Guinea Bissau Part 2: Bissau and The Bijagos

Milky invited us to camp at his family’s mango plantation on the outskirts of Bissau.  We pitched our tents in a beautiful spot beneath the outstretched branches of the giant trees. In the night we woke to the crashes of mangos raining down from above, exploding as they hit they ground and pelted our tents with their sticky, sweet flesh. It turned out that fruit bats chew like to chew through the stems that tether the fruits to the trees causing them to plummet 100 feet to the ground.  

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Photo by @advchi

The next day was labour day, a bank holiday in Guinea Bissau. Milky invited us to spend the day his mother’s, where they were having a BBQ. Maria Gusta lived in a small house sandwiched in-between the Angolan and Portuguese embassies. The family home had been what is now the Angolan Embassy, this was where Maria Gusta had entertained Mandela, Gadaffi and pretty much any other of the great African leaders you could think of, but after her children moved away she decided to rent it out and to move into the much smaller servants house. It was obvious that Maria Gusta’s pride and joy was now her garden, at the centre of which was a Calabash tree, with its giant melon like fruit. [She told me that the fruit is dried and used a bowl, it has an important role in marriage ceremonies.] Directly under this tree was where we sat and ate. The food was amazing; to start with we had around 5 kilos of shrimp and 5 kilos of oysters, a speciality of Guinea Bissau, grilled on the BBQ and served with a hot lime sauce. Next was a delicious stew made with pork skin and rice. We had barely finished when an argument broke out between Milky and an older potbellied guy who had been introduced to us as a kind of shaman. He was upset that there was not enough food and was trying to convince Milky to let him slaughter a lamb! After we all insisted how full we were he relented but continued to glare menacingly at the pot of stew as if it personally was to blame for this missed opportunity. 

After we mentioned the mango missiles that had awoken us in the night it was decided that it would be much safer for us to camp in Maria Gusta’s garden. Milky’s girlfriend, Danielle told us she couldn’t believe Maria had agreed to this as she doesn’t like many people (she said this with the kind of laugh which suggested she knew only too well what it was like to be in Maria Gusta’s bad books). The next week passed in pretty much the same way as that first day, for all their talk of business plans and side hustles neither Milky, Danielle nor any of their friends actually seemed to do very much. Around lunchtime Milky would appear with a crate of oysters, there would be fish or peanut stew prepared by the family’s cook or else one of their friends would visit bringing a dish which their cook had prepared, a crate of beer would materialise and we would while away the afternoon eating, drinking and chatting in the garden. The shaman was a permanent fixture at the house; he was the family doctor, the person they turned to for advice on spiritual matters and perhaps most importantly the person called on to slaughter animals. The first night when we stayed at the mango farm he had sacrificed a pig, digging a hole and burying some of its blood beneath one of the houses the family owned. Milky explained that some distant relatives had been living in this house but there had been an argument, Maria was worried that they had cursed the house and so the shaman had come to purify it. Everyday the shaman would arrive just in time for lunch, no sooner had the plates been cleared away than he would turn excitedly to Milky and start making plans for what he was going to slaughter that evening. I began to wonder if he became a Shaman purely because he enjoyed slaughtering animals so much. Once he turned to me from across the table and asked solemnly what was troubling me? Danielle seeing this squealed excitedly that I must let him do my reading. A few moments later, one of my hands was clasped between both of his and with the other I was drinking from a cup of water above which he had whispered an incantation. I’m not sure if it was my surroundings, the sense of occasion, or the fact  that I was a bit tipsy, but I somehow found myself confessing to him my deepest fears. He stared into my eyes for the longest time before delivering his pronouncement. The answer, obviously, I must slaughter a goat. 

Shaman’s aside, they were a fascinating family. Maria Gusta was an indomitable force, as revered as she was feared. Sometimes in the evenings she would tell us long stories in Portuguese, which unfortunately none of us could understand, apart from the occasion angry shout of ‘capitalistas’ and ‘communistas.’ Once during the middle of her story she jumped out of her seat  with a ‘brrrrrrrrrrttttttt brrrrrrrrrrttttt’ to machine gun her imagined opponents (presumably colonialists and capitalistas). Milky’s elder brother Oseni was also a memorable character, sent away to boarding school in Moscow when he was 5, he would after a few beers usually descend into an incoherent mix of Russian, English and Creole. 

We spent a week in Bissau, enjoying the amazing hospitality of Milky and his family. The city itself was small and did not feel like a capital, with its quiet streets and crumbling buildings. Occasionally you would see signs of the Portuguese in colourfully tiled facades. Unusually for an African city in Bissau you never see people begging (Milky told us this was extremely frowned upon in the culture)  there is also very little crime. 

