Monday, March 31, 2008

Trip Home (Part 2)

Trip Home 2
At Home

So I guess the first thing I remember about being back home in Austin was the smell of BarBQ. The food court of Austin-Bergstrom International is quite smartly populated with local restaurant chains, including the quintessential Texas BarBQ joint, The Salt Lick. They had a big’ole slab of meet and sauce on the counter and it crossed my mind to stop, having been back in the Lone Star State for only 2 minutes. After that, I remember coming down the stairs to see my sister, then 16 months pregnant with my new niece, waiting for me in baggage claim. The last friendly face I saw when I left in June, and the first I saw nearly 8 months later. She said I was skinny and tanned, but I’ll refer you to the pictures from the previous post to refute that.

Anyway, the bags came and in a moment we were in the truck and flying along the intercontinental toll road to Pflugerville to gather Darby and her gear. The “culture shock” was there, but not in any great measure. I remember thinking that we were going 75 miles an hour and that was much faster than I’d been traveling in a car since I’d left. I remember thinking that this was the first time I’d been in a vehicle with less than 23 people in a long time. I remember thinking that Cape Verdians would prolly crap themselves at the immensity of the thoroughfare. And the asphalt.

My sister and I fell into the easy conversation that we’ve (almost) always enjoyed and the topics ranged from the trip to the weather to the health of the family, to her pregnancy…all the little boring details of our loved ones that we take knowing for granted. It was like I’d only been gone a week, and we commented on that. Being back in my sister’s house was heaven. It smelled clean and fresh, and there was Diet Coke and Gatorade in the fridge (can’t get that here), the guest bed rivaled that of the Hilton Hotel, and then of course there was Darby. I was worried she wouldn’t remember me, but after a few shy minutes, that was over with, and instead I was dumbstruck with seeing her so much grown in such a short period. And talking!

Soon it was on to my dear Ma’s house, and its true what they say…There’s No Place Like Home…except Gramma’s House. I remember thinking that a Cape Verdian would assume that my mom was the Prime Minister of Texas judging from her house, although it’s not much different from any other house you’d find in the neighborhood. There were hugs and there was a lot of unpacking and there was Ivan. Sadly I can tell you that a dog’s undying loyalty is, in your absence, unfortunately subject to the quality of your mother’s pancakes. There was Eating. There was A Lot of Eating. Pretty much the theme of the 2 week trip home was Eating, and although I eventually complained about all the food (I re-gained 8 pounds in two weeks), I’m missing it again already. I spent the better part of my two weeks there in Boerne and San Antonio with my mom and gramma and couldn’t have been any happier, except that my sister had to be back in Austin for work. We sat around, we went to the movies, we ate, we shopped (a lot), we went for walks with Ivan, we talked about Cape Verde, we talked about cancer, we told jokes. While I was down there I had lunch with an old friend from high school that I hadn’t seen in over 10 years. I drove around my home town for the first time in years and marveled at how much it had changed. I drove around my old high school, and drove the length of Boerne Stage Road and Old Scenic Loop Road where in my youth I had a number of brushes with death and infamy.

I spent a weekend in Austin and was able to see my Dad and Sandra for a bit. I was also able to surprise my friends (the Culprits responsible for the Mother of All Care Packages…and The Porn) at birthday dinner downtown, which was one of the hilites of the trip to be sure (It’s NICE to be missed!) Another hilite was getting to spend the better part of a whole day at the movies with JW (if you know me you know how much I love the movies). I spent part of a day at my former place of employment and was able to say hi to some old friends. There I also saw how some things change but mostly they just stay the same. I was also faced with the awkward task of answering the question “So how’s Africa?” in the space of a minute or less, that being the accepted time allotment for hallway conversations at busy corporate law firms. In the end, it’s impossible to explain the experience of being a volunteer succinctly, as evidenced by this blog. It’s a thing best gleaned anecdotally.

During my time in the states, I planned how I was going to get all the toys and presents and food packed into my suitcase for the trip back to Cape Verde. I drank a margarita on the rocks, and then I drank a frozen one. I got to browse a record store. I stood in line for coffee and read a newspaper. I got to go for a walk at Town Lake. I got to watch the NFL Playoffs. I got to drive my truck. I got to wear a sweater. I got to sit in a traffic jam. I got to eat mom’s fried chicken, General Tso’s chicken, homemade pancakes, a steak, rice pilaf and Amy’s Ice Cream. I had a fire in the fireplace. I got to have lunch with my sister and Darla, just like old times. I got to play with my niece. I took a nap with my dog. I slept in a big puffy bed. I spoke English and showered every single day and used toilets that flushed. I bought a CD and went to REI. I got chilly, and I got chili. I did everything I wanted to do during my time there, except eat Indian food, which is amazing considering how much I ate. So, I got to do a ton while I was home, but what sticks with me most is that I was able to enjoy the comfort and conversation of my friends and family, which is what we, as volunteers, miss the most.

