Famine and drought in Cape Verde

In the 1930′s and 1940′s, there were events and shows taking place in New Bedford and other Cape Verdean communities in the United States to raise funds to send food and other necessities to Cape Verde where thousand were starving to death. So many people were dying that there wasn’t enough time to record their deaths and children and infants were the hardest hit.

I had the opportunity to present a series of slides that were part of Famine Relief slideshow originally presented in New Bedford in the late 30′s and 40′s. In trying to keep true to what I thought was the original intent and spirit of the original show I focused more on the actual images and was not very successful in telling the story of what was actually going on in Cape Verde that made the need for the slideshow necessary. 
Hindsight is always 20/20 but here is some of what may have made the presentation better- 
The arquipelago of Cape Verde is located along the Sahel which meant that land which may have been lush and green was prone to the same conditions as the area around the Sahara. With the population growth, there was a greater need for wood for shelter and cooking. Livestock was brought in from abroad that fed on any greenery further affecting  the already delicate environment. There are other factors that play on Cape Verde’s history of drought and famine that resulted in a total of more than fifty years total of drought since the 1700′s 
While researching my family line in Brava, I can recall feeling a lot of sadness going through pages and pages of deaths of children, some on the very same day as their parents. Among those were my great-grandmothers aunt and uncle,who lost at least three children in the early and mid 1890′s. During  the same period, my great-great grandmother, Rosa, born in 1887, lost her father in 1893 and her mother in 1896. She also had younger sister, Maria, born in 1890 but there are no records for after that. Sadly, Maria may have been one of the scores of people whose deaths weren’t recorded because there were too many at once. A devestating drought took hold of Brava during this time period and it is very likely my family members died from starvation. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the fact that Rosa was the sole survivor in her immediate family. 
It’s a very sobering thought made worse when you think about why she may have survived. What kinds of sacrifices might her parents have made so that she had enough to eat? 
When I first started putting all the pieces to this story, I told it to my aunt. The next morning she called me in tears because knowing what happened to our ancestors made her remember the severe drought in the late 1940′s. There was no food and the death toll was rising. She remembers my grandmother splitting one mango amongst them one morning. She told me that as children they would try to find games to play to take their minds off of their hunger.  But that day it wasnt helping much. My grandfather was working in São Paulo, Brazil and hadn’t yet been able to send anything that month. Later on I learned that he was working in a bakery and being paid the equivalent of pennies a day. He was barely surviving himself and had lost so much weight when he returned to Brava that he was barely recognizable. 
My aunt went on to tell me how my grandmother got word later that day that they had received mail from America. A family member sent them twenty dollars and my grandmother was able to buy rice to sustain her family. She remembers the excitement and probably relief that day like it was yesterday. 
My paternal grandfather told my uncle more stories of drought in Fogo in the 1930′s and how he remembered walking miles to get food, finally getting one single egg to feed his younger siblings. 
These stories and hundreds more would help to understand the task that Cape Verdeans in America undertook to save hungry family members at home in Cape Verde. This particular show raised around $3500! Twenty dollars and an egg meant survival for many of my ancestors. Because of this slideshow and the people depicted in these slides, countless people were saved from starvation. 
Many of us are alive today only because of our ancestors’ sheer will to survive through unimaginable hardships and sacrifices; and because of Cape Verdean – Americans who never forgot where they came from and who responded to the poet, Pedro Cardoso, plea to the Cape Verdeans to “show the world their worth” and help their brothers and sisters in Cape Verde, in a poem written to the Cape Verdeans of the United States. 
This past weekend, my family had our first family reunion. Well over 300 people attended, among them were veterans, nurses and teachers, many people who in their own ways contribute to our society. We released butterflies in honor of our ancestors. I can only hope that they are looking down from heaven knowing that we are grateful for everything they experienced so that we could gather on a summer afternoon and celebrate our family. 
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About The Creola Genealogist

I am an amateur genealogist interested in the history and ancestors of the Cape Verde Islands. I was born in the US and visited my family's country for the first time in 2009.
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3 Responses to Famine and drought in Cape Verde

  1. Ana Fonseca says:

    My father, (http://pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humberto_Duarte_Fonseca) born at Mindelo, São Vicente, published several (scientific) articles about CV drougths, but all in portuguese.Best regards.

  2. Thank you so much, Ms Fonseca. Your father did some great work!

  3. John Pina says:

    Hi Anna. My name is John Pina, and I am a son of Cape Verdean immigrants. Thanks so much for posting some of this very interesting information about CVs and our history! I am so sorry to hear about your step-father’s passing. It sounds like he was a great man. My parents are aging as well, and I feel this need to record their stories while they’re still around. I had been given your name from Marilyn Halters at BU because I recently e-mailed her regarding my parent’s heritage. They were from Brava, and came over in the late 50′s & early 60′s, not by packet ships, as most CVs did, but rather by plane – taking a ship from Brava to Sao Vicente, then to Lisbon to get their visas, and then plane to the US. I suspect they flew into Boston or NYC. Dr. Halters had mentioned your great work in this area of lineage discovery, and I was hoping that I could connect with you to help me along my path. Is there a better way for me to contact you, maybe e-mail? I understand that responding to your blog entries may not be the best way to ask you these questions. Thanks!

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