Ten yards over the border from Senegal into Guinea-Bissau and suddenly everyone speaks Portuguese instead of French. Although Crioulo, a Portuguese dialect, is spoken here (along with many African languages), the official language is actually Portuguese – even though the people nowadays refuse to have truck with anything from Portugal after independence. The many beautiful buildings have been left to fade and crumble.
The first European to encounter Guinea-Bissau was the Portuguese explorer Nuño Tristão in 1446; colonists in the Cape Verde islands obtained trading rights in the territory, and it became a Portuguese colony and a centre of the slave trade.
A military coup in Portugal 1974 led to independence later that year. The new republic took the name Guinea-Bissau, incorporating the capital Bissau, to distinguish it from neighbouring Guinea, also known as Guinea-Conakry. Guinea-Bissau and the neighbouring islands of Cape Verde were a single country until separated by a coup in 1980. It’s the only hyphenated country name in the world.
Former President Vieira and his rival Military Chief Wai were both assassinated in January 2009, though a stable interim government is currently in place in Guinea-Bissau. Like much of Africa the situation can change quickly. There are very few tourists and therefore, very little in the way of tourist accommodation and thankfully, very few tourist scams. Some locals are suspicious of visitors- I was yelled at on one of the islands for taking a photo of a tree.
This is a very poor country. Approximately 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and 25 percent of the population suffers from chronic malnutrition.
As is common in these parts the border posts are in small crumbling buildings and the formalities consist of laboriously copying my details out by hand into large logbooks. We’re trying to walk fast as the big Israeli group from Senegal is negotiating immigration at the same time and we don’t want to get held up. The process is fairly straightforward. I got my visa in Senegal, even though it was a Saturday. The consul came to work specially. He says they’re desperate for tourists in Guinea-Bissau.
I'm driving south from Senegal:
The crossing of the ocean from the old capital, Bolama, to the current capital, Bissau isn’t exactly comfortable. The open boat pitches and bangs, and every so often I’m sprayed with saltwater. Guide, Innocencio says I’m lucky; it’s usually worse than this and everyone gets absolutely soaked.
This being a country of Portuguese influence, the caipirinha is a popular drink. Innocencio buys us one each from a fast food bar. He explains that he feels he had to buy something as I went and used the toilets. What else other than a cocktail at eleven in the morning? It’s very good and comes in at less than a euro.
So, the old part of town, more very faded Portuguese town houses, grass growing in the gutters, the Fortaleza d’Amura (still being used by the military), the Presidential Palace (no photos allowed), the Peace Monument and the bustling market is viewed through a soporific haze. This is a very poor country and there is little (other than the palace) that appears to be well maintained. And even that has war damage on its neo-classical façade.
Innocencio is departing today. He only filled in for the recalcitrant Mountaga, but he’s done a good job. At our last lunch together, he tells me that the British are well regarded here. If someone is strong, they are described as ‘Britanicos.’
My hotel is the old barracks for high ranking Portuguese officers. I’m not sure it’s been decorated since then.
For my next leg, I have another new guide, Augusto, a new driver, Maladho, and a lovely big, if slightly battered Landcruiser. The air conditioning leaks and drips on my feet, as well as anything else I leave in the footwell. I’m being transporting east towards the border with Guinea-Conakry. It’s more paddy fields, more oblong houses and more road peppered with huge potholes, so more time teetering on the crumbling verges than on what remains of the tarmac.
There are also more police checks today and the officials are being more ‘rigorous’. Lights, hazard lights. fire extinguisher. Christmas is coming up and their pay is poor. It’s in their interests to find something wrong and it’s slow progress. (The teachers haven’t been paid at all this month, so they’re going on strike.)
Bafeta is the second city in Guinea-Bissau. The word Bafeta means high tide; it’s at the beginning of the huge Geba estuary. Bafeta has another abandoned old town and the balconied dilapidated houses even have a dovecote looking onto the river. And there’s also a deserted Arab style market, crenelated pink walls and tiered shelving inside. It would be a perfect place to display the goods now on offer in the roadside stalls alongside the main road, the vendors squatting in the dirt with their wares.
