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Bridgewater State helping educate Cape Verde’s youth

Poor in resources, rich in determination, the West African island nation sees its future in learning

Fishermen in Sao Vicente in Cape Verde pulled in nets. Leaders see schools as the base of their economy.

Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

Fishermen in Sao Vicente in Cape Verde pulled in nets. Leaders see schools as the base of their economy.

SALAMANSA, Cape Verde — Nestled between the jagged side of a mountain and the sandy coastline sits a sleepy fishing village. An old church is perched on a hill overlooking a valley of ­occupied but ­incomplete houses constructed of rough, exposed cinderblock.

Fishermen tend their nets as brown piglets amble by and as wind and waves compete to provide the day’s soundtrack over the pulsating sounds of ­Superação, a local cover band whose name means “overcoming.” Band leader Ailton ­Bandeira gives encouraging nods while keeping beat on his guitar.

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By trade, he is a carpenter. But the 27-year-old wants to become a music teacher in this country where, barely four ­decades ago, most people could not read or write.

Education, he knows, is the pathway to a more prosperous life, and for his country, a democ­racy just 37 years old, it is a tool for building a nation.

Bandeira’s goal is a degree from the University of Cape Verde, a school with a deep, endur­ing connection to ­Bridgewater State University, which sits an ocean and 3,400 miles away.

* * *

In 2002, when Dana Mohler-Faria became president of Bridgewater State, he was only the second person of Cape Verdean descent to lead a US college. José Maria Neves, prime minister of Cape Verde, requested a meeting, and that encounter led to a surprising request: Neves wanted help not only in bolstering his country’s economic development, but ­also with establishing a public university.

Bridgewater was a natural choice, because it already had strong cultural ties to the nation through Mohler-Faria and others in his administration who trace their heritage to Cape Verde, such as Miguel Gomes Jr., vice president of admin­istration and finance. New England also happens to be home to about 500,000 people of Cape Verdean ancestry, a community almost as large as the population of Cape Verde.

“We said, ‘Well, you’ve asked us to publicly, so we can’t say no,’ ” Gomes said.

With that, the university’s connection to the West African island nation became professional, as well as personal. Bridgewater State administrators helped government officials conceptualize and develop what would become the University of Cape Verde, offering ­input on everything from educational philosophy to practical concerns, like what courses to teach and when and where to teach them.

“The university,” Mohler-Faria said, “had its genesis. Now, it’s at the point of its evolution.”

Building an inheritance

António dos Santos Moreira, an English professor at the University of Cape Verde, is part of that evolution.

He was about 10 years old when the country won independence from Portugal in 1975, a time when 6 of 10 Cape Verdeans were illiterate and earned an average of just $120 a year. But edu­cation soon became the cornerstone of the country’s reconstruction and an inheritance to leave to succeeding generations. In a generation, Cape Verde has virtually eliminated illiteracy for those under 35, established a universal primary education system, expanded the number of public high schools from two to 45, and established its first public university.

“My mother,” the English professor said, “didn’t know how to read or write, and my ­father only knew how to write his name.”

But Moreira’s parents — particularly his father, who was a butcher and farmer — insisted that their son continue studying, though school attendance was compulsory only until the fourth grade.

At 11, he left his family’s rural home because there were no secondary schools and moved to Praia, the capital city. He lived there with a brother 17 years his senior.

His father, Moreira recalled, used to tell his brother: “ ‘He is a clever man, so take care of him. He’ll be a great man.’ ”

Academic ambition soon took a back seat to survival. By the time Moreira was 19, both his parents had died. “After high school, I just found a job to survive,” he said.

It would be about six years before Moreira received his bachelor’s degree from a private institute and at least 15 years more before he received a scholarship to attend Bridgewater State, where he earned a master’s degree in education in 2010, accomplishments his ­father never got to witness. “He didn’t see me progress and ­become the man he dreamed of,” Moreira said.

There is a growing crop of professors like Moreira who earn a master’s degree at Bridgewater. Each year, up to 10 students from the University of Cape Verde, graduates and undergraduates, study at Bridgewater.

“I wouldn’t be teaching here if I hadn’t been there for my master program,” the 46-year-old ­Moreira said amid hurrying students at the main campus in Praia, with its U-shaped building, roughly the size of a high school. “When I went to Bridgewater, I got lost my first day. The ­library is bigger than the whole campus here.”

