Snaps of My Summer Fieldwork with Cape Verdeans: Kova M Festival

"Entering the field", or going to one's research site for the first time is an important ritual for every anthropologist. Very often, the first encounter with the research site offers surprises, disappointments and confusion for the novice anthropologist and later results in stories that one would share with colleagues and students. Here are some of the second-year anthropology student Deborah Onorati’s first impressions of entering the field and how the field received the Italian student from Estonia studying the Cape Verdeans in Lisbon.

Portugal, Lisbon, streetview

The Kova M Festival is a cultural event combining workshops, concerts and sport events to promote African culture and integrate it into the Lisbon scene. The event has been held annually since 2012, and this year, it took place  in the end of July in Cova da Moura, Amadora, a thirty-minute bus drive from central Lisbon, Portugal.

I am terrible with directions, and I managed to get lost even with Google Maps guiding me. I got off the bus and found myself in an unfamiliar place, buildings on every sight. I did not know where to go, but I spotted a group of four guys around my age. It was then that I bumped into Paulino, a tall and slim guy who instantly offered to take me around, show me the neighbourhood, and introduce me to the history of the festival. And it was for the best.

I was looking for a tribal dances workshop. He would later tell me that it was curious for him to see a young girl interested in Cape Verde. He decided to define himself “my guide” a few minutes into the conversation, fascinated by the possibility of speaking English to a foreigner, and without even thinking about it, my tour started. We walked around, stopping to greet Paulino’s friends, introducing me to every single person we met along the way: “She is Debi, an anthropologist! She is doing her research on our people, on Cabo Verde and she came all the way from Estonia for the workshop!”.

There were three workshops taking place that afternoon: the first one was for urban art. It was followed by a salsa and African dance class. Lastly, there was a workshop on tribal dances – the one I was mostly interested about. We made it just on time to catch the organizer of the workshops. He hugged me, as my guide introduced me to him and asked him to allow me to take part in the activities of the festival, even though I could not speak Portuguese. The other fellow, Mimi, was pretty excited by the idea – it could make the event more international.

The entire neighbourhood was a maze, and I was glad I had my guide, or else I would have gotten lost again for sure. Tiny alleyways spread left and right, intricately merging around the hill. There were no pavements, everyone walked in the street; when the occasional car approached, there was no rush to move out of the way, nor did the driver get upset and started honking – a general calm permeated the place. It felt as if life was standing still: people sitting outside, music playing, teen girls all dressed up humming along to the tune, children running around after a ball. The smell was a concoction of strong perfumes, food, and tobacco.

Everyone I met was wearing a very distinguishable fragrance, whose smell penetrated my nose as I approached to hug them and kiss their cheeks once on both sides. Small groups of people, five to six individuals each, were gathered on every other corner of the streets, busy making food. They would be either inside their houses, or their cafes. I found it difficult to make out the difference, feeling nosey and invasive every time I tried putting my nose into a doorway. Outside in the street, the smell of smoke and barbequed food reached my nose. Cova da Moura offered everything one might need: a supermarket, cafeterias, barbershops, a nail salon, restaurants, a kindergarten, a library – everything was in the main road, Rua Principal.

There was a tiny cafe housing 10 chairs and nine tables; it acted as a meeting point. The youth of Cova da Moura gathered there, drinking cheap beer while listening to the music from the loud speakers. The major attraction, however, was the lady managing the shop – Aunt, as she kept telling me to call her. In her late-60s, short dark hair tied in the back, wearing a floral house-robe and slippers, Aunt spoke with a very soft and clear accent. She sat next to me while I drank my mango-flavoured tea.

We talked about language barriers and the struggle that Cape Verdeans were having in getting Kriolu to be recognised as an actual language. Kriolu is a Creole language, which is not to be considered as a dialect of Portuguese nor as the copy-and-paste of particular Portuguese elements within a pre-existing Cape Verdean language. Kriolu is a language of its own, consisting of Portuguese vocabulary and syntactic structures from Mande and Niger-Congo languages. It is the national language of Cape Verde, although having never been officialised, and also an unofficial language in Portugal. The focus that Aunt put on language during that short conversation that afternoon later came out to be one of the primary discussions all throughout my fieldwork research.

After a quick stop in Aunt’s cafe, we returned to the street: Mimi was calling my name from the microphone, asking if I was having a nice time. I nodded, because I truly was enjoying my afternoon in Amadora. Although not much of what had been advertised really took place, I still got my chance to talk to someone local, and ended up having quite some laugh.

As we walked around, Paulino’s best friend joined us. His name was Marcelo; he did not speak English and kept getting nervous whenever I would try talking to him. However, as the afternoon progressed, he opened up:  “I am going to call you ‹‹o inglêsa››, that is your name now”. It does not matter how many times I told him that my actual name was Debi, or that I was not, in fact, British; he shook his head, and went around telling everyone about my new name. And although I tried not to be happy about my new nickname, I was. It made me feel part of the community.

As an anthropologist, it is often complicated to find that entryway into the group you want to study. Sometimes you feel like an outsider, and sometimes you do not know where the boundaries are.

Author: Deborah Onorati, Anthropology MA student