George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Monday 15 January 2007
No.29: Cape Verde
Alex Horne – 15th January 2007
I started setting up our meeting with Mr Estevao Gomes on December 12th last year. It was a big deal. He’s from a country I didn’t really know was a country before starting the challenge. I couldn’t afford to let that sort of place slip through our fingers.
Ligia, our cracking Colombian, had mentioned a Portuguese friend of hers whose uncle, she thought, was from Cape Verde. I got very excited and pestered her about her friend then her friend about her uncle.
Just two days later I received the first of many emails from Estevao. The subject line; ‘Hi Mr. Alex Horne!’ made me fairly certain that everything was going to be ok. The final line; ‘E.Gomes, CEO http://www.arpsworld.com/’, merely confirmed that we’d struck gold.
ARPS World is a company set up and run in his free time by Estevao. Its tagline is ‘Promoting Cape Verde Worldwide & Bringing the World to Cape Verde’ and although it’s in Portuguese, the acronym can roughly be translated as the ‘Agency for Representation, Promotion and Services’. So basically, his job is to bring Cape Verde to as many people’s attention as possible. And considering it’s ‘a country I didn’t really know was a country before starting the challenge’, we were both glad to have found each other. For the very first time Owen and I had stumbled upon someone who actually thought that we might be as useful to him as he was to us.
In honour of this symbiotic bond and in recognition of Estavao’s tireless work for his country I would therefore like to use these paragraphs to aid his promotion of Cape Verde in the UK and, potentially, every other country in the world.
But just before I do that, I should first say that the three of us met at a classy independent tea-shop in Highbury and Islington following a disappointing visit to Cuba Libre – a massively Cuban themed restaurant (featuring live-size papier-mache figures of Castro, Kennedy and Khrushchev banging his shoe on the table during the Cuban Missile Crisis) with absolutely no Cuban employees or customers. Before kicking off the interview I bought some coffees and Estavao said “Cakes! Should we get cakes?!”. Neither Owen nor I had the strength to say no so we were soon joined by one enormous banoffee pie and a huge slab of chocolate brioche which the three of us occasionally prodded but never really made much of a dent in.
So here we go. First up, some basic facts about Mr Gomes’ homeland – named after Cap-Vert, by the way; the westernmost point of continental Africa, now located in Senegal and meaning Cape Green – Cape Verde is a republic made up of ten islands and eight islets 310 miles to the west of Dakar. It was uninhabited until discovered and colonized by the Portuguese in the 15th Century. Each isle is volcanic but only one is still active: Fogo, the country’s highest peak whose name means ‘fire’ and where Estevao did his (now non-compulsory) national service. It last erupted in 1995, since when NATO have come along and made sure everyone knows the emergency procedures. So it’s fine really.
Like the Irish (see Aman, our No. 24), more Cape Verdeans live away from Cape Verde than in Cape Verde. The population of Cape Verdeans in the United States is now larger than the half million or so who still reside on the islands.
In fact, bearing in mind this resident American population, Cape Verde is probably the most geographically confused location we’ve come across so far. It’s still definitely part of Africa, despite being so far adrift from the mainland. But it’s also European enough to be on the verge of getting some sort of ‘special status’ with the EU thanks to its trade links. The language is a slightly archaic version of Portuguese and most of the food and drink tastes distinctly Spanish. A lot of the people themselves, meanwhile, like to dress like the Brazilian soapstars who dominate their TVs, and young sportsmen try to emulate the South American footballers whose posters adorn their walls. So with fingers in four of the world’s six inhabited continents, it’s hard to pin Cape Verde down to a single global adjective.
Like almost every other country we’ve encountered so far, they’ve even got bizarre links with Britain; cricket has been the country’s second sport ever since the Welsh set up stumps there whilst using the island as a coal-store for their vessels in the 19th century. There’s an old English cemetery on Sao Tiago and if you stroll around any of the towns there today, you’re sure to bump into people with British names like ‘Heenan’ whose descendants can be traced back to this historic shipping lane. Back in this hemisphere, a small Cape Verde community in Cardiff provides further evidence of a trade route that once connected two unlikely countries.
But it’s the traditional ‘morna’ music (derived from the English word ‘moun’) that perhaps captures the spirit of Cape Verde best, mingling these intercontinental elements with an island perspective to create a unique sound that reflects the country’s position both on the margins and in the middle of the world.
Cesaria Evora, by far the best known Cape Verdean and much-heralded “Queen of Mornas”, released her eighteenth album in July last year. If you have a look and listen on itunes you’ll soon get a taste of her distinctive flavour both by downloading the tracks and glancing at the several ‘genre descriptions’ Apple attempt to categorise her under. According to Estevao a lot of Cape Verdean songs highlight the islanders’ fantasise about travel. Indeed, Rogamar (the album’s name, meaning ‘Pray to the Sea’) features such wanderlust titles as ‘Love and the Sea’, ‘Another Dream’ and ‘The Sea is my Confidant’. Now a globally famous icon, Cesaria gave two private concerts in London last October. Liz Hurley, Madonna and Mr E. Gomes were among the lucky guests.
But I’m meant to be attracting people to Cape Verde here and this idea that most of the islanders all want to leave isn’t necessarily a good selling point. Estevao told us a recent visitor from Britain recently exclaimed, ‘I wanted to die there’. That isn’t necessarily a good selling point either.
The impression that I got from Estevao was of an uncomplicated country, stunning to look at and rich in tradition. Yes, some inhabitants may have to head elsewhere to follow their dreams, but if you like the idea of a more simple land with no massive buildings, pollution or war, then this is the place for you.
That’s not to say it’s undeveloped. Estevao was one of a tiny minority who attended school as a child (he’s now 47, married to a fellow Cape Verdean and has three kids of his own) but the literacy rate is currently as high as in the UK. The towns are growing steadily, but building takes place in an eco-friendly way. With a lack of minerals preventing more large-scale industry, agriculture is hugely important but traditional methods are still upheld and fishing regulations are sensitively maintained. “The sea is blue, there are no epidemics, it’s a beautiful place to live”, says Estevao.
And the people, he continues, are exceptionally hospitable. If you explore the villages on the smaller islands you’ll be welcomed into every house with open arms and some of that Spanish-style food and if they’re anything like Estevao himself, they’ll be courteous, charming, warm, friendly and generous with cakes, all at the same time – although I should say that having been trained as a traditional English Butler by Ivory Spencer and having worked for the same family in Chelsea for the last five years, Estevao’s manners may not be the fairest point of comparison.
Since last November you can fly direct to Praja, the capital, from Gatwick or Manchester for just £330 return. Within just five and a half hours you’ll be on a tropical island in the middle of the Atlantic. Because of this, more and more people are now discovering Cape Verde for themselves but Estavao says it still feels like an untouched country ripe for exploration. I know I felt that instead of just ticking the country off our list as usual, I really would quite like to actually visit the place, even if it’s just to see if everyone is as polite as our Mr Estevao Gomes.