The Cape Verde Islands were uninhabited when the Portuguese discovered them in the 15th century. The islands became a renowned center for trade (including the slave trade) by the 16th century, and by the 19th century they were used as important ports of call during transatlantic travel. The islands became a colony of Portugal in 1495, an overseas province in 1951, and an independent nation in 1975. The constitution was established in 1980 and revised in 1992, 1995, and 1999. A multiparty democratic system was introduced in 1991 (with the Movement for Democracy [MPD] winning elections) making Cape Verde one of the most stable democracies in Africa. The prime minister, president, and members of the General Assembly are elected, and judges on the Supreme Court are appointed by the other three branches of government. The African Party for the Independence of Cape Verde (Partido Africano da Independência de Cabo Verde [PAICV]) was formed after hopes of aligning with Guinea Bissau were dashed in 1980, following a coup there. PAICV won the February 2001 general elections. They were opposed by the other three major parties grouped under the banner of Democratic Alliance for Change (DAC), and made up of the PCD, PTS, and UCID parties. In the early years of the 21st century groups of the DAC continue to retain seats in the National Assembly.
The Cape Verde archipelago is a group of ten islands and eight islets (very small islands) located in the Atlantic Ocean, 385 miles off the coast of West Africa. It includes two groups of volcanic islands that are mountainous and surrounded by reefs and cliffs. Nine out of 10 islands of the archipelago are inhabited as are five of the islets. The islands are divided into two groups: the windward group to the north (Barlavento) and the leeward group to the south (Sotavento). The largest island (in the Sotavento group) is São Tiago (or Santiago), which covers about 382 square miles. Fogo (also in the Sotavento group) has an active volcano of the same name. There have been seven volcanic eruptions on Mt. Fogo (fogo means “fire”) since 1760, the last one being in 1995. At 9,281 feet high Mt. Fogo is also the highest point in the islands. Santo Antão is the greenest of them all, owing to very heavy rainfall. The other islands are dry and hilly, making them difficult to farm. The climate in these islands is one of the most pleasant of any West African country. The warmest month is September, averaging 81°F, and the coolest month is February, averaging 70°F. Due to the vast expanse of sea currents around the islands, they naturally tend to be cooler than most landlocked or western coastal areas. The islands are almost always under the influence of the dry northeast winds. There is virtually no rainfall, except for a period from August through October, when an average of 1.6 inches a month is recorded. These rains can fail for years at a time. The Cape Verde islands are especially popular for their marine life, chief among them being blue humpback whales, dolphins, parrotfish (a brilliant blue-green fish), moray eels, barracuda, porpoises, and loggerhead, hawksbill, and green turtles. The corals and colorful fish are a big attraction in the waters off Sal, a famous tourist island of Cape Verde. The Cape Verde petrel, brown booby, Raza Island lark, tropic bird, frigate bird, and Cape Verde warbler are among the species of birds found there. Among the reptiles inhabiting the islands are the giant Cape Verde gecko and the Cape Verde skink (a variety of lizard).
Cape Verde was given this name because it was very green (verde is Portuguese for “green”) due to the dense vegetation. This is also one of the reasons that it attracted Portuguese colonizers who set up sugar plantations and cotton mills that were worked by slave labor. However agriculture has been in continuous decline due to soil erosion, deforestation, and desertification. One of Cape Verde’s greatest problems has been soil erosion. Its adverse effects began to be seen in the early 19th century, mainly the result of overgrazing by the goat population. Since independence a nationwide campaign to prevent soil erosion has been undertaken, which includes planting droughtresistant varieties of trees (acacia trees now cover 7 percent of the land surface), building small dikes, and utilizing better ways of farming. Cape Verde has to import 85 to 90 percent of its food requirements, and this is the main cause of the country’s trade deficit and dependence on foreign aid. Because of its strategic location (close to the north south sea routes), Cape Verde has turned into an important communication station as well as an important air-refueling site. In the early years of the 21st century the main revenue generating sectors of the economy were related to transport, commerce, public services, and tourism. These contribute 72 percent of the total gross domestic product (GDP).
