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True Story: Santiago (1)

“Avenida Charles Darwin”

The pano de terra (literally, “cloth of earth” or “cloth of land”) is a quintessential example of Cabo Verdean artisanry. Dating back to the first settlement of the archipelago (15th century) by West Africans that Portuguese colonists had brought from the nearby mainland, the designs of these long, narrow untailored textiles are intricate and unique to each particular weaver. Panos de terra serve practical functions as well: to hold a baby or small child on a woman’s back or as a belt for a machete when tending to crops or other agrarian tasks. In the performance of a batukada – the chanting and drumming that accompanies the traditional West African-derived, call-and-response batuku music of Santiago Island – typically one woman wears the pano de terra around her waist as she dances to the percussive rhythm provided by the others in the group. It is also said that the craftsmanship of panos was so valued during the height of the Age of Sail (15th to 19th centuries) that they were even used as a form of international currency among locals and sailors alike.


In 2009, two related anniversaries took place: the 200th of naturalist Charles Darwin’s birth (1809) and the 150th of the publication of his groundbreaking treatise on natural selection, On the Origin of Species (1859). 375 miles off the coast of West Africa in the small island republic of Cabo Verde, the observation of these anniversaries, both under the title of the International Year of Darwin, took on a certain degree of additional resonance given that Darwin had visited Praia and other sites on the principal island of Santiago in 1832, at the start of his famous five-year voyage aboard the HMS Beagle.

This early point in Darwin’s career marked when he began to formulate many of his nascent ideas on natural selection and evolution, much of which came as a direct result of his first-hand observations of the plants, animals, and geology of the many places he visited. Over the course of the Beagle’s five-year worldwide journey (1831-36), Darwin began to note the crucial relationship between organisms and their habitats, most famously in the case of the various species and subspecies of finches found throughout the islands of the Galapagos archipelago. Darwin thus came to more fully grasp the vast diversity of life on Earth, otherwise a difficult conceptual task for someone limited to personal knowledge of only one ecosystem or climate. Ultimately, the voyage would be Darwin’s only time spent outside of Britain.

Under somewhat different circumstances, I arrived in Cabo Verde almost 177 years later as a trainee in the U.S. Peace Corps. By September 2008 I had sworn in as a volunteer in the education sector and had moved to Praia to teach English at the national university. Though the International Year of Darwin was right around the corner, it was the last thing on my mind as I settled into the rhythms of a new job and life in a country that was still, in many ways, foreign to me.

Not long after 2009 began though, a friend casually handed me an article that had recently appeared in the national weekly newspaper, A Semana. “Here,” he said, throwing the paper at me. “You’re into Darwin, right?” Sure, I remembered Darwin’s connection to Cabo Verde. I must’ve mentioned this to him at some point. I quickly skimmed the text and asked if I could keep it – it had a lot of interesting old pictures and drawings that would look good on my bare apartment wall.

In the weeks following Darwin’s 200th birthday on February 12th, 2009, various programs including lectures, presentations, publications, and other activities had also been announced for the year. The vast majority of these were organized by the University of Cabo Verde, where I was stationed. But groups as varied as local primary and secondary schools, the municipal chamber of Praia, and the Brazilian and Portuguese cultural centers also held related events.


Back in March of 2008, when I was invited by the Peace Corps to serve in Cabo Verde, I had read Darwin’s account in The Voyage of the Beagle. Almost immediately in the text, the islands, then a sleepy outpost of the Portuguese empire, took center stage in the narrative as the ship’s first port of call. The 22-year-old aspiring naturalist arrived at the “Porto de Praya” on January 16th, 1832, only sixteen days after leaving Plymouth, England. He goes on to speak of a dry, rather forbidding place, one that, “viewed from the sea, wears a desolate aspect.” Hoping to find more encouraging remarks about the place where I was about to spend two years, I read on. He quickly walks back his skeptical first impressions and puts things into a broader perspective: “The scene, as beheld through the hazy atmosphere of this climate, is one of great interest; if, indeed, a person fresh from sea who has just walked for the first time in a grove of coconut trees can be a judge of anything but his own happiness.”

