Exploring wildlife and ancient culture in Guinea-Bissau

Guinea-Bissau is easily overlooked, but you can discover hippos, kings and ancient traditions in the islands and villages of West Africa’s forgotten country

8 mins
Poilão Island was cloaked in darkness, shaded under an inky black blanket suspended from the stars. A soft wind wafted across the sands where we stood, parting the scattering of low cloud above and allowing the palest threads of moonlight to drift down and illuminate the scene unfolding before us.

Gentle waves washed over the rock pools and glossed the dark shore, yet something stirred in the shadows. A mysterious shape inched up the beach, hauling its heavy body with unwavering effort the final few steps of a journey hundreds of miles in the making.

Tina and most geographers would concur. Guinea-Bissau is an improbable slither of a country. A former Portuguese colony, it borders Senegal to the north and Guinea to the south and east, occupying an almost discreet slice of the West African coast. Turtles and the odd tourist aside, very few make it here and what little international reputation the country has is tied to that of the surrounding region.

“There’s a perception that West Africa is a dangerous and unstable place,” explained Augusto, outlining the problems the country faces in attracting visitors. The Ebola outbreak was catastrophic for the area, and not just for the lives lost but for how it positioned West Africa within the wider world. “It makes me sad that we are known for little more than danger and disease,” he added mournfully.

Yet of the 16 countries that collectively form West Africa, only a handful were directly affected. Guinea-Bissau didn’t record a single case of Ebola, and while it has its problems and remains among the poorest African nations, those that look beyond the headlines will discover a land of great biodiversity with a living culture unlike any other.

Our rendezvous with Tina happened some time after midnight. We left our beachfront campsite and kept a distance as she diligently dug her nest, the heavy thuds of her flippers and loud swooshes of the spraying sand sound-tracking the night. “She was born here,” said one of the local rangers, dressed in a pair of mismatched flip-flops. “Turtles always come back to their birthplace to lay their eggs.”

Newly hatched baby turtles (Dreamstime)
Newly hatched baby turtles (Dreamstime)

Leaving Tina hard at work, we moved on. While she had just arrived, other turtles had visited months ago. The eggs hatch between 50 and 70 days after laying, and we patrolled the beach armed with buckets containing hundreds of just-emerged baby turtles, each small enough to fit in the palm of my hand. Survival rates for these endangered animals are slim – just 12 out of every 1,000 make it to adulthood – so they need all the help they can get. As part of a small army of local volunteers, we did what we could to give them a fighting chance: collecting the eggs, helping them hatch and releasing them under the cover of darkness, while hungry predators dozed.

Close to the fizzing shoreline, we laid our buckets down and watched as hundreds of the tiny turtles were swept up by the surf, each guided by instinct and the moon. As they crawled away, I couldn’t help but wonder how many, if any, would ever return to this place, but I knew that we’d at least given them a chance.

Long live the king

Our journey through Guinea-Bissau had started days earlier in the markets and noisy streets of the capital Bissau. From there, we travelled north-west, along bumpy roads first laid during the colonial days of the Portuguese and lined with giant cashew-nut trees – the country’s biggest export. Women wearing bright tribal dresses carried stacks of firewood on their heads, as young boys ferried canisters of water in wobbly wheelbarrows.

Our destination was Canchungo, an area of small villages scattered around a peninsula that lies sandwiched between the Atlantic and the Cacheu and Mansôa rivers - an unlikely spot to bump into royalty.

The community of Bassareh was largely peaceful when we arrived, only the shrill call of a cockerel disturbed the afternoon stillness. King Pedro was asleep but woke from his slumber to greet us outside his old colonial house, which had seen better days – imagine a patchy white paint job and a crumbling garden wall made of crushed seashells. Still, the breezy porch, overlooking a large ceiba tree, was a pleasant spot to mingle with a monarch, though there was little that was regal about King Pedro.

The 72-year-old ruler emerged yawning. He wore baggy jeans and frayed sandals and hid his potbelly beneath a scruffy orange T-shirt. His exposed arms featured several scars, earned through a lifetime working the fields. This was a king who got his hands dirty. Balancing the duties of office with his other job (a rice farmer), he could be forgiven for needing a nap. “My father taught me to always do things for yourself and not rely on others,” he explained. “This is important even to a king, so I still harvest the rice.”

Rice harvesting (Dreamstime)
Rice harvesting (Dreamstime)

To the tribes here, the title is a calling. The spirits select a worthy individual, someone with ‘a clean heart’, to become king. To refuse the honour may prove fatal. “It’s believed you will die if you decline,” he later explained.

His ‘kingdom’ consists of 11 locals villages, each with an appointed chief answerable directly to him. “I rule over 3,000 people. They come to me to resolve land disputes,” he explained, as we walked together through the countryside that bordered his home. Hidden among the undergrowth were a handful of old wooden sculptures, each several feet high and modelled on members of the community who had passed away – some creepily lifelike. It’s an ancient custom, designed to pay tribute to the dearly departed, and believed to be the stepping stone between us and the spiritual world.

King Pedro led us deep into the forest, clapping sticks together to awaken the spirits. “They’re strong here,” he added. Eventually, we reached a ramshackle shelter where dozens of dusty spirit bottles lay on the floors. The scene resembled the remnants of a wild party. Here, King Pedro sat pensively, hands clasped and eyes closed. He muttered prayers and poured droplets of a potent local spirit onto the parched ground as an offering. Traditional displays of culture are to be found all across Guinea-Bissau, and this wouldn’t be my last encounter.

Boys and girls

Travelling through the Bijagós Archipelago – declared a biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 1996 – we crossed open ocean, wide channels and narrow rivers, spotting dolphins in the murky waters and pelicans, egrets and storks lured by one of the largest mangrove forests in West Africa. This is also among the most important nesting sites for migratory birds on the whole continent, attracting some 96 feathered species.

