Black Girls Travel: How I Literally & Figuratively Found Myself In Cabo Verde

by Ann Brown

Six years ago, if someone asked me where Cabo Verde was, I’d answer “Cabo what?” So even now I wonder how I wound up living in this African archipelago for five years.

A desire to recharge after a personal crisis led me to these islands right off the coast of Senegal. I had been to other African nations, but never to an island destination on the continent. Since I love the island life, I figured I could unwind while learning more about the Motherland. Being a writer, I also turned the venture into a few writing assignments. I was thinking a short-term adventure. Little did I think I would totally relocate.

The weeks quickly turned into months as I recovered from my own personal turmoil while becoming immersed in a new culture and a different way of life.

What keeps me here? For one, curiosity. I still have so much more to learn about the former Portuguese colony. On the surface it seems like a simple island destination, but as you peel away the layers it is a very complex and fascinating culture. It doesn’t hurt that the nation’s morabeza (Kriolu for hospitality) is also alluring. I have spent time in few other African countries—South Africa, Namibia, Ghana—and this is by far the most welcoming. Even with the language barrier, I have thrived here. I have picked up some of the local Kriolu, though my Portuguese is still lacking.

I am not alone in having moved here from the U.S. There are a number of Americans here in the capital city, Praia (though Europeans outnumber us). I have a circle of expats friends calling CV their home, who have launched businesses here, married Cape Verdeans, and started families here. Though, I must say there are very few African Americans, which is unfortunate. I have developed good friendships with Cabo Verdeans as well.

In fact, I found love again here and married a Cabo Verdean man a year ago. This too was totally unexpected. Having come out of a stressful, long-term relationship, I was not looking for love. But that has been my life in Cabo Verde, full of unexpected turns and introspection.

Having been swept up in previous relationship drama, intense career moves, I had lost the essence of me. In New York, I had no time to slow down and just think about me. My mind was filled with thoughts about my relationship, work, or the bills. I was nowhere in the mix.

When locals would ask me why an American would come to Cabo Verde and stayed so long, their questioning forced me to figure out the answer. In short I could say I fell in love with the country, but that would be the short of it all. The truth is being here and facing so many cultural differences helped me to rediscover myself.

For example, being a woman here can sometimes seem like being thrown back into the 1950s; however, in comparison to other African nations the chauvinism in Cabo Verde is not nearly as oppressive. You have women in upper government positions, female executives and entrepreneurs and I have seen more female police here than anywhere else. In fact, not long ago Cabo Verde was named one of the top places in Africa in regards to gender equality in a new study by UN Women and the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

But there are some very antiquated cultural norms. It is, for instance, frowned upon for “married” (married could mean legally or living with a mate) women to be seen hanging out in clubs and the household still falls on the female’s shoulders; though the younger generation doesn’t adhere as much to the gender roles. Sounds more than a little old-fashioned, but even for this solid feminist having clear responsibilities in a relationship can be refreshing--this is something I would have never ever said before.

What isn’t refreshing is that men can have more than one woman without anyone batting an eye, but if a woman dates various men, then she’s not considered a “good” woman. Thankfully, this too is changing as many young women are more apt to play the field or are just not down with this sexist set-up.

One thing I enjoy in CV is that the men here aren’t afraid of being men, and aren’t afraid of being sensitive men — they are extremely affectionate. And I must admit, it did take me a second or two to get used to a man who liked to cuddle and who enjoyed being caressed. Being a Black woman in the States, I often--out of necessity due to racism--found a lot of responsibilities placed on my shoulders. From having to apartment hunt because my then-boyfriend would get steered to bad neighborhood when looking for a place to hailing taxis most of the time because they just wouldn't stop for him. These may sound like minute inconveniences, but a lifetime having to take on tasks due to prejudice is extremely taxing and depressing. In Cabo Verde, I could let my defenses down and exhale.

Another cultural difference is that people here take their appearance very seriously. You can not leave the house unironed or with dirty shoes. This made me realize that in the hurry of my previous life, I had begun not to take as much care in the details of my appearance. Sure I would put on the makeup before heading to work in Manhattan, but it’s nothing like here. Even though makeup free (it’s just too darn hot for foundation!), one is expected to have their hair nice and neat, with clothes (even whites in this dusty place) and shoes totally spotless. I’ve gotten called out more than a few times for having dirty sneakers when I go walking or running--yes, that detailed and everyone notices everything.

The way of thinking is also a revolution. Due probably many reasons, people here weigh all options before making a decision. When I first got here, many said I walked on the moon-meaning I went through life with my head in the clouds. Folks here like to have their “two feet” firmly on the ground. The way they face reality can be somewhat stark, but it made me realize you can’t hide from problems you must find solutions--and you need to look at all angles before reacting to something. Being a born-and-bred New Yorker, I am still having trouble hedging my feelings and thinking twice before I react. But I am trying, because if you do stop and think you can find many more options and roads to take.

These are just a few of the cultural shocks. I’m just talking about living on my island of Santiago. With 10 islands (9 of them inhabited), the Cabo Verdean style is hard to define. Each island has its own flavor and norms. There are two groups of cultures divided by island groupings—the badiu and Sanpadjudu. All the groups o of islands speak their Creole (Kriolu) differently, dress differently, have different musical styles, and different mannerism.

As you can see, there is a new adventure to face nearly daily. While I will not say I will remain in Cabo Verde forever, this is why I am still here—I have only scratched the surface. There are three more islands I yet to explore. However, even after making those journeys, I still am not sure if I will totally grasp what Cabe Verde is all about. But I have found me.

Photo: Shutterstock

When not writing, doing publicity work and teaching English, Ann spends her time exercising at dawn by the beach, eating cachupa, dancing to zouk music, learning Kriolu (still), and trying to encourage more Americans, especially African Americans, to visit Cabo Verde through her Facebook page An American in Cape Verde.