Saturday, 18 October 2014

A Fairy tale from Príncipe: How little piggy lost his bollocks

Praia Seca; a small and isolated fishing community in the remote South of the island of Príncipe. I have already been here for three days, waiting for a lift back to civilization by a boat that might never arrive: a hell of boredom in a tropical beach “paradise”. Bearing the wait with us are five fishermen, a dozen dogs, a hundred pigs and uncountable chickens. Today, however, the now familiar morning tedium is broken by the despairing squeals of a pig which has been carefully chosen among its peers by Peté, the farmer, and tied to a tree. My first guess is that the captive will not yell for much longer, or ever again, but I soon learn that he will be fine and it is “only” ( I am sure the poor animal would disagree on the choice of the term) time for him to be castrated. Satiro, my trustworthy guide, will perform the surgical operation, yet another of the many unrelated skills, which I didn’t know he possessed. I am informed that the timing is crucial, as the testicles should be removed only when the moon is full and the tide is low to ensure the minimum bleeding… While we wait for the ebb, Satiro prepares the surgical instruments (a blunt knife) and the antiseptic dressing (half a glass of palm oil and a lime). The pig, oblivious to its fate, dozes off.

The right moment soon arrives (too soon, the porker would claim). The swine wakes up, his legs are tied with a rope and while Peté sits on him to keep him still, Satiro swiftly proceeds with the operation. He grips the knife, makes two small incisions, squeezes out the testicles, twists them, severs them and the job is done. The area is then generously rubbed with oil and lime. In less than five minutes the pig is amicably sent off with a couple of smacks to his rear, its virility already a distant memory. In all of this I have a role too: I am proudly defending the freshly harvested gonads from the bold appetite of the dogs.
Later, when calm (and boredom) have been restored to the beach, and the dogs have eventually been fed with what I had fiercely defended, I take the liberty of questioning Satiro about his newly discovered talent.
-          Have you done this (i.e. castrating pigs) many times before?
-          Oh yes. People know that I can do it and they call me when they need me.
-          But you don’t have pigs yourself, do you?
-          No
-          Did you have them in the past?
-          No
-          Someone taught you?
-          No
-          So how and where did you learn?
-          I saw it done once.
Astounded by the last answer I stop questioning and he wanders off. I can’t stop thinking of how I would feel if, minutes before undergoing surgery, having asked the surgeon if he had done many of these operations before, maybe just to relieve the tension, I was to receive the following answer:
“ No, but I once saw it done on YouTube”…
Blessed was the pig in its obliviousness.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Cats in Príncipe: Eat, Pray, Love

The inhabitants of the island of Príncipe have a rather multifaceted relationship with their cats, which can be pretty much summarized in three words:

EAT: Feline meat is considered a delicacy by quite a few, but how much this practice is common or socially accepted is hard to tell. When questioned, locals would provide unconvincing and evasive answers, despite the practice being well-known.

PRAY: Cats have long been associated with mystical and supernatural powers and this is also true in São Tomé and Príncipe. Cats are kept at home or in the shop as a sentinel against evil spirits, but the animal alone is not believed to be up to the task if it is not empowered by the tying of a red ribbon around its neck.

LOVE: After all, people in Príncipe enjoy raising cats for their company and for their more practical use as a vermin deterrent. Sometimes their love might manifest in mysterious ways, like keeping the cat tied by its red ribbon for days on end as in the worst of canine nightmares. On the other hand they are brought up on the finest fish leftovers and chubby rats, of which there is no scarcity. 

Monday, 1 September 2014

African Chiaroscuro

San Joaquim: some fifty souls braced together against poverty in a few dilapidated concrete houses - leftover from, and a reminder of a “glorious” past. A time when there may have been more wealth, but it was still not allowed entry into the homes of the labourers. 
Pigs, dogs, ducks, goats and chicken share with their fellow human residents a rather small central courtyard filled with screams, swine shit, smoke and little else . Being far from the capital, somehow forgotten by the developers and politicians, nobody has ever bothered to bring electricity to San Joaquim. Thus every evening the village dozes off soon after darkness has fallen, in the await of a new day, which won’t be much different from the previous one 
But tonight is different.  Some money has been found, some petrol has been bought, to quench the thirst of the old, battered generator (the only handout from a distant government) and …“let there be light!”.

