World Cultures | Cape Verde

Culture Name

Cape Verdean


Identification. The islands are named for the Cap Vert peninsula in West Africa, the nearest land formation. Cape Verdeans identify strongly with the culture of their individual islands.

Location and Geography. Cape Verde comprises ten islands, nine of which are inhabited, and is located 375 miles (600 kilometers) off the coast of Senegal. The combined area of all the islands is 1,557 square miles (4,033 square kilometers), roughly the size of Rhode Island. The islands vary in geographical characteristics. Sal, Boavista, Maio, and São Vicente are flat and desert-like, with stretches of sand dunes. Santiago, Santo Antão, Fogo, and São Nicolau are more mountainous and arable, although all the islands have a long history of drought. They are all of volcanic origin; Fogo, the only volcano still active, last erupted in 1995. The capital, Praia, is on the island of Santiago which is the largest in terms of area and population and the first one to be settled.

Demography. The population of Cape Verde is 430,000. Of these, 85,000 live in the capital. Because of the country's long history of emigration, there are an additional estimated one million Cape Verdeans living abroad, mainly in the United States, western Europe, and Africa. The United States Cape Verdean population, concentrated in the New England states, is estimated to be as large as the population in Cape Verde itself.

Linguistic Affiliation. The official language is Portuguese. It is used in school, for official functions, and for all written communication. The vernacular is a Creole, which is essentially fifteenth-century Portuguese with a simplified vocabulary and influences from Mandingo and several Senegambian languages. Each island has its own distinctive Creole in which its inhabitants take pride.

History and Ethnic Relations

Emergence of the Nation. The Cape Verde Islands were uninhabited until the Portuguese first landed in 1460. They settled in an area of Santiago which they called Ribeira Grande and which they used as a slave-trade post between Africa and the New World. Some Africans stayed on the island and worked as slaves on the latifundas, or plantations, there. Ribeira Grande experienced several pirate attacks, and was abandoned after a French assault in 1712. After 1876, with the decline of slave trade, the islands lost much of their economic value to the Portuguese. The effects of drought and famine were compounded by poor administration and government corruption. Cape Verde regained some wealth in the late nineteenth century due to its convenient location on major trade routes between Europe, South America, and Africa and to the opening of a coal and submarine cable station in the port city of Mindelo. This prosperity again declined after World War I, however, and the country experienced several devastating famines. It was not until after the second world war that relative prosperity began to return.

In 1951, the Portuguese changed Cape Verde's status from colony to overseas province and in 1961, granted full Portuguese citizenship to all Cape Verdeans. A war of independence was fought from 1974 to 1975 in Guinea-Bissau, another Portuguese colony on the mainland also seeking autonomy. The islands became an independent republic in 1975.

National Identity. Cape Verdean culture is a unique mixture of European and African elements. National identity is rather fragmented, mainly as a result of the geographical division of the islands. The northern, or barlavento islands, tend to identify more with the Portuguese colonizers, whereas the

Cape Verde

Cape Verde

southern, or sotavento islands (Santiago in particular) have a closer cultural affinity with Africa. Cape Verdeans have a strong sense of pride in the specific culture of their own island.


Ethnic Relations. Cape Verde is a mestizo society. Seventy-eight percent of the population is Creole, that is, of mixed African and European blood. Of the remainder, 28 percent is black African, and 1 percent is white.

Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space

Praia, the capital of Cape Verde, is a rapidly growing urban center. Its growth has been unimpeded by zoning laws or organization which has allowed it to spread out into nearby land in a haphazard way. Mindelo, the second largest city with a population of 47,000, is located on the northern island of São Vicente and provides a marked contrast as a clean, orderly city with a European feel. Many of the islands combine old colonial architecture with the new cinderblock structures that are sprouting up to house the burgeoning population. The traditional houses that dot the countryside are stone structures with thatched or tiled roofs.

