When I decided to apply for the Peace Corps, I thought it would be best to enter the process with no expectations. With a degree in English and Sociology, an interest in humanity and no true direction upon graduation, I thought it was past time that I experience life in a different culture. Within months of my interview, I knew that I would be headed to Cape Verde, the tiny archipelago off the coast of Senegal, to teach English. What I didn’t realize was how much I would learn over the following two years. What follows is a glimpse of my experience, and a few realizations that defied my previous understanding of life while living through the lens of a different world.
We like to think that we are all unique individuals, but there are many universal certainties in the human experience. We are all born of someone, have lived and will die. I have existed as a human being for 25 years, and am beginning to see through what we have made of living to the very core of life. There is something about the smallness and proximity of life here that amplifies what is most basic. Joy comes in waves, pouring over each household and bringing smiles and good will to all faces. Tragedy and suffering also come barreling through, washing over all that gets in its way. Changes in mood can be felt like a sudden change in temperature or turning of the wind.
Each time a child is born, there is a festa. The mother lies in bed for a week accepting visitors that come to congratulate and examine the new addition to the community. The seventh day is marked with the festa, and the giving of the name.
Weddings, though rare, can upset the entire community for weeks. The dispidida de solteira (goodbye single life) is held a week before the wedding and there seem to be parties straight through until the single life really is gone.
A procession of vehicles for a wedding
And death. What can I possibly say about death.
When someone dies in Cape Verde, there is a week of mourning expressed through “chora,” or crying. Unlike the subtle, reflective tears of the US, this crying is like an eruption from the heart. In melodic harmony, women’s voices pour out in a chorus of loss. Possibly originated from lack of means of communication, the chora carries over fields and across ravines to reach the ears of those near and far. The cries are mixed with a song of prayer for those who have been lost. There is a plea to God to accept their arrival in peace and a plea for the peace of those left behind. For seven days, the family sits in the house and receives family, friends, neighbors and everyone in between. Each new arrival brings forth a new round of chora. For many, the visit is obligatory and the grief is mixed with their own.
Over the past three weeks, three prominent members of my small community have passed and it was as if a dark cloud had stormed into the community and upended it overnight.