Culturally each island group is distinct, reflecting their geographic separation. In the 15th century the Portuguese brought slaves from mainland Africa to work the island plantations. Consequently most Cape Verdeans are a mix of African and European ancestry. Portuguese is the official language here, though many speak Crioulo, a mix of Portuguese and West African tongues. Cape Verde also boasts a rich heritage of Crioulo music and literature. Prior to 1975 a Crioulo literature dealing with liberation and independence thrived. However post-independence, writers began focusing on racial discrimination and the group emigrations of those called Americanos, inhabitants who had fled to America. Kaoberdiano Dambara (b. 1937) and Onésimo Silveira (b. 1935) are famous writers who still write in Crioulo and Portuguese, respectively. The capital city of Praia has a popular dance form, funana, which uses foot-stomping beats. Morna is the slow way of singing the national song, whereas coladeira has a fast beat. Stringed instruments, such as the viola, guitar, violin, and the cavaquinho (a small arm-sized guitar) are prominently used. Drums are also popular. Cesaria Evora (b. 1941), with a worldwide following, is the most celebrated musician on the islands. Popularly known as “the barefoot diva” because of her propensity to appear on stage barefoot, she has worked tirelessly for the disadvantaged women and children of her country. Since about 60 percent of the people are Roman Catholics, the church is a powerful institution on these islands. It owned the largest pieces of land on the islands at the time of independence, though succeeding land reforms did reduce its economic power slightly. While most people are Roman Catholics, many also believe in witches and make regular visits to healers. Nuno Miranda was a renowned spiritualist and traditional healer of the 20th century, whose followers came from all classes of Cape Verdean society. Historically due to the lack of resources and irregular, scanty rainfall, many inhabitants (around 500,000) have immigrated to the United States and European countries.
Catchupa, the national dish of Cape Verde, is a stew made of beans, hominy (kernels of corn that have been soaked in a caustic solution and then washed to remove the hulls). Catchupa rica is catchupa with meat and is prepared for special occasions, such as wedding ceremonies. Eating catchupa is a symbol of one’s social and economic standing. Those who cannot afford meat eat catchupa pova containing fish, which is inexpensive and abundant. Greens are grown in gardens along with mandioca (similar to cassava leaves) and beans to feed and fatten the pigs for consumption during festivals. The staple food item is corn, which is usually served finely ground. Xerem, dried corn pounded in a mortar to the fineness of rice, is the staple of feasts. And kuskus (Arabic, couscous), ground finer still and steamed in a distinctive ceramic pot called a binde, is a special treat served hot with butter and milk (kuskus ku leite) or molasses (kuskus ku mel). Yams, plantains, and cassava are other common foods. Canja is a thick chicken soup, whereas caldo do peixe is a traditional fish soup, painstakingly prepared using cassava, tomatoes, potatoes, yams, pumpkin, and plantains. A popular sweet dish azucarinhas is made from guava, papaya, banana, and corn laced with sweet syrup for enhanced flavor. One of the islands called Boa Vista is famous for its cheeses. Pastel com diablo dentro, which means “pastry with the Devil inside,” is a famous dish made with onions, tomatoes, and fresh tuna wrapped in a pastry made with corn flour and boiled potatoes. This is then deep-fried and eaten hot. Banana enroladas (deep-fried bananas wrapped in pastry) is another favorite. Manga de conserva, which is an unsweetened, sour, chutneylike mango dish, is also popular in Cape Verde.
The Batuku festival is celebrated on almost all islands though most predominantly on São Tiago. It calls for special mention as it initiates young women and is also a part of the wedding ceremonies on some islands. The most experienced woman dances in the middle with gyrating hip movements. The batxudas (or badjudas, meaning “the young girls”) follow it up with their own sensual gyrating hip movements, acknowledging their adulthood and desire to get married. It is traditional for the girls to cover their faces with their hands and close their eyes as a sign of modesty while dancing.
The Batuku dance, which follows a call-andresponse pattern in its later part, is traditionally performed at weddings. Women sing songs in a mocking manner, advising the to-be-married couple, and emphasizing that their single days are about to be over. This dance is an essential part of the marriage ceremony on some of the islands, such as Santo Antão and São Nicolau.