ECONOMIC LIFE OF THE BIJAGOS


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

 
 

Economic Life (on the Island of Bubaque)

The Bijago elders agree on one point, that life was much easier and better before the arrival of Europeans on the island. "When we were young," they would tell me, "we had much more food than now, the forest was rich in fruit and the sea in fish and molluscs. The elders did not have to work as today, because food was provided daily by their sons."

In fact, the enevironment of the island is quite generous for people living on a subsistence-based economy. The principal economic activities are:

a) Cultivation of the primary crop, rice, and of other secondary crops, such as peanuts, beans, maize, yam, mandioca, and squash.
b) Harvesting the oil palm.
c) The raising of domestic animals such as cows, goats, sheep, pigs, and fowl.
d) Fishing by the men by means of net, hooks, and spear.

When low tide leaves an extensive part of the shore with plenty of clams, cockle shells, and crabs, these are gathered by the women.

The Bijagos are technically horticulturists. They spend most of the time between April and December doing agricultural work, and the other months fishing, repairing their houses, and performing cerimonial activities.


Agricultural methods

Bijago people use the slash and burn technique, with a rotation of the land exploited every five to seven years. All the families of the village gather together in February and decide which land to cultivate, dividing it according to their needs. Although some of them have gardens for irrigated rice, the pincipal agricultural work is with upland rice. The land has to be prepared during April and May, just before the first rain which usually falls in the second half of May. Men cut the woodland and burn it. The women, seed, weed, protect the crops from monkeys and birds, and finally harvest.

The cutting of the forest, the weeding, and the harvest are done by large groups of people working together on each other's fields. The only pay is to provide the food for the day along with abundant palm wine and tobacco. Those who are affluent and have enough rice usually prepare the larger and better fields.

Every married woman has a plot of land for rice for her children. Unmarried girls have smaller plots of land, near that of their mothers, for the rice they will use for religious cerimonies and feasts with their peers.

On the rice field, usually at the perifery, the Bijagos may plant maize, guinea corn, millet, watermelon, pumpkin, yam or squash, but only in small quantities, for family needs or for the fun of trying new crops. The farming for upland rice is a hard and unrewarding job. women and children have to spend whole days in the fields protecting crops from birds and monkeys.

The harvest, being heavily dependent on the regularity of rain and on good soil, is seldom sufficient for the whole year. In Bubaque, people have to rely on the rice sold by the government at the local markets, which is usually very scarce. The people are helped to survive from August to October by harvesting palm oil and gathering molluscs found on shorelines, and by the fruit of the mangroves, called "egba" (Avicennia germinans).

On the outskirts of the village, land is cleared for secondary crops, namely peanuts, sweet potatoes, mandioca, and beans. These can grow every year by rotation on the same plot, with little fertilizer except the burning of grass and weeds grown from the previous year. Seeding and planting is always the task of women, although the contact with Europeans has induced the men to also seed and plant these secondary crops.

Peanuts and beans, along with palm oil and domestic fowl, are the most useful means for acquiring the money needed for buying clothes and paying annual government taxes. Today, because of Portuguese influence, the Bijagos grow the regular "European" peanuts, but in ancient times they only grew the so-called mancara bidjugu (Bambara groundnuts), with the flavor of fava beans.


The Oil Palm

Most of the island of Bubaque is covered by the oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), whose cultivation was encouraged by the colonial government. There is a local factory with large production of palm oil for export. The palm trees, however, were not well-cultivated because they grow among wild trees. Often they are damaged by the slash-and-burn technique used in rice cultivation.

The oil palm trees serve two important purposes in the Bijago economy. One is to providethe wine used as a common and less-expensive alcoholic beverage for the religious ceremonies, offerings, and feasts; it's obtained by tapping the stem of the unripe fruiting bunch. A good palm tree can produce a quarter of a gallon of wine daily for ten to fifteen days. The best wine is produced during the dry season, between November and May. This is when most feasts are celebrated, and most of the important work is done, such as the building of houses and preparation of rice fields.

The trees' second purpose is to provide a reddish oil used in nearly every dish of Bijago cooking. It's used not only for cooking, but also to annoint the body and hair and also for some religious purposes.


The Raising of Domestic Animals

The most important are cattle, goats, sheep, and pigs, but fowl (chickens, ducks, and guinea fowl) are also raised. Cattle are scarce on the island of Bubaque due to the poor grassland, and especially because the Portuguese administrator had forced the owners to provide the local market with meat at least once or twice a week. The Bijagos do not kill cattle except for religious ceremonies that require the blood of a cow or bull.

Pigs, goats, and fowl are plentiful, roaming freely around the village, and they're marked with a sign that only the owner can identify. In some villages, where stealing of livestock has increased and often goes unpunished, people must carefully watch their livestock. In the past, it was enough to curse the thief in order to recover the livestock or at least to discover its whereabouts.

Pigs may be sold for cash, but are most desired for religious ceremonies related to women.

Chickens are necessary because no ceremony can start without the killing of at least one chicken, no matter how young if no others are available.


Fishing, Hunting, and Gathering

Fish are plentiful in the ocean and off the coast. Some fishing activities are related exclusively to men, such as catching fish on the open sea, while women gather molluscs and crabs on the shorelines.

Fishing activities can be profitable for obtaining cash, when a village or group of people obtains a canoe or gill net.

Hunting on the island of Bubaque, excpet for monkeys, small lizards, ducks, and doves, is dying out because of the disappearance of some species of game animals that are still found on other islands (wild goat, gazelle, hippopotamus). The bijago use spears and traps, as only a few people can afford to buy firearms.

Although the elders may remember the usage of bow and arrow, this weapon is not found anywhere except as a toy for children or as a symbolic weapon for religious purposes.

Bijago women have the task of preparing the daily food of the family and, as in some other West African societies, they provide most of the food needed for the daily meal. In the morning, one will go down to the shoreline to gather molluscs, crabs, or oysters, or into the forest to look for wild yam or seasonal fruit. One of the most important fruits collected gathered during the month of October is the so-called egbá. (October is a critical month because all the food reserves run out and the new crop has not yet ripened.) Egbá is the fruit of a mangrove (Avicennia germinans nitida), whose wood plays an important role in consecrating some of the most important religious objects.

 
The Bijagos' Daily Life

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