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Island Knowledge: Isolation and Identity in Cabo Verde

By Derek Pardue

In this essay, a companion to WWB's new issue of writing from Cabo Verde, scholar and writer Derek Pardue reflects on what he learned about language, isolation, and identity during his time in the country's capital, Praia.

As I write this, my son announces that the WHO (World Health Organization) just tweeted that they have officially classified the coronavirus (COVID-19) as a pandemic. It was just a matter of time, I think to myself. And a matter of space, I suppose. We sit atop a mountain somewhere in Appalachia, a stroke of fortune during a global tragedy and the onset of paranoia. My son passes me a piece of toast and I drift back in time and across the Atlantic to a set of islands. André recedes into the background and I begin to remember Cabo Verde, a place of isolation and reckoning. My experiences there both revealed new dimensions of humanity and confirmed what I had always known. An intense place where globalization and parochialism coexist, Cabo Verde has stayed with me, finding its way into my consciousness even here, even now. I don’t think I am alone in this.

Cabo Verde is an archipelago nation consisting of ten islands, nine of which are inhabited, located in the Atlantic Ocean, roughly 350 miles west of Dakar, Senegal. Cabo Verde shares basic demographic history with São Tomé, Mauritius, and a few other island nations in that none of them had an indigenous population. These places were born creole. Cabo Verde’s Kriolu (Crioulo) language itself is composed predominantly of Portuguese vocabulary, while its grammar and syntax structure are derived from a mix of West African languages, including Mandingo, Temne, Wolof, and Manjak.

A central narrative in Cabo Verde’s mythology is the “ten seeds” (dez gronzim) story. Basically, the story goes something like this: God came, put in a week’s worth of labor, made the world, and then, after finishing, like any proud worker or artist, brushed his hands together and contemplated his efforts. Crumbs fell, and lo and behold, Cabo Verde emerged. The idea of drifting pieces, constitutive of a social puzzle elsewhere, frames the Cabo Verdean psyche as a mosaic of fragmentation, movement, and contact. With a majority of its population living outside its borders, Cabo Verde comes into focus only when one considers migration. During my stays in the country in 2009 and 2011, I came to learn somewhat experientially the roots and routes of Cabo Verdean-ness. An entrenched history of being isolated, considered neither “African” nor “European.” A categorical isolation. An erasure. Such existential marginalization did not result in silence but rather in ongoing debate about and artistic expression of a journey across bodies of water and human bodies in search of recognition.

Cabo Verde made me check myself. Back then, I was in the midst of an anthropological research project in Lisbon, a place that to me was only interesting because of black migration. As someone socialized in Brazil and the Brazilian variant of Portuguese, I had little patience with the “continental” way of speaking. It was obtuse, brash, ugly, and ultimately unwelcoming. Kriolu, on the other hand, was remarkable in its style and attitude. I stopped trying to speak tuga Portuguese and tried to mimic the creole sounds around me in the far-flung neighborhoods of Casal da Boba, 6 de Maio, and Cova da Moura.  

When I mentioned my plans to travel to Praia, the capital and largest city of Cabo Verde, my interlocutors in Lisbon smiled and waxed nostalgic. They mostly talked of childhood memories, running through the txadas (open fields), playing mischievous games with the local girls ducking in and out of bekus (alleyways). The kriola women mixed memories of chores, such as fetching water for the household, with wandering dreams of romance and opportunities beyond the ocean. They dropped key diasporic place names—Boston, Brockton, Rotterdam, and Gothenburg—as they performed kinship roll calls. Some shared more recent stories, hoodlum tales full of bravura and suspense. The diversity of memories about the archipelago expressed a range of emotions, from a fondness for a simpler life before to a sense of achievement inside Europe. Some embraced a bicultural identity, proud of a Cabo Verdean Creole difference and Lisbon’s modern shine. Others wondered if their racialized blackness would forever relegate them to second-class citizenry. Language mediated all of that, the drifting that is as isolating as it is bonding.

Graffiti referring to kaçubodi, or "cash or body," a phrase commonly uttered during a spate of armed robberies in Praia around the year 2009. Photo by Derek Pardue.

Two words consistently appeared in our conversations: kaçubodi and dengue. Both terms conjured a danger of the contaminant and inspired locals to play with and ultimately create new social relationships and cultural forms. It would take me some time to recognize the latter. The first term refers to a Cabo Verdean Creole phonetic transliteration of the English phrase “cash or body,” a menacing trick-or-treat greeting thugs uttered during armed robbery, a spate of which had filled the streets of Praia around that time. The second denotes the malaria-like viral disease expressed in periodic outbreaks in the tropics. The phrases acted as discursive portals into a range of emotions traversing the fields of politics, music, family, and stigma. Cabo Verdean politicians blamed the rise of dengue and kaçubodi on the “deported,” a term referring to the scores of usually young men in Cabo Verde’s largest diasporic communities (located in between Boston and Providence) who, due to legal changes in the US outlined in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act of 1996, found themselves at increased risk of deportation to the islands. More specifically, the critical category “aggravated felony” was expanded from rape, gun smuggling, and sale of illegal drugs to include infractions such as shoplifting, possession of marijuana, and drunk driving. These deported men, back at “home” on the islands, often were proficient only in English. They spoke little to no Kriolu and were even less proficient in Portuguese. Politicians reasoned that due to their lack of functional literacy and kinship networks, the deported “naturally” became criminals. For their part, musicians, like the rappers I befriended, mobilized “cash or body” and “dengue” as “beefs” to protect their own local territories and occasionally give a shout-out to partners in the diaspora in songs that circulated through low-fi social media. More drifting, ultimately part of the old game of inclusion and exclusion. Such morbid scenes of “cash or body” and “dengue” flew in the face of the sweet tales of morabeza, the national paradigm of “good times” and beautiful nostalgia made so famous by crooners Cesária Évora and Tito Paris, writers like Baltasar Lopes, and creolephiles such as the Portuguese author Manuel Ferreira.

Discourse and material are always connected. I do not intend to downplay the violence caused by these two terms, just as I would never belittle the sweeping public health risks involved in the current COVID-19 pandemic. “Cash or body” and “dengue,” in fact, resulted in deaths and several cases of severe injury and illness while I was in Praia city. I myself practiced a brief self-quarantine in the early days of my stay. Isolated, I let my mind wander to consider the banal—how solid is the ground of an island? I walked outside skittishly, and people’s hard stares and car horns forced me to consider my otherness. A white other. Over time, friends would gloss over the scene, calling me branco badiu, an oxymoron that indicates race, colonialism, decolonization struggles, class, and geography. It deserves its own dissertation. On days when the wind shifted and sand from the Sahara made its way to the archipelago, settling as a thick mist, I mused on the centrality of mobility to not only human but also planetary conditions. Everything became so suspect. Isolation was operating on different levels, individual, collective, physical, and psychological, and all of them were inextricably linked to a desire to imagine beyond. The Portuguese, as one of the earliest communities of “modern” voyagers, understood this concept and articulated the phrase “beyond the sea” as one word. Além-mar. The place must take into account the journey, the process of beyond.

Much of my time in Praia ended up being a rude veneer, a lesson in style and presentation. It stuck with me, though, as a prickly reminder of the fractures within the so-called Luso(phone) world. My attitude changed, as did my bodily posture. Cabo Verde and its enigmatic Creole taught me a great deal about isolation, privilege, and difference through the simultaneously crushing and liberating time-space formations we might normally call simply the sea and the drifting self. As one fascinating example of island knowledge, Cabo Verde exudes a sense of isolation and a beyond that tends to linger.

Published May 21, 2020   Copyright 2020 Derek Pardue

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