Food and Economy

Food in Daily Life. Corn is the staple food of Cape Verde. The national dish, cachupa, is a stew of hominy, beans, and whatever meat or vegetables may be available. Other common foods include rice, beans, fish, potatoes, and manioc. A traditional breakfast is cuscus, a steamed cornbread, eaten with honey and milk or coffee. Cape Verdeans generally eat a large lunch in the mid-afternoon and a small, late dinner. Grog, or sugar cane liquor, is manufactured on the islands and is a popular drink, particularly among the men.

Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Many Catholic saints' days are observed throughout the year. Food and its preparation play a large part in these celebrations. Women usually spend the few days prior to the feast pounding corn for the cachupa, cleaning and cutting vegetables, and preparing meat. Xerem, a form of cachupa in which the corn is more finely ground, is often served.

Basic Economy. The economy is primarily based on agriculture although only 10 percent of the land is arable. Roughly one-third of the population are farmers. The islands produce bananas, corn, beans, sugarcane, coffee, and some fruits and vegetables, but supply less than one-fifth of the country's needs. Much of the rest comes in the form of aid from the United States, Portugal, Holland, and other countries in western Europe. Remittances from Cape Verdeans living abroad also make a considerable contribution to the economy and GNP.

Land Tenure and Property. Cape Verdeans have a communal attitude towards property and freely borrow and lend possessions. Farm land is generally privately owned but many farming communities form organizations to oversee its use and distribute pooled funds in the development of such things as corrals or plant nurseries.

Commercial Activities. The majority of goods produced in Cape Verde are agricultural. Most towns have a small market where fruits, vegetables, meat, and fish are sold.

Major Industries. Agriculture accounts for one-third of the GNP, services and transportation for one-half. This is due, in part to the growth of tourism which has been enhanced by the construction of luxury hotels and resorts on several islands. Construction comprises nearly one-fourth of the GNP as the country continues to urbanize and the population expands.

Trade. Cape Verde's main trade partners are countries of the European Union (Portugal, France, Holland, Germany, Spain, and Italy). Small amounts of fish, salt, lobster, bananas, shoes, and pharmaceutical products are exported. Large quantities of food, construction and building materials, machinery, and textiles are imported.

Division of Labor. Labor is not strictly divided along gender lines. Women and men do heavy physical labor; however, domestic work is an exclusively female domain. Children often follow the same trade as their parents. They begin at a very young age, especially if they come from farming or fishing families. Older people continue to work as long as they are able, sometimes modifying strenuous tasks. It is not unusual to see men and women in their seventies harvesting beans or hauling rocks at a construction site.

Social Stratification

Classes and Castes. There is little class distinction in Cape Verde because the vast majority of the population is poor. There is a small but growing middle class in the towns and cities and virtually no upper class. Those of higher socio-economic backgrounds tend to identify culturally with Europe and to think of themselves as more "European," often because they have spent time abroad.

Symbols of Social Stratification. Cape Verdeans take pride in their dress and personal appearance. The most highly valued attire is American brand names popular among African Americans. These clothes are often an indicator of class; however, the poorest Cape Verdeans sometimes have relatives in the United States who send gifts of clothing.

Political Life

Government. Since Cape Verde won independence from Portugal in 1975, it has had a democratic multi-party system of government with proportional representation through electoral districts. The unicameral national assembly is made up of seventy-two elected deputies including six chosen by the Cape Verdean population abroad.

Leadership and Political Officials. The president is elected for a five-year term and appoints a prime minister. There are two main political parties: African Party for the Independence of Cape Verde (PAICY) and Movement for Democracy (MPD). In the general population identification with one party or the other is strong and highly personal. Local elections are occasions for rallies with music and dancing, parades, and public shouting matches.

Social Problems and Control. What little crime there is in Cape Verde consists mainly of petty theft and robbery. This is more common in the cities, particularly in Praia. The code of conduct is implicitly enforced by social pressure. Personal reputation is of paramount importance; for this reason, the court system is overrun with slander cases.

