On the island of Orango Grande, in the Bijagos Archipelago, off the coast of Guinea Bissau, there is a matriarchal society where women possess all the power, where they organise themselves into associations which manage the economy, social welfare and the law.
                               Bijago matriarch and her family
 It is they who impose sanctions, direct, advise and distribute goods, and they are respected as the absolute owners of both the house and the land. Here it is the man who has the obligation to dress very well to attract the attention of a woman. Women hold the supreme power of divorce in marriage. Men are turned to only for the tilling of the fields, hunting monkeys and fishing.
                            Guinea-Bissau, Bijagos Islands, Bubaque, woman portrait

Bijago also known as Bissagos,Bojagos,Anaki, Bidjogo, Bidyogo, and Bujagos are an ethnic group which can be encountered only in Guinea Bissau.The Bijagos islands, is the only deltaic archipelago on the Atlantic coast of Africa and it comprises 80 islands and covers an area of nearly 10,000 km off the coast of Guinea Bissau.It is argued that the country`s name "Bissau " came from the corruption of the name "Bissagos."

The initiatory rituals of the Bijago peopleThe Bijago people live on this archipelago that has resisted Portuguese invasion for five centuries.

It is a patchwork of mudflats, mangroves, palm groves and savanna grasslands which produce a wide diversity and abundance of natural resources. The archipelago currently has a population of some 25,000 inhabitants constituting over 2% of the total population of the country.
                      Bijago traditional acrobatic warrior dance

Bijago have traditionally resented all centralized authority,whether Portuguese,*French*, English, German or contemporary government officials. In 1447,when the Portuguese explorer, Nuna Tristao, tried to conquer the Bijagos, they killed him instantly because they do not want any form of rule except their matriarchal traditional system that create chiefs to rule them.

                           Bijago warrior dancers displaying their intense dancing skills

The Bijagos rose up in rebellion against the Portuguese in 1900,1913-1915,1917,1918,1924 and 1936. Portugal did not consider the Bijago as pacified until 1936.
                                                             Bijago warriors (Guinea Bissau)

The Bijago are known from early chroniclers' accounts for their daring raids on ships along the African coast using huge canoes known as Bijago pirate canoes. They raided on European ships and made away with their cargos and other items on board.

 Bijagos Islands, Guinea Bissau, Wester Africa. Anchoring the boat close to the beach for lunch. Fisheye
-Approximately 30% of the people are Muslim. 
Predominantly in the larger and more populated cities of Guinea.
-Less than 10% are Christians.
-The remaining 60% retain their animist indigenous religion.
Animist Beliefs remain strong among the coastal islands and have not been influenced by outside religions,
though Christians and Muslims incorporate many of the animist beliefs into their religions. 
                                            Bijago girl in her traditional initiation regalia

Bijago are the most mysterious or traditionalist community in Guinea Bissau, however their isolation allowed them to maintain cultural traditions strong and practically intact.Little is known about origins of Bijago, but the linguistic traits connect them clearly to present day inhabitants of then nearby continental coast. It is probable that they come from the region Buba on the continental part of the country.

              Bijago Matriarch. She is the final authority in her household. When she speaks men listen.

  "According to many inhabitants on the islands of Bubaque, nobody knows for sure when and from where all the Bijagós derive. It is a common belief among them, however, that it was Orebok, an intermediary between the Supreme Being, and the Bijagós, who began the world.

