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"A Desert in Mid-Atlantic"


"The Moon all at Sea"

A travel document by
E J Jefferies
early 1978

After suffering from the Arctic in the Tropics, followed by a month of basking in the sun in the West Indies and a week of snow and blizzard in New York, I found myself on Sal Island at 5.20 am on a Sunday morning. This is one of a numerous group of islands, 15 degrees north of the equator, 500 miles off the coast of Africa, and spread over a large area of the Atlantic at intervals of 100 to 150 miles. It is the territory of the Republic of Cape Verde, which came into existence in mid-1976, being formerly part of the Portuguese colonies of West Africa. The population of the Republic is around 300,000 and it is said that another 300,000 Caboverdeanos live in New England.

My first impression of Sal Island when the sun came up was of lunar rocks liberally sprinkled with broken bottles and tin cans. This impression did not change much when my next plane journey touched at Maio and San Vincente Islands. (I presume the shortage of water leads to a high demand for bottled and canned drinks, and nowadays these all come in non-returnable containers). But at my destination - Praia on Santiago Island - there are actually some trees.

The group as a whole is of volcanic origin, with dark basalts and lava flows predominating in all landscapes. During the last 10 years, Cape Verde has suffered from the dry spell which hit the Sahel region of Africa so severely. The average rainfall in this decade has been less than one inch a year. However, there seems still to be a good stock of water underground, and the first objective of the project I was visiting is to bring this up to use in irrigation. Given a little water, the volcanic soils are very fertile and can produce maize, potatoes, bananas, cabbages, tomatoes, tobacco, etc., and, of course, goats.

Sal Island is celebrated for its international airport and for its production of salt from the sea, but not for much else.

San Vincente Island has the largest town - Mindelo - and the major part of such small industries as exist.

Fogo Island is celebrated for its grim-looking black volcanic cone and for its very good coffee. It grows enough for local consumption of the whole Republic, but no surplus for export.

Santiago Island is the seat of the capital city, Praia, and has about half the total population, 140,000. It is also the greenest of the islands, but even so you have to take a close look to see the green. Many of the old wells are not now deep enough to reach down to the water table after so many years of drought.

During my week's visit late in January, the islands were largely blanketed by Harmattan dust from the Sahara, carried on the north-east trade winds. Microscopic garnets in this dust have been traced to a mountain range 2,500 miles away. It seems that the trade wind blows consistently and vigorously all the year round; in January its temperature was neither too hot nor too cold, at around 20 degrees C.

Being newly independent, and still trying to find its feet, politically and technically, Cape Verde is at present the recipient of a plethora of international aid and technical assistance. A side effect of this is an acute shortage of living space in the capital, Praia. After a couple of nights in other people's beds - temporarily unoccupied - I managed to get a room in the "best" hotel for the remaining three nights of my visit. This hotel was built in 1889 and its plumbing and wiring is not much younger. Time and moulds have disintegrated large sections of the woodwork and the locks on the bedroom doors are purely for show. If you open a door too suddenly it is liable to become merely a heap of match-wood. Water only emerges from the taps during three short periods each day, usually when you aren't thinking of using it; and is said to be heavily laced with amoebae. For this accommodation I was charged US$1.50 a night.

The range of food available was rather limited. Breakfast consisted of coffee and a roll (apparently containing a high proportion of paper pulp) and butter. Lunch and dinner always started with a pinkish brown soup slightly fishy, followed by stewed fish, goat, pig, or chicken with rice, yam, sweet potatoes, etc. The sweet was usually a banana or a piece of papaya. There is one restaurant patronised by the foreign community which operates from 12-2 and 8-10 pm. It is organised rather on the lines of a club. Each regular customer has a little duplicate book in which he writes down each meal, bottle of wine, cup of coffee, etc., after each meal. This is added up and paid at the end of the month.

The range of goods in the shops at a given moment depends on what the last boat to arrive was carrying. For a few days, all shops may be full of margarine, whisky, face powder, packet soups, or what-have-you, and then for a week or two no shop has anything imported at all.

The market in Praia seems to be a flourishing but noisy spot. A lot of the noise originates in the habit of carrying piglets around by one ear.

Inter-island communication is provided by a local airline which visits each island 4 or 5 times a week, but the demand seems to be much in excess of its capacity. It is often impossible to get a firm reservation in advance; it's a matter of turning up at 5.30 am and hoping for the best. Since there are only about 5 international flights a week to get you back to Africa, Europe or the USA, and since all these leave from Sal, one tends to get the feeling that once you are in Praia there is liable to be no escape.

Copyright Edward Jefferies 1978

27th July 2001