I was intrigued by this sense of contradiction, as I am still today – part tropical-island oasis, part volcanic desert, Cabo Verde is anything but easy to categorize. It’s been called “where the desert meets the sea” for good reason. And due to close links with Portugal, the EU, and the U.S. as well as the lack of any interethnic conflict, the islands have always fared relatively well. Today, only 40 years after independence, Cabo Verde by far boasts the highest standards of living of the West Africa region. In 2007 its status was even raised by the United Nations to “developing country” from that of a “least developed country.”

Nevertheless, now, as it was in Darwin’s time, there are still severe limitations on the nation’s growth potential due to the lack of natural resources and, thus, employment. The Cabo Verdean diaspora is substantial and far-flung as a result. For example, about an equal number of Cape Verdean nationals live in the United States as in the entire archipelago itself (around 500,000). And that’s not to mention those many hundreds of thousands of individuals of Cape Verdean descent living around the world.

Darwin further describes a visit to the village of São Domingos, just north of the capital, Praia, noting that the area “possesses a beauty totally unexpected, from the prevalent gloomy character of the rest of the island.” Indeed, as you ascend into Santiago island’s rugged interior on the main road, the bare volcanic wastelands give way to verdant mountains and valleys, especially in the rainy season. There he also witnessed and remarked on a form of dance and singing performed by the local girls and women: “As soon as we approached near, they suddenly all turned round, and covering the path with their shawls, sung with great energy a wild song, beating time with their hands upon their legs.” Although unnamed by Darwin, this was undoubtedly an example of the still very popular style of batuku, a quintessential element of Santiago’s traditional African culture.

In a place so overlooked both in Darwin’s time and at present, even these brief comments of his gave me valuable perspective on what would soon be my reality. Reading more about his adventures, my vague wanderlust became more focused. I found that his sense of seeing things as a part of a whole, as a part of the intertwining cosmos of both the organic and inorganic, might very well be constructive notions to hang onto.


The main part of my Peace Corps assignment was at the reitoria or main office of the University of Cabo Verde (Uni-CV). In addition to tutoring, interpreting, teaching courses in linguistics, corresponding with other institutions, and other related tasks, I also translated some of Uni-CV’s online news bulletins from Portuguese into English for wider readership. In early September, as I read through a new batch of Darwin-related events, an unknown Portuguese word made me do a double-take. Its root, neto: grandson or grandchild, was familiar, but its specific meaning was unclear. I consulted my dictionary: Tetraneto: “great-great-grandchild.” So here was the gist of this brief bit of news: Because of the two big anniversaries, two of Charles Darwin’s direct descendants were coming to the islands, and the University was going to formally receive them.

I immediately started asking and emailing around to find out who was in charge of this welcome mission. It turned out that there was only the loosest of plans thus far, so  through some minor finagling I managed to insert myself as an interpreter, guide, and general representative of the University. They even let me borrow the official digital camera.

One of the great-great-grandchildren, Randal Keynes, was my charge. At the time he was about 60, a kindly, soft-spoken wisp of an Englishman. He is the author of the book Annie’s Box, which details the important relationship between Darwin and his daughter, Annie, whose death at age 10 shook both Darwin’s religious beliefs and his mental health before the publication of On the Origin of Species. Keynes’ book was adapted for the screen and, also in 2009, released under the title Creation starring Paul Bettany as Charles and Jennifer Connelly as his wife (and first cousin), Emma Wedgwood Darwin. Keynes also holds a chair on the Darwin Trust and lectures extensively on conservation and the life of his famous ancestor.

When I first met him, Randal told me that because of his book, he’s become the de facto ambassador of the extended Darwin clan. He works on forming connections with places like Cabo Verde as well, he said, in the form of an international network of schools in countries that Darwin visited. “But we want this to be open to all students, everywhere in the world too, of course,” he said to the students and teachers gathered at the Nova Assembleia primary school on the first morning of his visit. “We want every student to have the chance to explore his or her world through science.”

