Cape Verde is an archipelago consisting of ten islands located in the central Atlantic Ocean 570 miles off the coast of West Africa. Together, the islands have a total area of 4,032 km2, approximately the equivalent size of the state of Rhode Island. From August 6th to August 18th, I was in Cape Verde on an educational excursion funded by the University of Rhode Island, where I attend college. While in Cape Verde, my group visited three of these ten islands: Santiago, Fogo, and Sao Vicente. The majority of our time was spent in Cape Verde’s capital city of Praia.
During my visit, I paid special attention to issues relating to poverty and homelessness. Cape Verde is a developing nation and is faced with substantial levels of poverty on all of its islands, some worse than others. Having spent the large majority of my life in suburban Boston, I had never witnessed poverty firsthand like I did during my twelve days in Cape Verde. One of my professors on the trip, Jesse Adamado, grew up in Cape Verde, spending the first 18 years of his life there before moving to Portugal to pursue his education. He is now pursuing his Ph.D. in political science at Boston University, but still regularly returns to his home in Cape Verde. I was able to sit down with Jesse to discuss the economic and social problems faced by thousands of Cape Verdeans.
“When it comes to poverty, I have observed a few different things. First of all, I get the feeling that things have improved. A lot has changed since when I was growing up,” said Adamado. “The country has developed a lot, which has obviously impacted people’s wealth. Many people are getting educated, and the health system has improved.”
Cape Verde has been praised in the international community in recent decades as an example among African nations for its consistent development despite a severe lack of natural resources. Scarce rainfall and subsequent droughts have historically so been a major problem plaguing Cape Verde. This has had an extreme negative impact upon the nation’s agricultural production. Around twenty per cent of Cape Verde’s population, which exceeds 500,000, live below the poverty threshold. Adamado made it clear when I spoke with him that there is much that needs to be done to address poverty in Cape Verde.
“On the other hand, you can also see the other side of the coin. Things are very hard for many, many people in Cape Verde. Most greatly affected are those at the bottom of the social ladder, so to speak. When the Cape Verde economy is struggling, less and less money is being spent on social services to help these people,” said Adamado.
Between 20 and 25 percent of the Cape Verdean population is unemployed. The average Cape Verdean makes around $3,000 per year. There also exists a huge gap between those at the top, and those at the bottom.
“My general sense is that poverty is a huge problem facing the Cape Verdean people and the Cape Verdean state. The tendency of the trend is to become even bigger; the issue of poverty and homelessness.”
The man who is most capable of addressing these issues and reversing this trend is the Prime Minister of Cape Verde, José Maria Neves, who has been in power since February 1, 2001, and is a member of the African Party for the Independence of Cape Verde (PAICV). The Prime Minister holds the most powerful position in the Cape Verdean government. My group had the privilege of meeting with Neves; he spoke with us and we were all able to ask him questions. I asked him how serious of an issue he believes poverty and homelessness to be in Cape Verde, and what steps his administration is taking to address the problem. Speaking through a translator, Neves stated the following:
“One of the biggest challenges of my government is the lack of housing to serve the population. Currently Cape Verdeans are in need of 70,000 houses which we are trying to provide in the next four or five years,” said Neves.
Neves stressed that the quality and legality of housing is a much more serious problem in Cape Verde than homelessness itself, as the number of Cape Verdeans living in homes that are illegally built and/or unfit for living is enormous.
“It’s a huge challenge, especially with the tendency of the Cape Verdean population to grow and grow and grow,” said Neves. “Therefore, it means if the government does not take action the problem is only going to get worse.”
These housing issues Neves speaks of are fueled by the intense poverty throughout Cape Verde, along with a lack of general government planning in recent decades. These factors lead many to build illegal homes without permits. According to HelpCapeVerde.org, in certain districts of the capital city Praia, only five percent of homes are legally built.
These homes are unsafe, and are usually built upon land that the builders do not own. These illegal structures lead to a wide array of problems. No taxes are paid on these properties, and the homes lead to erosion and the spread of disease due to the lack of adequate sewage systems. Furthermore, these illegal homes lead to an increase in crime, a breakdown of roads and other forms of infrastructure, and significant deterioration to electrical systems.
During my time in Cape Verde, what was most notable in regards to homelessness was the fact that it is an issue that permeates all age groups, from infants to the elderly. In Boston and other U.S. cities, it is mostly the case that the homeless are adults. This was not the case in Cape Verde. The large majority of homeless people we encountered were young boys and girls, often no older than 10 or 12 years old. It was hard to walk for five minutes on the street without being approached by one of these kids asking for money. Whether they were actually homeless or not I do not know, but they were definitely very poor.
Halfway through our trip, several members of our group visited an orphanage in Praia. What we saw there was startling and disturbing. The first part of the orphanage we visited was a nursery. In the nursery, there were around 12 infants, none older than one year of age, all in small cribs with little to no clothing or blankets. One of the volunteers working there, an American named Lauren, informed us that all of these children had in one way or another lost their parents, many having been abandoned. Many of their parents were drug addicts.
Many of these babies were suffering from visible deformities and skin rashes, and all seemed to be miserable. Several people in my group broke down in tears after just a few minutes in the nursery at the sight of these babies, destined to a life of hardship by no fault of their own.
Even more troubling was the fact that there were only two or three women acting as care takers in this orphanage on a daily basis. On top of these dozen or so struggling infants, the orphanage also housed around 20 to 25 toddlers on the top floor. While at the orphanage I was able to ask Lauren what it was like trying to care for all these children.
“It’s so hard when there is only two or three of us on a given day to take care of these kids, who need so much,” said Lauren. “We simply don’t have enough resources.”
Towards the end of our stay in Cape Verde, we visited a small village called Rincon, located by the ocean at the base of a mountain. This was by far the poorest place I had ever seen in my life, even on television. Having been constantly approached by people in the capital city of Praia asking for money, we all expected to be surrounded by the citizens of this devastatingly impoverished village. But as we walked around for nearly one hour, looking around, interacting with the children and taking pictures, not one of the group members was asked by anyone, child or adult, for money. This caught us all of guard. Once we got back to the bus, we all voiced how surprising this was. One of our group leaders named Tony, who grew up near this village, was not surprised at all. He simply said, “That’s pride.”
Poverty and homelessness is an issue that transcends all borders and all walks of life throughout the world, and Cape Verde is no different. Cape Verde is a developing nation that has made several positive steps in recent years towards improving things for its people. However, poverty still lies at the center of the difficulties plaguing the nation. Though, to his credit During his time in power, Prime Minister Neves has proven to be an ambitious leader determined to improve the livelihood of his nation’s citizens.