Friday, January 04, 2008

Fish for Christmas in Rincao

“Why are fishing towns here always dirtier?” I asked a Cape Verdean Peace Corps staffer. “Are they poorer?”
“Fishermen don’t care about the appearance of their homes like farmers do,” he said. “It’s always been like this.”
Rincão, Mike’s fishing town, embodies the stereotype: Waves crash against the black basalt rocks littered with human feces. There is no sand on the wide beach that holds several wood fishing boats because people have sold it. Climbing the trash-strewn hill up from the ocean, you see rows of unfinished cement houses, shaped like boxcars, which blend into the matching grey rock beneath them. Rusted bent wires jut out of the roofs where people plan on building a second story. Construction is unlikely and maybe unnecessary; the roofs are perfect for drying corn, washing and hanging out laundry, and chatting with the neighbors.
Mike’s balcony sits a bit higher than the neighbors’ roofs. From its railing, you can sea the ocean, absurdly lovely above the grey unfinished homes. Beyond the ocean, is the mammoth silhouette of a black cone—the volcanic island of Fogo, even more incongruously magnificent.
Mike is not here. He is looking for fish for dinner. It’s harder than usual because its Christmas and everyone in Rincão is eating meat tonight. He walks by once with a child strapped across his chest. He walks back a little later with the same child strapped across the other shoulder and two more in tow.
A girl with a massive Tupperware of pasteis on her head stops in front of him. “Mike, what are you going to give me for Christmas?”
“Want one of these?” he says, throwing the child towards her. She laughs. The kid screams with delight.
Mike doesn’t have his notebook with him. Usually he does when he goes out. It’s for writing new words he hears to improve his Creole, but he doesn’t write much now, because his language is excellent. “This is all I do,” he says. “I really do nothing.”
He is not exaggerating. Each day, after swimming and/or soccer and/or a jog, he sits in different parts of town and talks to people. One day he is down by the local bar where the half drunk men tease him about getting a local girlfriend. Most days he is in the eating fresquinhas with a group of kids or talking to the vendor-women about the price of transport to Assomada. Unlike most volunteers he rarely goes to parties with other Americans, or even takes private time at home to read or write.
“I haven’t read in so long.” Mike says, as I leaf through his books. “Maybe I should, I must be getting so stupid.” He looks off thoughtfully for a moment. “It’s funny, you know, ‘cause I used to study so much.” He was a physics major at the University of Wisconsin, and later worked at the University of Texas, Austin. In both places he published original research.
Studying doesn’t further his current goal: “I just want to know how people think; understand the limitations and the benefits of thinking like them.”
To know how people think you need to integrate: Is integration really possible? “Do they ever really forget you are white, American, different?” I ask.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, they totally forget I am different,” He says adamantly. “Its just the money. If I weren’t richer than them, they would totally forget.”
At the beginning especially, the money issue was hard, he says. People would demand gifts and money and get angry when he refused. Kids would steal stuff. Even now, food items sometimes go missing when he has people over for dinner.
Mike doesn’t see it as malicious, or personal, though. “Its really just that here richer people are expected to give stuff out. Its part of the culture.” Now when he goes out, he brings only change, and keeps a coin in each pocket, so it won’t clang.
Although he’s loath to talk about it, Mike does take advantage of his integration to do development work. He taught a daily English class despite poor attendance, he is working on a business skills training, and he compiled a concise Creole manual for new volunteers. When an American NGO funded an elaborate irrigation project, installing a huge water tank fed by a distant spring, Mike tried to mobilize people to take advantage of it: they needed to buy tubing on credit to install drip irrigation systems to hook up to the water tank. With this free water, they could sustain year-round vegetable gardens that--in a community that subsists on fish and imported rice-- could fetch a good price locally and improve nutrition. So far, few people have jumped at the opportunity.
Experiences like these confirm Mike’s view on development; to succeed, projects require a substantial contribution on the part of the beneficiaries. Just that morning, a car-full of Christmas presents came down from the local government for Rincão’s kids. Mike was visibly disappointed. “They get so many presents, so many handouts, that it’s really hard to convince people to work.”
“So you think it undermines your projects here?” I asked.
He nodded. “I don’t even think they should even have electricity,” he said, explaining that the community has recently been electrified through a completely subsidized generator-run system. “They would kill me if they knew I said that, but its true. Handouts make sustainable development a lot harder.”
Mike doesn’t have any illusions about the marketability of the knowledge he has gained in Rincão. “It is probably the most useless skill ever,” he says, smiling.
If he is right, it’s the large NGO’s and communities like Rincão that stand to lose. Successful development projects do require the things that most NGO’s have in spades: big money, skilled technicians, structure, deadlines, and incentives for employee excellence. But they also depend on what the Peace Corps may have in spades: People like Mike: integrated enough to know what locals think, and yet able to communicate effectively with project heads.
Sure, a local with this skill set would be the ideal community liaison. But with their unique knowledge derived from their unique community intimacy, plus decent educational backgrounds, Volunteers should not be overlooked as potentially vital point men in projects like the irrigation system.
A little while later, Mike comes back with two bright orange, frighteningly-fanged Galopa. I have told him I don’t know how to prepare fish. “Here, come cut this one,” he says, pulling two buckets and two knives into the light outside his host family’s house. “I mean you don’t have to. But if I were you, I would want to learn.”

3 Comments:

Blogger Island dreamer said...

Oh, Mike.:)

I had to take the extra second to comment, because I so thoroughly agree that handouts (on all levels and in all shapes and forms) is one of the biggest downfalls to development in Cape Verde, one that I battle daily and usually unsuccessfully.

Ironically, I was part of the "local government"'s crew of Christmas donators, accompanying the CEJ to distribute clothes, etc. donated to Rincon by Assomada families. And I admit, the only reason I went (considering my previous statement on handouts) was to take an opportunity to "integrate"-slash-spend time trying to change the mindframe of Cape Verdean adolescents with good hearts and too much time on their hands.

Hmm, so I have no answer, but offer a sheepish grin admitting the vast difference between being in the community receiving handouts and being in the one giving the handouts.

3:52 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

Alex, keep up the great writing. This article was excellent.

6:10 AM  
Blogger Brian Newhouse said...

sometimes there's a man, sometimes... there's a man.

rock on sista

9:14 AM  

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