Over the next few days, we hopped between a smattering of the 88 islands in the chain, of which just 23 are inhabited. Some were busy and developed (principally Bubaque’s eponymous capital, the largest town in the archipelago and home to over 9,000) but most were quiet, sleepy places: mud-brick villages with clucking chickens and elderly people in rocking chairs.

Street in Guinea-Bissau, Africa (Dreamstime)
Street in Guinea-Bissau, Africa (Dreamstime)

On Uno Island, however, festival fever had gripped the village of Agande and its 60-strong population. A raucous game of five-a-side football came to an abrupt halt as the Vaca Bruto (or ‘Wild Cattle’) ceremony began. Screams shattered the silence. Children fled, cowering behind their mothers’ skirts for safety. I was tempted to join them. At the other end of the village, and emerging from a haze of swirling dust, were four demonic beings with the bodies of men and the heads of bulls.

A display of masculinity and a coming-of-age initiation, the dancing participants – all toned torsos and bulging biceps – grunted and charged, battled and rolled around in the dust to the sounds of heavy drumming. They wore sashaying grass skirts and heavy masks fashioned on the heads of zebu cattle. Carved from a single block of wood, the masks were painted in red, white and black, and featured horns from real bulls. Crawling on all fours, as though possessed, they ventured toward the crowd, coming so close that I could count the beads of sweat trickling down their chests.

“I was a young boy the first time I saw this, and I ran away,” recalled Augusto that evening over a beer, as the bats circled overhead. “The whole thing was terrifying. Visions of demonic bulls attacking me even entered my dreams. It was only later that I learned about its cultural significance.”

The Vaca Bruto ceremony is a slice of tribal history that was almost lost completely. The Portuguese, who first came sniffing around these parts in the mid-15th century, changed the fabric of much of Guinea-Bissau, forcing people to abandon their beliefs in favour of the Catholic Church. The Uno however, continued such practices in secret, at least until Guinea-Bissau became independent from Portugal in 1974.

For several decades, the Bijagós slipped under the radar of the Portuguese. But all that changed when the island of Bolama was made the capital of Guinea-Bissau, largely in a bid to avoid the malaria that plagued the mainland.

These days, its former capital is loosely described as a ghost town, but that’s not strictly true. Sure, it’s quiet; only small pockets of people mill around and it’s significantly less wealthy than in the good old days, when it was the seat of government from the 1870s right up until 1941.

A taste of Bolama’s former grandeur remains, however, in the shape of its monuments (including one, bizarrely, linked to Mussolini) and the decaying mansions erected during more prosperous times, many now strangled by twisting tree limbs. But old traditions still survive.

In a quiet corner of the pretty central square, a courting couple sat in the shade sharing some snacks. They say the best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and no place is that truer than Guinea-Bissau. When a courting couple decide to marry, it’s not the man that drops down to one knee in a symbolic display of eternal love. Instead, in certain communities, it’s the woman who does the asking, and she does so by cooking a specific meal of fish and mussels with rice and red palm oil. If the man accepts the meal and starts eating, then there’s a wedding to start organising.

The road to divorce is even more bizarre. “If a wife wants to split, she hangs a special bag outside the house when her husband is out. When he sees it, he knows exactly what it means,” explained Augusto, matter-of-factly.

Survival of the quickest

For our last stop, we sailed south of Uno, across the Orango Canal, to meet some very important but reclusive locals: the rare saltwater hippos of Orango Island. These mighty and fearsome creatures are often found wallowing in the shallows on the beach, but today they were elsewhere, so we set off on foot, hiking along the shore before turning into the island’s national park interior, pushing through valleys of long grass that scratched our shins and tickled our earlobes. “We will definitely see them,” teased Augusto. “If we’re lucky.”

We reached the first lagoon, a serene spot of waterlilies and fluttering birds, and scanned the surroundings from a safe distance. No hippos. The search resumed for another hour, this time wading through leech-infested swamps.

Wildlife rich lagoon on Orango Island (Nick Boulos)
Wildlife rich lagoon on Orango Island (Nick Boulos)

“The hippos cause a lot of problems for the villagers here,” said Augusto. “They’ve developed quite a taste for rice and have been known to ransack the fields. Farmers have installed electric fences.”

Fresh tracks were set deep in the mud. We were getting close. Several minutes later, Augusto ordered us to lower our voices. On the other side of the trees and in the middle of a large muddy pool were 11 hippos. We ventured closer and gathered together tightly, the sun-baked grass crunching underfoot, for our allocated 20 minutes in their company. Only we didn’t get 20 minutes.

The burliest of the herd took umbrage at our presence. Huffing and puffing loudly, he slowly rose from the water. “Time to move,” snapped Augusto. In an instant, we began our hasty retreat to safer ground. At that precise moment, it dawned on me that hiking through swamps to see wild hippos perhaps wasn’t the wisest of pursuits.

As my heart rate stabilised, I reflected that the muddy mammals were merely ensuring their own safety. Like much of Guinea-Bissau’s most remarkable heritage, they’d faced an uphill battle for their very existence and yet still somehow survived. My thoughts drifted to Tina the Turtle and the hatchlings that we released in the dead of night. I wondered where they were, how many were still alive and kicking, and whether they would ever return to that blissful beach to lay their own eggs in years to come. Everything I’d experienced in this oft-forgotten country allowed me to hope they will and that one day I might be there to welcome them back.

The author travelled with Explore (01252 884738). A ten-day Guinea-Bissau and the Sacred Bijagós Archipelago itinerary covers time in Bissau and a number of the islands, including Uno, Orango and Bolama. The next departure is 18 February 2017.

Main Image: Guinea Bissau beach scene (Nick Boulos)

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