The flight to the island of Maio was full. As the tiny propeller plane bounced over Atlantic air currents, I was the only passenger to gaze out with a lick of fear at the mighty mid ocean below. Inside the plane everyone else seemed to have forgotten the sea. All was exuberance, chatter and a roaring laughter.
The passengers were young men in polished shoes, expensive trousers and heavy gold jewellery. They spoke in a Creole that was too rapid for me to grasp and I wondered what interest Maio – flat, dry and quiet even by Cape Verdean standards – could hold for them.
A few days later I was driving through the north of Maio, mesmerised by its endless stony red plains where the goats eat rock and the people eat goats. I reached a village – a single street of dust, two rows of parched, single-storey houses. ‘This is Alcatraz,’ the driver said. The street was quiet apart from a few of the ragged, wideeyed children who populate the poorer half of the world. Some of the houses were nothing more than bare concrete carcasses while others were painted in greens and pinks and blues and even had glass in their windows.
From the front door of one of the smarter houses a family appeared. I crossed the street and asked if he minded if I took a photo.
‘Not at all,’ the man replied in perfect English. ‘But don’t you remember me? I was on your flight.’
My perception jolted and suddenly I saw the urbane passenger, representative of a richer world, gold still gleaming at his neck. And then my world altered again and I saw a poor village, forgotten even within Cape Verde. He must have noticed my perplexity: ‘I live in Holland,’ he explained. ‘I work on the ships… I’ve come back to see my wife and children.’ The woman at his side, uncomprehending, scooped a child on to her hip.
‘How long have you been away?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘But we Cape Verdeans – we have hard lives.’
That is one of the paradoxes of Cape Verde. There is a widespread cosmopolitanism that dates from centuries ago, but it lives side by side with poverty and isolation. For generations the young men have gone abroad – to the USA, to Europe, to the African mainland – because the land cannot sustain them, because their families need money.
Back at home their relatives mourn not just the loss of their own sons and husbands but the painful emigrations of generations before. They mourn the peculiar lot of the Cape Verdean, stranded on outcrops in the Atlantic, abused over the centuries not just by the waves but by many nations. They mourn in a particularly beautiful way which I first discovered on Fogo, the volcano island.
I was clinging to the bench in the back of a small truck as it jolted up and down the steep cobbled roads of the old Portuguese town of São Filipe. Every so often the vehicle would halt in front of a house, the driver would shout and a man would appear in the doorway clutching a violin and scramble in beside me.
Soon we had gathered the band back together and we careered up into the foothills of Fogo’s dark volcano till we reached the house of Agusto, a blind musician. Inside his white-painted, two-roomed home the men dragged chairs and benches together and I sat in a far corner as the violins made their awakening screeches and the guitars were tuned. Then the music began: sweet melodies and melancholy harmonies. The music was so sad, it was as if the sorrow of generations had erupted in the house.
The Cape Verdeans express through their mornas the sorrow of sons lost to the wider world, droughts, famines and relatives drowned at sea. Their music is exquisite, an Atlantic art form with influences from the four continents that surround it. But soon the sadness was done and there came the lively strains of a funaná. Now we were celebrating … what, I wondered? I knew the answer, though. We were celebrating the same notion that had just made us cry – Caboverdeanidade, the essence of Cape Verde.
I absorbed it all in the dim room with its rough furniture and garish crocheted ornaments. Later I stepped outside where the sun was dissolving into the ocean. As I watched, the music still playing behind me, I thought: this is the reason to visit Cape Verde. There are fine mountains, wildernesses of desert dunes and warm waters. But what makes Cape Verde take hold of your heart is that rare moment, that flush of empathy, when you begin to understand what they mean by sodade.