Sunday sees the beginning of Christian Aid Week, Derrick Knight, a journalist who works with the charity, has just returned from the Cape Verde Islands and describes their plight.
THE ACTUAL Cape Verde is a bump on the humpbacked west coast of Africa where the French built their most important colonial city and port of Dakar. The Cape Verde islands however are some 450 kilometres west of Dakar and consist of some 10 inhabited islands and some 5 islets. They are rugged, spectacular, volcanic plinths rising from a deep blue sea, some to a great height. The climate is hot and given to long cycles of drought. The islands have not had a year of good rainfall since independence in 1975. But while countries on the mainland have scarcely begun to tackle the long term problems of creeping desertification and what this threatens in terms of future food production, the Cape Verdes are doing so. The present may look bleak but the people here are joined in a battle for survival with energy and with hope.
The great worry in the Cape Verdes is water. Fresh water for drinking, for irrigation or industry is desperately short. Many times in the past the shortage of water has threatened the survival of the islanders.
Now something is being done about it. With some expert help and money from abroad, but to a large extent by their own efforts, the Cape Verdians are carrying out a wide-ranging plan to solve the problem of fresh water.
The islands of the Cape Verde are like big umbrellas. When it rains the drops are propelled from the centre to the edges where they fall off. The area underneath remains dry and within seconds of the rain stopping, the top surface of the umbrella is also drying.
The violence of the rare rain removes any soil prepared for planting into flash flood rivers which scour troughs of deep erosion in the hillsides on their rapid path to the sea. None of this water has time or opportunity to soak into the land or filter into the underground water table.
Without water, proposals for land reform or for agricultural development must remain on the drawing board. So, much of the foreign aid offered to the Cape Verdes since independence has been used to begin to turn the umbrella upside down and to search for underground sources of water which can be pumped to the surface Dozens of small catchments have been and are being constructed, together with reservoirs and irrigation works to enable more land to be farmed. There is also a large tree-planting programme. All of these projects are very labour-intensive and so thousands of jobs have been provided to help reduce the large number of unemployed.
The Party programme from the
beginning was a socialist one with a strong emphasis on popular participation. The priorities were to create the conditions in which the people might be fed — which meant an urgent struggle against erosion and desertification, the encouragement of agriculture and the creation of new permanent jobs — which can be sloganised into "Water. Land and Work for the People."
Youth training centres like that at Granja Sao Felipe have been built where delinquent and homeless kids can have a chance to make up for a missing education.
At the level of everyday life, the political system appears to be caring and undoctrinaire. There are no uniforms in sight, no armed guards on public buildings, no expensive limousines or signs of privilege for civil servants or party stalwarts. Government offices are austerely furnished. Freedom of conscience is guaranteed for every individual and so is the right to practise any religion. Religious freedom does not mean that there are no problems for the churches. The majority of Cape Verdians have been brought up as Roman Catholics and the church has considerable influence and large landholdings on the islands. As in Angola and Mozambique, the Catholic Church was identified closely with Portuguese colonial power and has had difficulties integrating with a Marxist state.
The Catholic Church is the biggest single landowner in the Cape Verdes with almost 50 per cent of all privately held land. It is understandably concerned about the effects of the new land reform proposals which the government has made. At the same time the more progressive Church leaders appreciate the fairness and concern for justice in the reforms and will wish to find a solution which will enable the Church to take part fully in the evolution of the new nation.
Christian Aid has supported development work in the Cape Verdes since independence in 1975. Small irrigation schemes and reservoirs, agricultural training for teenagers, a start of cornmunity health, help for fishing cooperatives, are just some of the projects given grants either directly or through the programme of the World Council of Churches.
They are the sort of projects which may be small but have large consequences. The theme of this year's Christian Aid Week which is from May 10 to 16 is 'Help the Poor World'. Projects of this kind around the world will benefit from the money-raising events and the door-to-door collections throughout that time.