We left our vehicles at the house and took a boat out to the Bijagos, a group of around 88 small and extremely remote islands off the coast Bissau. We were intrigued to find out what life on the islands was like. The Bijago have one of the few functioning matriarchies in the world, with women managing the household, the economy and law as well as initiating courtship and divorce. Their isolation has allowed them to maintain their culture and traditions relatively free from outside influences which they fought against (led by kick ass queen-priestess Pampa Kayimpa they rebelled against the Portuguese in 1900,1913,1915,1917,1918,1924 and 1936).

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Young Bijago girl who we met whilst exploring Rubane 

Another interesting aspect of the islands is the role they played in turning Guinea Bissau a ‘narco state.’ The islands were a smugglers paradise, just one rusty ship patrolled the entire coastline and no one patrolled the airspace. In part because of this, the country became a transit hub for cocaine traffickers on the way from Latin America to Western Europe. Milky told us the story of how in 2005, fisherman on one of the islands found packages of white powder washed up on a beach, no one had any idea what the mysterious substance was. Some people thought it was flour and tried to fry fish in it, but it tasted horrible, other people thought it was fertiliser and spread it all over their crops, apparently someone even marked out a football pitch with it. 

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Pigs, enjoying the muddy mangroves on Rubane 

We missed the main ferry which leaves just once a week and so took a small pirogue. We were slightly concerned when we realised we would spend the 6 hour journey perched on top of a pile of jerry cans full of petrol, but besides getting extremely hot (there was no shade on the boat) the journey passed without incident. This was fortunate as Milky had told us before we left about a friend of his who made the same journey and spent 2 days stuck at sea after the engine broke! As we neared Bubaque, one of the closest and most inhabited of the islands (the population is still only 6,5000) we passed numerous smaller uninhabited islands covered in dense green vegetation which occasionally gave way to stretches of pristine, white sand beach. 

On Bubaque there are no roads just dirt tracks and there are not even that many of them. Most of the island is still jungle. Milky told us that at one time on Bubaque almost everyone of working age was employed by drug traffickers, their activities were so blatant that porters would push wheelbarrows full of cocaine straight down the main street to the port where they would be unloaded onto awaiting speedboats. Nowadays the cocaine industry has moved on (reportedly to the more remote islands) and the main industry on the island is tourism. Visitors are however few and far between, during the time we spent on Bubaque we met just 3 others (one of whom, Simon a 23 year old med student from Norway, was on the same boat as us). Bubaque town has a slightly neglected air, many restaurants have closed down (and there was not a lot to begin with) the town’s only disco and petrol station are boarded up. At the local food stalls cuisine is basic to say the least, chicken it seems is only available on a Saturday, if you’re lucky you might find some fried fish and rice, but more often than not the reply when we asked what do you have today? Spaghetti or potatoes, both of which would be seasoned in the same way: onions, egg, salt and pepper and a generous dollop of mayonnaise. Since breakfast would invariably be an egg sandwich (which also came with onions, salt, pepper and a dollop of mayonnaise) after 4 days it did start to feel a little same-y. But in spite of the culinary ‘challenges’ we enjoyed Bubaque and quickly adjusted to the relaxed pace of island life (beer, fortunately was much easier to find). Near to the port there are some beautiful bays where you can swim and from where you have lovely views of the other islands. It is also probably the only island (other than Bolama) which is feasible to visit on a budget. 

The vast majority of people who visit the islands do so through an organised tour or they book into a luxury lodge which arranges speedboat hire. Trying to visit the more remote islands yourself when on a budget is much more challenging. We would have loved to have visited the Orango national park (famous for its saltwater hippos) but for us it was prohibitively expensive. We did make it out to Rubane, one of the most beautiful and uninhabited of the islands opposite Bubaque. On the island there are 2 luxury resorts, neither of which were within our budget unfortunately so we figured we would wild camp. We had thought the hotels might be amenable to us camping nearby and using their facilities in exchange for eating in the restaurant/buying a few drinks in the bar but one look at the resort manager’s face quickly disabused of this notion. Trying to find a suitable spot to camp turned out to be an adventure in itself, taking us an enormous trek through overgrown jungle and swampy mangroves, which we sunk into up to our knees. At one point we stumbled upon a tiny village, there were no men only bare breasted old women and children, who sat picking palm kernels and started at us in amazement as we passed by. We were eventually rewarded with a beautiful and deserted beach where we pitched our tents and where, the following morning we caught sight of a turtle and enormous fish eagle.  

 

 

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Bijago girl we met exploring Rubane 

We spent a week on the islands before returning to Bissau, from here we head to North to Guinea (Conakry). 

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