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


Marriage among the Bijagos

Regarding the relationships between men and women, we notice a great respect and freedom for personal initiatives that seems unknown in most societies in Guinea-Bissau.

Adolescent boys and girls live and play together.

Adolescent girls seem to avoid any emotional involvement. Their mothers and the elders warn them to wait and prepare for the coming Dufuntu ceremonies, the mystic union with the souls of the boys who died before performing the initiation ceremonies. The dead boys will choose their bodies for making reappearances in the village. Most girls remain virgins.

The adolescent boys are more free in their relationships with the other sex. Before the initiation ceremonies, a young Bijago man might procreate with a woman.

The life-style of adolescent boys and especially of the young men, who go dancing from village to village and island to island, puts them in a situation of being in love with women fascinated by their strength and beauty. A young man who is a good dancer, and a strong and skillful worker, might develop more than one permanent relationship of this type. A chlid born from this type of relationship belongs to the mother, and her clan takes care of him.

Traditional Bijago society distinguished two types of sexual relationships between men and women:

a) Sexual relationships before the initiation period - A young man does not yet have the right to own a personal home in which to live with his lovers. During the initiation period, all these relationships are ended forever, and none of his previous lovers are eligible to become his spouse in a future marriage. However, this rule is now changing in Bubaque.

b) The real marriage relationship after the initiation ceremonies - After a special ceremony, the wife leaves her parents' or elder brother's house and goes to the new house of the husband.

Some informants told me that in the past a woman would choose her lover and her husband. Today in Bubaque, both men and women take the initiative of the first approach.

In regards to true marriage, Bijago people have a special ceremony in which only those who are married can participate. The elders, both men and women, accompany the bride to the house of the groom, who is waiting and sitting on the bed in his room. The women ask the bride to sit near her spouse. They tell her: "Daughter, look at your husband we are giving you in marriage." And the elders say to the groom: "Take care of the bride, work hard for her and do not let her go asking for food from others. Give her hospitality but send her back to her mother's house if she is barren."

Among the Bijago people, polygamy is the rule. The wives may share the same house, or each may live in a separate house with her children. Meanwhile, the husband may stay alone in his house with the older sons. Sometimes, a wife may choose to live with her parents or elder brother. On this matter, there seems to exist great freedom and variety of choice, which causes divorce to be frequent. The woman has economic security in her clan and family, and she can earn a living in her home village.

Some experts have shown me special plants and shrubs that the women use to increase fertility, to cause abortion, or as contraceptives - for example, when a woman would like to have sexual intercourse during her nursing period. Cultural tradition prohibits any sexual intercourse during a woman's nursing period with her child. If she does have intercourse, they say the milk will stop from her breast and her child's mouth will swell and blister. When the time of weaning ends, the husband who desires his wife may take the child into the forest and give it palm wine and rice; as a result, the mother must stop nursing.

The Age Grades

In Bijago philosophy, life grows step by step. You learn from the other village members and from life itself how to adapt to the environment and the social relatinships within and outside the vilage. Children are respected as persons, and there is little or no beating of them. A Bijago child may be seen to cry because of sickness, hunger, or because he has been struck by a peer, but not because an adult has beaten him. If an adult beats a child, soon all the villagers will be criticizing the adult.

Even when the chief and elders have to punish someone, it seems that clemency is always the attitude they adopt.

In a situation in the village of Bruce, adolescent girls were deprived of food. They complained, and the other villagers agreed that the punishment was too severe. The elders had to give a gallon of wine to the girls as an apology for the punishment.

The young are taught to respect the elders and to share their goods with everyone. When the children start to mature and are thought to have the capacity to reason, they meet with the elders. They share some of their goods with them, and by giving they meet and are met for the first time. The lesson of giving and of meeting others by giving is learned forever. The village is the unit of life and growth, not of weakness and individualism.

Age Grades of the Men

"Ongbá" (young children 2 to 6 years old)

As soon as the mother realizes that the child is alive in her womb, she starts annointing her abdomen with palm oil to make the baby grow strong and healthy. At this point, she stops having sexual intercourse.

Traditionally, the childbirth takes place in the woman's house with the assistance of the elder women. The umbilical cord is cut with a clam shell. The new mother's mother hastens to give the good news to the father who is to name the child immediately.

The mother fastens a cord around the baby's left wrist and another around the waist, saying: "I put this koratakó (the spirit that protects from evil eye) around the wrist and around the waist of my child to protect him."

At the age of three, the child is weaned. The usual ceremony for weaning is to go to the sacred place where the mother first asked for a child.