The main campus is a stucco building with a red exterior, open-air corridors, and white walls surrounded by hanging bougainvilleas. Young women roam the grounds in giggling packs, as young men posture for attention, and scores of students crowd second-floor benches, hidden behind laptop computers as they take advantage of free Wi-Fi.

Overcoming colonial history

Rocky, rugged, and volcanic, Cape Verde comprises 10 islands whose total landmass is slightly larger than Rhode ­Island. For more than 500 years, the archipelago that sits about 300 miles off the coast of West Africa was under Portuguese rule, and it was once a key point in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Remnants of this colonial past permeate Cape Verde’s present, from the candy-
colored architecture to the cobble­stone streets to the ­ornate marble pillar where slaves were once shackled in ­Cidade Velha, the first European outpost in the tropics.

But the legacy of colonialism is not evident only in the buildings. In the early days of independence, it could also be found in the lack of a fully developed education system. There were no colleges. To get a degree, Cape Verdeans had to study abroad.

About 20 years ago, the country decided to develop its brain trust locally, first through specialized institutes, then with the advent of the private university, Universidade Jean ­Piaget de Cabo Verde, and finally with the University of Cape Verde.

Education is the centerpiece of Cape Verde’s plans to estab­lish itself as a mid-Atlantic hub in the maritime, financial, and information technology industries.

“Knowledge is the main richness of the country,” Neves said. With no natural resources — no oil, diamonds, or minerals — Cape Verde must become a knowledge-based economy, the prime minister said, and the first public university, which made college more accessible and affordable, is an essential part of that plan.

The average family in Cape Verde lives on about $3,000 a year and cannot afford to send children abroad to study or to one of the private institutes or university, where tuition is about $2,400 a year, double the cost of the public university.

Cost is what drove Kléber Monteiro to the University of Cape Verde. “I thought about going to America, to Boston University,” the 19-year-old freshman said moments after completing a group project aimed at demonstrating mastery of English, a second if not third language for most. But he said the process of getting a student visa and proving he had the tuition in the bank made a US university out of the question.

He wants to be a teacher or college professor, and he said the University of Cape Verde, which used to be the site of a private teaching institute, was his best option, “even though they have not well organized the institution.”

A route to a new life

First-year student Walter Rodrigues returned to the country of his birth five years ago, after being deported from the United States, where he had lived for 20 years and graduated from ­Boston’s Brighton High in 1999.

“After I had my daughter out here, I had to do something for her future,” the 31-year-old said. “I had to do something out here to make money, because what money I had was from what my family sent me.” His mother, who still lives in ­Uphams Corner, pays his ­tuition.

Rodrigues lives a world away. He and his girlfriend and 3-year-old daughter are on the first floor of his family’s compound in Ponta d’Agua, one of Praia’s poorer neighborhoods, with narrow ­unpaved roads and the concrete shells of houses. At night, the smell of grilled chicken fills the air. In the morning, it is replaced by the scent of raw sewage, he said, pointing to houses without ­indoor plumbing.

Education, Rodrigues said, helps wash away the stain of ­being a deportee. “When I first came, literally it was like you can’t get a job,” he said. “The only thing I could do was speak English, but I couldn’t translate because my Portuguese [stinks]. I can’t do a construction job. I’m not an architect; I’m not an electrician.”

Only the neighborhood children with their pleas for help with their English homework interrupted the monotony of waking up, eating breakfast, watching television.

Still, he said, “I can’t regret nothing in my past because that’s what got me here. College? I wasn’t thinking of no college out there [in Boston.] But here, it’s like the best choice I made.”

Working with few resources

Today, there are nine universities and institutes in Cape Verde, eight private and one public, which enroll about 11,000 students. About half ­attend the University of Cape Verde, which has two campuses, the one in Praia and the ­engineering and maritime science department in Mindelo, on the island of São Vicente.

The nascent university’s brief lifespan is evident in its sparse resources. There are no language labs for students to listen to native English speakers on tape. Most reading assign­ments are done via photo­copies, not textbooks. ­Only about 15 percent of full-time faculty have doctorates.

“We need more qualified teachers,” said Tânia ­Monteiro, a first-year student in Praia majoring in the language most useful for business, English. “We need more laboratories, more books, more ­libraries . . . more English. You need to practice.”