An Ocanto woman just dressed in her traditional loincloth, with her Ongbà 
child relaxing in the middle of the field of swidden rice she cultivates.(Circa 1984)

The first human being was a woman, called Akapakama also known as Maria. This name originated from the first word her son told her, while lying hopeless and naked on the seashore, ‘come, take me’. 
                                                 Bijago warrior dancer in his traditional outfit

Akapakama  had four children, called Orákuma, Oraga, Onoca or Ogubane, and Ominka. They are the four mythological ancestors of the four matrilineal clans of the Bijagós. Most Bijagós can usually agree on these traditions. When asked, however, to specify more particulars, a variety of opinions, according to the provenance of the informants may be heard. (Scantamburlo 1978)"

Each of the daughters had several children who, in turn, received a special duty of her grandfather:
Orakuma, got the land and made the first statue of Iran in the image of God.
She was responsible for ceremonies held in the land. She also gave his sisters the right to do the ceremonies in balobas (shrines).
Ominka received the sea and their descendants have sought for fisheries.
Orage, given the nature with bolanhas and palm trees that made it rich.
Ogubane, received power from rain, wind and controlling the time of rain."  (Duquette 1983:261)"

                                        Bijago men

The arrival of Europeans to their islands – first to have arrived were English and Germans, after them Portuguese - was a disaster for the Bijago people, as it ended their centuries-old tradition of cyclic agriculture.
                                          Traditional Bijago fire dance

Islands have the conditions especially convenient to grow rice, which became the main activities in the Archipelago.The palm groves are also a source of food products such as oil and palm wine. Dietary animal proteins come chiefly from shellfish collected by the women on the mudflats, and to a lesser extent from fish caught in cast-nets or using wicker or stone traps at low tide. The salient feature of the archipelago's economy is its high degree of self-sufficiency.

                     Producing palm oil in the Bijagos archipelago, Guinea-Bissau

Fishing was never important among Bijago, and although they used canoes in the past, it was mainly for military purposes. On the contrary, the breeding of pigs (there is no certainty if they arrive earlier or after Portuguese colonisation and Islam influences) is one of the essential activities for the sustainable economy of Bijago.

                            Bijaga women fishing in a lagoon

                                           Bijago fishermen,Guinea Bissau

Other than those activities, the wood sculpting is what distinguishes Bijago along Nalus.  The sculptor is a voluntarily engaged artisan who, through his periodic activity in connection with ceremonies of initiation and worship, is familiar with numerous secrets.
                               Procession of mask wearing Bojagos

 Each villager may sculpt initiation masks, head decorations, statuettes, vessels, and so on. The heaviest masks are worn by the age group that is not yet considered adult. These represent, in a realistic manner, marine animals or wild bulls. While young boys might wear calf and fish masks, older uninitiated youths wear those depicting wild bulls, sharks, hippopotamus and swordfish. Their dances are unpredictable and violent to accord with the character of the animal represented and their own undomesticated nature.
                                            Bijago man wearing the mask after his initiation

 The masks are worn either on top of the head or in front of it. The dancers imitate these dangerous animals that symbolize beings that are still untamed, as they have not been initiated. The masks are danced by boys and young men during the ceremonies that precede and follow the phases of initiation. Besides ritual occasions, nowadays they also appear in secular contexts, on days that commemorate historical events, and when important people visit.

Ox Mask Bijago Guinea-Bissau Brooklyn Museum

Ox Mask Bijago Guinea-Bissau Brooklyn Museum

Ox Mask Dugn'be

Brooklyn Museum

Photo credit

Masks representing dugn'be, "the ox raised in the village," are used in young men's initiation ceremonies in the Bissagos Islands. The cord that runs through the mask's nostrils shows that the initiate is like a tethered ox: like the ox's, his strength must be both encouraged and controlled.

Although Bijago figures can be realistic or abstract, they have a head with a pointed chin, a flattened face often with rounded eyes and semi-circular ears. These iran figures are believed to be possessed by divinities and have many functions – they serve as the focus of divination ceremonies, as protectors of households against curses and as healers. Kept in small sanctuaries or in special places in houses, these figures are offered sacrifices and libations, which may create a thick patina on the surface.
                                  Bijago woman wearing her mask of initiation

The political power is in the hands of the village chief, which is being justified by his connection with the ancestors through matrilineal descent. He is a leader of every community, he makes the decisions and controls the distribution of the land. In this important task he is assisted by the council of elders.