Military Activity. Cape Verde has a small military of eleven hundred active duty personnel. Of these, 91 percent are in the army and 9 percent are in the air force. Cape Verde spends roughly 1 percent of its GNP on its military.

Social Welfare and Change Programs

Social security programs have been introduced, but are limited in scope. The government provides some assistance for the poor and the elderly, as well as free health care, but the majority of social welfare is provided by individual families and communities.

Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations

Several foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are a presence; among these, the German organization Dywidag has helped develop the ports. The U.S. Peace Corps sends volunteers to work in the education system and local government. Portuguese aid groups are also present in Cape Verde.

Gender Roles and Statuses

Division of Labor by Gender. Women take care of all domestic tasks including cooking, cleaning, and child rearing. At the same time, they also make substantial contributions in other sectors of the work force, including farming, construction, and commerce. Women are often the sole economic supporters of their families. However, they are proportionally under-represented in the white-collar professions and in the political system.


People, dressed in Western clothing, stand in front of a mural depicting the importance of safe sex, another Western import.


The Relative Status of Women and Men. While the genders are legally recognized as equal, there are broad de facto disparities in rights and power. Women (mothers in particular) are respected for the immense workload they shoulder, yet they often are expected to defer to men.

Marriage, Family, and Kinship

Marriage. Legal and church weddings are uncommon in Cape Verde. More often than not, a woman will simply sai di casa (leave her family's house) to move in with her boyfriend. This is often occasioned by the woman becoming pregnant. After four years of cohabitation, a relationship acquires the status of common-law marriage. While polygamy is not legal, it is customary for men (married or not) to be sleeping with several women at once.

Domestic Unit. Traditionally, several generations of a family live together in the same house. Childrearing is communal, and living situations are fluid; children often stay with aunts, uncles, or other relatives, especially during the school year. Due to emigration and de facto polygamy, there are a great many households headed by single mothers.


Infant Care. Seven days after a baby is born, the parents throw a big party called a sete . Like any other party, it is an occasion for dancing and drinking. At midnight the guests file in to the baby's room and sing to it as a protection against evil spirits. Infants are coddled and held. Mothers often tie small babies to their backs and carry them along to work.

Child Rearing and Education. Children are treated with affection, but are reprimanded strictly for misbehavior. Corporal punishment is not uncommon. Children are expected to work at the family's trade, and even if the parents are professionals, children do a good deal of housework. Obedience and deference to elders is inculcated early. It is not uncommon for an adult to grab any child on the street and ask him or her to run an errand.

Education is mandatory and free between the ages of seven and fourteen. About 90 percent of children attend school. Each island has a high school that goes through at least eleventh grade. High school students pay an education tax on a sliding scale based on their parents' income.

Higher Education. Cape Verde is still in the process of establishing an institution of higher learning.

Old colonial style architecture is reminiscent of the past European influence in Cape Verde.

There are teacher certification schools in Praia and one in Mindelo. To obtain any other degree past high school, it is necessary to go abroad. A higher degree is of little use in the Cape Verdean job market, and the vast majority of those who leave to study do not return.



Cape Verdeans are an extremely generous and hospitable people. Even the poorest take pride in presenting guests with a meal. It is considered rude to eat in front of others without sharing, and for this reason one does not eat in a public setting such as on the street or on a bus.

Cape Verdeans stand close together when talking and are physically demonstrative, often touching and holding hands (men as well as women). Greetings are somewhat lengthy, and include shaking hands (or kissing for women), and inquiring about each other's health and family. This is usually done each time two people meet, even if it is more than once in the same day.


Religious Beliefs. Ninety-eight percent of Cape Verdeans are Roman Catholic. The Nazarene church is also represented as are Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, and Evangelical Christians. There is a history of several Jewish settlements that dates back to the inquisition, but they are now extinct.

Rituals and Holy Places. Each town has a church, but most Cape Verdeans are non-practicing Catholics. However, saints' days are often the basis of community-wide parties involving dancing, drinking, and food. One family, neighborhood, or town usually takes charge of the celebration for a given saint.