Monteiro said there is far too much Portuguese and ­Creole, the official and national languages of Cape Verde, spoken in the seven courses she is required to take this semester. She wants to become fluent in English so she can become a translator, and that means attend­ing the public university, the only school she can afford.

Before enrolling, Monteiro took a three-year hiatus that ­included staying home to care for her little sister and living with her older sister in Portugal, which was something of a dry run to determine if it would be a good place to study. “But,” she said, “my parents said no because they need to look at me every day.”

Not everybody at the university lives at home. Some, such as freshman Estefanie Fortes, move for school, although not to dorms, because the university has none. Fortes, who is studying civil engineering, is from the island of Santo Antão and moved in with her sister in Mindelo, where about 900 students attend class.

The Mindelo campus, about 170 miles from the main campus in Praia, was established as the hub for emerging industries, including maritime and computer sciences, as well as engineering. The campus will graduate its first students this fall. It used to be the location of a nautical institute, and a massive propeller and anchor rest in the center of campus as homage to its seafaring roots.

Angelo Barbosa, information technology assistant to the University of Cape Verde’s president, ­acknowledged that the school lacks essential resources and personnel but advised patience. “This is the beginning,” he said. “The university is five years old, so you don’t see things that you have in places where you have 200-year-old universities.”

A nation in a hurry

Some argue that time is not an option.

“We can’t wait that long,” said Harvard-educated João Resende-Santos, the former interim dean of the business school at the Cape Verdean university.

Resende-Santos said his is a typical immigrant story, with a family that stressed education as a door to the world beyond their Dorchester neighborhood. His studies took him to Northfield, Minn.; Pittsburgh; and Cambridge, where he earned his doctorate in political science from Harvard.

Now an associate professor of international studies at ­Bentley University in Waltham, Resende-Santos took a two-year sabbatical to work at the University of Cape Verde, in large part because he feels that those in the ­African diaspora have a responsibility to assist in developing the continent.

The country took the bold step of establishing a higher ­education system for its citizens, he said, but the goal of edu­cating as many people as possible trumped the quality of education they are receiving.

“It’s not every day you just sort of start up a university,” he said. “It’s a daunting task. It’s hard. It’s difficult. But I believe Cape Verde moved too much, too fast.”

Mohler-Faria, the Bridgewater State president, agreed that the Cape Verdean university has issues that need address­ing, including finances, academic program development, and faculty recruitment and retention, which Bridgewater State is helping with, regularly sending admin­istrators and faculty there.

At least once a year, a delegation assesses the needs of the University of Cape Verde, examining curriculum, touring facilities, and meeting with students, faculty, and staff. Administrators from Cape Verde also travel to Bridgewater for guidance on such things as goal setting and measuring success.

The university’s financial health is of great concern to the prime minister. African universities, Neves said, usually start strong but develop money troubles.

“That’s why students pay a fee,” he said, adding that the government is moving to help students with fewer means.

“Students may be unhappy in the beginning,” he said, “but it’s better for the country that the public university is sustainable.”

But cost might make college elusive for thousands struggling to make it out of high school, which is not free in Cape Verde.

Hope built on sacrifice

Admilson Menezes is a tall, lean high school senior with ebony skin, dreadlocks, and aspirations to become an economist to help pull his family out of poverty. With no running ­water, the dishes pile up in their squat home of ­exposed cinderblocks in Cidade Velha, and meals are cooked outside on a coal stove.

His family’s animals live ­behind the house on a ridge just above unspoiled coastline, where waves crashing onto the rocky shore drown out the bleating goats and crowing roosters. Selling goats’ milk is one way they earn money.

With little income, his mother struggles to pay his high school fees — 3,000 escudos a year, or about $37.50 — as well as those of his younger sister. “Every single night, I ask Jesus Christ and all the saints to help me,” Matilde Silva said. Her evening prayer ritual lasts more than an hour. “Sometimes, I fall asleep and wake up and keep praying, because Jesus will help me,” she said.

Education, Silva said, is the only inheritance she can leave her son. “I’m poor,” she said. “I don’t have anything else to give him.”

She fears that without finishing high school and continuing on to college her son will face a future of desperation. As it is, he sometimes wants to shout in frustration at a life that has made him choose ­between paying for school photocopies or the bus ride home.

“Today, I’m a poor boy,” ­Menezes said sitting in the town square where the ancient slave pillory stands. “But I don’t know ­tomorrow.”

Akilah Johnson can be reached at ajohnson@globe.com.

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