Fidel, who bore more than a slight resemblance to Tom Jones, was fiercely proud of his native islands. Given the choice of going to Providence, Rhode Island with his wife in the late 1990s, he chose divorce. Given the choice to travel around Europe, he resolved to visit every one of the islands in the Cape Verde archipelago (he still has one to go).
Rounding a bend that gave a panoramic view of the dry side of majestic Santo Antão in our collective taxi, I joked to Fidel that you could almost see Africa from the bend in the road. He looked perturbed, and then said something that fit almost too neatly into my thesis about the history and actuality of Cape Verde and its people. “I don’t mean to sound racist, but we are not African here. I don’t think like an African, I don’t dress like an African, I don’t eat like an African, and I don’t pray like an African.”.
I pushed him on this, asking whether he considered himself European instead, or something else. I clearly had struck a nerve. Fidel was insistent on his differences from Africa, but also insistent that it didn’t have anything to do with race. Racially, he felt he had a lot in common with Africa. “I’m black like an African”, he countered, but “Cape Verde is a product of a different culture”, and a different upbringing than Africa, the enormous continent just a few hundred miles away.
Cape Verde’s islands were settled by many different groups in the islands’ 500-year history. Unlike many places that were conquered and then re-organized by colonial powers, there was nobody here when the islands were discovered. But the main group that left its mark on the islands were the Africans that were caught in the slave trade. Many captured or bartered West Africans came through Cape Verde in trade routes on their way to the New World, and many more were employed here for various agricultural and mining-based jobs. Over the centuries, with successive waves of population from Portuguese, Spanish, French, British, and even some from the Middle East and Asia following the tradewinds, created the Creole population that inhabits the islands today. Fidel told me his great-grandfather was, of all things, Argentinian.
We stopped at Fidel’s house en route to the mountaintop to drop off a pack of rice that his wife asked him to buy. At the door was his beautiful two-year old daughter, smiling with Fidel’s big green eyes as dad visited for a few minutes during his work day. After waving goodbye to her, he came back in the car and pointed out how different his second wife and he looked, and how his daughter’s skin was so much lighter than either of theirs. “Here in Cape Verde, you can never know how your own children are going to look!” I laughed for a while, explaining how I was a redhead but neither of my parents had red hair, the subject of numbers jokes.
“We have something different here than in other places, and that’s why I’m so proud of what we have”, Fidel continued. I asked him if he thought Cape Verde might be more like Latin America or Brazil than Africa or Europe, and he immediately nodded his head. “We come from the times of the colonizers, that time created us and we are still living that today”.