The inhabitants of San Joaquim, despite being among the poorest on the island of Príncipe, 
are also the warmest and friendliest people I met here

It is not exactly Las Vegas, but the usually bleak village is, for once, somewhat illuminated and that is enough for the unpredictable to happen. From those same smoke-stained houses from which you would expect nothing but scarcity and frugality to surface, the  inhabitants  suddenly  drag out two massive speakers, a TV and a DVD player…and let the music play! . Only a few venture out of their homes looking for an unusually late night (the generator will be turned off at 9 pm). Some of them, made bolder by some extra glasses of palm wine, dare to show their moves, while others do their best to sing along. At 21:00hrs sharp, with a precision worthy of Cinderella’s spell, the village drops once more into the dark and into silence. 

The following evening I try my luck again and walk the few hundred metres that stand between my camp and the village but all is quiet. The money has finished, the generator has drunk the last drop of petrol and any light has vanished with the sun. Darkness cloaks the village, but as I turn a corner I can make out a dim glow and some life. A small gathering of people, puppies and ducks are consuming their evening meal around a dying fire in an evocative scene, reminiscent of the play of light and shade in Caravaggio’s paintings. And for once I am glad, albeit selfishly, that power (electrical and political) has forgotten San Joaquim.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

The slope of the sea

After a long morning of work, as my trustworthy guide and I were returning to base camp, we passed through the smallest of villages, Oque Daniel. There I was ever so kindly, and albeit somewhat forcefully, offered a drink. Out of politeness and weakness I accepted a beer, as the strong-smelling crystal-clear liquid they were drinking didn't exactly look like something you doctor would advise you to have on an empty stomach as a mean of rehydration. Seconds after the first sip my fellow drinkers were deep into a number of lively discussions on a variety of topics ranging from whales to drinking, from dogs to fishing. Partially numbed by a combination of alcohol, intense heat, fatigue and boredom I let my attention come and go as the topics unfolded. Moreover the speed and excitement with which they were debating were putting a strain on my weak knowledge of Portuguese. But at a certain point the excitement obviously escalated of an order of magnitude. Shaken out of my apathy, I summoned all my Lusophone skills to understand what the new discussion was about. It took a while for the penny to drop, and retrospectively I can’t blame only my linguistic deficiencies, as it took me some extra time to believe what I was hearing. They were discussing the slope of the sea. 

Is the sea between Príncipe and São Tomé uphill or down hill? If you
ask the local  fishermen they all seem to have a different answer...

The subject of the dispute was not the depth of the waves on a stormy day as opposed to a calm one, but if the stretch of sea between the islands of Príncipe and São Tomé is, as a matter of fact, uphill or downhill! My astonishment grew as participants came forward presenting their unequivocal evidence supporting one or other theory (flatness didn't seem to be worth considering). One observant speaker reminded everyone how navigating away from Príncipe you would gradually see the island disappear in the distance starting from its base till the highest peak was the last thing you would glimpse. Clearly a sign you were ascending a slope. Others, instead, were accurately accounting for the difference in petrol needed to go either way.  As abruptly as it had started, and far from being settled, the pre-Columbian debate was brought to a halt and abandoned. It was time for them to play a game of cards, and for us to move on. As we resumed our walk to base camp I thought that if only they could go and ask the port authority, their doubts would certainly be put to rest at once …after all everyone knows that the stretch of sea to São Tomé is uphill.

Oque Daniel, Príncipe, 20th August 2014

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Africa N° 1

When I first landed on the island of Príncipe the supply of goods was guaranteed by three ships that regularly sailed to and from São Tomé. On my second visit I was told that, regrettably, one of the ships caught fire just before departing from São Tomé, but the other two were still running fine. 

Now, in my third visit, I found that one of the two remaining vessels, which goes by the wrongly promising name of African N° 1, no longer commutes between the two islands, and, due to a badly executed manoeuvre has now become a permanent landmark of Santo Antonio bay.

Santo Antonio, Príncipe, 18th August 2014

Sunday, 17 August 2014

"African" music in Príncipe

In the wake of the “Auto de Floripes” festivities, legacy of the Portuguese colonialism, I witnessed the most spontaneous and “African” expression of music I've heard so far here in Príncipe
Photo © S. Valle

Improvised musicians sing, dance and sweat to the maniacal drumming of drums, logs and metal sheets in a trance induced by fire and alcohol and rhythm.

Photo © S. Valle

Santo Antonio, Príncipe, 16th August 2014

Monday, 31 March 2014

O voador (or the story of an alternative taxonomic system)

Santo Antonio, Príncipe. 7 pm. After carefully pondering the vast possible choice of eating venues, one evening I decided to eat at “Bella’s”, since it was the only restaurant open (out of the two existing). The term “restaurant” has to be read here in its more etymological denotation i.e. from the French restaurer 'provide food for' (literally 'restore to a former state'). Bella’s is, in fact, a rather ramshackle wooden kiosk selling a minimalistic menu of grilled fish and salt-less fried bananas.
I approached the generously sized owner, Mrs. Bella herself, while she was ungracefully grilling some fish on a couple of charcoal stoves, right on the street, and politely I asked my rhetorical question:

-          Tem peixe?
(Excuse me Madam, do you happen to have, by any chance, some fish tonight, although I know you have since you are cooking some in front of my eyes?)

