THE BIJAGO COSMOLOGY


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

 
 

The Bijagos are a pragmatic (and artistic) people. In their spare time, they prefer to put their energies into carving wood, traveling from island to island, or looking for palm wine to share in joyful company. They are not concerned with trying to answer deep questions. Often, they say things like: "I do it this way because my elders told me to."

The best way to learn about the Bijago ways of life and style is during the initiation ceremonies. Secluded in the forest, far from the everyday activities, they feel free to imagine, to recall and reshape their world view.

I remember one night when I was talking with Edicok the Chief of Bijante and asking questions about the spirit, Orebok. He told me, inspired: "Do you really want to know something about the spirit Orebok? Talk with him, and he will answer you, telling you what to do. When I have something important in my mind, I talk with him, any time of the day or night."


Concept of the Supreme Being and other Gods

The supreme being (Nindo) is thought of as a Being who is above everything, difficult to see and be in touch with. The Bijagos also consider as supreme beings, according to their importance, the sun, the moon, the stars, the fire, and the wind.

The spiris are usually powerfully present in statues or objects made for that purpose. Some examples:

a) Unikán orébok -
This spirit is always represented in Bubaque with an anthropological figure.

Essential for the consegration of the statue is an ingredient made of animal blood, eggs, and plant leaves that is put into the belly and around the lower part of the statue. The statue, except the face and neck, is covered with white, black, and red cloth. Other objects attached to the statue are a small bag to receive alms, a hat, a ring, a cowtail, and a small gourd containing seeds of the "kamudu" tree which are used to attract the attention of the spirit.

Every "unikán orébok" has a special name, different for each village. Before praying, one must recite a long list of the dead chiefs and most important people who lived in the village.

Bijagos believe the statue is the dwelling place of the spirit Orebok. Nobody knows what he represents. The most common explanation is that he is the guardian spirit sent by God to protect the members of the village.

Unikán orébok is the living image of the village's history, and the chief is the true interpreter of this image.

b) Unikán ueko -
A person who possesses it cannot be wounded or killed by any weapons because of its magical power. Bullets will not penetrate the human body, and knives and swords will break against it. The most common representation of the unikan ueko is a special material made of different plants mixed with eggs and blood placed into the horn of cows, water buffalo, goats, sheep, or into the big shell of a univalve mollusc.

Before any prayer, the person recalls the first owner and all those dead who took care of that unikan ueko. The people of Canhabaque Island are believed to know its best secrets, because of their successful opposition to Portuguese colonialism.

c) Eramunde etremmate -
Like the other sacred objects, it is composed of the material made of various medicinal plants, mixed with eggs and blood. Everything is sealed into a horn. It is the symbol of the magical power of medical practitioners. It is used in healing, discovering the past, and predicting the future.

d) Unikán koratrakó -
The term "koratrakó" means any object or ceremony intended to prevent someone from healing.

It is one of the magical powers Bijagos fear the most. In the past, it was used by sorcerors and by those who wanted to put a curse on someone.

One type of koratrakó is made of six dark green palm leaves representing the souls of sorcerors and enemies, and six leaves of lighter green representing the souls of good people. It is given to an adolescent boy to protect him from the evil eye in his public life, for this is the time when it's easy for people to be jealous of him. It also has the purpose of helping him find love and friendship with the girls he encounters.

Another koratrakó is sealed in a small horn of wild goats, and it is fastened around the hips to protect one against the infidelity of one's spouse.


Role of the Ancestral Spirit, and Life after Death

The elders say it was very common in the past to commit suicide by hanging, especially for those suffering from irreparable shame or sickness. A person could be drawn to suicide by his belief that sooner or later he would be reincarnated into another body and return to Earth. The Bijago people no longer approve of suicide.

It is a strong belief of the Bijagos that life continues after death. The souls go to a particular place on Unhocomo Island, located on the western end of the archipelago, in the sacred hut called ""kandjá kachanná katammé orébok" (the sacred hut which shows the way to the soul). There they wait for the final passage to the place (kadjoko kanede) where Nindo is.

During the time needed to complete all the funeral rites, the souls can be seen around the archipelago.

There are several types of souls:

Orébok - The soul of a dead person who is awaiting the final trip to the kadjoko kanede.

Oshó - The souls of those who died before completing all the ceremonies, who are wandering around the archipelago, and manifest themselves as the living.

Kasisa - The soul of the soceror, who will never find the way to the kadjoko kanede, and whose place is a particular spot in the forest. These souls are very dangerous to the living and appear especially at night along the roads, as tongues of fire.

After his death, the soul of the chief belongs to the group of ancestors immediately. This helps to view the presence of the ancestors as friendly and welcome and to almost physically experience this presence any time people gather to speak to the ancestors dwelling in the statue of the spirit, Orébok.

