The Kingfisher Feather – A Visit to the Cape Verde Islands

Africa´s islands in the Atlantic/Foto: Doris Minke


By Suse Rabel-Harbering

The discovery of the Cape Verde Islands in 1462 is attributed to Henry the Navigator, who was sailing on behalf of the Portuguese crown. Before the discovery, the islands were deserted. Thanks to its favorable location, the archipelago became a center of international trade relations, being situated in the middle of the three continents of Africa, Asia and America. Apart from sugar cane, rum and salt, the main commodities traded were slaves. Since the middle of the 16th century, Portugal had reserved the exclusive right to market slaves on the West African coast.

Pillory, Cidade Velha, Santiago/Photo: Doris Minke

In its heyday, it was called Ribeira Grande and was the capital of the Cape Verde Islands. Already in 1533 it received the city rights. After that, it was renamed Cidade Velha. Since 2006 it is again called Ribeira Grande de Santiago. Only the historic center has retained the name Cidade Velha and, together with the Sao Filipe Fortress, has been a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site since 2019. Today it is a small fishing village with a pillory in the marketplace and with a checkered past.

Ribeira Grande, located on the edge of the valley of the same name, developed into a stronghold of the transatlantic slave trade. Slaves captured on the West African coast and from the interior of the continent were shipped from here to North and South America. The Catholic Church was to play an important role in this, as it was necessary to control the sinfulness of Creole life and, above all, to increase the value of the slaves through forced baptism before they were finally sold to the highest bidder. Therefore, in 1495, “Our Lady of the Rosary,” the first Christian church south of the Sahara, was built in the city, along with a seminary. The church and the colonial power secured immense wealth through the slave trade during the first two hundred years of Portuguese colonial history. Although the slave trade was banned by the Congress of Vienna in 1815, those responsible for Cape Verde took their time with the implementation until the second half of the 19th century.

House rua Banana Santiago/Photo: Doris Minke

The small houses of Cidade Velha bear witness to the original, simple colonial architecture. They were faithfully rebuilt as part of a UNESCO project and line the Street of Bananas in the historic center of the village.

The kingfisher feather – a tiny feather in bright blue

A tiny feather in bright blue lies on the side of the road. It is identified by our guide as a kingfisher feather and it is not long before such a bird with its blue plumage gracefully perches on an overhead wire. Teasingly it looks down. Then we are accompanied part of the way out into the green valley covered with palm trees, papayas and sugar cane. Nearly 50% of the islands’ 160 bird species are endangered, says our guide, who is involved in a program to protect the island’s birds. Across the dry plateau, we return to the Sao Filipe fortress, which was designed to protect the once exceedingly prosperous town from pirates and attackers.

In the meantime we have arrived at the island of Sao Nicolao. Here, too, the lack of rain is the big problem, says Nadi, who accompanies us on our hikes and introduces us to the history of the island. It has been hit by droughts time and again. The worst was the catastrophic famine that killed thousands in 1940 and forced countless people to emigrate.

Alta Mira rock massif, Sao Antao/Photo: Doris Minke

Immediately after independence in 1975, the former Protuguese colonial government built a dam in the Queimeda Valley near Faja, which quickly proved to be a flop, as the water seeped into the volcanic rock before it could be collected in the reservoir. A similar fate befell the dam built by China in 2013 at Assomada on Santiago Island, but here because of a lack of rain. Therefore, with French support, the inhabitants of the Queimada Valley took irrigation into their own hands and drilled into the water accumulated in deeper layers of the rock. Now, potatoes and cilantro, beans and bananas, mangoes and maniuk, tomatoes, and spring onions thrive in fields and greenhouses. Soothing greenery also spreads in the Monte Gordo Nature Park, with the island’s highest mountain. A cloud forest with pine trees, whose tops sway in the wind, covers the northern slope.

Besides its special natural beauty, Sao Nicolao also gained cultural and historical importance. A secular school was attached to the seminary, established in the 19th century, to which not only girls had access, but in individual cases also children from poor families. The school developed into an intellectual center and the high level of education gave its graduates access to universities in Europe and to state offices. However, due to the separation of church and state in the Portuguese Republic, the seminary was closed and the school moved to Mindelo.

Steep coast, Sao Antao

From Faja, the path winds almost vertically up to the pass in serpentines. The sun is burning. The wind is still on the so-called islands above the winds, to which Sao Nicolao belongs. Like an ornament, harmoniously arranged terraces with corn plants, peanut bushes and sugar cane entwine the steep rock faces. Almost every inhabitant of the mountain villages carries a pickaxe over his shoulder to work his clod. Tractors cannot be used under these conditions and, like other agricultural machinery, are prohibitively expensive anyway. From the former volcanoes and craters jags, prongs and pinnacles rise into the blue sky and stelae and obelisks form the rock faces into monumental sculptures.

A hawk looks down vigilantly from its high vantage point as if to greet us, before soaring into the air with a steady beat of its wings. We enjoy the view of the sea and the unique landscape – rugged and at the same time lovely, forbidding and attractive, breathtaking and meditative – it seems to unite all contrasts.

After climbing another pass, we descend to the village of Praia Branca, the birthplace of one of Cesaria Evora’s most famous songs “Sodade”. With it, the most famous and influential singer of Cape Verde gained worldwide fame. She died in Mindelo in 2011.

Cesaria Evora, wall mosaic, Mindelo, Sao Vicente/Photo: Doris Minke

Music is the soul of Cape Verde, says our guide Nadi. It is impossible to imagine everyday life without it. Every evening, bands perform in the cafes of the cities and accompany the singers into the night. Nadi explains the traditional music culture, whose most important elements are “morna” and “caldera”. The songs sing of the pain of separation suffered by migrant workers far from home and family. Themes also include the hard life on the islands, the lack of rain, the struggle against oppression, slavery and colonial power. Instrumentally, the singing is accompanied by a violin and guitars.

The power of rhythms with African, Latin American and European influences once managed to keep away evil spirits.

Atlantic coast, Tarafel, Sao Nicolao/Photo: Doris Minke

Poverty, droughts and famines forced many Cape Verdeans to secure their livelihoods abroad. The first emigrants worked on American whalers, but there were also better opportunities for seamen in the Netherlands than at home. As a result, two thirds of the population of Cape Verde now live in emigration, preferably in America, Protugal and the Netherlands. They support their families at home with money to build their own houses. Nevertheless, building ruins or shells characterize the image of towns and villages. If the financial returns are too low, perhaps it is a matter of initiatives by those left behind without a “rich uncle” overseas, or people simply don’t want to be upset just because of an unfinished dwelling with no plaster, no windows, no roof. That the emigrants are important is shown by the flag of the country. Of the eleven stars listed, ten symbolize the respective islands. The eleventh star represents the Cape Verdeans in exile.

Assomado Market, Santiago/Photo: Doris Minke

The colorful mixture of peoples with Gambian, Guinean or Senegalese roots provides pleasant African flair with its serenity here as well as there.

Important to know:

The report was written in the context of the trip, Cape Verde Islands – Africa’s Islands in the Atlantic, organized by Hauser Exkursionen, Doris Minke was the tour guide.

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