Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman

As she croons these words, sauntering through a cavern in leather mini skirt and mid-drift, Brittany seems to contradict herself: One look at the buxom curves banishes any doubts you might have that Ms. Spears is “not yet a woman”. Puberty is a much better metaphor for Cape Verde, the former Portuguese colony in West Africa where I have spent the last eight months. The island nation is currently “graduating” from the UN designation of “underdeveloped” to “developing,” sans the awkward discussion of acne cream and depilation methods, of course.
Cape Verde’s transition is exciting to watch. As I wandered down a misty road through the Serra Malagueta Mountains, I felt I had entered medieval Europe. Along stone terraces, men and women struggled to plant corn with wooden hoes as they had for half a millenium. Farmhouses with orange brick roofs dotted the slopes below. But when I finally found my friend Minga’s field, she was busy, grinning into the mist and telling her daughter about this year’s rains. Her daughter was in Portugal, and you could almost hear her exclamations through the glinting, silver cell phone. A few months earlier, electricity was installed in Minga’s community. A new dam recently built in another town is rendering 65 hectors of formerly barren plain productive cropland.
These structural improvements are irrefutably cool to behold. Compared to poorer, continental West Africa, from where I arrived, Cape Verde’s quasi-freedom from life-threatening poverty issues---such as malaria, AIDS, and malnutrition---is inspiring, and begs emulation. But there are worrying traces of first world cultural issues trailing these positive developments.
It’s not just the obvious stuff: the American pizzas that seem to emerge more regularly onto tables at civic events alongside the gritty, bland and beloved cous-cous. Nor is it the ever-growing number of 50 Cent tunes that mercifully punctuate the (still painful) 17-song zouk sets.
It is the far subtler and more substantive stuff. It is the fact that, when I designed an improved stoves pilot project based on old converted gas tanks, the local gas company warmly embraced the idea. But just before handing over the tanks, it had a change of heart: they would be held liable, they feared, should explosions result from people trying to convert tanks on their own. Obviously safety is important, and their concern deserved consideration. And yet, watching what appeared to be the extension of our legal culture—whereby liability fears halt potentially fruitful collaborations between the private and NGO sectors--was unsettling.
The next day I went to a local funana concert: what better way to escape the intrusion of the first world? And true to form, the infectious redundant beats blared from the speakers as the star, the best friend of the video storeowner’s uncle (or so he swore), serenaded us about the vicissitudes of love and partying; it felt pretty authentic. Turning to look at the audience, however, I glimpsed another face of culture globalization: No one was dancing! Elegantly clad in jeans and black turtle necks, most sat, sipping a beer, nodding their heads and tapping their feet, with that look of barely repressed yearning observed in bars across the West.
Admittedly, this was a fairly upwardly mobile crowd, more exposed to Western culture. Still, as another round of infectious tunes went undanced, I wondered:
Can we globalize selectively? Is it possible for the first world to export its living standards and retain its Britney Spears? Could we broadcast our roads and schools and medicine throughout the developing world and hold on to our over-consumption, our litigiousness, and our unwavering determination to NOT have fun at concerts?
Instinctively, my answer is “no”. The meeting of cultures has never been neat and orderly, even for the conquerors. Beyond the anticipated positives--gold and slaves, say, for the Portuguese in Africa, always came the unintentional negatives--like disease and bloodshed.
Plus, what is unique to globalization, what distinguishes it from any previous era of accelerating international contact, is the unprecedented freedom with which goods and people move, dictated more than ever by personal whims and market forces (not governments). Drugs enter Cape Verde on the way to Europe, despite modern technologies and global initiatives to stop it—how could we stop pizza?
Then there are the challenges of deterring the spread of a wealthy country’s culture: without a developed entertainment industry, Cape Verde cannot compete with Hollywood, whose images advocate for things as diverse as certain foods and certain gender attitudes. Add to this, the unsettling propensity of marginalized people to idealize the culture of the “haves” and the picture is bleak, indeed.
But all is not lost. Foreigners--ironically, the very purveyors of globalized culture--can and do help. When we travel to Cape Verde, we visit trapiches--traditional distilleries--to watch vats of sugar cane bubbling over a fire, as a swig of last year’s grogue burns a hole in our stomach lining. We attend batuk concerts to see women’s butts seemingly detach from their bodies to the beat of mournful chants and drumming on whatever’s around. And we buy pano de terra, the intricately woven bands of cloth these women tie around their hips that were once the prized export of colonial Cape Verde.
Pano de terra, in fact, may be the best example of cultural rebirth: According to Jose Sabino, a Cape Verdean weaver, throughout the 1990’s “Cape verdeans watched television, listened to the radio…and started to borrow other cultures that weren’t ours…They stopped wearing pano de terra…Now we are revaluing, returning once again to our culture.” Government support and international demand, he says, are both causes of the renaissance.
Of course, if it is going to work, preserving local culture has to be a local priority. But as globalization merges and dilutes cultures in the developed world, we will be ever more willing to shell out to experience the well conserved ones.
So pubescent or otherwise, Britney Spears may not yet be entirely welcome in all developing countries. But even if she kicks off a world tour in this one, as long as the audience is dancing, all won’t be lost.