Finally, The number one question I got coming back from the states was…

What did you bring back with you? That would be:
• A full size foam mattress pad, matching sheet set and two pillows (I am now sleeping like a lamb.)
• A 2 meter stunt kite and extra string (worth its weight in GOLD!!!)
• Razors
• Car Wax (a special request from one of the drivers here)
• Sporting equipment (diving mask and flippers, soccer ball etc.)
• Movies and the new seasons of The Office, Entourage and Grey’s Anatomy.
• Pens and school supplies for my students.
• 10 lbs. of Starbursts Fruit Chews and 40 packs of Trident gum.
• 300 printed photos taken in Cape Verde to give as gifts to people in my town.
• Guitar Strings
• Food
• Clean clothes and a new pair of shoes
• Presents for Benvinda and an entire new baby wardrobe to give to Gisella for Tynara.
• Books and magazines
• Advil
• A complete set of pots and pans and crushed red pepper

So that brings us up to the trip coming back to Cape Verde, which I’ll write about next time. What I can tell you now though, is that leaving a second time was easier than the first time, and that leaving is never easy.

Home (Boerne)

I was gettin' all misty-eyed thinkin' about home so I thought I'd put up a couple pics.Ma's House
Creek along Boerne Stage Road (scene of my near death)

Home (Austin)

Horses at UT
The Capitol Building
The 360 Bridge


So yesterday I had another uniquely Cape Verdian experience…the town field trip. It’s the end of “Spring Break” here and a couple of the girls from town got it into their head to take up a collection and rent a school bus and take the town to the valley of Paul for a picnic and a waterfall. Sweet. I was warned to bring a lunch and a bathing suit and my camera, and be waiting at the church at 7am.

Unlike most things in Cape Verde, this shindig actually started more or less on time, and the bus was honking and rolling by 8. (This despite the fact that nearly the entire town was still awake and hungover from the Going Away Party the night before…the very popluar Ge is joining the Cape Verdian Army!) Anyway, Beni and I boarded at the last minute, with my makina (camera), some peanut butter and jelly sands (sandwiches) and a pot full of arroz y fijou (rice and beans) in tow. A quick head count turned up 42 Cha de Igrejans, 3 Cruzinhans, 2 guitars and a hell of a lot of food. Just out of town we stopped in the valley for an emergency alteration of the 6 disk changer on the floorboards, cranked up the zuke jams and were on our way.

Pulling into Paul I noticed that the chatter in the bus quickly died down and everyone was staring out the windows with rapt interest at the lush and fertile valley of Paul. Almost total silence on the bus, and then I realized that my friends and neighbors were, at this moment, essentially tourists on their own island. Even though Paul is less than an hour and half from Cha de Igreja, for some it was their first time to visit the ribiera, whereas others had been there (as I later found out) “as many as” three or four times. This is a very profound difference between Cape Verdians and Americans…our concept of mobility, one which we as Americans take for granted. Imagine living on an island the size of Austin, Texas and never making the trip from the Arboretum to South Congress, or living your entire life and only leaving your neighborhood three or four times. Keep in mind that in my time here on Santo Antao (exactly 7 months today) I’ve been to Paul a dozen times, Ponto do Sol even more, hiked a good deal of the Western Coast, been back and forth to Sao Vicente, made the trip to Port Novo and back and explored some of the mountain country in the center of the island, yet there are elderly people in Cha de Igreja who’ve never been farther than Cruzinha, a fifteen minute walk. There are a lot of reasons for this…the normalcy of isolation, the expense of travel, the fact that almost nobody owns their own cars (there is 1 private car in Cha de Igreja and none in Cruzinha), the relative novelty of cobble-stoned roads and vehicular traffic (the road to Cha de Igreja still isn’t paved…even with cobblestones…and up until 1977, the only way to get here was to hike 3 hours over the mountain from Coculi or 5 hours along the coast from Ponto do Sol). Anyway, it dawned on me that this excursion that I was reluctant to go on (having been just the week before) was something that the young people in my town may not get the chance to do again for years, and will always remember…thus the insistence that I bring my camera to document the event.

Anyway we eventually arrived at our destination, a lovely park owned by the kamera in Paul. Rumor has it that gardeners tend the site, and there were indeed blooming plants and flowers all around. There were also three empty concrete pools, a small playground featuring a broken out slide, a man-made inoperable waterfall, picnic tables, a gazebo missing is roof, and several Hugh Hefner style grottos…little nooks and caves with no discernible purpose but which are, I can assure you, put to frequent use. So we made camp, and got out the guitars and the cards and the women started cooking and the boys started drinking and I introduced my friends to the wonders of the Frisbee, and eventually some of us took part in a game of washer pitching, the National Pastime of Texas. (It’s often disputed that during its brief period of independence and self-rule that Texas’ national past time was in fact horse-shoe pitching, but this is incorrect.) Later the sun came out and it got hot, so we hiked 20 minutes down the valley to the cachoeira (waterfall) where the scene immediately turned into a preamble for a really good porn film. Everyone here is a Calvin Klein underwear model waiting to be discovered, so there were lots of gorgeous people in tiny swimsuits, frolicking in the falling water. (See pictures below). After everyone had taken a dip (and after I was sufficiently chided about my EXTREME lack of color) we headed back to the park. For lunch there was rice and beans and carrots and pork stew and people had made paunche and lemonade spiked with grogue and some sort of 60 proof strawberry milkshake and everyone ate and drank and talked and played and there was convivencia (literally translated as “familiarity” but best translated “hanging out”), after which all of the couples disappeared into the aforementioned nooks and crannies, after which everyone returned to the waterfall for another swim. At some point there was a clean-up of the park, and the bus drove a sleepy, satisfied group of Cha di Igejans (and 3 Cruzinhans!) back home. Upon arrival, it was the “Gano e Sab, E Sab pa Gano” thing all over again, with the bus driving all around town honking and all of us hollering and clapping and the old people and the kids looking at us all like we were crazy drunken loons (which in fact we were)…celebrating our…picnic.