The soul can hear the powerful world of the spirits and Nindo, and it may reincarnate into another human body. It is important to maintain the unity of purposes between the two worlds which are parts of the same human reality.


Funeral Rites and Practices

When someone is close to death, the chief or an elder selects a chicken and cuts its throat in front of the spirit Orébok. If the chicken jumps towards the chief instead of toward the statue, there is no hope left for recovery of the sick person. Relatives and friends crowd into his room. To stop death, they touch the body, say friendly things to him, pray and hope, until the soul leaves the body. All activities are stopped in order to start preparing the funeral rite.

The elders take the corpse to the seashore to bathe it. Nobody seems afraid of the dead. They talk with the corpse as if the person was still alive. It is common belief that every death is caused by something or someone. If the dead person is young or if death came suddenly, nobody will be at peace until an acceptable reason has been found.

If the corpse touches the poles of a house on its way back to the village, this is a warning that the inhabitants of that house are in some way responsible for the death. Therefore, everyone gets out of the way when the group carrying the corpse enters the village.

The funeral rites are performed in three distinct stages:

a) The burial ceremonies -
The corpse is laid down in the middle of the village at the chief's place, with its face toward the sunset. The body is clothed in a loincloth or two grass skirts, according to the sex.

Important is the killing of numerous chickens, which will reaveal something about the cause of death by the manner they jump after being killed. The different interpretations are these:

- The chicken jumps toward the calabash, located between the spirit Orebok and the offerings. This means that the dead person robbed something.

- The chicken jumps toward the corpse. This means someone caused the death and the dead person will reveal who is responsible.

- The chicken jumps toward the spirit Orebok. This means that the dead person or his lineage is responsible for some misdeeds related to the religious ceremonies. The spirit Orebok will reveal the real cause.

- The chicken jumps outside the circle, into the middle of the grass. This means the dead is responsible for his own death, because he was a sorceror. In this case, he must be buried outside the village in the forest, without any further ceremony.

The corpse is rolled in a mat. Near the head is put one pot of rice, and one of water. The corpse is put into a circular hole one meter in diameter and one meter deep. The elders stand by the grave for five days and nights.

b) The djongago -
These are other ceremonies that will reveal the cause of death. The djongago is a coffin-like structure made of bamboo poles. Inside the structure are placed leaves and branches of a special plant, which are believed to recall the soul of the dead person.

On the night of March 3, 1976, I was present in the village of Bijante at the djongago rituals for the death of the young adult, Bida. He had died mysteriously on the island of Rubane. Many people gathered. Suddenly, the djongago arrived. The two men carrying the djongago stood in front of the Unikan Orebok, moving in mysterious ways. One of the male elders began questioning the djongago about the cause of death. The answers are determined by the way the two men move the djongago. One of the men told me that he didn't know he was doing, as if the djongago was directing its own actions. It was very heavy as if the corpse was still in it.

Some of the following questions were asked during the night: "Had the deceased stolen something? Did he commit a wrongdoing against the spirt of manrach? Did he fight someone?" To all these questions, the djongago answered no. But when one person asked if someone of the deceased's lineage may've been responsible for the death, the djongago first approached the elder who'd given the question, and then, after the question was repeated, it approached the statue of Orebok and itself bowed. It signified a "yes" answer to the question. The mother of the deceased rose, expressing her pain for the loss of her only son: "No kanano mo dikidik mocanamme i Nindo." This means, "I accepted it because everything is the will of God." A young adult of the same age grade as the dead stood up, warning the crowd that his "age group" would kill that person if he dared to cause the death of someone else. At that moment, a male elder related to Bida stood and touched the djongago, stopping any further questions. It was the signal that everything had been understood and the rite was over. I was told later that the elder wanted to stop any more specific questions that could have driven the djongago to give answers embarrassing some of those present.

Years ago, somebody found guilty of another's death would be executed. That is no longer true today.

On the same night of the ritual, the djongago is cut into pieces and burned.

c) The Mourning Ceremonies -
Bijago people believe the dead continue to share in the live of the village. The mourning rites are an occasion to invite the people to a joyful gathering. There is food, drink, and tobacco, and then they talk about the good qualities of the deceased. No one is allowed to mention his name. Some affirm that they've been in touch with a dead relative in their dreams and also during the daytime.

One man told me he once saw his wife wandering around the ocean looking for fresh water. He gathered the people in the sacred hut and killed a chicken, asking the soul what she wanted. The chicken jumped toward a pot of water. The fact was interpreted as a warning to perform her mourning ceremonies, as soon as possible, so she could find the way to the land of her ancestors.

Someone saw the soul of a friend who died on Bubaque Island passing through a sacred hut on the island of Formosa, on the same day of the death while knowing nothing of the friend's sickness.

The soul is seen as a shadow wearing a loincloth or grass skirt.

 
Initiation and Dufuntu Ceremonies

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