"Kadene" (from 7 to 11 years)

A ceremony alerts the boys to respect and obey their parents, and teaches them some skills such as how to cut wood, how to guard the crops, and how to go with the mother to gather mollusks and fruits. During this age grade, they dance with a small drum and wear an anklet made of mango nuts and cockle shells.

"Kanhokam" (from 12 to 17)

The main activities of this age grade are dancing and traveling from village to village. The dancing ornaments are palm leaves, a wooden amulet, and several anklets made of grass. The most important are the wood masks representing dangerous fish, such as the hammerhead, sawfish, and swordfish. Also important are the pelican, domestic fowl, and a shield and sword made of wood. The dance is a war-like dance, with songs recalling adventures of battles all around the world.

"Kabaro" (from 18 to 27)

This is the most joyful period of Bijago life, remembered with nostalgia as the time of freedom, love, and openness to the world. This period lasts until the young men are ready for initiation ceremonies. They go dancing from village to village, especially during the dry season, gladdening the nights of the villagers with the speedy rhythm of drums, and with their songs recalling successful and unsuccessful love affairs. The songs ask for love from all the women who are listening. At this time, the young men have their first children with the unmarried women whom they are in love with. The dancers wear fancy scarves around their arms, metal rings around their ankles, and a sword in their right hand.

The dancers' characteristic horned mask, so famous all around the Bijago islands, represents four types of dances: the dance of the cow, the dance of the bull, the dance of the ox, and the dance of the wild bull.

During this long age grade, the young men have to undergo important ceremonies before passing to the next phase. They must give expensive gifts to the elders and their father. The gifts may be cows, lots of fish, or large quantities of palm oil or palm wine. Furthermore, they have to undergo ceremonial beatings, although these are not so painful. The beatings have two meanings: punishment for all the young men's transgressions, and to prove their strength before the physical sufferings they will soon encounter. The future sufferings are those they will experience after the dancing years are over and they enter the serious period of their lives.

"Kamabi" (from 27 to 35)

This period comes after two years o initiation ceremonies in the forest. It is the most painful of the age classes, a long rite of passage towards a more responsible life. They are forbidden to have sexual intercourse with any lover, and at the beginning of this age grade they cannot even speak with women, not even their mother. The Kamabi don't possess anything, not even their own clothes, and have to do the heavy labor of the village. The elders can ask them for any kind of aid, and they cannot refuse. Practically this whole period is spent working and searching for goods necessary to pay the elders.

They undergo six ceremonial beatings and must make large donations to the elders. They give cows, goats, pigs, rice, etc. It is during this period that friendships grow stronger each day and are friendships for the rest of their lives.

The traditional clothes of the Kamabi are a simple loincloth made of goatskin, a scarf around the head, and a long two-pointed spear together with a shield. Today, the Kamabi also wear European clothes and may take a wife while performing only some of the ceremonies.

What is most important for some is that they should not be allowed to take former lovers as wives. This is a big change from tradition, due to the contact with Europeans, and the elders have preferred to modify the rules instead of letting them lose meaning because of continuous violations.

"Kachuká" (from 36 to 55)

The Kachuká can get married according to the traditional ceremony, build a house of his own, and own land. Usually they wear attractive European clothes, buy expensive fabrics, gold and beaded necklaces, bracelets and earrings in order to be noticed by the women.

"Okotó" (male elders, older than 55)

An elder no longer procreates, he looks after his numerous children and teaches them the traditions.

As he ages, his thoughts are more and more directed toward the day of his passing to the land of his ancestors. He wears only a loin-cloth of goatskin or of European fabric, preserving his best clothes for the day of his burial ceremony.

Age Grades of the Women

"Ongbá" (2 to 6 years)

The girls follow their mothers everywhere, helping them to gather mollusks and fruits.

"Kampuni" [from 11 to 20)

This is the age grade of the Dufuntu ceremonies. "Kampuni karák Orébok," says the mother to the girl's father. This means the girl dances in the presence of the soul. Girls passing through the different Dufuntu ceremonies become Kabaro and Kamabi as the corresponding age grades of the males. They wear quite long skirts, dyed red and black. They usually walk in groups with a wooden lance in their right hands.

"Okanto" (married women of 21-50 years)

This is the name given to a woman when she becomes a mother.

Okanto also refers to the Kampuni who had children before the Dufuntu ceremonies. Having a child before these ceremonies is a shame for the grandmother, who will repeat to her friends: "My daughter has given birth while still a little girl, and she will not dance Orebok because she has already given birth to a child."

"Okotó" (after 50 years)

This group is no longer afraid of the spirits of death, because they have seen them and are able to speak to them in a friendly manner without fear. They are the only women allowed to talk about the Dufuntu ceremonies. The younger women may not discuss these secret and frightening ceremonies, in any way.

The Cosmology of the Bijagos

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