Anyway, they’ve got a name for the town field trip, its called a passeio, which literally means, “to go for a ride.”

Park In Paul (Pronaunced Pow-OOL)

Vaduka and Viola (Playing guitar at the park)

Hiking to the Waterfall

Frolicking in the Falls

Model for Fancy Underpants

So here is Nito, one of any number of people from Cape Verde who look like underwear models. I thinks its important to remember that they aren't getting these bodies by using the Atkins diet or their membership at the 24 Hour Fitness. They get them by doing hard work every day, eating only when they're hungery, and then eating only enough to keep them from feeling hungry. I laugh now when I think that my friends and family said I was skinny, when I was home in January.

Preamble to Porn (Anisia in the Waterfall)

Zou (Another Underwear Model)


Parents to Be

Yup...Suzi and Walter are about to be parents.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Trip Home in January (Part 1: Arrival)

Trip Home 1

So someone wrote me the other day to ask me why I never wrote about my trip to the States back in January, and then I realized that I never wrote anything about my trip to the States back in January. That trip which involved about a million phone calls (made almost entirely by my sister) between Austin and Boston and Praia and Povencao and Cha de Igreja; that trip that involved a 20 minute walk, 3 hiaces, 4 taxis, a boat, 2 hotels, 3 airplanes, a 5 hour long line in Praia, and a ride from my sister…each way. Austin, Texas is a very difficult place to get to…from Cha de Igreja at least.

So my plane arrived 5 or 6 hours late in Boston at something like 4AM, and I was initially spared the crazed and teaming masses of travelers returning home from Christmas vacations. The airport was empty, apart from all the Cape Verdians and me. This also spared me the initial culture shock of ads and signs and announcements and Fast Foods and Starbucks and English and moving sidewalks and bars and restaurants…everything was closed and dark and quiet.

I guess the first thing I remember about being back in the States, apart from all the goddam city lights in Boston, was the COLD (and the huge piles of snow everywhere). I wore the warmest thing I had in Cape Verde, which was a pair of jeans and a t-shirt and a windbreaker. No match for mother nature though, as upon leaving the terminal I got kicked in the face with what I can only assume is the biting, shocking cold typical of a January night in New England. (I don’t know how they manage.)

Anyway, I had a lengthy layover before my flight to Austin so I stayed at a Hilton, which brings me to the second thing that I remember about being in the states…Sportscenter. (I had no idea that football was still going on but I arrived just in time to see Wildcard Weekend. Sweet Jeezuz!) Sportscenter…on a huge flat-panel screen in all its eye-popping HD glory at the foot of my impossibly enormous and obscenely voluptuous bed, atop which sat a heaping gaggle of pillows, a picture menu full of delicious looking things I hadn’t dared dream about since last June, and a little placard which told me how to work the wireless hi-speed internet that was being piped into my very room at that very moment. Also, there was carpet. Under my feet. For those of you who get to have carpet under your feet all the time, please, take a minute to sit, remove your shoes and socks, and ENJOY YOUR CARPET. Really, just squash your heels in it and pinch it up in your toes and ski your feet back and forth on it, and remember those of us who only have cracked concrete and cobblestones and dirt and earth beneath our feet, and sand in all our socks. And the bath? Fuhgetabaddid. Forty-Five minutes under a scalding hot shower using the complimentary Lime Verbena Bath and Body Works accoutrements. I thought about shaving. I layed down and took a nap in the bathtub. I smelled like an angel. At some point I got out and dried with big fluffy towels and the last thing I remember before falling asleep was Chris Berman talking about whether anyone could beat the Patriots. Anyway, I guess the main thing I remember about those first few hours back in the States is how comfortable, how pampered we can be.

Next day was back to reality. People Everywhere. Cars. Trucks. Planes. Firetrucks. Buses. Vans. Limos. Hustle and Bustle and Noise. I heard a siren for the first time in 7 months. I got lost in the Boston-Logan Intergalactic Airport and walked through the entire alphabet of terminals before I found JetBlue. I put my number in the handy Jet Blue boarding pass printer and it spit it out but told me to Approach the Counter to check my bags and then The Anxiety began, as there were about 320 other people waiting to Approach the Counter and there was an unpleasant woman that yelled to me “Ya Gone’Ta NooYawk!?! F’ya gon’ta NooYawk stepadda da line!” I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t gon’ta NooYawk” but I was scared to talk, and had difficulty forming English sentences. Surveying my surroundings I was suddenly aware that we as Americans are very fat people who avoid eye contact and talk very loud and spend a lot of money. In line, I became reacquainted with the very American customs of Bitching and Moaning to Strangers, and Beginning Most Sentences with the Letter “I.”

Goddam its cold out there!
Can you believe this friggin line?
Last time I fly Jet Blue I’ll tell ya that right now.
Can you believe they only have 6 counters open?
$20 to pahk the gwadam kah.
I’m suing these bastards if I’m late.
I am too.
I stood in this line once already today!
I was rebooked from yesterday!
I gotta check this one too!
I was in a line twice this long outta Frisco last night.
I should not be in this damn line.”

And so on.

On the plane, “moist lemon towelettes” and a TV in every seat. 16 channels, 3 movies and 50 radio stations. Pretty much a constant thought throughout the trip, and one that started right when I got on the plane, was my internal What the Hell Would a Cape Verdian Think if They Saw This? It was a game that never got old.

