Friday, February 29, 2008

Patrick Kennedy Visits Peace Corps Cape Verde*

Just outside Serra Malagueta’s Protected Areas office, a cluster of volunteers and Cape Verdean and American officials milled around a massive bus. Inside it, on an obscured seat sat congressman Patrick Kennedy (D-Rhode Island), nephew of the illustrious founder of the Peace Corps. With each moment of waiting, the gulf between his family’s enormous legacy of service and our own comparably paltry Peace Corps projects seemed to grow.
He dismounted, a sandy haired young man with a sincere smile. As introductions were made, thunderous beats emerged from the office. The batukadeiras of Serra Malagueta had begun pounding rhythmic beats on improvised drums to coax their leader to dance.
Suddenly, Kennedy jumped into the circle and with good-natured abandon, tied a scarf around his waste and began to gyrate himself. Batukaderias, volunteers and officials all relaxed and smiled.
The whole entourage clustered at the door, to watch: Roger Pierce, the U.S. Ambassador to Cape Verde; Patrick Dunn U.S. Chargé d’affaires; Fatima da Veiga, Cape Verdean Ambassador to the U.S.; Maria de Resereção Lopes da Silva, the Deputy of the Cape Verdean Diaspora, Dr Stahis Panagides, Director of the Millennium Challenge Corporation; Cristano Barros, the Vice Rector of UniCV, and Dan Murphy, congressional aide to Representaive Kennedy. Representing the Peace Corps, Country Director Hank Weiss, Education APCD Yonis Reyes and volunteers Nick Hanson, Courtney Phelps, Brian Newhouse, and Alex Alper also attended.
As the drumming ceased and Kennedy untied his improvised pano de terra, Maria Teresa Vera Cruz, National Coordinator of the Protected Areas Project, briefly presented the project’s history, goals, and current works. Early that morning, he received a similar briefing at Assomada’s Grão Duque Henri technical school, where he learned about Newhouse and Hanson’s solar still project, and received general comments on technical education in Cape Verde.
“It was clear he didn’t just want to know what projects we were doing,” Newhouse, ’09 said. “He wanted to talk to the técnica students and really see what kind of an impact we were having.” Beyond the successful construction of the still, for example, Kennedy wanted to know if the students were really involved in the project and could apply their knowledge elsewhere.
“What I liked best was how intuitive Kennedy was with his questions,” said Nick Hanson, ‘08. The Representative, according to Nick, cut to the heart of the schools’ current challenges. He touched on issues like employability of graduates, the need for teacher training, use of hands-on teaching techniques, and sustainability of volunteer projects.
Courtney highlighted his egalitarianism. “He didn’t direct his questions only to the highest officials, but rather to the people who could answer the question best—to students, volunteers, or to the School Director.”
For Hank Weiss, the visit had a more personal significance. “I was a young man when Patrick Kennedy’s uncle created the Peace Corps, and when Robert Schriver became its first director. Knowing Patrick came from their family was very powerful.”
As Kennedy held out signed copies of Rhode Island souvenir books to us at the visit’s end, we received a souvenir of much more lasting impact: He told us that Washington was not currently promoting and supporting programs like the Peace Corps. Despite that, the Peace Corps volunteers of Cape Verde had chosen to serve of their own volition. He promised to do what he could to improve the current situation, and commended us for our selfless choice.
“Its like what your uncle said,” Hank said. “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”
“He sure knocked that one out,” Kennedy responded, smiling.
*For PC CV Newsletter

