This is a group of islands of which I had never previously heard. After doing some research, I thought you may have some interest in learning about them, as well as the folks who inhabit this area. Bissagos Archipelago are islands in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Guinea-Bissau, which is in West Africa between Senegal and Guinea.
The name is also spelled Bijagós. There are about eighty-eight (88) islands and islets. These islands were originally created from the delta of the Rio Geba and the Rio Grande many years ago. Only about twenty (20) of these islands are populated on a year round basis. These include Bubaque, Uno, Joao Vieira, Bolama, Uracane, Soga, Unhacomo, Carache, Rubenhe, Caravela, Roxa, Enu, Ponta, Formosa, Orangozinho, Galinhas, Orango, Maio, and Meneque. Each island has normally a single village with its own specific ceremonies and traditions.
Some Basic Facts to Consider
- The most populated island is Bubaque
- The capital city is Bissagos on the island of Bubaque
- The islands were annexed by Portugal in 1936. They gained their independence on September 10, 1974.
- The islands were made a UNESCO Bioshere Reserve in 1996. There are hippopotamus, marine turtles, and other animals in the Boloma Bissagos Biosphere Reserve.
- The southern islands are a nature reserve
- The archipelago consists of diverse ecosystems such as dry and semi dry forests, aquatic zones, secondary and degraded forests, sand banks, inter tidal zones, coastal savanna, and palm forests
- The population of the islands is approximately thirty thousand (30,000)
- The local ethnic group is called Bissago
- It is a matriarchal society. Women initiate courtship, manage the household, and are the main influence in law and economy.
- Religious ceremonies are conducted by priestesses who are called baloberas
- The kapok tree is where islanders go to commune with the spirits
- Fishing and sustenance farming are predominant. Tourism exists only at a small level because of the lack of infrastructure and communication links.
- The currency here is the West African CFA franc
- The main language is Bidyogo or Bijago (Portuguese version). Creole and Portuguese are also spoken.
An Interesting Culture
They had a very strong navy in pre-European colonial times, as they were a main influence in trade along the West Coast of Africa. In fact, in 1535 they defeated the Portuguese in a naval battle.
Daily life among the Bidyogo people was actually documented by Austrian anthropologist, Hugo Bernatzik in the early 1930s. The population is very autonomous due to its isolated location and lack of up-to-date communication links. This has also served to preserve their ancestry and culture from the influences of the outside world.
According to their beliefs, the majority of the islands are inhabited by spirits. People come there to perform ancient ceremonies, but don’t live there so as not to disrupt the spirits. During their secret traditional initiation rites, called fanado, the young Bijagos will spend months in the forest while the elders pass on environmental wisdom to them. Ceremonies on the inhabited islands include the blessing of the villages and the harvest by masked dancers.
Although this is a matriarchal society, patriarchal influences are still strong as evidenced by the inequality of women to men in many areas of society, although the woman’s influence is very evident. The society is also animistic, where they believe that every natural things in the universe has a soul.
Age-grade progression ceremonies are called fanados and take place every several years and require much planning and preparation around these rights of passage.
The people here have a traditional iconography where they produce numerous artifacts for daily use. Unique to their culture, the iconography does vary a bit among the different islands in the archipelago. The iran are portable ancestral shrines and are very distinctive art pieces. The zoomorphic masks are also quite remarkable in that they characterize various animals such as stingrays, sharks, cows (vaca-bruta), and other local animals.
These traditionally decorated artifacts are also created for personal use such as the storing of food, basketry, and stools. Some are also produced for the coming of age ceremonies (fanados) such as spears, headgear, shields, wooden masks, and bracelets.
Here is a short video to give you a glimpse of these islands:
Now for some Things to Do
This is a rather unique place where you will find such a diverse landscape, biodiversity, interesting people, and many rare species of animals, which actually coexist in a harmonious way. You will find Bissago tradition quite fascinating where there is deep respect, as well as worship of all the species of animals.