…to be continued.

Beni at the Beach

Heavy Load

So there are no laws or restrictions about oversized or unsecured loads in Cape Verde (like there are in Texas). They DO have the seatbelt law though. And one about helmets as well. so thatºs progress!

Easter, Hiking the Crater and a Cute Little Girl

Easter, Hiking the Crater and a Cute Little Girl
So Easter was last weekend and a few of us Santo Antao volunteers and even a couple from Fogo and Santiago got together for some grub and Frisbee tossing. Fun was had by all, even though I had to leave before the food was served so that I could catch the car back to my village. (I was however able to sample the home-made chips and bean dip and it was EXCELLENT!) Below is a picture of Michelle making something delicioso (delicious). Tough being away from your family for big holidays, but seeing the other volunteers and getting to speak some English for a change was nice. On the way home to Cha de Igreja, we came across a car accident. Nobody was seriously hurt, but they should be thanking their lucky strellas (stars) that they fell of this puny 3 meter cliff and not one of the 700 meter cliffs that are a little further along this road.
So, the day after Easter, Daron and the aforementioned Fogo and Santiago volunteers hiked out to Cha de Igreja from Ponto do Sol (a five hour hike that took them three) and I made them fried chicken and mac´n´cheese for dinner, and then next day we caught a car up to the top of the range that separates the (vastly different ecosystems of) the North and South halves of the island. From there you can look across the channel to Sao Vicente (that´s it behind me in the picture) or turn around and look down into crater of the formerly active volcano that created this island (also there is a hilarious sign explaining the crater’s formation that was apparently written by drunken teenagers with absolutely no vulcanological expertise). The crater is brown and dry right now, but during the “rainy season,” if you can call it that, they grow coffee down in there. Anyway, you hike down into the crater and back up through the back of it to look down onto the Ribeira (valley) of Paul. Pretty impressive view from up there, and a pretty steep path all the way to the bottom. When they have rain, this valley (and this view) is certainly one of the most beautiful in Cape Verde (which makes you wonder why they named the flat, featureless island of Boavista the way they did). So, my knees managed to make it down the switchbacks and carried me to the infamous house of the “German guy” (who´s actually Austrian). This guy makes some pretty spektakulo (spectacular) basil and tomato goat cheese, fresh bread, paunche and grog…well, the grog not so much. Anyway, we sampled all of it, and made some rowdy friends while we were there. Later we all caught a car back to Ribeira Grande to unwind. Next day, I was back to Cha de Igreja and managed to make it there in time to see the girls´ soccer game, where I met this little girl (Sissy is her name) who I thought was pretty darn cute. Pictures of all of this business (in inverse order unfortunately) below.

Other Cutest Little Girl Ever


Mountain Home

Ribeira Paul

Me, and Sao Vicente

So this should give you a good perspective on the distances between the island here. If this were America, we´d build a bridge;instead they have ferry service that makes EVERYHTING on the island subject to the ferry schedule, and that makes most Cape Verdians puke their brains out.

Scene of the Accident

Michelle in the Kitchen

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Obama´s Speech

So, today I read the text of Obama´s A More Perfect Union speech, and I gotta tell ya…it knocked my socks off. Took some Big Balls to say the things he said, especially considering the timing of the speech. To hear this perspective coming from someone who could be the President one day…well, I just thought it was pretty impressive. I can’t remember another time in my life that I felt proud of an elected official. I think the issues he talked about are things that we all know in our hearts, but choose not to address for whatever reason. For him to give voice to them on such a stage, to air out our centuries-old dirty laundry, laundry that NOBODY likes to think about, and at this point in the campaign, well…I can’t help but think a lot of his advisors were begging him not to do it, and good for him for doing it anyway.
I´m not sure how history will judge this speech. It’s sort of one-part spin control and one-part City on a Hill. Critics will say that he´s playing his own race card, or that he´s plucking the sour note of his relationship with pastor Wright while strumming on the heartstrings of Nationalism and Unity, and on an emotional level it´s certainly not on par with Dr. King or JFK (I didn’t think it was necessary to quote from his book, there is a lot of puffery in the middle, and the story about the girl in South Carolina at the end was lost on me for the most part), but that being said, for a serious presidential candidate to lay bare the dark underbelly of American history and sentiment, things we may all think and yet are not proud of, is something I never thought I´d see. For him to talk about Black Anger, White Guilt and Contempt, the legacy of segregation, the “shame and frustration among black men,” and the privilege of race…well, like I said…it knocked my socks off. Regardless of if or how History judges this speech, I think it´s safe to say that we were never going to hear anything like this from the mouths GW or Mrs. Clinton.
And I can tell you as an American Studies major at UT that there are college professors all over the country nodding their heads in approval at his viewpoint and his message and his courage…he having boiled down three or four semesters of lecture hours into a 6 page, 5000 word speech. According to the (VERY liberal) professors that I had in Austin, Obama is right, and the issue of race in America, and our reluctance to talk about it “in polite company” is at the very core of many of our problems.
Anyway, I didn’t really mean to say any of that when I started writing this. What I wanted to say was, having now spent nearly ten months in a country with a weak, ineffectual, out-of-touch and cockamayme government, it gives me a new perspective, and appreciation, for our own (possibly still cockamayme) government. as an American living outside of America, this feels like Something Big. Long before I left to come to Cape Verde, forever maybe, I was a pronounced cynic when it came to politics, but for the first time in a long time…maybe in forever, I feel like there is hope for change. (I know that sounds really cheesy, and that may even be his goddam campaign motto for crisesakes, but there it is.)
So anyway, without further ado (and assuming that I am not in violation of any international copyright laws, or acting contrary to the apolitical nature of the Peace Corps) here is the full text of Barack Obama´s A More Perfect Union speech, delivered March 18, 2008 at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

