friend’s festa. Somewhere between teasing back connective tissue from fur-bearing skin and hacking across the rib cage with a dull knife, I had what you might consider an out-of-body experience. Here I was, in the kintal of my friend’s house, sitting next to a passed-out fellow teacher who’d urinated himself but still failed to wake up. Despite being wrist deep in carnage, drinking warm wine from the cut-off top of a coke bottle with my bloodied hand, I could see myself from above. But not only myself, but the great mosaic around me: people I know who were in their houses, cleaning pots from the lunch we’d had together, or laying cinder blocks out to dry or mending school outfits for the next semester in their parlors.
More than ever before in my life, living in Cape Verde has made me aware of the larger network of human interaction and, instead of them passing through my life like the peripheral characters in a novel, I see myself as passing through theirs. It’s the strange dichotomy of feeling entirely part of the community around you, but being aware of your transience, their permanence. It’s a bit like recognizing that elements are comprised of atoms, meaning that everything on earth is essential made up of the same thing, albeit in different configurations.
It’s in moments such as these that I like to apply a principle of physics to the epiphanies of daily life.
Speed, velocity, is virtually unappreciable in airplanes. Yes, you are travelling at the nearly inconceivable speed of five hundred miles per hour, but at thirty-five thousand feet, there are no points of reference to convey the perception of that reality. But, if you are so lucky as to achieve a certain velocity, somewhere past the speed of sound, and a certain height, far above the clouds, you are given the rare opportunity to see the curvature of the earth itself.
And this is what I mean by the “curvature of the earth”: the sort of truth that’s supposed to be so readily apparent but can only be identified in retrospect, much like Columbus’ Egg.
“Stopping and taking time to look at the bigger picture,” is the most bullshit platitude I’ve ever heard; life reveals its true nature in the details. But more importantly, no secret meaning can be derived from those details in isolation; they need to be firing near-simultaneously, occupying a collective presence in your fore-conscious, for the connections between them to begin to emerge. A star may fall only once in an hour, but if your consciousness is such that time is itself suspended, the whole sky appears lit with the fire of them.
There are such moments and they make themselves known. That is the very purpose of memory: to store a sensation for later, when it can be recalled in some other, foreign setting and reconcile the vast distances we believe to exist within our lives. “Your perfume,” I remember my friend Charlie saying to our other friend Emily, “is the same that my sister wears;” a sister far away, but not forgotten, in that moment, because the inherent logic of our existence was asserting itself.
It was the same this week when a girl handed me a sprig of sweet basil and I placed it in my mouth and I practically felt the touch of a girl I once new in Florence who always used to cook with it. Or when an x-ray fell from above a closet in my house two months ago and I remembered a phone call I had when I was ten and certain words were cruelly added to my vocabulary, “metastasized” and chemotherapy.
There’s a crazy old woman in Ribeira Brava named Beta who, for reasons unfathomable, is mildly obsessed with me to the point that she will physically chase me in laps around the town library. Today, she ambushed me while I was having coffee with a business partner.
She used her usual technique of whispering sweet nothings which I pretend to not hear: “My love, we will get married and live beneath Monte Gorde in my parents house and we will grow old together.” In this ejaculation, she ignores the fact that she’s already grown old. She’s beyond barren; she looks as haggard as a washcloth that’s been used to clean a murder scene. And then thrown to dogs. “But she’s incredibly rich; her family has some prime land that I’d like to buy up there,” a man beside me, speaking in English, points up the mountain. “But, since she’s psychotic, her son won’t let her sell the land to me.” “So, the plan is for us to get married and then I can sell you the land?” I ask him. “Yes, that would do nicely.”
Maybe you’ve “arrived” in Cape Verde when a local pimps you out for property. Then again, I’ve already had several opportunities to be a trophy husband. It’s easy to become conceited about your looks here because, as a foreigner, there is an inherently novelty that allows even the most average looking white male, such as myself, to be considered attractive.
“But I don’t understand a word you’re saying,” I told Beta in English, “I don’t speak Krioulu.” “That’s alright,” she responded in Krioulu (how did she understand my English? I don’t know), “when we sleep together, I will learn English.”
Many teachers relay this same imaginary scenario where they, the teacher, places his hand on the head of his student and instantly translates his knowledge to the recipient, effortlessly. This was a similar imaginary scenario, but decidedly more gruesome.
Then today I helped some other friends with a painting project, the Patche Parloa bags were making to support the English Club, and we stopped to philosophize over some leftover ponche. “Everyone in your family before you was a doctor?” “Yes, my grandfather was great one, he invented a machine that’s saved six million lives.” At one point, he was a household name but his fame could never extend to this rooftop on a desert island in the mid-Atlantic. “So he was a great man?” Pericles asked me. “Yes, he was,” and I stopped, not because my Krioulu wouldn’t allow me to elaborate but because I was so deeply moved that my friend here could appreciate a man he’d never met but whose work had affected him nonetheless.
It’s as if the distance we cover between days, months, ages could be rendered on paper as a line and someone took that paper and folded it so that two points on that line, once far apart, coincided. The salient truth, if there is one, is the nature of the human element itself: arranged in a million different configurations but all made of the same thing.