Meaning is elusive in Cape Verde, but it does result in an existential limbo conducive to creeping, fretful madness.

Photos: Olufemi Terry.

Saudade. European Portuguese: [sɐwˈðaðɨ], Brazilian Portuguese: [sawˈdadʒi], Galician: [sawˈðaðe]; a deep emotional state of nostalgic longing for an absent something or someone one loves, often carrying a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never return; related to the feelings of longing, yearning; vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist; a turning towards the past or towards the future.

He’s learned the word from songs that invoke Brazil, Sao Tome, Angola. Bonga’s version, the voice gruff yet plaintive, is preferable to Cesaria Evora’s; and there’s a fitting bittersweetness in the knowledge that Bonga was Savimbi’s man.

Meaning is elusive, but in Cape Verde, he hopes to locate the very roots of sodade. The elements are here on these islands: geographic isolation, a strain of the melancholic Lusitanian blood. Also history’s cruelty: enslavement, drought, diaspora.

He recognizes the season—Harmattan—the instant he enters Boa Vista’s small hangar of an airport: the gusts of chill wind, in spite of which dust hangs unmoving in the air; and the flat and far-off whiteness of the forenoon sun. From a tinny unseen radio, kizomba is playing.

Boa Vista is an unanticipated echo of half-forgotten cities: St George, Grenada; Bo-Kaap; Hargeisa. In sudden moments, it might even be Lamu. The island, its main town, Sal Rei, the creole inhabitants, all these are palimpsests of the slave trade even if the arid landscape bears none of the usual characteristics; there are neither cotton plantations nor cane fields. Cape Verde, like Cape Town, served for a way station; a broodhouse for chattel, a purgatory.

Sal Rei drowses but the air is feverish with tourist development, with migrants from Italy, Senegal, Spain. Most of the corner shops, the lojas, are in the hands of mainland Chinese.

He slips without difficulty into a routine, placing cultural distance between himself and the European package tourists. He rises each morning, leaves the rented, bare flat and trudges over dunes to buy food in town. North, across a strait of the Atlantic, is an uninhabited isle, a spit of paler sand on which the sun always seems to be shining. From Sal Rei’s sole bakery he buys bread of a familiar, nutritionally useless sort, made from overmilled white flour and flavored with cinnamon or custard.

In the fish market it is, for him, always 2 o’clock: sea light pouring in onto the steel surfaces so that they throw off an unendurable glare; the boats have just moored at the dock and fishwives are setting to work with flensing knives.

One moonless night, he stands over the sea on an open gazebo, listening to irresistible violin music: mazurkas, mornas, coladeiras; medieval folk rhythms of Mitteleuropa, itself provincial and hardscrabble, that have long since infiltrated this remoteness via the old country, Portugal. Conversation with the stranger in his arms is out of the question. So long as he says nothing he’s able to pass for a local. During two months whenever it comes out that he’s in fact not Caboverdianu and speaks no Kriolo, he receives looks of suspicion rather than surprise.

In rituals and in wanderings though the wreck of half-built tourist apartments, he perceives ironies that are like glimpses of sodade: the dark-skinned men with the lowly, futile job of standing guard are Bissauans, economic migrants but heirs also of the revolutionaries that freed Cape Verde from Salazar. News comes that the airport in the capital city, Praia, is to be renamed for Nelson Mandela, a decision that strikes him as expiation for the quiet collusions of the past. And on the night of the African Cup of Nations final, he hunts for a bar in which to watch but no one is interested, or even aware. He makes do, at last, with Portuguese football via Satellite: lowly Guimaraes vs. Setubal.

The dead from other islands, someone, an acquaintance, tells him, were formerly brought here to Boa Vista in ships for burial. This bit of apocrypha, for which he finds neither refutation nor evidence, is offered as a reason for Boa Vista’s “strange madness.” At the end of two months, after visits to other islands, he’s decided Boa Vista is the Germany of Cape Verde. Its people are reserved, even stoic; the tourist economy is comparatively strong, unemployment is low.

In the space of a decade, modernity has slipped over Cape Verde like an opaque, close-fitting skin. Its effect on this secluded, endogamous people has been one of re-syncretisation. This is not Africa, he’s told in Sao Vicente, the second-largest island. “It’s Europe.” Listening, he thinks: here are creoles flaunting their inheritance: an instinctual ambivalence (or is it complacence?) toward Africa he’s observed in the Antilles, in Cape Town, also in himself; middle-aged men exercise a slaver’s droit de seigneur over comely young women; and there is the near-imperceptible influence of hair texture and skin tone.

His arrival on the small island of Sao Nicolau coincides with the start of Carnaval. For three days Sao Nicolauenses crowd the capital’s floodlit main praca. Bacchanalia is raucous but restrained; there are no naked, oiled bodies. Ringing the praca are several Chinese lojas which remain open late into the night, after other businesses are shuttered. The proprietors venture out now and again to observe the spectacle, and, to his helplessly exoticizing eye, their faces betray bemusement. Is there any cognate in Mandarin for sodade?

The island’s two Carnaval bands have each composed two songs. After thirty-six hours, in which the bands alternate, the music has become tiresome. He’s content when the fête has ended and he can sit typing notes beneath the benevolent stone gaze of Baltasar Lopes, the father of Cape Verdean letters. The cobbles are swiftly cleared of broken glass. At the edge of town, papier-mâché Carnaval floats lie discarded like straw dogs.

And a Lenten hangover now descends on Ribeira Brava, which, with its statues and gardens intimate as bowers, resembles a 19th century Portuguese country town. As light fails, a listlessness indistinguishable from desperation shows itself in the faces of the Bravenses. Every night is the same—a little death—and his own pleasure at the town’s charm and languor is tempered. Life in the mountain crevasses above may be more trying than here in town but neither existence offers much stimulation. Remittances and the packages of Nikes and iPhones sent by relations in Rotterdam and Brockton, Massachusetts, have made of Sao Nicolau an existential limbo conducive to creeping, fretful madness. The wait from one carnival to the next goes by at a trickle.

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