A More Perfect Union

“We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.” Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.
The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.
Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution – a Constitution that had at is very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.
And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part – through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk - to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.
This was one of the tasks we set forth at the beginning of this campaign – to continue the long march of those who came before us, a march for a more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America. I chose to run for the presidency at this moment in history because I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together – unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not have come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction – towards a better future for of children and our grandchildren.
This belief comes from my unyielding faith in the decency and generosity of the American people. But it also comes from my own American story.
I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.
It’s a story that hasn’t made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts – that out of many, we are truly one.
Throughout the first year of this campaign, against all predictions to the contrary, we saw how hungry the American people were for this message of unity. Despite the temptation to view my candidacy through a purely racial lens, we won commanding victories in states with some of the whitest populations in the country. In South Carolina, where the Confederate Flag still flies, we built a powerful coalition of African Americans and white Americans.
This is not to say that race has not been an issue in the campaign. At various stages in the campaign, some commentators have deemed me either “too black” or “not black enough.” We saw racial tensions bubble to the surface during the week before the South Carolina primary. The press has scoured every exit poll for the latest evidence of racial polarization, not just in terms of white and black, but black and brown as well.
And yet, it has only been in the last couple of weeks that the discussion of race in this campaign has taken a particularly divisive turn.
On one end of the spectrum, we’ve heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it’s based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap. On the other end, we’ve heard my former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike.
I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy and in some cases pain For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in the church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely – just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.
But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.
As such, Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems – two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.
Given my background, my politics, and my professed values and ideals, there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough. Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church? And I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and You Tube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way
But the truth is, that isn’t all that I know of the man. The man I met more than twenty years ago is a man who helped introduce me to my Christian faith, a man who spoke to me about our obligations to love one another; to care for the sick and lift up the poor. He is a man who served his country as a U.S. Marine; who has studied and lectured at some of the finest universities and seminaries in the country, and who for over thirty years led a church that serves the community by doing God’s work here on Earth – by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AIDS.
In my first book, Dreams From My Father, I described the experience of my first service at Trinity:
“People began to shout, to rise from their seats and clap and cry out, a forceful wind carrying the reverend’s voice up into the rafters….And in that single note – hope! – I heard something else; at the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. Those stories – of survival, and freedom, and hope – became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world. Our trials and triumphs became at once unique and universal, black and more than black; in chronicling our journey, the stories and songs gave us a means to reclaim memories that we didn’t need to feel shame about…memories that all people might study and cherish – and with which we could start to rebuild.”
That has been my experience at Trinity. Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety – the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity’s services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.
And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright. As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.
I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can disown my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed her by on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.
Now some will see this as an attempt to justify or excuse comments that are simply inexcusable. I can assure you it is not. I suppose the politically safe thing to do would be to move on from this episode and just hope that it fades into the woodwork. We can dismiss Reverend Wright as a crank or a demagogue, just as some have dismissed Geraldine Ferraro, in the aftermath of her recent statements, as harboring some deep-seated racial bias.
But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America – to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.
The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.
Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s black and white students.
Legalized discrimination - where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments – meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities.
A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families – a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods – parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement – all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.
This is the reality in which Reverend Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up. They came of age in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted. What’s remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them.
But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn’t make it – those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations – those young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years.
That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician’s own failings.
And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright’s sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning.
That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.
In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.
Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.
Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.
This is where we are right now. It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy – particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.
But I have asserted a firm conviction – a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people – that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice is we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.
For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances – for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs - to the larger aspirations of all Americans -- the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives – by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.
Ironically, this quintessentially American – and yes, conservative – notion of self-help found frequent expression in Reverend Wright’s sermons. But what my former pastor too often failed to understand is that embarking on a program of self-help also requires a belief that society can change.
The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old -- is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know -- what we have seen – is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.
In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination - and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past - are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds – by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.
In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us. Let us be our sister’s keeper. Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well.
For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina - or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.
We can do that.
But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.
That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.” This time we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native American children. This time we want to reject the cynicism that tells us that these kids can’t learn; that those kids who don’t look like us are somebody else’s problem. The children of America are not those kids, they are our kids, and we will not let them fall behind in a 21st century economy. Not this time.
This time we want to talk about how the lines in the Emergency Room are filled with whites and blacks and Hispanics who do not have health care; who don’t have the power on their own to overcome the special interests in Washington, but who can take them on if we do it together.
This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn’t look like you might take your job; it’s that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit.
This time we want to talk about the men and women of every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag. We want to talk about how to bring them home from a war that never should’ve been authorized and never should’ve been waged, and we want to talk about how we’ll show our patriotism by caring for them, and their families, and giving them the benefits they have earned.
I would not be running for President if I didn’t believe with all my heart that this is what the vast majority of Americans want for this country. This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected. And today, whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is the next generation – the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history in this election.
There is one story in particularly that I’d like to leave you with today – a story I told when I had the great honor of speaking on Dr. King’s birthday at his home church, Ebenezer Baptist, in Atlanta.
There is a young, twenty-three year old white woman named Ashley Baia who organized for our campaign in Florence, South Carolina. She had been working to organize a mostly African-American community since the beginning of this campaign, and one day she was at a roundtable discussion where everyone went around telling their story and why they were there.
And Ashley said that when she was nine years old, her mother got cancer. And because she had to miss days of work, she was let go and lost her health care. They had to file for bankruptcy, and that’s when Ashley decided that she had to do something to help her mom.
She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was the cheapest way to eat.
She did this for a year until her mom got better, and she told everyone at the roundtable that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents too.
Now Ashley might have made a different choice. Perhaps somebody told her along the way that the source of her mother’s problems were blacks who were on welfare and too lazy to work, or Hispanics who were coming into the country illegally. But she didn’t. She sought out allies in her fight against injustice.
Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they’re supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who’s been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he’s there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, “I am here because of Ashley.”
“I’m here because of Ashley.” By itself, that single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough. It is not enough to give health care to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or education to our children.
But it is where we start. It is where our union grows stronger. And as so many generations have come to realize over the course of the two-hundred and twenty one years since a band of patriots signed that document in Philadelphia, that is where the perfection begins.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


