Where The Spirits Dwell

The Republic of Guinea-Bissau is little known, even amongst the rather confused jigsaw of evocative but not deeply understood countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Most countries in this region are in the western mind reduced to somewhat one-dimensional associations. For example ask someone for the first word they think of when you say Sierra Leone, and most will say “war”. If you don’t get a blank stare in response to Guinea-Bissau then you will unfortunately most likely hear “drugs” as the association.

As the balance of growth in the global narcotics trade has shifted from the Americas to Europe the volume of drugs (especially cocaine) passing through West Africa before entering Europe has grown and continues to grow massively. In 2001 total seizures on the West African coast were less than 300kg, but by 2007 they topped 14,500 kg, the UN Office for Drugs and Crime estimates more than 50 tonnes annually is trafficked through West Africa.

Even the most naive would have to puzzle a little about how it all fits together on seeing the lavish waterfront mansions and SUVs driving around the otherwise extremely poor city of Bissau that still sports many war scars from the civil war ten years ago. The history post independence is a painful one of coups and unrest. No president of Guinea-Bissau has ever completed their term before being overthrown, deposed or assassinated. In an effort to bring attention to the problem the United Nations labelled Guinea-Bissau a ‘narco-state’ in 2007, a label that has unfortunately not helped to portray the positive sides of the country to the rest of the world.

For those willing to look beyond this unfortunate past and reputation there is much to be discovered. The chances of a Colombian drug baron seeking out tourists to make polite conversation are limited, and under the charge of a trusted  operator (to be commented on further) the risk of trouble is in my view lower than an independent trip to many other more well known parts of Africa.

Lying off the coast of Guinea-Bissau is the Arquipelago dos Bijagos, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of more than 80 largely forested islands which are one of the most important wetland bird areas in Africa as well as a major turtle nesting area.
The islands are also home to the Bijogo people, a traditional rice farming people with a complex and distinctive society.

My first contact with these people was in July 2008, but only a brief encounter. I wanted to come back and if possible live in one of their villages for some time, to understand more about their lives. On this return visit I was able to live in two villages on different islands and see a little more of their culture, recorded in the photo story below. One of the fascinating things about the Bijagos is that although the islands are quite small and close together, the cultures of the different islands are sometimes quite different. There are several mutually unintelligible languages, differences in everything from clothing to house design and even historically in whether the man chose the woman in marriage or (as on the Orango group of islands) the woman chose the man.

Many of the Bijagos islands are fringed with beaches.

The wide tidal flats beyond the beaches are rich feeding grounds for Flamingoes.

Some of the Bijagos islands are uninhabited, and these especially are often major turtle nesting areas. As the sun rises it illuminates beaches covered with the meandering tracks of turtles that climbed up the beach during the night.

Looking closer at the beaches, occasionally narrow tracks lead away from the beach disappearing mysteriously into the palm jungles.

Following these paths through the bush, a sudden change occurs as palm forest and grassland regions give way to forests of old kapok trees.

Walking through the airy forest amongst these enormous trees, you are not alone. Nestled amongst these great networks of roots small houses appear. The people of these houses are the Bijogo people. Their belief is that forest spirits live in these giant kapok trees and they protect the village. Every Bijogo village on the island is quite deep in the jungle surrounded by these trees.

Both boys and girls of the Bijogo people must pass through initiation rights before adulthood. These center around the 'fanado' ritual (which is one of the most sacred ceremonies and happens only once every 7-10 years) where the young males and females are separated and taken to secret locations in the jungle where they will remain for months to learn important knowledge and skills of adulthood, including the ceremonial dances. Part of the fanado is the ornamental scarification of participants. Different villages or regions will often have different designs for these 'skin carvings'. The skin carving design of his village can be seen on this boy who is holding termite mound fragments to be used to feed chickens or for the fire.

Dance is an important part of the culture of Bijogo villages. The gentleman here is the 'dance chief' for a village on the island of Caravela. Note he has skin carvings too, but skin carvings are done at the very latest by the early teens and after some years the markings become more subtle.

House design varies between islands, on Caravela house design is traditionally square. House walls are made from dried mud with some local additives and roofed with local thatch. Traditional skirts are made from a dried grass found in the savannah like areas of the island. Interestingly, the style of the grass skirt is different on different islands.

For contrast, this is a traditional village on the island of Orangozinho, note the presence of round walled houses.

Spirits are an important and widespread part of Bijogo life. Some houses on Caravela have 'spirit branches' next to the doors of their houses. The Bijogo believe that spirits reside around forked branches like this and tie the remains of offerings and sacrifices to them. It is not uncommon to see small collections of lightly carved forked branches placed around large kapok trees.