As part of this ancient tradition is the natural and knowledgeable management of the natural resources on the islands in order to preserve the survival of the environmental and its people. The people here are centuries ahead of the rest of the world in terms of environmental awareness which is evidenced in their way of life. Visitors are exposed to a wide variety of sea and land wildlife in a natural setting.
Spending time here is very relaxing as there is not a huge tourist trade by any means. Here are a few ideas of things to do.
* Explore the Islands — there is much to see on both the inhabited and uninhabited islands. This area is the most acclaimed green sea turtle breeding site anywhere in the Atlantic Ocean. The time to catch these turtles laying their eggs into the deserted beaches is between July and October. There are four other species of turtles which also show up which are the hawksbills, olive ridleys, loggerhead musks, and leatherbacks. The uninhabited islands, such as Poilao, offer these turtles a haven where they can live undisturbed. In fact, you need permission to visit this island from the local tribes which own the island. You will also find pelicans and flamingos here.
* An Underwater Experience — over one hundred and seventy (170) species of fish converge near the mouth of the Geba River. Along the coast you will find rock fish, snapper, and numerous bottom feeders. This is a huge aquarium for divers to explore the treasures beneath the sea, as well as for fishermen. You will also run into some Atlantic tarpons, also called the ‘silver king”, as well as some barracudas. The manatees are endangered because of over fishing. They are found in the lagoons under the masses of sea grass. In the shallow waters you will find one of the largest sea cow colonies anywhere in the world. It is a treat to view these mammals. In addition, you will find a variety of sharks (hammerheads, tigers, grey reefs), dolphins, guitarfish, and blue spotted ribbontail rays in these waters.
* Learn about the Bijago Arts and Crafts — a wide variety of items are created which are for personal use as well as rites and ceremonies. These include masks, shields, and spears for their fanado ceremonies, as well as items such as baskets and stools for everyday use. All of these items are unique and distinctive from other African tribal arts, although they do slightly vary a bit from island to island. Portable ancestor shrines are called iran, and there are masks which represent different animals such as sharks, stingrays, and bulls (vaca bruto ceremonies).
* Bubaque Island — this is the main island where its administrative capital, Bissagos, is located. It is the largest village in the entire archipelago. It is the only island connected to the continent by a ferry which runs on a weekly basis. It takes about four (4) to five (5) hours to make the trip. Within the village you will find bars, restaurants, and a local market. There is also a small museum where you can learn about the local culture, customs, and habits of these people.
* Check Out the Saltwater Hippos — on Orango Island from October to early February you can see these interesting creatures. The island is covered by savanna and it is here where you will find these hippos moving about looking for lagoons and saltwater ponds. Also, on this island is the grave of the last queen-priestess of the Bijagos.
So Why Visit this Part of the World
Although the activities and facilities throughout the archipelago are meager compared to other vacation spots, there is much to be experienced here in terms of a unique culture based on ancestral traditions. The area is most pristine with a wealth of nature and wildlife. While most lodging and camping is quite modest, there is an Eco hotel on Rubane Island. It is the Hotel Ponta Anchaca and the rates are between two hundred ($200 USD) and two hundred and fifty ($250 USD) dollars per night. The Bubaque Island Hotel runs around ninety ($90 USD) dollars per night. There are also family run guesthouses and other hotels on Burbaque. One of the most popular is the Hotel Casa Dora.
A good way to check out the islands is through a small group tour, which spends about three (3) to four (4) days visiting the different islands with a guide to lead the way and explain about all the cultural sites and idiosyncrasies of this area. They also visit Guinea-Bissau on the mainland.
Since these islands are some of the least visited areas in West Africa, it is a great place to relax on the beach and take in the pristine nature and the wildlife. You can relax and walk the beaches alone, meeting up with an occasional fisherman. The country is safe to travel about, and the people are friendly and there is always a party atmosphere.
Although this is not your place for the most activities, just being here is a delight. The culture and the immaculate natural environment will keep you quite engaged and satisfied.
Enjoy your journeys,
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