So I realize that it is not a good journalistic practice to preface something youºve written by saying itºs boring, but for those of you that arenºt interested in the governmental goings-on of a developing Third World African island may want to skip this one.


So to parallel the elections in the States, Cape Verde is currently in the campaign process. Across all of the inhabited islands, ambitious Cape Verdians are seeking election and re-election as kamera presidents…sort of the equivalent of a State governor. In recent weeks, hopefuls from the PAICV (Partido Africano da Independencia de Cabo Verde…who are currently in power in my conselho) and MpD (Movimento para Democracia) parties have, among other things, staged rallies complete with music and food and dancing and T-shirts and flags, given speeches, made radio addresses, and made personal visits to nearly all the remote villages, including Cha de Igreja.

To help you understand the significance of a kamera president, consider the following. Rural zones in Cape Verde receive public services in one of three ways.

1) The central government in Praia allots each conselho a budget, which the kamera president dispenses as he sees fit. He or she may use the money to build a school or a playground, aid in the construction of water conservation projects, build cyber cafes, assist small businesses, build roads, subsidize transportation costs for school kids etc. Or he may buy air conditioners for his office and leave the doors and windows open and use the money to pay for the electric bill. The kamera gets to decide which qualified individuals may attend teacher training, police officer training, nurse training, and who gets to join the Cape Verdian army (they actually WANT to join the army in this country.) The kamera president also fields requests for money from destitute families to aid in medical costs, burial costs, scholarship applications, grants for school, trash pickup, community improvements, problems with water or roads…pretty much anything a citizen needs, the kamera is the first and last point of contact. (Imagine if you had to go to your governor every time you needed some social service.) Cape Verdians not on the island of Praia have virtually zero contact with nationally elected officals, and no means to contact them if they wished to.
2) The central government in Praia allots money to be distributed to various local community organizations, such as the organization that I work for in Cha de Igreja, which is the most basic, grass-roots level form of government, although they are not officially affiliated with the national elected representatives. Think of them as The Lion’s Club or The Rotary club with funding from the national government. The local organizations use the money to build (in the case of Cha de Igreja) water conservation projects, improve the local primary school and assist destitute familes with medical costs.
3) NGO’s such as USAID and Millemium Challenge Account fund projects in rural areas.

Generally, the election process works in much the same way as in America. The CV government gives each party an equal election fund, which the candidates are allowed to supplement through personal income or private donations. (In some ways, however the process is a little different, as is evidenced by the MpD candidate who gave free prepaid cell phones to the first 400 people to show up at his rally last week…which seems like flat-out buying votes to me.) The most popular form of political advertising seems to be the ubiquitous “paint the slogan on a rock” method. [see picture below] This form of political graffit can be seen EVERYWHERE. You can barely walk ten feet in this country without seeing a wall or rock or door painted like this.

A current elected official was in Cha de Igreja a few weeks ago to speak to everyone and drum up support for his re-election. He was met with, to say the least, skepticism. (During his time in office, Cha de Igreja has received zero CVE in project money, although some private requests have been granted. He paid for a funeral last week for example.) He brought with him, something that I, along with the rest of Cha de Igreja, found extremely hilarious. Namely, a professionally rendered, elaborately presented “Plan for the Urbanization of Cha de Igreja,” with all the bells and whistles. He had a Power Point presentation projected onto the wall of the school which showed Cha de Igreja “as it will be” if he’s elected. It was pretty much like the Las Vegas of Cape Verde. There are hotels, café’s, condos, parks, a new school, recreation centers, a nature preserve, lighted sidewalks, four lane roads with dozens of cars parked in parking spaces (which don’t exist in Cape Verde), a historical district. Shit like that. This, for a population that is without electricity as often as it has it, for people who can’t even get to a doctor or a school when it rains because there isn’t a paved (or cobblestoned) road to get here. There was audible laughter as he went through the presentation, although he didn’t seem to be phased by it. (Although completely unrealistic for Cape Verde, I DO have to give him credit for the plan…it was exactly what we (Americans) would do with a place like Che de Igreja. I did in fact find a distinctly American name in the “created by” credits of the presentation.) Anyway, personal views aside, it’ll be a miracle if those currently in power can hold onto their seats in the kamera (despite the fact that one of those in power actually hails from Cha de Igreja.) When speaking with people about the current political climate, at least in my town, there is a universal distaste with elected officials on both the local and national level, which also seems to mirror the attitudes in the United States.

