Drought in Western Africa Launches Migration Wave

Our series, "Climate Connections," continues with a visit to a community of refugees from Cape Verde. The drought in western Africa has unleashed a wave of human migration.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Every Monday, we turn to Climate Connections, our yearlong project with National Geographic. Researchers say climate change will create a new kind of refugee - people fleeing heat, drought, or rising seas. They risk losing their culture and their sense of community.

But as NPR's Jon Hamilton reports, one small nation has seen more than half its residents flee a harsh climate and still, its people have managed to sustain their culture and even reinvent it.

JON HAMILTON: The people of Cape Verde celebrate their Independence Day on July 5th. It's a big deal partly because the Cape Verde Islands didn't break free from Portugal until 1975. Festivities include the usual parades and speeches.

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language)

HAMILTON: And of course there's a flag raising, accompanied by the national anthem.

(Soundbite of song "Cantico da Liberdade")

Ms. CANDIDA ROSE (Singer): (Singing in foreign language).

HAMILTON: What's remarkable is how many of these Independence Day celebrations take place in countries other than Cape Verde. This one's in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, more than 3,000 miles away.

The Cape Verde Islands set off the west coast of Africa, a few degrees south of the Sahara. For at least half a century, the islands have been getting less and less rain perhaps because of global climate change.

Romana Ramos is the president of Cape Verdean American Community Development in Pawtucket. She spent her childhood in Cape Verde but came to the U.S. in the 1970s.

Ms. ROMANA RAMOS (President, Pawtucket's Cape Verdean American Community Development): We're always waiting for the rain that never arrived. You see, in Cape Verde, doesn't have rain enough for the crops. And my mother used to tell us stories how people died on the streets and how people fainted because they was hungry.

HAMILTON: People from Ramos' island say its profile resembles a man praying for rain. Ramos says by the time she was born, international aid had made famines less deadly. Still, Cape Verde had to import nearly all its food and the economy was dismal.

Ms. RAMOS: We have no hope in Cape Verde that time, because even if you was the best student, where you would go after high school? You could not even find a job, even cleaning the streets.

HAMILTON: So Ramos became one of the half million people of Cape Verdean descent who live in the U.S. That's slightly more than the total population of the islands. There are also Cape Verdeans in Senegal and Brazil and France and Holland and Portugal. Somehow, these far-flung communities have maintained a passionate relationship with their homeland. Ramos says people from the islands are united by a feeling that can't be described in English, sodade.

Ms. RAMOS: In Creole, when they say sodade, it's something you miss so bad cannot be replaced. It's deeply inside of you. It's not just, well, I miss you, in couple of days or couple of weeks, I would forget about. Even kids that was born here, they have the same thing. They feel the same thing.

Ms. ROSE: I didn't grow up on the islands but I still felt this longing.

HAMILTON: Candida Rose grew up in the Cape Verdean community of New Bedford, Massachusetts. She became a singer. That was her singing the national anthem. She used to sing a lot of jazz and R&B, but now that she's in her 40's, she's exploring the musical styles of the islands.

Ms. ROSE: (Singing in foreign language)

Ms. ROSE: One of the songs that I sing on my CD says how can a heart cry for a place you've never been? How can you miss a country that you've never even seen?

HAMILTON: Candida Rose didn't speak Creole growing up. She didn't even visit Cape Verde until a couple of years ago. But she was raised to feel she belonged to the community. And her family instilled a sense of responsibility for the people still in the islands.

Ms. ROSE: Everybody was always trying to find out when the next boat was going to Cape Verde so that we could send clothes. I remember giving my favorite jeans and putting it in a barrel or whatever to send it to, you know, to Cape Verde.

HAMILTON: Many Cape Verdeans say their sense of community has grown stronger over time. One reason is the island's recent independence. Romana Ramos says that when the islands first raised their own flag in 1975, it was as if Cape Verdeans everywhere had been freed and truly united for the first time.

Ms. RAMOS: What country doesn't want to be independent and to have your own nationality and to be identified with your own self? I think that it gives you more power.

HAMILTON: Independence also made Cape Verde more than just a physical place, it became a symbol for a set of ideas and values.

Dr. Isadore Ramos is the mayor of East Providence, Rhode Island. He's the first Cape Verdean to become mayor of a U.S. city. Ramos has a deep love for the islands.

Dr. ISADORE RAMOS (Mayor, East Providence, Rhode Island): I would go back to Cape Verde rather than retire in Florida and all these large places.

HAMILTON: But he says there are really two Cape Verdes: the one that people have created in their imaginations and the real one in the Atlantic Ocean. Ramos says he's reminded of that when he visits.

Dr. RAMOS: You can't be a hustle-bustle like I am right now. It's like you wait and you wait and you wait and you wait, and that drives me crazy.

HAMILTON: Desiree Fernandez(ph) is 15 and visits the islands at least once a year with her family. In the U.S., Fernandez is immersed in Cape Verdean culture. She speaks Creole and often sings traditional mornas at community events. In the islands, she says, it's different.

Ms. DESIREE FERNANDEZ: You go to Cape Verde and on the radio stations, you can find plenty of rap and pop and hip-hop and R&B. Yeah, you'll hear some Cape Verdean music. Nothing really traditional.

HAMILTON: Meanwhile, Cape Verdeans thousands of miles away are rediscovering their traditional music and all it stands for. Joseph Andres(ph) says his son Noah(ph) was five when he decided to learn some Cape Verdean songs on the guitar. Noah is eight now and something of a celebrity. Crowds chant his name when he appears on stage with his half-sized Martin Acoustic and shoulder-length dreadlocks. Noah says he likes all types of Cape Verdean music.

NOAH: (Speaking foreign language)

HAMILTON: Joseph Andres says his son has tapped into an aspect of Cape Verde that's more valuable than the islands themselves.

Mr. JOSEPH ANDRES: We don't have, like, (unintelligible) of minerals or oil or anything like that. I mean, our biggest asset is the people and our music, you know.

NOAH: There's no rain in Cape Verde.

Mr. ANDRES: Yeah. There's no rain so there's not too much life going on there.

HAMILTON: One of Noah's favorite songs is one that has become synonymous with the Cape Verdean sense of longing.

(Soundbite of song "Sodade")

HAMILTON: It's also the signature song of Cape Verde's most famous singer, Cesaria Evora.

(Soundbite of song "Sodade")

Ms. CESARIA EVORA (Singer): (Singing in foreign language).

HAMILTON: Cape Verdeans say a song like this captures the essence of their homeland and it's portable. That will be important for future climate refugees.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

SIEGEL: You can keep up with all of these stories in our yearlong series Climate Connections at our Web site, npr.org.

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