Arts and Culture

The island of poets

Stephen Gray visits Cape Verde, one of the world's most arid desert islands, and discovers hope and an extraordinary lyricism amid the poverty.

Say “Cape Verde” and mostly your listeners do not think of one of the best-governed republics, way off West Africa in the Atlantic Ocean. Or that this small archipelago is a misnomer, for it is as arid an outcrop as may be located on the old sea route from Portugal to Brazil. They think rather of Césaria Évora.

She is the dumpy barefoot diva, who with her ringing voice has put her troubled, run-down homeland on the map of world music. She does not sing of the country’s epic struggle for independence (gained a third of a century ago). Or of its history of being a way-station between Guinea and the Americas for those aeons of coffles of slaves. Or even of Vasco da Gama, loading up the last fresh water for his heroic navigation in 1497 to discover the Cape of Storms.

What Césaria Évora has made famous, in a word, is her Creole culture’s morna. Mornas are intimate laments: of longing, especially for lost relatives and friends (more than half the country’s population must live overseas to support the homebound on remittances). Or they are about the missing whalers of volcanic Fogo Island, who left perforce to harvest the cranberry bogs of Boston. Or they are about that crooked loverboy who always promised to come back ...

What I had not realised when I arrived in Praia, the Cape Verde capital on the largest island of Santiago, where half the population is crammed in, is the tremendous tradition behind the Évora phenomenon. Beneath every tamarisk tree in the town square is an aspirant singer, tuning up a guitar. The restaurants make up for scant fare with joyous traditional bands, especially at the one called O Poeta. I had not realised either that behind those musicians were generations of poets, their lineage available in volumes for sale on the plateau.

Poets also provide spectacles down the winding tracks. There was mustachioed Eugenio Tavares (1867-1930), who is not only on the 2000 escudo banknote, but also has a statue on Brava island. His residence is soon to be turned into a museum. His song of regret, with its waving handkerchief and quotation, at the new international airport, which replaces the old SAA fuel-stop at Sal, makes an impressive and touching monument.

Then there was Jorge Barbosa (1902-1971), founder of an indigenous writing journal, whose birthplace opposite my pension has a plaque. The smartest boulevard from the diplomatic quarter along the rocky coastline to rich man’s villas, past the shipwrecks, is named after him.

While enjoying some air conditioning in the library of the French Cultural Centre, I found one José Lopes. Born on São Nocolau in 1872, he wrote poems right up to the age of 91—in Latin, Portuguese, French and even in quite creditable English. His key-line: “O Atlâ├óntico! Que imenso cemitério!”, which needs no transliteration.

A greenhorn in mestizo cultural matters, I was nevertheless aware of a national stoppage: their next major poet’s funeral was in progress. He was Mario Fonseca, born in Praia in 1939 and a figure of interest to South Africans. During all his years in exile from Portuguese fascism, he wrote about tactics to be adopted to oppose the apartheid system as well. He became widely renowned as the man in the sports jacket and dappled tie who advocated a double tactic: use politics, use poetry. At the crucial Brazzaville seminar of 1987 he quoted Breyten Breytenbach and Nadine Gordimer in support of the Soweto poets of the previous decade, praising their skilful ability not to be censored out and taking inspiration from them.

One sequence of his, written in French, is a telling requiem for Africa’s assassinated leaders of the past, from King Shaka Zulu through to Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso. Clearly an oblique tribute to his own fatherland’s liberation hero, Amilcar Cabral, the poems show how, while wise men may be mown down, their reputations only extend. Himself a poet, Cabral, in knitted cap and clutching his books, nowadays has an immense statue outside the National Library.

Turning from his mid-career Africanidade or pan-Africanism to a more Cabo-Verdiano style once he was repatriated, Fonseca penned this mnemonic, which will forever express his passionate nature. The translation is his own: “My country is a tiny music / Made with scarcely anything / Asking for absolutely nothing / To remain the tiny music / That makes me feel a human being.”

Such is the song of a sprinkle of stardust in the huge blue. But to think that, after grotesque famines and plagues, with recurrent failures of crops on the world’s most arid desert islands, with only wind to farm, the citizens of Cape Verde in the 1950s were considering abandoning their landfall to the turtles and scuttling their literature. Yet stay faithful to their muse they did.

And here is the great Mario Fonseca’s own epitaph of farewell: “So, if a whole race is on the verge of extinction, there were always those we called poets, each one an isle, perpetuating their memory.”

As I leave those lyrical moorings, another talent is due to receive a rapturous welcome home. Her name is Misa Konassi. Take note, for we shall surely hear of her.

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