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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.

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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.

FestaEach 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.

Hiace2

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.

 


Weeks later, I find that there is still a heaviness in the air. Change always brings a period of adjustment, and loss even more so. In her book, For the Time Being, Annie Dillard points out that we, the living, are outnumbered by the dead almost 14:1. She quotes Stalin in saying “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic.” How sadly true. Though one cannot know a million people, never mind be personally connected to all, each one of that million is a tragedy to some.

The same is true here, I feel the loss of these women, but for those that did not know these women they are another number. Life is already continuing on with other joys and tragedies waiting ahead. Our fleeting existence will soon be erased and forgotten too. To feel loss as a tragedy is a gift. It is our responsibility to use that gift, to love, to live, and to lose.

 

Paths

Fifteen months after my Peace Corps service began, I find myself pretty much at home.  Whichever places I have briefly called home for whatever reason seem as far away and dreamlike as my future home in Cape Verde once did. The familiarity of beaten paths off the cobblestone road is jarred by the brief flash of sidewalks and driveways. Lack of anonymity has grown into a fondness of never being alone or unknown. I like knowing all my neighbors and greeting them each time I leave the house. I like knowing the woman that grows and sells me my vegetables. I like the overenthusiastic shouts of my 7th grade students and breaking through the “too cool” attitude of my 8th graders. I like the simplicity, transparency and hospitality that permeate all aspects of life.

 

This is not to say there aren’t things that I don’t like. Like a late-stage game of Jenga, the infrastructure of government, health care, transportation and education were built high and hastily on a foundation ridden with faults and gaps. This becomes evident when simple tasks are run through each hole and around each corner, taking six times longer than conceivably possible and somehow coming out on the other side not quite the way intended. There are general, little frustrations that arise from this lack of infrastructure, unexpected delays, expected delays and the general dismissal of tasks.

Though this too can be frustrating, there are some things that become almost routine in their lack of efficiency, like transportation. I vaguely remember being frustrated that the subway in Boston stopped running at the ungodly hour of 12:30am and that the train sometimes took upwards of 15 minutes to arrive. I look back on these absurd frustrations with a fondness that only a non-native island resident can truly comprehend. Here, transportation is entirely in the hands of the few that have a 15 passenger van or covered truck. I have regularly walked upwards of 7K just waiting for a car to pass. I have sat in the oppressive heat of São Filipe waiting for an hour for the driver of the one lonely car to decide that it was time to drive around the city for 40 minutes to collect passengers from the sleepy streets. What could have been a 20 minute ride more often takes upwards of two hours. I have been crammed into a seat, six across plus two children on laps, purchases and travel gear in tow, next to an old woman routinely emptying the contents of her sick stomach into a leaky plastic bag.

I have endured showers of partially chewed peanuts and other assorted refreshments with an accompaniment of vulgar comments and narrative that only a half-deaf, toothless, senile old man would be able to muster. I have prayed for my life and the lives of those around me to the gospel of blaring island beats as the crazed driver whipped around corners of vertigo inducing cliffs. Mostly though, I have waited… and waited

Cargo

On the way to the city, these two women join the overcrowded car with a rooster and two chickens



StudentsRecently, while waiting for a car after my daily battle of molding young minds, I was blessed in a strange way. As I sat on the wall (an extremely common activity here) the woman who has been cooking for the primary school students longer than I have been alive graced me with her company. This being the first time we met, we exchanged the typical formalities; name, number of children, if I have arranged a husband here, where in the states I am from, how many family members she has in the states, etc. As the conversation moved in the direction of America, I feared the typical “America é sabi! La ten tudu koizas!” (America is cool! It has everything!) This is generally followed by me explaining that not everything is great in America, that there is poverty equal to the poverty here, that there are also a lot of things that Cape Verde has that America does not; that even though there is everything in America, it requires a lot of money and a lot of work, etc. I was pleasantly surprised when this wise and beautiful woman made a more convincing argument against the poorly informed blanket comments about the greatness of America than I could ever hope to.

She spoke quietly of a good friend who had lived in both Cape Verde and America. Though he was initially pleased with the opportunity to live and do his work in the US, this pleasure waned as he spent time there. After passing a few years in the US, he gratefully returned to Cape Verde completely disenchanted with America. During his service there he found himself disappointed in the way people treated and dealt with one another. In the second-hand words of this wise woman, “Na ‘Merka, tempo é só dinheiro. Alguen ka ten tempo pa outro alguen.” (In America, time is just money. People don’t have time for one another.) Though she may not know this first hand, the impressions of the pastor had certainly influenced her. This is not an entirely uncommon response when speaking with someone who has some knowledge or experience in regards to lifestyle in the states. The wisdom of this woman shone through her reported commentary when she spoke “Nos é só passageiros.” (We are all just passengers.) This may not be the most enlightening comment ever spoken, but at the moment, in the context, I was humbled and a little amused.

As we spoke, we acknowledged the fact that there is a certain amount of ambiguity and distance involved in being a passenger. When was the last time you greeted or made conversation with the strangers that shared the bus or train with you? In America it is more common to simply remain comfortably in our personal existence. There is a certain amount of respect and acknowledgment shown as we get up to allow the elderly, sick or pregnant person to sit, but the inquiries “how are you?... how is life treating you?... how is your family?” very rarely make an appearance.

JourneyIn Cape Verde, you can’t get away without at least a simple greeting. There is not the rush to get to the next destination. There is not the desire to wallow in a private world, cut off from your surroundings by electronic devices, ear buds and indifference. Instead, it is the company on the voyage and the combined experience that matters. Though it may take longer to get to the desired destination, the overall journey becomes infinitely more warm and enjoyable. Besides, during our short time here, shouldn’t it at least be a pleasant trip?


©Callie Flood

 

 

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