Daily life in remote Bijogo villages is subsistence focussed. When they travel they will acquire products such as cloth in trade, however long distance voyages are rare and dangerous given local sea conditions, and in many respects they lead a self-sufficient lifestyle (most Bijogo do not own boats or fish very often, and many Bijogo cannot swim). In this picture a Bijogo woman makes a new grass skirt.

Agricultural land for the Bijogo falls into two major categories, 'lugar' (dry and sandy) and 'bulanye' (swampy and muddy) land. The sandy land is of course much harder to cultivate, however there is a local variety of peanut that, amazingly, will grow well even in what appears to be pure sand. It is harvested in November to January with small digging sticks. Work in the fields starts early before the sun rises too high and gets too hot.

Cultivation and harvesting is the work of the whole family, however young!

In sandy areas which have at least some topsoil rice planting is mixed with squash vines that produce surprisingly large and juicy fruits, as a wife of the village chief displays here.

Once harvested, the rice is left in large stacks separated from the ground to reduce rat activity. As may be expected, huge numbers of birds descend on the harvested rice if it is left in the fields for too long.

Punctuated with many palm trees and termite mounds, the rice 'fields' are not the more sterile intensive cultivation areas familiar to Western eyes.

The swampy 'bulanye' land is visibly more verdant, supporting vibrantly coloured rice meadows reminiscent of South East Asia. The palm trees overhead look a little like chandeliers as they are so full of small woven bird nests.

The swamp meadows are dotted with these curious tent-like huts, which, along with the green of the rice and the continuous song of the thousands of birds overhead gives a rather idyllic atmosphere.

Families go out to their rice gardens in the early morning an remain there until evening. It may look a little like Eden with small children appearing and disappearing through the green mist of leaves but take care where you step, there are black mambas and cobras here...

Once brought back to the village the rice must be pounded and then tossed repeatedly to remove the chaff. When I felt the weight of the pounders the children use I was amazed, they must have been at least 8 kg, more than one third of the weight of some children, but they pound away for long periods seemingly without fatigue.

Like some other remote African areas, drumming is a central part of life. Bijogo villages have at least one large ceremonial drum (a 'bombolo'). Before playing this drum it must have palm rum sprayed over it as an offering to the spirits of the ancestors. By doing this, certain members of the village will be able to hear the voices of the ancestors through the drumbeat of this ceremonial drum. Here, a village elder takes mouthfuls of palm rum from a cow's horn and then loudly sprays it out over the drum (and anyone sitting too near the drum!). The concept of hearing ancestor's voices is an extension of the fact that large drums are still sometimes used to communicate between villages in remoter islands of the Bijagos.

When there was a drumbeat, movement and dance of one form or another never seemed far away for adults and children alike, many emotions seemed to be transferred from the drumbeats. (Several nights the drumming went on late into the night - not easy to sleep with, not easy at all...).

The drumbeat here came from an empty palm oil container. The women perform the 'kundere' the most famous women's dance in the Bijagos. The shorter more coloured grass skirts here are more typical in the south Bijagos.

A special dance of the men on Caravela is the 'cow dance'. Note the impressive costume has assimilated many items of an imported or modern nature such as the bells and the scarf. This inclusion of modern objects into traditional practices is one of the fascinating aspects of Bijogo culture - defunct wristwatches will appear next to traditional fetishes, plastic toy fragments next to cow hide garments. Indeed, dance itself is a living tradition here, as well as animal dances you may be lucky to witness an 'airplane dance' as people impersonate aeroplanes rather than animals - more incorporation of the modern world into their traditional practices.

A cow dancer distinguishes himself by strutting up and down in a jerky manner, raising a large cloud of dust with foot stamping and creating a measure of cacophony with all the bells strapped to his waist!

Cow dancers may sometimes go 'head to head' as angry bulls facing off against each other.

For great ceremonial and spiritual occasions a special ceremonial drum holder must be used for the large ceremonial drum. Note that this drum holder is engraved with the skin carving design specific to men of that village group.

This interesting spirit head is adorned with a top hat. The fabric tied to the hat would originally have been red, this is the colour of the spirits. This spirit (locally known as an 'iran') was at the root of a large kapok tree with a collection of animal heads strung between roots above it from sacrifice offerings. Common sacrifice offerings are chickens, sometimes fish and the occasional cow.

Evening is a tranquil time in most Bijogo villages, the smoke from cooking fires drifts lazily around the mango trees in the center of the village as people come back from the fields.

As Bijogo villages are never on the coast and usually surrounded by very tall trees nice sunsets are not common in the villages, but if you care to walk out to the beaches in the evening then you can sometimes see remarkable displays as the sun goes down.


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