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from the May 2020 issue

A Form of African Identity

Camões Prize–winner Germano Almeida traces the formation of a new Cabo Verdean identity in this short essay.

It was when I was in grade four that I learned that, in addition to being a Cabo Verdean from Boa Vista, I was also a Portuguese from Portugal.

It was an extremely gratifying discovery. In the first place because we had just been learning that Portugal possessed numerous immense lands both within and beyond the seas, in Africa and in other parts of the world, and that meant that as Portuguese we were equally rich in gold, diamonds, and other valuables that we were becoming familiar with from books, though without a clear idea of what value or use they might have.

In the second place because this thrilling revelation coincided with the lightning visit of President Craveiro Lopes to Boa Vista. We had known that the President of the Republic was about to arrive, the old wooden jetty was being urgently repaired for His Excellency to disembark with the dignity that the occasion demanded, the street along which his entourage would pass had already been adorned with palm boughs and a selection of photographs of important people, but it was only on the day of the man’s arrival that we were surprised by the satisfying news, written in black letters on a large stretch of white fabric unfurled between two poles decorated with palm boughs: “WE ARE PORTUGAL.”

It’s true that we could have absorbed this important detail much earlier. Among other signs, there was the photograph of António Oliveira Salazar displayed in all public places above the caption “It’s easier to obey than to command,” and also the old and tattered flag that was carefully raised at city hall every Sunday. For us, this was simply another one of the duties assigned to village idiot Nené de Chalau, along with his role as the town’s street sweeper and pied piper on holidays.

But if we were excited, whether by the disembarkation of so many white-uniformed people, springing from the launch exactly as we had imagined bogeymen rising up out of the sea on the night of a full moon, or whether by the town council administrator’s statement that in Boa Vista, “everyone toils for the formation of an ever greater Portugal,” the presidential visit in no way clashed with the question of our identity. Because, aside from Senhor José Mateus, a deportee of over eighty years of age who had brought into port two small fishing boats and three games of table soccer, the Portuguese presence was limited to the naval carpenter Virgílio (who, after a few glasses of wine, liked to sing, “When I was young my father called me dirty names; now that I’m grown he tells me to fuck off!”) and to the manager of the Ultra supermarket, Senhor Patrício Correia, who, in addition to running the fish-canning factory, also looked after agricultural and fisheries experiments, having introduced to Boa Vista not only two wind pumps but also a bull of a breed so unusual that it never succeeded in mating with any of the local cows due to its anomalous proportions.

And so we led our lives in the serene assurance of being Cabo Verdeans, with the harmless contributing circumstance of also being Portuguese, when this tranquility was abruptly overturned in the 1960s and 70s by the shattering revelation that Cabo Verde was also Africa, in the deepest sense, and that we were nothing more than disinherited children who had been torn from the maternal breast by ferocious slave traders around 1480 and thereafter.

This revelation coincided exactly with the active conversion of the majority of our young intellectuals to the condition of Africans, and for this reason, we very quickly had to learn that we formed part of the wretched of the earth, that we also belonged to that great mass of humanity called “natives,” as one book put it, even though it was true that, to our great intellectual displeasure, the troubles described in Cry, the Beloved Country or Native Son had nothing to do with our reality of islanders lost in the Atlantic.

In this way “African identity” took the form above all of a tremendous effort at solidarity with long-suffering brothers we did not actually know; the simple condition of being colonized obliged us to stand at all times shoulder to shoulder with the oppressed peoples of the entire world, even though in Cabo Verde the colonizer was represented almost exclusively by Cabo Verdean civil servants.

But if the assumption of our condition as “Africans” enabled us to situate ourselves in the world, unfortunately it also gave rise to a great feeling of emptiness in us. The problem was that as long as we were simple Cabo Verdeans, we knew ourselves to be the possessors and bearers of a cultural identity that defined and distinguished us. We shared a Creole language and the open, relaxed customs, known as morabeza, that are unique to Cabo Verde; only we knew how to compose and sing morna music; and even our grogue and cachupa stew would never be confused with African palm wine or funge. But as “Africans” of an Africa we did not know, an Africa that, for us, was “without history” and without heroes, because Gungunhana was nothing more than a rebellious Black man and a bloodthirsty member of the Vátua peoples of Mozambique imprisoned not a moment too soon by the glorious Portuguese cavalry officer Mouzinho de Albuquerque, we came to find ourselves in a very perplexing, disorienting situation with regard to all the heroic Portuguese whom we had been required to learn about at school.

Of course by the mid-1960s we already had African heroes. Amílcar Cabral, Patrice Lumumba, Sekou Touré, Kwame Nkrumah, and others were formidable African names that enraptured our imaginations, though much more by inverse association than by familiarity: the more Europeans hated them, the more heroic they became. But not even this filled the void of our emptiness, because, among other reasons, “our brothers” spoke languages that we didn’t understand.

Meanwhile, it was almost certainly Ovídio Martins who resolved this serious problem of identity for us with the publication of his poem “Those Whipped by the East Wind.” Because with this work our national specificity was once again made clear: we were those whipped by the east wind, those whom the she-goats had taught to eat stones in order not to perish. Hence our struggle was not so much against exploitation but above all against the abandonment into which we had been cast, against the droughts and famines that at each occurrence finished off close to one-third of our population. And, in this way, we were part of the wretched of the earth, because if others were oppressed by actions, we were victims of a crime of omission.

As it happened, by mid-1967, Baltasar Lopes da Silva had laid out the problem in a clear, convincing manner: we were neither Africans nor Europeans, merely Cabo Verdeans.

Without a doubt, settling on this third possibility in which to situate ourselves does Cabo Verdeans good. Because the question continues to be asked in the wrong way. From Europe, we were acquainted with the Portuguese, the French, the Italians, the Spaniards, the Germans . . . . But for all of Africa there was only the generic, almost pejorative, expression of “Africans,” and it was only natural for us to refuse to jump into that immense catchall bag without having at least a label with which to identify ourselves.

Because we were aware of hearing Black women talk about what was happening all over that Africa place: Blacks in chains, flayed with horsewhips, branded with hot irons, and forced to work without receiving anything in return, and who, at the end of the day, bowed down before the whites and on their knees said: “Thank you, boss.” We knew that when a white man strolled down a sidewalk all the Black people were quick to clear the way so that he could pass by free and unimpeded.

Yet in Cabo Verde it was completely different. We had a deep consciousness of being at home in our land; if anybody was out of place it was the few mondrongos, or Portuguese people, who lived here, the sidewalks and even the parking lots belonged to us, if anyone needed to take care or get out of the way it would be them, not us, and for this reason they received deliberate shoves on the street for which apologies were not offered. If they wanted to be understood, then let them learn Creole . . . . No, sir, the simple designation of “Africans” didn’t fit us.

It was only very gradually that we came to understand that the Europeans, out of malice or simple ignorance, had instilled in us our reluctance to accept our condition as Africans. Because they spoke of “Africans” as though African identity were one and indivisible. And we had to learn that there are as many cultural identities as there are African peoples, and that we could belong perfectly well to Africa provided that we carried a label designating us as masters of an identity that underlined our particularity as Cabo Verdeans.

© Germano Almeida. Translation © 2020 by Stephen Henighan. All rights reserved.

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