The sand “thieves” of Cape Verde

Ribeira da Barca beach is not referred to in Cape Verde guides. Not like Rincao or Cancelo. These three beaches of Santiago, the main island of the archipelago, have disappeared. And with Cape Verdean memory, we can’t remember the last time we saw a tourist towel there. The huge piles of black sand, the piles of pebbles, the craters, the comings and goings of trucks on the road cut into the mountainside: the scene reminds one a quarry or an open pit mine. Far from the postcard paradise of white sand as far as the eye can see and the emerald waters of Sal and Boa Vista, the two popular destinations in this small part of Africa bathed in the Atlantic, in Senegal.

Women go back and forth between the sea and the beach to collect and carry sand, on the beach of Ribeira da Barca, on the island of Santiago (Cape Verde), in June 2022.
Each one, they drowned in the sea, in Ribeira da Barca (Cape Verde), on June 15, 2022.

In Ribeira da Barca, as in Rincao or Cancelo, the “minors” have one thing in common: they are almost all women. In Cape Verde, they are known as the “thieves” where the “thieves” sand. An illegal act sanctioned by the authorities. Slave labor allowed them to survive by selling their loot at bargain prices to middlemen in the construction sector. Here, there are no dredgers or mechanical shovels. Their only tools: a bucket and their whole body.

This morning in June, there were ten of them throwing themselves into the water and turning their buckets over their heads. After years of extraction, “black gold” will be rare; you must go deeper and deeper into the sea. So today two people came to help. Standing waist-deep in water, the two companions nervously filled buckets with shovels. Women squat as much as possible to make it easier for them. Sand and water flowed down their faces. The maneuver is as tempting as it is dangerous. Most cannot swim. You have to fight the waves, fight against the current, then climb the beach and its pebbles disappear under your feet. Up to 40 kg each bucket, only mounted onordija, the traditional turban that African women twist on their heads to carry everything that seems impossible to others. Sand robbers are tightrope walkers, not one don’t fall.

On the beach, the pile of volcanic sand grows in rhythm with the rotations. Later, a truck will pick him up. “Cabo Verde for everyone” : the red t-shirt of the 2021 presidential campaign of the winning party equips many workers. With the middle of a metal plate, they scrape the huge black mass to fill their bucket and then deliver it, still on its head, still in a single file, to the truck. Overturned beer crates serve as stepping stones to reach the trash can. It has a capacity of about three tons, so three “galuchos”, from the brand name of the Portuguese manufacturer, in the language of sand collectors. The pile is higher than that of women. It’s hot, the sun is shining.

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