For Cha de Igrejan’s, the national government is a very abstract concept, as they (the Prime Minster and Parliament in Praia) have almost no impact in the daily lives of most Cape Verdians not on the island of Santiago. There is a feeling amongst Santo Antaon’s that the Cape Verdian government only serves those living on Santiago, leaving the fate of everyone else to the whims of a kamera president elected by less than 10% of the population. Indeed, the lion’s share of projects and development work take place on the island of Santiago where, not coincidentally, the majority of Cape Verdians live. (More people in the cities of Praia and Assomada than on all of the other islands combined, if my math is correct, which it very likely isn’t.) Although international studies tend to show that the level of corruption in Cape Verde is dramatically lower than other African nations, it does happen. Although I haven’t heard about the kamera spending $4300 a night on a hooker from Sao Vicente, there are stories. (A third of those chosen to go to Sao Vicente to be licensed as teachers are relatives of various kamera officials, if people from my town are to be believed.)

This general distrust and distaste for elected representatives and the democratic process has led to, what seems to me at least, an overwhelming sense of apathy. I ask everyone if they plan on voting on election day (May 18th I think) and everyone doesn’t say “No,” they says “What’s the point.” I try to encourage. I try to argue. “What if everyone said that? Nobody would vote and officials who represent the multitudes would get elected by a handful of people who paid for the campaign and who’ll likely profit from the results. The corrupt will be more corrupted, the rich will be richer, and nothing will ever change.” And that also seems to parallel politics in the States.

So anyway, there’s a little bit of Cape Verdian politico ranting for you. I’ll probably be ordered to remove this posting in a matter of minutes, so for those of you who took the time to read any of this, consider yourself lucky, thanks for your time, AND GO VOTE!!!!


As a disclaimer, we as PC volunteers are not allowed to attend any political rallies, affiliate ourselves with any political party (to include wearing T-shirts or posting signs…or painting rocks as the case maybe), support any political candidate, or be political in any way. I did not actually attend the political rally in Cha de Igreja, but the entire town is situated on less than two acres, the school where the rally was held is visible from my rooftop, and the microphone he was talking into was hooked up to an entire truckload of speakers, so, I really couldn’t help but overhear.

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Settin´For A Spell

Thou Shalt Not Play Cards On Sunday

This lady is Cha de Igreja´s version of a bible beating baptist and she was busy scolding the menfolk for playing cards in the plaza on a Sunday. (Also, women are NEVER allowed to play cards in the plaza...regardless of the day.)


Beni and Choo-Choo

Kids Day!

So Sunday was International Youth Day in Cape Verde (CV is a BIG fan of naming things International (FILL IN THE BLANK) Day, although Iºm not sure where the international part comes in. So me, my associacao and the church (the church was VERY interested in connecting with the youth as there is hardly a single person under the age of 50 that goes to church here anymore) put on a pretty good little show with singing, dancing, some contests and a soccer game. Mostly the message was “Hey, kids are our future, they’re important, let´s pay attention to them. Also, please come to church from now on…we´re running out of people!” My contribution to the event was an oral essay contest on Why We (the Cape Verdian Youth) Are Important, with a huge big bag of Starbursts as the prize for best entry. Turned out there were 3 of them (entries that is) and they all got up and read them in front of everyone, and they were all excellent. I couldn’t pick a winner so we just split the huge great bag of Starbursts in three so everyone went home a winner. Anyway, there was a pretty good turnout (maybe 70 people) and it lasted most of the afternoon.

So is this community Development in action? I guess that´s debatable, but I think the point of the exercise was to 1) have the community together (how can you develop it if you’re not all together), 2) get the kids thinking and caring about themselves and their future, 3) instill confidence in the kids (I think that comes from speaking in front of groups, especially on a microphone) 4) have fun! I give us 4 out of 4!

Is it just me or is Sylveria´s babyt´s hair-do the coolest thing ever? If only I had any hair, I wsould fix it like that.

Cutest Little Girl Ever

Sylveria and Baby

Outside the Church


Kids on International Youth Day

Saturday, March 1, 2008



So another volunteers showed me a paragraph in a book written by a former Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, and it said…and I’m paraphrasing here…

“There is an old saying in the Peace Corps that volunteers that return from South America come home political idealists and activists. Volunteers that come home from the East Asia return very zen-like and spiritually enlightened. Volunteers that return from Africa come home drunk and laughing.”

So in the spirit of that sentiment, I thought I should probably write a little something about grog and paunche, the principle forms of booze that they have in Cape Verde. While Cape Verde does make a beer (Strela), it isn’t very good, even by bad beer standards (think Schlitz, with a worse after taste), and it is actually hard to find in many places. Portugal imports a couple of beers (SuperBock and Sagres) which are marginally better, and you can find Heineken sometimes, but beers are relatively expensive (100$00CVE) and for that reason, most Cape Verdians stick to the ubiquitous shots of grog and paunche (20$00CVE).