The Malinke region is the home of the griots, traditional musicians and storytellers. In a village here I witness a performance - xylophones with calabash sound boxes, tom toms and dancing. The story is told modern style, using a megaphone. And the women all dance, the young girls wiggling their hips with rather too much skill and enthusiasm. It’s great fun. As before, the whole village turns out to watch and I’m the one and only visitor.
A seven-a.m. start with a chilly rising sun as it’s going to be a long day. The villagers sit in large circles round their fires drinking coffee and chatting; it seems a pleasant way to start the day. Everyone I’ve encountered since Suga has been extremely friendly. The majority tribe round these parts are the Fulani and they seem overjoyed when we stop to poke around their traditional circular thatched houses ( very low doors at times) and very happy to be photographed digging mud for bricks or sorting peanuts, the ladies clad in bright cotton, with peplum style tops and matching knotted headscarves Two small babies are proudly brought out for inspection and carry on sleeping throughout proceedings.
Breakfast at the frontier. An onion omelette cooked over hot coals. And across the border to Guinea-Conakry.
There are 88 islands in the Bijagos Islands, floating in the huge Geba River estuary off Bissau. Even in a high-speed boat coming from mainland Guinea-Bissau it takes 90 minutes to reach the largest cluster of low-lying palm tree covered dots.
Apart from the lumpy pillows and the spluttering from the DDT, last night was fairly uneventful. No breakfast, despite the good cook - they sent a boy out for provisions and he didn’t come back until we were about to depart. I discovered that guide Mountaga had only requested bread anyway, which he eats - and I don’t, so I wasn’t in the mood to wait while he partook.
The first Bijagos Islands encounter is at Suga, where we moor up for a visit, to a 'friendly village'. I’m told our destination is a half hour walk. We amble up a path past a few islanders who view us suspiciously, from a distance. The track is lined with vegetation and, more for lack of anything else to do than with any other reason, I take a photo of a palm tree ahead of us. A guy in a white cap appears shouting furiously and gesticulating. It seems that I have taken a picture of ‘his palm tree’. I delete the photo, but he continues to rant, and we depart. Not such a friendly village then.
Fortunately, Ponta Achacha, my home for the next three nights, on Rubane Island is gorgeous. Beautiful bungalows on a lovely beach. I have my own sunbeds on the sand, with my own grass umbrella and my own terrace with couches on it, in case I get bored with the sunbeds. Lizards bask in the seat on the steps, scuttling under the bungalow when I approach. Excellent food too. Shellfish galore and even decent steaks.
You win some and you lose some. The group of noisy Israelis from Casamance has just arrived. Fortunately, it’s only for one night. And I haven’t detailed all of Mountaga’s indiscretions. But he’s just lied blatantly to me about the whereabouts of our boat, when I realised some of my stuff was still aboard. He was busy with beer at the bar. Then, another tantrum in which he dismissed himself, so I took him at his word and requested another guide. He has unfriended me on Facebook.
New guide Innocencio and I, arrange a boat trip to Bubaque, the neighbouring island to Rubane and the capital of the Bijagos Islands. There are some decaying colonial buildings and the candy coloured palais de justice. I constitute the whole of the formal audience for a dance performance in the street (plenty of townsfolk applaud from the side-lines) - an initiation ceremonial that involves warlike behaviour and the ability to manage sacred cows – I think. It’s called the Baca Bruta and again, it’s unlike any dance I’ve ever seen and involves complex wooden masks. The children shriek and retreat when the cows charge at them, brandishing their horns.
