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.