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Corn is for Horses

“I mean, what’s culture? People live their lives,” Kyle, a Peace Corps volunteer on Sal explains to me. “They go to work, they go home. They go drinking...” He shrugs. “Just like anyone anywhere.”
“What about music,” I ask. “Do they listen to Cape Verdean stuff ?”
“There is some mourna and zouk. But, its pretty awesome: a lot of people like rock.” We pass a house that’s blasting Linkin Park. “I mean, that’s pretty awesome.”
We find a table outside on Bom Dia’s patio. The sun beats down on umbrellas adorned with beer ads, icy beads dripping down each oversized bottle. Silver belt buckets, cell phones, and sunglasses glint amid the white and black faces, smart suits, plates of chicken and tuna garnished with lettuce and fries. We could be anywhere.
“What are you doin’ here, Jackass?” Joe says flawlessly. “I come here to have a beer, and get away from these Jackasses.”
Kyle grins. “We didn’t know you would be here.”
Joe is a native Salense who has returned after 40 years in the shipping business in Florida, Massachusettes and Rhode Island. He’s building a house, but his workers got in a fight today and left. ”Where does that leave me?” he says.
The waiter, also a jackass according to Joe, comes over and we order cachupa, the corn stew found on Cape Verdean tables countrywide, morning and night, steamed or fried, garnished or straight up.
“Corn is for horses,” Joe laughs.
* * *
Perhaps on Sal it is. Sal, Cape Verde’s flat, sandy, and most easterly island, was discovered by Italian tourists early on and serves a lot of pasta. The island, which is home to around 10,000, was populated only 150 years ago when salt mining became profitable. Through the 1930’s, as the salt industry declined, Moussilini bought the rights to build an airport, and the tourist industry began. Joe says he was “raised by Italians”.
What drew them is clear: the entire southern half of Sal is bounded by white sand beaches that descend gently into calm bright waters. Colorful salt mines, nesting turtles, a giant crater, a lava pool, scuba diving, wind surfing, and deep sea fishing, are additional draws. The international airport and great restaurants cater to visitors, but the boom is only getting started: en route to Santa Maria, the upscale tourist town, along one of Cape Verde’s few asphalt highways, massive hotels, a golf course, and apartment complexes are being erected in large tracts that evoke mining boom towns. Hilton Hotels is set to begin construction here, the first international hotel chain to set up shop in Cape Verde. In Santa Maria itself, the windows of real estate offices are plastered with pictures of current projects and appeals to invest.
Outside these real estate offices is a conspicuous absence of Cape Verdean culture. Without the woven pano de terra and rhythmic batuk of the southern islands or the quaint farmhouses and sorrowful mournas of the north, Sal gets aptly described as “that island that doesn’t belong to Cape Verde.”
And yet, when employing a liberal definition of culture, Kyle is right: if people are living, they are doing so according to certain commonly held beliefs, practices, ie a culture. If this “culture” happens to evoke suburban Maryland more than subsaharan Africa, who’s to judge?
In fact, perhaps we should celebrate: whatever lack of “authentic” Cape Verdean culture is directly tied to the tourism industry, which is prompting unprecedented prosperity. Sal boasts the lowest unemployment rate of any island. People from Sao Nicolau, Santiago, and Senegal migrate to meet the labor demand in hotels, restaurants, and construction. Pockets of rural and urban poverty don’t seem to exist like they do on other islands. “Tourism has been here forever… Its good,” one older local explains to me in Palmeira, a port town far from Santa Maria. She rubs her thumb and forefinger together. “Its money.”
The growth does have downsides that aren’t purely cultural. Sex tourism is flourishing in Santa Maria and crime is on the rise. The wells and sole desalination plant barely meet the demands of locals and the ballooning tourist population. Kyle says, ”Tourists come and take 30 minute showers, like they do at home. If they use too much water the city shuts it off for the town.”
But the cultural issues are worrisome, too, because of their applicability: it’s easy to imagine Sal’s story becoming a paradigm for the country—a tourism boom spurs grow and quietly obliterates the country’s unique blend of African and Portuguese cultures, which has withstood centuries of migration and foreign influence. All the investment ads that tout Cape Verde as “Europe’s nearest tropical islands” begin to seem prophetic and one can imagine the birth of another Bermuda.
* * *
Next to a Santa Maria real estate office, tourists stroll into an Italian ice cream shop advertising sundaes. A group of white teenagers finger non-descript tee-shirts that read “Cape Verde Zone” in a clothing boutique. A restaurant called “Kretcheu”-- “my love”--and a business called “Cachupa” remind you are in a creole-speaking country, but I haven’t seen more than a handful of Cape Verdeans on this street.
On each corner, West African salesmen lounge in front of makeshift craft stands, occasionally calling out “Hello, my friend, Bonjour mon ami” to passing tourists. Their shelves are lined with ebony statues, tie-dye dresses, and sand paintings of angular black women, pestle in hand, backs laden with babies, or heads burdened with jugs of water. Inconceivably, “Cape Verde” is painted across the bottom.
* * *
Perhaps the prosperity caused by the tourism boom justifies the decline of local culture. If Lincoln Park is on the rise, and corn is for horses, so be it, if the locals are healthy and employed. Beach tourists aren’t likely to mind either: they aren’t known for their patronage of museums and local poetry readings. And yet, where there is tourism, there is money to be made in souvenirs. Sal might be wise to offset its beaches and preserve and market its culture, combating tourism’s culture-killing effect in order, ironically, to further the industry. If Sal doesn’t get on it, some more enterprising, and not necessarily indigenous, vendors will.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Another Reason to Face the Hanging Chad

Tucked snugly into the folds of a woman’s large bag, as the minivan sped out of Praia, I craned to chat with the nice man flanking the left side of her bundle.
From the driver’s poor taste in zouk* we came to my nationality.
“I’m from America, but I didn’t vote for Bush.”
(Usually people shake their head and say “Now, Clinton, that was a good president”).
“You are from America, ok!” the man smiled. “I have two sons, actually, who are---“
I was not listening. Brockton, New Bedford, or Pawtucket would get mentioned, I would refocus, and say “Oh, I actually went to school around there.”
I turned back towards him, vaguely aware that here was not a suburb of Boston.
He nodded.
The woman stopped smiling and stared down at her bundle. I stared at my own empty lap.
“My friend, her Fiancé is there and she is having a hard time,” I fumbled.
He nodded, unoffended. “Every morning I wake up, my heart goes like this.” He
pounded his chest.
* * *
Its election season and we are all getting complacent. McCain is old and sang a mediocre bubblegum song about bombing Iran. Romney prays to a God who condoned polygamy, but he is not sure about gay marriage. Money has been poured into ad campaigns at unprecedented levels, state primaries have been held so early as to disqualify their votes, and Republicans are turning out in unusually low numbers.
And yet, far away from New Hampshire and Iowa, on buses in developing countries, nice men chat about their sons, who may die at the hands of a president they couldn’t pick. Further from Washington than Cindy Sheehan, there are some 60,000 sets of parents whose chests pound each morning as they picture their kids in unprotected army tankers, but whose only recourse is to watch the international evening news roundup (there are roughly 60,000 “immigrants” in the U.S. Army).
Sure, it doesn’t make sense to give the vote to the parents of U.S. citizens, just as it doesn’t make sense to give the vote to the Iraqis and Afghanis, whose lives are even more directly affected by our President. But before we become totally immersed in the election apathy that may appear at times to be totally justified, we must recognize that it is a privilege to be part of the process of choosing one of worlds’ most powerful leaders. With the privilege might come a moral obligation, to exercise it on behalf of the millions who lack it but who may be more affected by the election outcome than ourselves.