The women are especially important in the political and cultural system of Bijago, as they determine the chiefs' line of inheritance.The matriarchal order was so strong that the women selected their men and could force divorce on their husbands, the man keeping the children.
                             A woman Ocanto, with his child Ongbà on the Caravela island. The woman has ritual scarring from the neck to the belly, like kinds of clamps formed by pearls of flesh. They are the evidence of her resistance to the suffering. These scarring are prolonged over several years during the period of initiation which mark the transition to adulthood.(irca 1984)

Issues related to distribution of the land depend on the council or just the chief.

In the Bijago society the village with a population between 100 and 300 inhabitants is a basic political and economic unit. The village is autonomous and generally self-sufficient in the socio-religious and economic matters.

Every village having a chief is the most traditional form of power of Bijagos. Because of the high costs of the state's administration, today it occurs only on the Canhabaque Island.

Bijagos performing traditional dance. The Island is known to keep africa`s secret as many kings and Queens are buried here.

Within the clan the inheritance is of the matrilineal type, but after the matrimony the whole family lives in the husband's house. All of them belong to the clan of the mother. It is important in terms of the allocation of the land and responsibilities typical for Bijagos.

                           Bijago women (They Rule Their World)

The principle of matrilineal heredity, strongly supported by the chief living always in the clan's village, reinforces integrity of the Bijago community. Four matrilineal clans are present on all islands and that principle doesn't allow to divide the land property.
                             Beautiful Bijago woman. She is a queen of her household.

 On the other hand, the fact of living in the husband's house leaves the real possession of the village and its social structure in the hands of the father relatives. It reinforces the role of the man in economic life, giving stability to task distribution in the farm work and maintains unity of extended family despite the divorce and polygamy.

In the matters of faith, the influence of monotheistic religions wasn't as strong as in the rest of the country. It results in Bijago still maintaining strong connection with their traditional beliefs. Islamic influences are more of the cultural that purely religious nature. 

                           Bijago priest with juju/charms in his hand

For Bijagos the Orebok is a Creator, mediator between the Supreme Being, Nindo, and people. "Orebok covers three main categories :the women undergoing initiation, possessed by a dead uninitiated man;the anthropomorphic statues of the village’s main god and the spirit that inhabits the body and that escapes at death or join the ‘orebok’s land’ (anorebok ...)"
                                         Bijago woman with talisman on her neck 

The forest plays fundamental role in the social space of Bijago. It's there where most of the rituals of initiation throughout the individuals' life take place.
                                                   Initiated Bijago Warrior

                                          Bijago fire-eating dancer

Initiation for Bijago men (fonado/coming of age) and women represents the crossing between different stages and periods of life. It grants paternity of men and maternity of women. It has to be pointed out that Bijago are the only ethnic group in Guinea Bissau which doesn't practice circumcision of boys nor ablation of girls.
                             Bijago girl showing her initiation mark on her stomach

At her first public appearance as defunto/initiate, the young girl wears goat leather shorts and dances frentically miming a crazy goat that makes everybody laugh.
.Later on, the defuntos carry over their heads a miniature of the ... cow-mask (... esene, b). They mimic wild cows ... . Finally, as they become ‘adults’, they put on ... a wooden-carved imitation.

                                        Bijago girl in initiation procession

                    Fonado initiates from Bijago tribe in Canhabaq,Guinea Bissau

Bijagos have a staunch belief in reincarnation. Death is for a Bijago` nothing more than a short sleep. They also believe that if they die far away from their land they will return to it after death. But such returns depend on the degree of kinship with the family in which the return occurs, because the soul of the dead may rise again shortly or long after the death of a child by the same family, another tabanca (village) or a another island.
                Bijago tribe kids from Guinea Bissau`s Bissagos archipelago be`s showcasing their tribe`s female initiation (defunto) and male (fonado) initiation rite

 How is the identification of a reincarnated child done in Bijago tradition? Here the fetish priests (orase-male/Okinka-femaleconsults the oracle/deity and the children themselves, before they can speak fluently, begins to narrate his origins, his mother's name, specifying among the women of the father, if he is a polygamist, and the name of the village to which he belongs.
   Young Bijago girls with traditional talisman head wear and a painted face after their initiation into their Matriarchal society

One of the main natural resource and a major ecotourismof the Bijagos Archipelago are sea turtles.