Later that day I met Charles’ other descendant, Sarah Darwin, a distant cousin of Keynes. She was somewhat tall, dark-haired, fortyish. Like Keynes she was well-educated, worldly, and unmistakably English. She had brought her two small children along with her, the great-great-great grandchildren of Charles.  A biologist herself, she was at the time circumnavigating the globe on board the Dutch clipper ship Stad Amsterdam. The project was a joint collaboration between a Dutch and a Belgian television station that followed the route of the Beagle over the course of 2009 to take note of what had changed and remained the same since the early 19th century, based on Darwin’s writings.

On the second day of the visit, Randal, Ana Hopfer-Almada, a professor of life sciences at the University of Cabo Verde, and I made our own visit to São Domingos. Unfortunately we couldn’t stay long enough to seek out any batuku dancers, but Keynes did have a chance to speak to the faculty of the local high school about the town’s importance to Darwin’s visit, and the importance of science education. The audience members seemed genuinely interested and also proud that their community had made it into history through The Voyage.

It was September  – deep in the rainy season – and there had been a recent downpour. The hills were a brilliant light green as we quickly made our way back to Praia after the stop. “It’s a shame he couldn’t have seen how lush it looks in the wet season,” Randal commented. True, Darwin had only seen this place in January and February, when dry dirt and rocks must have dominated the landscape.

“This is the time when Cabo Verde [‘Green Cape’] actually lives up to its name,” said Ana, through me.

“Well, at least the ‘green’ part,” I couldn’t help but add. Due to a historical fluke, this country’s name has almost nothing to do with its actual characteristics. Think about it: How can an archipelago also be a cape? It can’t. It’s a misnomer, an extrapolation of the name of the nearest point on the African mainland, Cap Vert, an actual cape, in Senegal. Some 15th century explorer was clearly really lazy with his naming and the name stuck. Which is unfortunate because Cabo Verde is truly unique and, in my opinion, worthy of a name that better represents it. Even reverting to a mouthful like “the Ancient Hesperides of Pliny and Ptolemy,” the islands’ pre-discovery working title, would be an improvement.

“This is an interesting place, isn’t it?” said Randal.


As I witnessed the whirlwind of classroom visits, field trips, and interviews over the course of two days, I felt compelled to take a cue from Darwin’s playbook to consider the big picture and the implications of what it was that we were actually doing. What does Charles Darwin really mean to a place such as Cabo Verde, I thought, one of many territories that he visited and commented on between 1832 and 1837 – over 175 years ago? Should the average Cabo Verdean person, for example, be expected to care about this whatsoever? Is this their history, Great Britain’s, science’s generally, or some combination of them all? What should educators or administrators try to impart about him in particular, if anything? And, moreover, what did Charles Darwin really mean to the world of 2009?

To me, much of this came to a head by the end of the Darwin descendants’ tour, at the inauguration of a street renaming in honor of Darwin’s visit to Praia.

In true West African style, the event began about 45 minutes late, but the mood was loose and lively like a block party, perfect for an early Friday evening. Some women and a throng of small children mingled as the Cabo Verdean Army band assembled. Stray dogs poked around for scraps, ignored until they got too close to anything official. As the band began their fanfare, Randal and Sarah finally arrived in a van from another excursion that I hadn’t been invited to. They hopped out and gathered around the covered signpost with a few local dignitaries, including the Vice Provost of the University of Cabo Verde and Praia’s mayor Ulisses Correia e Silva, who, incidentally, is now Cabo Verde’s prime minister. The veil was drawn and a simple, unassuming blue placard was revealed to a round of polite applause. It said, in Portuguese: “Charles Darwin Avenue (1809-1882), He passed through the City of Praia in 1832.”