So what’s it like exactly? Well, it’s essentially moonshine. Grog is made from sugarcane and is a clear, combustible liquid that could probably be used to power the next generation of space vehicles if Cape Verdians weren’t so busy drinking it all. It tastes a lot like Everclear, if you remember that from your college black-out days, which is to say that it pretty much has no sabor (taste) at all, just a fierce gag-inducing, throat-scorching sensation that gives way to a fogo (fire) in your belly and a tingling of the extremities. One or two shots is plenty to get you good and buzzed, and anything more will fuschka-b (get you real drunk.) I don’t know what the alcohol content of grog is, but I can tell you that it makes Rum 151 taste like baby’s milk in comparison. People claim that some areas make mas sab (much better) grog than others (my village of Cha de Igreja is reputed by many to have the best grog in the country) but in my experience, there is only bad grog and worse grog. To put it simply, under almost no circumstances would I, or anyone from outside this country for that matter, drink grog as a matter of preference. It’s only out of necessity. Grog isn’t tasty. They don’t shake in a tin with lime a splash of soda. They don’t mix it with grapefruit juice or red bull. Because it is so fort (strong) you can’t really sit and pass a couple hours with your friends sipping on grog, the way you can with beers, and you certainly wouldn’t want to wash anything down with a swig of grog, as whatever it was would almost certainly come right back up. So to be clear…grog n’e nada d’sab (is not good).

With that in mind, consider that grog (and related paunche) is Cape Verde’s number one “industry,” for lack of a better word. I use the term lightly because CV isn’t exporting grog to the rest of the world…tourists aren’t buying it up by the caskfull and taking it back home with them. But, CV’s are making it, CV’s are selling it, CV’s are buying it, and CV’s are drinking it. Every single bar, restaurant, café, shack, fruit stand and old lady on the side of the road sells grog. You can get it ANYWHERE. And it’s cheap. As few as 5$CVE (less than a nickel) in some places, and never more than 50$CVE (less than 50 cents). If you see someone in a stupor at 7AM, stained and staggering (and you will) you can blame grog.

So where does all this grog come from? Well, all of Cape Verdians inhabited islands abound with sugarcane. Anywhere that something can be grown in this country, you’ll find sugarcane. It’s grown among the corn and beans and covi and banana and mantioch. It’s grown on remote mountaintops and practically inaccessible valleys. It’s grown on knife-edge precipices, in back yards, along the beach. It’s everywhere. If you see a picture of Cape Verde where something is green, it’s probably sugarcane. That’s step one.

When the cane reaches about 12 to 16 feet, it’s time to cut. Here it is all done by hand and machete. They’ll cut a plot of land, and as they cut they’ll bundle the cane. It is then, at least in my village, strapped to a donkey and taken up the hill to the nearest trapiche. A trapiche is a sort of a large metal cog set that crushes and grinds the cane. Traditionally, the trapiche was powered by a cow that was tied to the end of a long wooden shaft, where the cow would walk in circles, spinning the cogs, as the grog makers fed the cane into the gears. Although there are still traditional trapiches in operation in Cape Verde today, most are now operated by diesel or electric engine. The purpose of grinding the cane is to extract the caldo (soup). This is, as you would imagine, a sweet slightly syrupy, juice that tastes like hummingbird food. The caldo collects beneath the trapiche, and is then poured through a strainer (a burlap sack) which is stretched across a 50 gallon drum. From there, the caldo is (in the case of the trapiche in my village) bomba-d (pumped) 100 meters through an intricate series of hoses to an underground fermenting tank, where it sits for 20 days. After 20 days, it is pumped out to the fogo (fire). There it is boiled down, strained again, and then boiled down once more, before finally filtering down through a long cooling tube and into a casket, drum, barrel or bottle, ready to drink. You know it’s “good” grog by shaking it in a cup and looking for tiny little bubbles. (Not like effervescent beer bubbles, but little water bubbles that float on the surface). Grog is derived 100% from sugarcane. Nothing is added. That’s it in a nutshell.

The process is also a lesson in recycling and reuse. The ground up cane that exits the trapiche is left out to dry, and is later used either to feed the fogo that boils down the fermented caldo, to feed the cow that operates the trapiche, to feed the donkey that carries the cane to the trapiche, to weave a casket sleeve that the grog is poured into, or as you can hopefully see in the photo of the stacked and bundled cane, used to make traditional style roofs. The ash of the burned cane is mixed into the soil where the cane was cut, and the burlap strainer is later used as a cloth in which a sweet cheese is made. Almost nothing is wasted. The grog made form the trapiche in Cha de Igreja is sold locally, and is also shipped in huge drums to Sao Vicente, where it is bottled, labeled and packaged for sale through out Cape Verde.

So that should be just about everything you ever wanted to know about grog and it’s manufacture. As far as paunche goes…At the same trapiche they make mel (honey) which isn’t anything like honey from bees, but is honey nonetheless. It’s essentially the same process as the grog making, without the fermentation…they just boil the caldo until it caramelizes a bit and turns brown. Paunche (at least one type of paunche) is just grog mixed with this mel and some lemon and rosemary. It’s drinkable, and in some cases, pretty tasty. I’ve been experimenting with making my own paunches using Cha de Igrejan grog, mel, and instead of lemon and rosemary I’ve used apples and oranges. I think I could be on to something.

OK, that’s all for now. Pics of the process are below!

Stacked Cane (and traditional cane roof)

The Modern Trapiche

Seca Cana (Drying the Cane)

Feeding the Fogo

Pumping to the Fermenting Tank

Hot Soup

After the first boil down...

Grog in the Casket