But I was rather surprised by the answer I received:

-          Não!
(Good evening to you Sir. I am very sorry but I am afraid we don’t have any fish tonight)

As she was finishing her sentence, she was turning a fish on the grill, in order to burn it evenly on both sides. Thus I was pretty sure my question had been misheard or misunderstood…or both.
I repeated my question only to receive the same, but slightly more annoyed answer. Incredulous and confused, I mechanically asked once more, but by now she had already lost interest in answering. There were a few seconds of perplexed silence. I then summoned my courage and, pointing at the now evenly charred fish, I asked:

-          Que é isso?
(I am sorry to disturb you once again, Madam, would you be so kind to tell me what is this delicious looking black animal which you are so skilfully cooking?)

She looked at me with patronising despise, as if I had just asked her to help me to count up to two, and then grunted:
-          Isso é voador.
(Of course, Sir, you don’t disturb at all. To the best of my zoological knowledge, this is a Flyer

Flying fish (© Pearson Scott Foresman)

I suddenly realised that I had just discovered a whole new animal classification, and defeated by the extensive evidence I had been presented with, I didn’t argue any further and ordered a voador (a flying fish for western science) for my dinner.

Intrigued by this incident, I  then spoke to other people who confirmed that animals are classified differently here in Príncipe. Even if I can understand how whales can be mistaken for fishes, I am slightly more surprised by the fact that, despite the striking anatomical differences, turtles are also considered fish simply because they swim. So in that case, I wondered, how would the local taxonomy describe the voador? I had my best chance of finding out, just a few days later, while I was having a chat, in another “restaurant”, with the veterinary of the island - surely a man who best knows his animals…The man seemed to fully adhere to the criteria of the local taxonomy and confirmed once again what by now many others have told me, thus I asked him:

-          So what is a voador if it is not a fish?

I sarcastically filled the few seconds of embarrassed silence that followed my question with yet another ironic and rhetorical question:

-          A bird?

By now, I should have known better…
A light shined in his eyes as he answered:

-          Yes! Most probably yes! It flies after all….  

Monday, 17 March 2014

Meat at the Market

The market in Santo Antonio, Príncipe, is the bustling heart of town where it all happens, where business is made, and where you can buy each of those five or six vegetables available on the island. The structure is a small warehouse half full of very loud and argumentative women all selling the same minimalistic selection of expensive vegetables. Other goods available are: a staggering variety of plastic flip-flops and the little fish that fishermen didn’t manage to sell on the way from the port.
But today something different was happening. The excitement was tangible. Word had spread that today there was beef available in the market, a true rarity and an event itself.
It’s not that cattle are rare, but there seems to be an inexplicable resistance by the local people to actually kill them and sell the meat. And they are definitely not raising them for milk, or as pets.
Lured by the novelty, I too decide to try my chance and go to buy some meat to spice up my fish-and-rice-only diet.
Once I managed to penetrate the noisy crowd I reached the object of the general desire, but if I was expecting some more or less neatly arranged stacks of meat cuts, I was soon disappointed…

The market in Santo Antonio, Príncipe (Photo: Nuno Barros)

There, on one of the market’s concrete slabs, lay a full cow. The body had been disassembled into five or six recognizable pieces, which now lay in a heap under the attentive eyes of the potential buyers. To one side the head of the poor animal seemed to be observing with glassy eyes the customers buying its body. Potential buyers argued cuts and prices amongst the general confusion, then, once the deal had been settled, the seller selected a piece of the cow, laid it on a wooden block and with a blunt machete hacked meat and bones alike till the desired portion of meat had been parted from the rest. People around seemed hypnotised by the scene, so much so that they didn’t notice the squirts of blood and pieces of meat landing all over them. The same can’t be said about the pack of excited stray dogs that mobbed the scene, licking blood from the floor, catching flex of meat in mid-air and continuously risking decapitation to steal bits of gristle from the block. Once in a while someone remembered to chase them away, but they were never gone for long. More difficult was the titanic battle against the swarms of flies which kept on landing on the meat, totally unfazed by the helpless attempts to brush them away.

I'm not a squeamish person and living in the tropics has taught me to lower my expectations on hygienic standards, nonetheless today the whole “pulp film” scene convinced me to stick to my fish-and-rice-only diet for a little longer…after all it is very healthy.