Guinea Bissau: A people with a strong identity

The Bijagos, a small ethnic group, are struggling to preserve their cults and autonomy.

The Bijago archipelago consists of 88 islands scattered off the coast of the African nation Guinea Bissau. The population is composed mainly of the Bijagó ethnic group, which speaks the Bidyogo language. The archipelago, in 1996, was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The Bijago people make up just 2.5% of the Guinean population, around 30,000 people, but they have a strong cultural and ethnic identity. They live off both land and sea – mainly shellfish and forest fruits such as kajù.

According to an ancient legend, in the beginning, the Bijagó creator Nindo created Orango, the first island, which was the world. He then formed a man and a woman named Akapakama. They gave birth to four daughters named Orakuma, Ominka, Ogubane and Oraga. Each of them had several children of their own, and they were bestowed special rights. The Orakuma family received the land and management of the ceremonies to be held therein, as well as the right to carve statuettes representing Ira, the fundamental spirits in the Bijagò cults. The Ominka family received the sea, and thus set about fishing. The Oraga family received nature, fields and palm trees, which would provide them with great wealth. The Ogubane family received the power of rain and wind, thus enabling them to control the sequence of dry and rainy seasons. The four sisters all played distinct yet complementary roles. This is the origin of matriarchy in the Bijago society. Bijagó women play a key role in the family economy with their work and they also fulfill the cultural task of transmitting the values and rituals of their ethnicity.

As in many animist ethnic groups, the Bijagó have their lfii, (spirits) who can be represented in human, animal and abstract forms. The baloba, which is a hut temple or shrine and is located at the centre of the village, is the resting place of the Spirits of the Land. People go individually to this hut temple to ask for health, good work and safe journeys, but most of all the balboa is the place where collective ceremonies are held during the harvest, at the beginning of the agricultural work, for initiation rituals or when serious illness strikes the village. The men are in charge of the ceremonies which are presided over by the regulo, the highest authority of the community.

It is a strong belief of the Bijagos that life continues after death. On the occasion of funeral rites all members of the village attend the ceremony and are dressed in their best clothes. Sometime after the death, the spirit of the deceased is invited to enter the ‘sanctuary’ of the family, to rest in its rightful home. On this occasion the family members gather and a specific statuette is carved and will become the dwelling place of the spirit of the deceased. The statuette is shown to the people of the village who make rice and wine offerings. From this moment on the statuette will be used on the occasion of the family’s ceremonies when members of the family ask for the support of the spirits in the farm work, in sickness or in other moments of need.

The Bijagó art is closely connected with religion. Wood carving is the most practiced form of art among the Bijagós. The statuettes representing the Spirits of the Land are carved in wood, and are placed in the balobas. These statues, which are considered sacred objects, are made upon request of the person in charge of the ceremonies and different rituals mark the several phases of their execution, such as the moment of the invocation to the Ira spirit for help for the execution of the statue, as well as the permission to cut the tree in which the Ira spirit will incarnate. In these rituals, the spirits are called through the tinkling of small bells and are offered kana, which is a sort of grappa, distilled palm wine and tobacco.

Each statue is named after its role and function and nobody is allowed to see it during the process of execution. Once the statuette is carved, it is placed in the designated baloba during the initial ceremony which is attended by the elderly and all the members of the village. The multi-coloured paintings on the walls of the hut temples are also very interesting since they represent scenes of the everyday life of this group. On the occasion of the initiation rites, fanado, some girls who are admitted to these ceremonies are in charge of renovating these paintings.

The fanado or initiation rite is a fundamental element in the Bijagó tradition. The ceremony of initiation into adult social life is performed separately for men and women. On this occasion young men are kept secluded in the sacred forest, for several months even. Nobody, once back at the village, is allowed to reveal what happened during all the time they spent in the forest. When the group of young people come back from the forest, a solemn feat is celebrated. The fanado for young girls, aged between 17 and 25 years, is called garandesa. During this ritual the girls wear the traditional Bijagó clothing, their head and neck are adorned with various objects, and after a short stay in the forest, they spend the rest of the initiation period moving through the several villages of their island, where they perform group dances and songs.

During their stay in the villages the girls are accommodated in the balobas where the local priestess takes care of them and where no man, except the regulo, is allowed to enter. The mindjeri garandi, who are the elderly women, give teachings and suggestions to the girls about their future life as adult women.

The initiation is marked by two distinct phases, the small fanado first and the big fanado that is celebrated a couple of years later. During the small fanado ceremony, girls are given the name of deceased whose souls reincarnate into them. The initiation process is aimed at teaching young people the sense of social responsibility, discipline, self control and courage.

The fanado is, in the Bijago community, a strong bond between the past and the present, between the young, the elderly and the ancestors.

Subscribe to our mailing list!

Recent Posts