(excerpts from "The Ethnography of the Bijagos People of the Island of Bubaque" (1978),
written by the researcher of anthropology, Luigi Scantamburlo)



The environment of the Bijagos appears to have been both rich and privileged. Horticulture, fishing, and palm oil trees have provided them with an adequate food supply, without requiring hard work nor developed technology.

The social structure of the village is hierarchical, but its limited dimension provides an opportunity for all members to interact in a friendly manner.

The Dufuntu ceremonies have reinforced the importance of the matrilineal clan, which otherwise would have been reduced to a nominal structure because of the male-dominated economic power generated by upland rice cultivation. A new respect for women has been growing among the Bijagos. In the last years, a similar respect and a new role for women have been developed by the ruling party, the PAIGC, during the war for Guinea-Bissau's liberation.

The year-round activities are centered on the cultivation of rice. Two-thirds of the year is spent on the farmstead, which is afterwards abandoned for five to seven years to allow the recycling of the forest. On the island of Bubaque, where more land was occupied by the government's administrative and tourist structures, people have less land to cultivate. Furthermore, new factors created by the schooling and jobs required by the tourist industry are seriously affecting the traditional ways of life of the Bijagos, who so far have been the big losers.

In a few years, all the young people on the island will be educated and will therefore be less willing to adapt themselves to the grading system of the traditional village. As teachers or wage laborers, they will gain economic independence at a younger age than their peers still living in the village. They will not easily give up their cash wages in favor of the elders.

Until now, everyone has had to perform the initiation ceremonies in a determined way. On many occasions, unwilling people had to be brought into the forest by force. In the future, the elders will have less power to enforce the traditional rules, because of the new freedom granted everyone by the government. The traditional village structure will be weakened. The elders will not receive the food supply guaranteed by the age-grade system, as before. Alone in the village, they now feel frustration because they have less to offer young people who are attracted by other styles of life and involved with different economic systems. The young people, however, cannot be blamed for their refusal to accept the traditional socio-economic structures. It is the new system which reduces the productivity of the land and raises the family's budget, which now requires more than food and ceremonial duties.

It seems that the people of Bubaque will be able to adopt more developed economic structures, such as fishing or the intensive cultivation of fruit or wood-carving, which are more profitable than upland rice cultivation. The Bijago people, however, still resist the change because of the land's insufficient rice supply. Very often, they have cash but cannot buy food because there are no supplies in the stores. self-sufficiency in rice production has been lost on Bubaque.

Personality of the Bijago People

The autonomous social structure of the village and the archipelago's relatively rich environment fostered a spirit of independence in the Bijago people. They believe in free initiative and resisted colonial pressures that opposed their independent style. Some colonial administrators labeled them a lazy people, unwilling to undertake hard work. this judgment, however, does not give the true picture of their attitude toward work.

When the food supply is abundant, the Bijagos prefer to indulge in feasts and in ceremonial duties, in thanksgiving to the spirits of the village. However, if hard work is required for some specific need of the village, they are able to join forces and do it. What they seem to need is strong leadership which will show them the advantages of the work to be done. It's difficult to find Bijagos who undertake individual initiatives. They do most of their work communally.

All the members of the village are equal. The Bijagos will never suffer the presence of someone who puts himself above others, because of his ambitions or good fortune. They feel this generates a feeling of inferiority among the other villagers. If one possesses more than the others, he must share his excess or take on more responsibilities during the ceremonial duties of the village. No one would dare refuse food to the hungry or any help he may afford to those who come to him. Such a refusal would be considered the greatest moral fault. To them, both the miserly and powerful belong to the world of witchcraft, not to the everyday life.

Arriving in a village, one is impressed by the atmosphere of happiness and cordiality about him. Hospitality is an outstanding trait of the Bijagos. They often give the best food and the best bed to their guests.

In their contact with non-relatives and strangers, the Bijago are shy and don't ask for food unless invited to shared a meal. With friends and relatives, however, they are spontaneous, hospitable, and generous. Friendship to them is a gift from God, more precious than a wife or child. To a friend, they will speak in a way they would never do to a wife, and they are sure the friend will keep any secret. In a society where records are kept - not with written contracts but with secret agreements made in front of the village and family's spirits - everyone realizes how essential it is that friendship be sacred.

One thing that every Bijago fears until the day he dies is to be put to shame in front of the village. They are defenseless and emotionally wounded when criticized by others. Some informants have said that in the past, the loss of a good public reputation would be sufficient grounds for a person to commit suicide. The people do everything they can to regain honor lost.

They carefully avoid public criticism of other people, in order that others may spare them the same treatment. One of their common desires is to have a good reputation, to find sincere people to deal with, and to be protected from secret curses and jealousies.

The Place of “Etute”

The Etute is a sacred place where the elders gather in circumstances related to the exchange of gifts. The young members of the village often have to offer the products of their work to the elders. It is the common way to be taught the traditions and be considered as good potential members.

To share one's good and respect the elders are the two laws every Bijago should endorse. These seem to be, though it is seldom the current situation on Bubaque, the main characteristics the people want to retain in the villages. In their early history, the more fortunate shared what they had with the elders.

When the Dufuntu go from village to village, one of their purposes is to ask for gifts from the people they meet. It is considered improper and bad luck to refuse to give something to them. There is a story the people tell which reflects the meaning of the activities of the Dufuntu:

Once, the Dufuntu saw a man seated in front of his house with some fruits from the palm oil tree. As usual, the Dufuntu asked him to share the fruit. The man refused, however, saying he did not have anything to share, because he already had a wife to support. The Dufuntu replied: "Why do you only share with your wife? Aren't we all brothers and sisters in the village?"

The Bijago village and culture could have only survived throughout the centuries because of the transmission of their rules from one generation to the other.

To a modern mentality, they appear unwisely loyal to their old-fashioned traditions. They look at the past, not just for traditions' sake but because they've learned that the village can better survive if the members agree on the same rules. Some chiefs during colonialism resisted the modern schools, not because of their inability to understand the advantages of literacy, but because of the many people education took away from the village's communal work. Education, in the hands of teachers who opposed Bijago traditions, would have prepared the children to be of no benefit to village life.

This same attitude of resistance has been adopted against Christianity. The Bijagos have avoided serious and responsible dialogue with Christian representatives, though maintaining friendly relationships with them, because baptized people showed little respect for their old traditions.

The Bijago people have changed in the past and are still changing. However, any new policy must earn the loyalty of the elders. New policy must respect the rules and structure of the village; otherwise the Bijagos will resist it as they opposed the naivety of the colonial powers forcing them to become Portuguese citizens.

In this present situation, the Bijago people face danger. Their culture is in danger of being totally wiped out.

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