              Bijago initiated (fonado or coming of age) boy
Bijagos: The people that make  Guinea Bissau a place where Africa falls in love

                           Bijago Dancers

A tiny country located on the Atlantic shores of Africa, crushed between the rough Sahara and the deep forests of the Congo basin. A former Portuguese colony that barely achieved independence in 1975. A nation ravished by a bloody civil war that lasted for better part of the last decade and with an undeserved reputation as drug trafficking haven. An institutionally instable country, with one of the worst human development indexes, and a mainly rural and poor society. A country with only 1.5 million people, no jails and where the people call themselves “sinners”.
With that kind of resumé, Guinea-Bissau is certainly not anyone’s idea of paradise on Earth. However, the small West African nation is not only one of the continent’s best kept secrets but also the perfect place to fall in love.
Miles-long deserted beaches surround the beautiful palmed-tree island of Rubane, one of the dozens of islands that form the Bijagós archipelago, located at the mouth of the mighty Gabú river and the epicenter of Bissau’s enchantment. Pristine blue waters and soft pinkish sands invite even the most skeptical and stressed of visitors to get loose and abandon himself to the delights of a land that seems to be lost in time and space. In a world where time is money and connectivity is everything, this string of islands, without cellphone coverage or internet access, represent an endangered species and one of the last refuges for enjoying life as it should be: Eating, drinking and watching the hours go by without worrying about anything else but being content. It may sound hedonistic, but it is a formula that has worked perfectly for the people of Bissau.

Bijago ethnic group from the Bissagos Islands
A young girl brought her little brother, an Ongbà child on the Canhabaque Island. The girls learn very early to assist their mothers. Because they are married very young, they have to learn very quickly how to bear children and perform the many tasks of the household

                      Bijago drummers entertaining the crowd,Guinea Bissau

                      Bijago Girl,Guinea Bissau

A young Capuni girl, the chest adorned with clamps, wears the traditional loincloth, in the middle of the field of swidden rice she cultivates in the forest. She could marry only with a Onhaqui warrior of his clan, once he'd have satisfied in all the tests of initiation which take place on several years in the sacred forest.(Circa 1984)

                          Guinea-Bissau Bolama Bubaque

Guinean kids during Carnival celebrationsChildren of Bubaque island in Guinea Bissau.

Joaquim Cabritan playing the ngopata, the folk lute of the Bujogo (Bijago). Soga Island, Guinea Bissau, 8/06 (Nick Bamber)

Bijago ethnic group from the Bissagos Islands
                                     Circa 1984

                                                Kids playing with a dug-out canoe 

Bijago ethnic group from the Bissagos Islands
A family on an island in Biombo. The waters in the Bijagos Archipelago feed the tribes of all the islands. But today the Senegalese hack their fishes which become scarcer. This creates new conflicts.

                                        Bijago fisherman with a big catch

                      Traditional bottle of Bijagos

                   Bijago boy with his fishing trap

                     Bijago tribe girl



  1. I appreciate this share. Wonderful pics & a nice glimpse into the lives of the Bijago people!

  2. This was so very educational! Thank you all for bringing all of this and other information out!

  3. WOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Thank you so much!! Am sharing with everyone I know. LOVE LOVE LOVE!

  4. Epic story that I am very happy to learn and share. Thank you

  5. I can appreciate the time and effort you put into this. Throughout this work your passion shows.

  6. Thanks for using my photos, but you should aknowledge the authors of all Copyrighted photos, like all the photos (including mine) you took from flikr or panoramio.

    Thanks in advance,



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