DAILY LIFE OF THE BIJAGO PEOPLE


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

 
 

The Bijago houses

Bijago architecture has been greatly affected by the presence of the Portuguese architecture. This is evident in the changing of the houses' designs (even those of the sacred huts), from a round to a square or rectangular plan. They explain that a rectangular plan allows more usable internal space.

Some people have also learned how to make sundried bricks and to make use of a particular type of palm tree (Borassus Aethiopum) for the truss beams of the roof.

Traditionally, however, the houses were very round, with sundried mud walls and thatched roofs sustained by a bamboo truss. This bamboo grows in abundance in almost all the islands of the archipelago.

Two to three weeks are usually necessary to build a house, which requires the cooperation of a large group of people in order to do the work as quickly as possible. Men and women are supposed to have separate building tasks, although this rule is seldom maintained today.

Traditionally, women were the main builders of the house, with the task of carrying the water, preparing the red mud, erecting the walls, cutting and weaving the grass of the roof, and hardening and leveling the floor with sand and mud. Men had to provide the truss poles and the other poles for sustaining the roof, provide the women with cords made out of slices of palm tree fronds, and cover the roof. The house owner has the responsibility of feeding the workers rice and fish, along with abundant wine and tobacco.

The house used for sacred ceremonies has the same round structure and size of the other houses. There are two entrances, without doors, and the internal and external walls are painted with geometrical and mythological designs. The builders of sacred houses are all the married women and adolescent girls of the village - helped by young adults who've just undergone initiation ceremonies and who provide poles for the roof and cover it.

According to the different religious ceremonies, a village may have the following types of sacred houses:

a) The kandjá kamotó - It is the most important sacred house, dedicated to the ancestors of the clan to which the village belongs. It is the responsibility of the village chief's, whoo chooses and elder woman as okinka, to keep alive the sacred fire of the village and care for the religious ceremonies related to women.

b) The kandjá kaorebok - It is where most of the ceremonies related to women take place, under the direct responsibility of the man chosen to participate in some women's ceremonies () and his wife.

c) The kandjá eramunde - It is the sacred house for a particular spirit - sometimes borrowed from other ethnic groups - with the power to protect against sickness or to increase fertility. It differs from the other houses because it is privately owned.

d) The kandjá kaunikan - This is where the most ancient spirit Orebok of the island resides. No intitiation ceremony can begin without a sacrifice to this spirit, also called the "spirit of the truth".

All the houses of a village must be consecrated with the appropriate ceremonies.


Everyday objects of Bijago culture

a) Women's objects
Among clothes, the most important are the traditional grass skirts. There are different styles for married women, adolescent girls, and the female elders, who wear skirts of only one color, usually red. Skirts are died red, black, and white, with different designs according to the different islands. The material used for making the skirts is the fibrous bark provided by the branches of certain trees and shrubs.

Other essential clothing pieces are scarves covering the head, and a cowry chain they fasten around their hips.

On Bubaque, women still wear the traditional costume, except when they go to the administrative center or to school, where it is no longer allowed. Although European clothes and modern fabrics are still expensive for the average Bijago family, it seems that the continual use of traditional clothing is more than just a desire to save money. It is more related to their attachment to traditional life.

In some villages on the island of Formosa, for example, it is common to see all the women and girls, except the female elders, wearing European clothes. In some villages, I found less concern for traditional ways of life than in other villages of the same island.

Other women's objects are those related to the pounding of rice, to cooking, and those related to the important activity of seeding. A mother also has a small basket to hold the bottom of palm oil she uses to annoint her baby. Most of the female elders smoke a pipe or snuff tobacco.

b) The men's objects
Traditional clothing for men is a loincloth of goat skin, cow skin, or the skin of another game animal such as gazelle or wild goat. Today, it is worn only during initiation periods. At other times, the clothing is of European fabric. Two other essencial items which serve as signs of wealth and prestige are the hat (kunkpont) and blanket worn as a mantle when going from one village to another (), which can be bought from the European market. Almost all the men, however, are giving up traditional costumes in favor of European ones. They wear shirts and trousers, except when they're doing agricultural work or climbing trees.

The most common objects of a Bijago man are those related to the important activity of climbing palm trees. These are a cord-like belt made from a large palm frond, a chisel-like axe used for cutting the fruits of the palm, and a small chisel for making a hole in the fruiting bunch. From this hole, palm wine runs into their calabash container or glass bottle.

Every Bijago man also wears, attached to his belt, a leather sheath with a long sharp knife. When they travel, they carry a bag, usually made of reeds, containing a cowhorn glass for drinking, a bottle of wine, a smoking pipe, some religious objects, and sometimes the traditional flint and steel - now replaced by the common match.


The traditional cooking

The staple food consists of rice, palm oil, and fish. I have heard some elders complaining about the present trend of their wives who want to use rice for the everyday cooking. In the past, rice was also a staple food, but not for every day, being alternated with beans, Bambara peanuts, European peanuts, and taro.

The fireplace for cooking is always built on the house's veranda, with three round stones to hold the pot or pan.

The fish is boiled, mashed, and mixed with lemon jouce, red pepper, and palm oil. Added to rice, it is the most common dish of the Bijagos.

Red pepper is abundantly used in almost every dish. As do other tribes of Guinea-Bissau, they eat monkey and most of the small animals and birds found on the islands. They do not eat snakes, vultures, or any kind of insects.

 
The Bijago Family

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