Cabo Verde Today
Cabo Verde is one of West Africa’s most stable nations, both politically and economically. In many areas, it tops the charts in comparison to other parts of Africa – and the developing world. It has a high literacy rate of 88% (and over 97% among school-age children), an active and relatively free press, a declining poverty rate and one of the highest living standards in West Africa. In fact, a little over a decade ago, it became one of the few countries to ‘graduate’ out of its ranking among the world’s 50 least developed nations according to the UN. This in spite of a lack of natural resources – and even adequate water supplies – is impressive. Today, tourism, which accounts for over 25% of GDP, is helping to fuel the growth. Though the global financial crisis of 2008-9 had an impact, GDP growth has been on the rise in the last few years, and is expected to reach 4% in 2017 – a healthy figure, though still below the boom years before the global crisis.
In 2016, Cabo Verde re-elected its popular president, Jorge Carlos Fonseca, to a second term. Despite the nation’s solid economic performance, big challenges remain: namely taming the public debt (over 115% of GDP), lowering the unemployment rate (over 12%) and grappling with crumbling infrastructure spread over nine inhabited islands.
If you arrive from mainland Africa, the lack of hustle among Cabo Verdeans will likely come as a welcome relief. While they are gregarious, you may catch a whiff of a certain distance, even clannishness, due in part from the islands' isolation from the mainland and from each other. The European legacy is more marked here than in most parts of Portuguese-speaking Africa, yet Cabo Verdeans will tell you that their Crioulo culture is – at its core – African, citing especially their food and music. More recently, the huge expatriate community in the US has had an effect on attitudes, including a growing evangelical community and a general infatuation with the US.
Except for a small class of business owners and professionals who live like their Western counterparts, life in Cabo Verde is not easy. Terraced farms require enormous effort and arid weather keeps yields small. While the infrastructure, from roads to water, is rapidly modernising, you will see women and children toting water from communal wells. A high percentage of households consists of single mothers with children, a legacy of male-only emigration patterns that dates to the 18th century.
Cabo Verde boasts by far the highest GDP per capita (US$3900) in West Africa. The country's literacy rate of 88% is also the highest in the region. Virtually all children of primary-school age attend school, though attendance at secondary schools is considerably lower. Opportunities for pursuing higher education have improved markedly in the past decade. The islands have some 10 post-secondary educational institutes, with several key universities in Praia and Mindelo.
Based on the UN's Africa Human Development Report 2012, Cabo Verde comes out on top in West Africa. From 1975 to 2016, life expectancy leapt from 46 years to 73 years, far higher than the sub-Saharan African average. The country also has one of the lowest population-growth rates in the region. It's the only country in West Africa with a population of primarily mixed European and African descent. About 40% of the population lives on Santiago – mainly around the capital, Praia. The rest live largely in small towns clustered in the agriculturally productive valleys. As tourism grows, so do the once-tiny populations of arid Sal, Boa Vista and Maio, all of which have seen an influx of foreign residents.
The vast majority of Cabo Verdeans are Roman Catholic. Evangelical Protestantism is making inroads thanks to the influence of Cabo Verdean expats returning from the US. Traces of African animism remain in the beliefs of even devout Christians.
Arts & Crafts
Traditional crafts include weaving, ceramics, baskets, mat making and batik. Be aware that most craft shops sell objects from the African mainland rather than Cabo Verde itself, and indeed, many artisans here are Senegalese.
While Cabo Verde has the smallest population of any country in West Africa, its literary tradition is one of the richest. However, little of that has been translated into any language but Portuguese. Prior to independence, a major theme in Cabo Verdean writing was the longing for liberation. Poet, musician and national hero Eugénio Tavares (1867–1930) composed lyrical mornas in Crioulo (Creole) rather than Portuguese. In 1936, a small clique of intellectuals founded a literary journal, Claridade, whose goal was to express a growing sense of Cabo Verdean identity. Themes of contemporary literature, best expressed by poet Jorge Barbosa's 'Arquipélago', remain constant: sodade (longing and/or homesickness), mysteries of the sea and an attempt to come to terms with a history of oppression.