Death and the Afterlife. Despite its relatively secular atmosphere, rituals surrounding death are strictly observed. Funerals are large events attended by much of the community. The procession is accompanied by mourners who perform a highly stylized, musical wailing. Family members of the deceased dress in black for a full year after the death and are forbidden to dance or play music.

Medicine and Health Care

Cape Verde provides its citizens with free health care through small hospitals on each island. Facilities and resources are poor but are more advanced than many in West Africa. The best hospitals are in Praia and Mindelo, and people are often sent there for

Fogo Islanders in a truck loaded with firewood.

treatment. The main health concerns are infectious and parasitic diseases such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, bronchitis, and gastrointestinal ailments. These are caused mainly by malnutrition and poor sanitation. The average life expectancy is 62 years, and the infant mortality rate is the lowest in West Africa.


Secular Celebrations

New Year's Day is celebrated on 1 January. Amilcar Cabral Day (24 January), recognizes the birthday of the liberator of Cape Verde, one of the leaders in the war of independence. Independence Day is celebrated on 5 July.

The Arts and Humanities

Support for the Arts. There is a Cape Verdean Cultural Center in Praia, which stages performances and exhibitions and sells books, music, and artifacts.

Literature. There is a small but growing body of Cape Verdean literature. Most of it is written in Portuguese, but a movement to develop a standardized written form of Creole has caused several books to be published in this language as well. Written literature is strongly influenced by the tradition of oral story telling which finds its roots in both Africa and Europe. A predominant theme in both literature and music is saudade , a sense of longing or homesickness, usually the result of emigration and the ensuing separation of families.

Graphic Arts. Graphic art production is limited. Crocheting is popular among women. Textiles were traditionally produced on large looms in a time-consuming process but this is rare today. The island of Boavista is known for its clay pottery; Fogo is known for small carvings made from hardened lava. There is also some basket weaving, embroidery, woodworking, and other craft production, but the preponderance of artifacts sold at the markets is imported from Africa.

Performance Arts. Music and dance are a focal point of Cape Verdean culture. Traditional forms of music include funana, which is played on an accordion and an iron bar that serves as a rhythm instrument. Batuque is performed by a circle of women who beat out rhythms on plastic sacks held between their legs. Both types of music are very African-influenced and are particular to the island of Santiago. Another traditional form of music is the morna which is a slower, more Portuguese-influenced ballad. Each type of music has a specific dance that goes with it. Popular music has a largely synthesized feel.

The State of the Physical and Social Sciences

There are no research facilities or laboratories for physical sciences in Cape Verde.


Bratton, Michael. "Deciphering Africa's Divergent Transitions." Political Science Quarterly, Spring 1997.

Carreira, Antonio. People of the Cape Verde Islands: Exploitation and Emigration. Trans. and ed. by Christopher Fyfe, 1982.

Davidson, Basil. Fortunate Isles: A Study in African Transformation , 1989.

Davidson, Basil. No Fist Is Big Enough to Hide the Sky: the Liberation of Guinea and Cape Verde, 1981.

Hills, C. A. R. "Portugal and Her Empire, 1497-1997." Contemporary Review, July 1997.

Irwin, Aisling and Colum Wilson. Cape Verde Islands: The Bradt Travel Guide, 1998.

Khouri-Dagher, Nadia. "Teachers Under Pressure." UNESCO Sources, April 1998.

Lobban, Richard A. Cape Verde: Crioulo Colony to Independent Nation, 1998.

Meintel, Deirdre. Race, Culture and Portuguese Colonialism in Cabo Verde, 1984.

Mozer, Gerald M. "Neglected or Forgotten Authors of Lusophone Africa." World Literature Today, Winter 1999.

Shaw, Caroline S., ed. Cape Verde, 1991.

Teixeira, Erin. "Exploring a Racial Riddle in Cape Verde." Los Angeles Times, 18 December 2000.

Web Sites

Cape Verde Reference Page.

Embassy of the Republic of Cape Verde to the United States and Canada Homepage.


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