The Bijagos Islands in Guinea Bissau, where women rule

This archipelago, declared a Biosphere Reserve, is composed of 88 islands, of which only 23 are inhabited. Some of the uninhabited islands are considered sacred to the Bijagos. Sailing through the natural paradise of the BijagosIslands, we discover an incredibly rich nature with breathtaking landscapes of spectacular deserted beaches changing with the tides, palm groves mixed with tropical forests, abundant birds, dolphins, sublime sunsets and the possibility of throwing a fishing rod and getting in record time a huge barracuda.

Discovery of the Bijagos Islands

While most travelers arrive on the islands to simply stroll the beaches or eat delicious fresh fish, the islands have cultural and natural wonders that have a much greater value.

A walk through the islands is a unique experience. Inside and outside the tabancas  (villages), we were surprised at how much the traditional Bijago culture really was alive due to its isolation. In most  tabancas of the Bijagos Islands, huts are made in the traditional way: mud, clay and straw. It is very curious to see how many houses are raised above the ground to protect themselves from water during the heavy rainy season.

Matriarchal Society in the Bijagos Islands

The Bijago  society is a matriarchal society, it is women who choose their husbands and run many aspects of the social structure: the economy, law, well-being or spirituality.

According to an old Bijagolegend, life began as follows:

« God created the first island, and he gave the name of island of Orango,which would be the world.

Later, a man and his wife arrived, his name was Akapakama. They had four daughters named  Orakuma,  Ominka,  Ogubane  and  Oraga. Then animals and  plants would emerge. Each of them had several children and each of these families was granted special rights.

  • The Orakuma people obtained the right to the land and the direction of the ceremonies that took place there. They also obtained the right to sculpt the statues of the iras, where, according to the traditional cult of the  Bijagopeople, reside the spirits.
  • Ominka’s family got the sea and therefore the fishing.
  • The Oraga family received nature, with its fields and palm trees and all its riches.
  • Ogubane’s family received the power of wind and rain, which could cause the dry season and the rainy season.

Thus, the four girls would perform different but complementary and very important functions. And this is, according to legend, why women play such an important role in bijagosociety.

Bijago culture

During our visits to some tabancas  of the island of  Canhabaque,we had the pleasure of meeting the king and queen ofthe  tabanca. One of the kings showed us one of his sacred objects: a trident, called « king’s hand » which represents the hand of Orebok  Ocotó,one of the great bijagosdeities.  This object is used during ceremonies that precede a trip of the king so that everything goes well.

In each tabancawe find different sacred round houses or small houses called  balobas. Inside these  balobas  are celebrated ceremonies and the sacred iras (statues carved in wood) of the  tabanca  are preserved. Although on many occasions the king or queen are also responsible for keeping these iras in their personal hut.

Outside many houses, suspended, we find the saias,the traditional skirts that  bijago women use in their rituals and festivals and still today in their daily lives. 

Some of the men are in the part of the tabanca  where the local « bar » is located, to drink the  caju wine (made from the fruit of the cashew nut). In  the Bijagos,palm wine is sacred, and it is forbidden to sell or buy it.

In some islands like Canhabaque  or Formosa, you can see different dances and also masked dances for their festivities and initiation ceremonies like  fenado  (circumcision) or the impressive  Vaca  Bravo.

Bijagos matriarche
Nature of the BijagosIslands, Guinea Bissau

In terms of nature, in the Bijagosarchipelago, there are two national parks, one is the  Ilhas  de  OrangoNationalPark, where in October-November it is possible to see hippos; and the Joao Vieira e  PoilaoNationalPark, where thousands of turtles lay their eggs on the beach, being the Bijagos Islands the third most important place for spawning turtles from all over the Atlantic. The best season to see turtles spawn is from August to November.

In one of the other islands we discovered the ancient Portuguese capital: Bolama. This city was abandoned after independence. 

If you want to visit these islands in depth, know their culture and visit their national maritime national parks with the possibility of camping on the island of Poilao,we can arrange a tailor-made trip between the  Bijagos Islands and the interior of Guinea Bissau. Public transport by canoe between the  Bijagos Islands is sporadic and unreliable, so it takes a lot of time and large doses of adventure to discover these islands very far from tourism. If you want to visit the  Bijagos  by speed boat, you need a higher budget. Also, for the more sporty, it is possible to make kayak routes to visit some islands.

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