Much of Cabo Verdean music evolved as a form of protest against slavery and other types of oppression. Today, two kinds of song dominate traditional Cabo Verdean music: mornas and coladeiras, both built on the sounds of stringed instruments like the fiddle and guitar. As the name suggests, mornas (melodic, melancholic music) are mournful songs of sodade – an unquenchable longing, often for home. With faster, more upbeat rhythms, coladeiras, in contrast, tend to be romantic love songs or else more active expressions of protest. Another popular style is funaná, built on fast-paced, Latin-influenced rhythms and underpinned by the accordion. The most African of music and dance styles is batuko, with lots of drumming and call-and-response chanting.
Cesária Évora was hands-down the most famous practitioner of morna and coladeiras. Contemporary musicians to look for include the ensemble groups Simentera and Ferro Gaita, and singers Maria de Barros and Sara Tavares.
Undisputed queen of the morna and Cabo Verde's most famous citizen, Cesária Évora wowed the world with a voice at once densely textured and disarmingly direct. She began to gain an international audience in the mid-1990s but vaulted to stardom in 1997 when, at the second annual all-African music awards, she ran away with three of the top gongs, including best female vocalist. Suddenly people around the world were swaying to the rhythms of Cabo Verde's music, even if they couldn't point the country out on a map. Évora left her native Mindelo in favour of Paris, but the 'barefoot diva' never put on airs; she was known to appear onstage accompanied by a bottle of booze and a pack of ciggies. When she died at 70 in 2011, after a bout of illness, Cabo Verde declared two days of national mourning and the Mindelo airport was renamed in her honour. Her musical legacy very much lives on.
Cabo Verde consists of 10 major islands (nine of them inhabited) and five islets, all of volcanic origin. Though none is more than about 50km from its closest neighbour, they represent a wide array of climates and landscapes. All are arid or semiarid, but the mountainous islands of Brava, Santiago, Fogo, Santo Antão and São Nicolau – all with peaks over 1000m – catch enough moisture to support grasslands as well as fairly intensive agriculture, particularly in windward-facing valleys. Still, only 20% of the total land mass is arable. Maio, Boa Vista and Sal are flatter and almost entirely arid, with long, sandy beaches and desertlike interiors.
Cabo Verde has less fauna than just about anywhere in Africa. Birdlife is a little richer (around 75 species), and includes a good number of endemics (38 species). The frigate bird and the extremely rare razo lark are much sought after by twitchers. The grey-headed kingfisher with its strident call is more common.
Divers can see a good range of fish, including tropical species such as parrotfish and angelfish, groupers, barracudas, moray eels and, with luck, manta rays, sharks (including the nurse, tiger and lemon) and marine turtles. Humpback whales breed in these waters; the peak is March and April. Five endangered species of turtle visit the islands on their way across the Atlantic. Cabo Verde also has the world's third-largest loggerhead turtle nesting population. Nesting takes place from June to October.
The greatest threats to Cabo Verde's environment remain cyclical drought and soil erosion, exacerbated by deforestation and overgrazing – mostly by goats. To combat these problems, the country has constructed more than 15,000 contour ditches and 2500km of dams, and since the 1970s has been implementing a major reforestation program. On some islands, notably Santo Antão, Maio, Santiago and parts of Fogo, the tree cover has noticeably increased over the past couple of decades, but on islands like Sal a tree remains as rare as a rainy day.
Overfishing is another issue to contend with.
Responsible Tourism In Cabo Verde
Follow our guide here for a guilt-free holiday.
- Save water as much as you can – shower together if travelling with a partner, and when using the toilet remember the mantra 'if it's brown flush it down, if it's yellow let it mellow'.
- Try to support local businesses rather than international chains.
- Avoid eating too much lobster – local fishermen put their lives in danger to dive out these precious and rapidly depleting crustaceans.
- Don't hike off path in Santo Antão – you might damage fragile plantlife.
- Avoid quad tours, popular on Boa Vista and Sal, as they contribute to beach erosion and disrupt the islands' natural peace.
Publications in English about Cabo Verde are scarce but include the Historical Dictionary of the Republic of Cape Verde by Richard Lobban, Cape Verde: Politics, Economics and Society by Colm Foy, Antonio's Island: Cape Verde by Marcelo Gomes Balla and The Fortunate Isles: A Study in African Transformation by Basil Davidson.