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from the May 2020 issue

Cabo Verde Is the Center of the World

Camões Prize–winner Germano Almeida reflects on his childhood discovery of the world beyond the Cabo Verdean islands in this short essay.

In the days of my childhood we used to go and play around the edges of a grave that lay isolated nearly two kilometers from the small town of Sal Rei on the island of Boa Vista, and which we called the “Maria de Patingole” cemetery. We already knew how to read Portuguese relatively well, but this business of “Maria de Patingole” remained an intriguingly indecipherable mystery because the handsome marble slab standing atop the grave contained a good number of words that were utterly foreign—though written in letters we’d known for some time—and of which we understood only Julia Maria Louise, 1825, and, just above the base of the gravestone, November 21, 1845.

Other than the “cemetery,” little more remained of “Maria de Patingole” beyond a vague memory of her having been the daughter of an Englishman who had lived on Boa Vista, and one of the victims of the great cholera outbreak of 1845. Shaken by her death, her father abandoned the island and never returned, and was reported to have died a madman somewhere in distant, unimaginable Africa.

In those days the island of Boa Vista was the whole world. It’s true that our primary school textbooks had left us with a confused notion of the maps of other lands, whose names we were obliged to learn by heart and then recite to the teacher, earning a smack with the ruler or a slap to an open hand for each mountain or river we omitted. Even so, the maps’ existence amounted to nothing more than a piece of paper on the classroom wall, a jumble of lines and colors that we traced quickly and in time to the rapid leaps of the little pointer. Nothing compared to the immensity of our island, where it took a full day’s journey, whether on foot or on the back of a donkey, to get from one settlement to the next.

“Maria de Patingole” conveyed the same sense of mystery as the charming names of the mountains of Portugal. “The Luso-Castilian System: Malcata, Estrela, Lousã, Sicó, Aire, Candeeiros, Montejunto, and Sintra, between the Mondego, Zêzere, and Tagus Rivers.” Only she was more real because we knew that she was there, alone and abandoned, beneath that marble slab the salty sea air was consuming little by little.

Father Higgino di Roma enabled us to take our first steps in deciphering the mystery of the hieroglyphs one afternoon when I took him to visit “Maria de Patingole.” He quickly established that the language on the stone was English and sent me to copy the complete inscription onto a piece of paper. At home, albeit rather laboriously and with the help of an English-Portuguese dictionary that I went to borrow, he translated: Here lie the mortal remains of Julia Maria Louisa, the beloved daughter of Charles Pettingal, arbitrator of His Brittanic Majesty’s Court of the Mixed Commission, born in January of 1825 and deceased November 21, 1845 . . . .

If in this way the name of “Maria de Patingole” was explained, no light was cast on the tragic fact of a girl, who must have been pretty to have spoken such a melodious language, having died at the age of twenty, nor, for that matter, on where that beautiful stone with such finely carved letters, words, and flowers had come from.

In any event, the island of Boa Vista was no longer the whole world because there was “Maria de Patingole” to prove that there were other worlds. But we were, without a doubt, “the center of the world,” everyone’s last stop before the grave, from His Majesty’s Englishmen to Jews from Rabat, as the little cemetery allowed us to confirm, 500 meters from Maria’s tomb, where Isaac Ben Uliel and his descendants rested.

They say that God had already finished making the world and distributing the riches that would nourish his children, whom he had set in their places—Blacks in Africa, Whites in Europe, still others in Asia and the Americas—when he glanced at his hands, hands still dirty with traces of clay. From his perch in the heavens, he casually brushed them away, but shortly thereafter, he noticed small islands budding here and there, close to Africa. “Aha!” his helpers told him. “You just created more land there, except you have no more riches or people to bestow on it, and it’s quite likely that in the future questions will be asked about your sense of equality.”

God hadn’t thought of this—it hadn’t been his intention to create anything more, it had been a distracted gesture—but he wasn’t going to let this tie him up in knots. “It doesn’t matter,” he’s said to have replied. “I’ve spread so much land around that no matter how diligently and energetically my children go about fulfilling my command to go forth and multiply until they fill up the earth, nobody’s going to need to live on those islands.”

Well, not being aware of, or perhaps deliberately disobeying, this command from Above, the Portuguese transformed Cabo Verde into a staging point for slaves, sending them on from there to the Americas and Europe. When slavery ceased to be a profitable business, they handed over the islands to the beneficiaries of this trade, after having settled there Blacks of varying ethnicities and European Whites, in their majority Portuguese. And then they “forgot” about them, a forgetting whose roots, let’s say it candidly and in all truth, can be traced back to divine distraction: there were no riches to exploit!

But it’s also perfectly natural that God should have had one eye fixed on another, far more complex, project, which he refused to reveal to his collaborators right away: creating a laboratory for the miscegenation of races and cultures and seeing what might emerge from this miscellany. And what emerged was the Cabo Verdean people.

On July 5, we commemorate Cabo Verdean independence. As one Cabo Verdean, convinced that the date coincided with that of American independence, said to me a long time ago: “Two great countries: Cabo Verde and the United States!”

Of course, translated from Creole this phrase loses much of its picturesque flavor; it even loses all of its naive, if delightful, boastful national swagger, since the solemn but absolutely convincing roll of the head that accompanied it is utterly indescribable. But that’s how Cabo Verdeans are: proud of the center of the earth where they live, suffer, and toil against endless drought, their sights set on foreign parts, their hearts on the islands.

Not even emigration has been powerful enough to jeopardize this “axis” painfully born of isolation. Being a country that has twice as much of its population abroad as it does within its borders, it could easily suffer a catastrophic erosion of its culture and identity. But Cabo Verdeans continue to carry their culture with them, living in all four corners of the earth on cachupa stew, grogue, and morna music, and never hesitating to show it, because nothing can convince them that Cabo Verde might cease to be the center of the world.

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

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