Once the local news reporters and photographers had captured their soundbites and snapshots, I still felt a nagging impression of a disconnect – that the local people, the residents of this fairly impoverished neighborhood, would be looking up at this sign for years and years to come, possibly without much other information about why it was relevant to them. Add to that the rantings of an angry street preacher on the evils of this British, white man, and I wondered if perhaps the sign was not long for this world. Professor Ana admitted to me that she felt that she had failed to properly inform the locals about the sign’s placement in their community and what it meant. But to her credit, she spent a good half hour after the ceremony talking to anyone interested, happily explaining a bit about Charles Darwin and why they should be proud to be a part of this slice of history.

Maybe I’m just used to Darwin’s name alone sparking caustic debate in the U.S., but I hoped that the right impression was imparted, be it in the schools, through the media, or by word of mouth. And maybe I’m just a godless liberal, but I do think that Charles Darwin was and still worthy of our attention. I get why religious fundamentalists are so freaked out by him and the tenets of natural selection and evolution, but even regular folks might not be so sure about where to place this person who has, like it or not, profoundly changed our way of looking at the world. To me, above all, Charles Darwin was a great observer of the world – not just a naturalist but one of history’s great beholders to the awe of nature. And this is why we still remember him.

After the unveiling, I made my way to Quintal da Música, a downtown Praia restaurant famous for its live music. I sat down for the buffet dinner and a drink with the Dutch film crew, an interesting lot of chain-smoking thinkers and adventurers. Along with them was their own local guide and interpreter, a middle-aged man who looked to me like a Cabo Verdean Jimmy Buffett. I had met him the day before at the baobab trees we had visited, but I hadn’t caught his name, so I asked. “Munaia,” he said – his nickname. He told me that he was a SCUBA instructor and gym teacher. For some reason or another he later also mentioned his full name, of which I only caught one part: Charles. I remember this because I thought maybe he was translating the common name Carlos in order to make a connection to Darwin, which, if it were the case, would’ve been a little weird, like he was trying a little too hard to impress a 26 year-old in an ugly shirt. But I didn’t dwell on it because we were in the middle of a conversation.

“My main interest,” he told me, “is shipwrecks. I wrote a book about the ones off the islands of Cabo Verde. They’re everywhere. You just have to know where to look.” I could now clearly see why he had joined up with the Dutchmen; he was a lifelong learner and a teacher, a man fascinated by his own country and its biodiversity, history, and culture. “I’ve always felt a connection to Darwin,” he said. “He always asked questions. That’s how I’ve always been, too.”

I went home soon later. Before going to bed, I took a glance at the now months-old newspaper article about Darwin on my wall. Now seemed as good a time as any to actually read it. As I did, I thought about everything that had happened during the previous two days. Moreover, about Darwin and nature and voyages of discovery. I liked how the world and the universe and everything else looked through this prism of Darwinist thought: expansive, alive, cyclical, hopeful. Basically, like a Peter Gabriel song. I thought about Cabo Verde and everything I’d learned about it in the past year since arriving and the many things I’d learned about myself and the world in the process. Conversely, I thought about some of the less useful, more myopic ways of interpreting the world that I’d started to leave behind.

And then I noticed something for the first time: the name of the article’s author. It had to be the same man I had just been chatting with downtown, Munaia. Charles was, in fact, his middle name and not a translation. Munaia most certainly wasn’t just an amateur, borderline groupie like me, this confirmed, but one of Cabo Verde’s established Darwin experts. I laughed for a second at having just now put two and two together. And I turned out the light.

When I passed by Darwin’s tall, blue signpost most recently, on a visit to Cape Verde in 2013, I noticed that it was gone. Just now, though, Google Maps has confirmed that that long, dusty street in Praia that dead-ends at the port – at least officially if perhaps not in common parlance – is still called Avenida Charles Darwin. I wonder if the locals ever call it that now that it’s been almost eight years. Much more likely, though, they refer to it as they do all streets – by their characteristics and landmarks, not by any prescribed, seemingly arbitrary name: You know, the street that goes out to the port. Not that they’d need his approval, but I’m sure the naturalist in Darwin would’ve much preferred this nomenclature, too.