Friday, June 29, 2007

Até dia Qui bô voltà

As part of their series on migration the New York Times has an interesting article on a small island state and its diaspora. The country in question isn't in the Pacific though, and its emigrants aren't in here in New Zealand. Instead, the story is about a small collection of sand covered islets that float in the Harmattan-swept North Atlantic: Cabo Verde, or the Cape Verde Islands. The Islands are a small independent African nation, formerly a colony of the Portuguese.

The thrust of the story, and what makes it interesting, is its focus on the social consequences of migration. There's little denying that remittances have made the lives of both the emigrants and their families back home better off economically, but the social costs for the separated families are often high.

It's not only the families at home who suffer either: around the world migrant workers are highly vulnerable to exploitation and worse. And Cape Verdians are no different in this respect.

This is something I know from personal experience. I spent several months in the Cape Verde Islands in 1999; for the first six weeks I stayed in a rented room in the village of Palmeira on the Island of Sal. In the room adjacent to me, only partially separated by a wall that never quite made it to the ceiling, was a family; a mother and her son. Christian, the son, must have been close to my age and we slowly became friends. His mother, until I finally got invited into their room, I never met. She stayed inside all day and the only reason I knew of her presence was the almost endless muttering that drifted over the wall. When I finally was invited in by Christian I met a pale woman with the wild, wide-open eyes of some form of mental illness. Christian tried to introduce me to her, but she recoiled away - frightened I guess.

Later, as we sipped Coke in the local bar, Christian explained, keeping his Portuguese simple so I could understand. Her problem was "not one of god, but one of man; of bad things". When he was young she had left home to work as a maid in Italy. Only to return one day in a state similar to the one I met her in. She had some photos, which Christian showed me - a pretty young women on the beach and happy, it seemed, in the streets of some Italian town. But clearly something had gone very wrong. Rape? Something similar? I don't know if Christian had ever tried to find out; I certainly never felt comfortable asking him.

Eventually, I moved on, chasing waves on another island. I wrote to Christian from London - sending him the present he had asked for - a Bob Marley hat - but never heard back. So I've always wondered what became of him and his mother. And thinking about their plight has always made me sad - it's doing so again now.

In an ideal world she would have never had to leave her country to find work to support her family. But, I guess, we don't live in such a world. And so, even thinking about this sad story again, I'm still in favour of migration and guest worker programmes. What I'm also in favour of though, is domestic legislation to protect those, most vulnerable, workers when they are in New Zealand or any other host country.

The New York Times article also tells the story of a young Cape Verdian man who was sent back to the Islands from the US as a result of his delinquency. This is another untold story of migrant workers. Subject to the social stresses of life in the urban 'under class' younger migrants and, in particular, the children of migrants, sometimes fall foul of the law, which can lead to them being deported. Or, to look at it another way, something that can lead to the host nations exporting their social problems. The Maras of Central America are a classic example of this - gang members deported from the US took their ultra-violent gang culture back to San Salvador and other cities. Closer to home, it appears that the worst of recent rioting in Tonga was perpetrated not by pro-democracy activists but by gang members sent home either from Salt Lake City or, to a lesser extent, New Zealand.

In the Cape Verde Islands I got to meet a couple of their equivalents. When a French friend and I hopped off the ferry in Sao Nicolao we were met by two tattooed, bandannaed youths Juan (surely Juao?) and Jose who asked us in American accents "whatup?" and invited us to smoke some pot and "shoot some hoops". The term for such youths in Sao Nicolao was retornadas (or somthing similar) and, judging by the way the otherwise friendly, elderly hotelier who offered us his two cents worth on them later that evening spat out the words, retornadas were hardly held in high esteem. I don't know how much trouble Juan and Jose actually caused - in the small fishing port they now called home simply having tattoos was probably crime enough to warrant ostracism. Even so, there was no way to escape the fact that their home, the only country on earth where they could now live, was anything but the home they had been brought up in. They seemed utterly trapped between cultures, between geographies. Such, I guess, is the plight of the migrant.

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