With trepidation I’m attempting another Bijagos Islands village visit, but this one, to a settlement on Canhabaque Island, goes very well. It’s a scenic approach through mangroves. There’s a netmaking collective operating at the muddy landing area, which makes things interesting for the locals as they weave in and out of the nets, loading the thrice weekly pirogue that transports their stock to Bubaque. Getting the goods to the vessel, down a two-kilometre track, is mostly the job of the children, who roll barrels, perch buckets on their heads and squeeze large bundles to their chests. On closer inspection these turn out to be live chickens or drawn rats. One of the rats proudly displayed is as big as a piglet. Innocencio says they’re a delicacy in Bissau.
It’s a large village of mainly square dwellings. A couple of groups are deployed on house building, adding water to the ground to make mud, which is shaped into large bricks. using wooden moulds. They are laid out in rows to dry. The people are friendly; it probably helps that Innocencio is at least six foot six. Children, shy at first, tag along. The three- and four-year olds are in kindergarten, beautifully behaved on plastic chairs, eyes on the blackboard. The tag alongers become even more friendly, wanting to hold hands, when they see sweets being dispensed and trail us all the way back to the boat, tugging in turn at sunglasses, watch and bracelet, rolling huge expectant eyes.
Time to leave the beach and the Bijagos Islands First, the old Portuguese colonial capital on the island of Bolama and then onto the new one, Bissau - it was moved in 1941. The once beautiful Portuguese buildings on both though are in a sad state of repair. Even the huge neo classical palace on the main square in Bolama has been left to crumble, vegetation in every nook and cranny. Incongruously, there’s a statue of American president Ulysses Grant in pride of place here. He’s a Portuguese hero, as he intervened in their favour when England laid claim to the area.
Driving south from Senegal, with guide Mountaga, into Guinea-Bissau and the area around Sao Domingos, The village of Holia is a pristine piece of paradise, nestled in the mangroves, on the banks of the river and approached over a new and prettily constructed causeway, lined with oyster shells.
The thatched houses (the thatch has to be replaced annually) stand a good distance from each other, several on their own islets with miniature causeways. The men are busy building new houses. One, with longer lasting cement blocks in the fields. One, more traditional, but cooler, with mud walls, right on the river. The women are harvesting the rice: scything, threshing and winnowing
Despite all the activity, it’s a tranquil scene. Everyone is serenely welcoming. Well most. Some toddlers scream when they see me. The translators tell me they’re not used to white faces. I’ll settle for that explanation. I’m trying to make videos, but again, Mountaga features in most of them, popping up in front, oblivious to what I’m doing.
Getting to Holia involves a diversion for 30 kilometres (each way) down a horribly bumpy unmade track. The roads in Guinea-Bissau are narrower than in Senegal, with more potholes, the vegetation taller. And the saltwater inlets are lined with coconut palms. The houses are large rectangular prisms, mostly with pitched corrugated iron roofs. They get a lot of rain here and thatch isn’t really practical. The surface is especially bad near the creeks, which flood in the rains. Some way along there’s a toll booth (peage), though I’m not sure why, as the road is still riddled with holes. Driver Manan’s approach is fairly hair raising. Shutting my eyes doesn’t help this time. I can still feel the jolts.
Driving south we arrive at Quinamel, pass some nice-looking hotels and along another track, inquiring all the way where my lodging is. My guide, Mountaga, doesn’t seem to know, despite professing to have been here recently. It’s eventually discovered, at the end of a track, by the river. It’s closed up. I say closed up - it looks closed down. The chairs are all piled up in the café and none of the bungalows are prepared. There is litter strewn around and the paths are overgrown.
The caretaker knows nothing about a booking; a couple of men start dragging furniture around and spraying DDT. Clean sheets, but no blankets. Malan translates for Mountaga, who translates for me. If I had more energy I would push for a return to town. But I’m too tired after last night’s shenanigans. I didn’t have hopes of any dinner, but the one man in charge turns out to be a very good cook. Even though the requested chicken manifests as carp and fries.
We're here because tomorrow we take the boat to The Bijagos Islands
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