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


Initiation Rites

There exist initiation ceremonies for the men (manrach) and for the women (Dufuntu). Only men can have the manrach, while the women perform the Dufuntu ceremonies not for themselves but on behalf of dead boys who have entered their bodies.

The manrach is so important that a special spirit was created for it: the iran di fanadu. When the young men enter the sacred place of the manrach, they belong to this spirit and can only do what they are told to do. If somebody dies, no one can blame anyone, because it is the will of the spirit. If somebody is found guilty of serious transgressions, he could face the death penalty in order to restore peaceful relations with the spirit.

The initiation rites are the times of repeating the traditional ways of life. The male elders, by helping the young men to accept Bijago traditions, recall wha they were told and what they have learned through the experience of life. Secluded in the forest, they are able to reshape the Bijago world view and adapt it to the new situations that are present to them. They have abolished circumcision because it was too dangerous for the young people. They are changing the old rule of Kamabi, which required strict celibacy for at least five to seven years.

Bijago people say that the parents are able to physically raise their children, but unable to properly train their feelings and minds. The elders need to put the young through the manrach, so that they may be born into the cultural traditions of the village. The manrach teaches, through discipline and obedience to elders, how the young should control themselves and subordinate their personal ambitions to the good of the community. A good Bijago is not selfish but keeps the clan in mind.

A sixty-year-old person who is performing the initiation rites receives the same harsh treatment as a younger person. To indicate this rebirth into the Bijago world, the new young adults of Uno Island imitate the voice of children when they exit the manrach. They have just started to see again the light of the world around them.

The Manrach of the Men

On Bubaque Island, the spirit Orébok of Ancamona Village controls the realization of manrach. All the villages have to ask, through an important ceremony where they kill a cow, the power to have the sacred fire for the manrach.

The manrach, which in the past could last between six months to two years, is remembered as the time of harshness, of punishment, of many teachings from the elders and the period of isolation from the happy life of the village and friends. The main teachings are about agricultural labor and craftsmanship, ceremonial and funeral rites, and especially about the fundamental values of Bijago traditions. They teach the young to respect the elders, to be hospitable, to share with everyone.

a) The period before entering the forest

The young men have their hair cut. The new hair will belong to the spirit of the manrach. On the seashore, they prepare a trap to catch fish.

When the elders agree on a date, the young men are put into the sacred huts. The next day, they start dancing from village to village accompanied by the girls and young women. They announce the coming of manrach and say goodbye to the people.

After each of the young men has recognized his parents in front of everyone, and has acknowledged his true lovers by giving them gifts, the long night of dancing and greetings begins. The next day, they enter the manrach. Mothers and women of the village shed tears, and the others cry and scream. From this moment, the young men become young adults belonging to the spirit of manrach.

b) The period of “manrach

Everybody has to obey and learn from what he is taught. A great deal of teaching is done via the experience of a new life in the forest, far from the life of the village. The participants are in touch with nature, the elders, the ancestors, and the spirit Orebok. It is a new psychological and religious experience. They are not being shielded and are free to absorb, accept, and adjust their mind and emotions to the new environment. The friendly voices of the forest, the obedience to the elders, the rhythmic talking of the sacred drum, and the determination to keep the secrets will never be forgotten for the rest of their lives.

In the past, the Bijagos had the rite of circumcision. It is now discontinued due to the heavy death toll that followed it. They say that the tattoos on the chest and stomach are substitutes for the circumcision. Duing the old manrach, some died because of disease or transgressions. The news would have to be sent to the mother by a messenger, who breaks in front of her the pot which belonged to the dead son. All those present understand and no questions will be asked. The death is both the will and the price of the manrach.

The first days are very difficult, because of the scarcity and quality of the food. There is rice without fish nor meat. There are also ceremonial beatings. After the important ceremony of the bath, the initiates receive a new name, wear a loincloth, and eat much better. At this time, the elders begin to teach. Each elder teaches the subject he knows best. The young people are advised how to ask things of the spirit Orebok and how to greet each other. When two Bijago peers meet, they first shake hands calling each other his proper name from the manrach; then, each of them brings his hand to his heart, shakes hands again and brings the right hand to the left shoulder.

Another important aspect of the manrach is to recognzie the rhythms played by the sacred drum.

c) The last day of the "manrach“

The sacred drum announces the arrival of the new young adults. The huts that were used during the initiation ceremonies are burned. The young adults arrive, their faces covered with scars, clothed with palm leaves and carrying a long wooden spear and a shield made of reeds. They perform the dance of the young adults. They first recall the deeds of the ancestors. They represent rowing with the big war canoe of the Bijagos, with the bull head on the prow, and finally they play out various acts of everyday life, such as monkey hunting, seeding, and grinding rice.

The long and hard path toward full adulthood has just begun.

The Dufuntu Ceremonies

Bijago people have a strong belief that if a boy dies before performing the intiation ceremonies, he is unable to find his way to the land of his ancestors. The soul will walk around the villages and roam from island to island, restless, unhappy, and sometimes harming the living. Only if he has the possibility of entering a human body to perform all the missing ceremonies, can he become an adult and find the desired path (kadjoko kanindo). The soul usually enters the body of a girl during the time when her child's body becomes a woman's body.

The relationship with the dead soul is seen, especially by women, as a necessary evil and considered a dangerous experience. They cannot control this, except by accepting it and doing what the dead tell them to do. The sacred drum, though the communicative rhythm of its beats, is the only means they have to listen to the desires of the dead.

The mother of a boy who died at a young age recognizes in the dancing girl the presence of her son. The girl will never remember anything that happens to her a few days later. It is as if she has disappeared to another world, without leaving any memory.

The long process of the ceremonies gives the women a high status; normally, only a man experiences the manrach. The only chance for a woman to experience it is through the soul of a dead boy. Thus, the woman can obtain the same social status as a man, which could be considered as a woman's emancipation. A different theory explains the Dufuntu ceremonies by a convergent parallelism with a man's initiation rites. A man becomes a full member of Bijago society via a second birth, the manrach. A woman, in order to become a full mother and a full creative member of Bijago society, must give birth both physically and spiritually. It is a characteristic of Bijago society to recognize the importance and dignity of women. A son will never offend his mother, believing that she - through a special ceremony performed in the morning on the seashore - recall him back to her womb.

Women's ceremonies are performed in sacred places in the forest, different from those of the men. No men can enter the sacred place, except the chief and the orase; the latter are the men selected by the elder women to do the heavier work during the ceremonies and play the sacred drum.

The girls live in the forest from two months to a year. This is preceded by a great feast and dancing all around the village. The girls wear the long grass skirts of the Dufuntu. The souls start to call them, n'unté, which means "wife". When the sacred fire comes from the village of Ancamona, the girls are invited by the sacred drum to enter the forest.

one of the main purposes of this period is to teach the girls agricultural work and how to gather wild fruits of the forest or molluscs on the seashore. It is said for the girls, like the young men, this period presents elements of harshness and punishment. Others did not agree with this viewpoint.

An important part of the ceremonies is the learning of the language, dances, and songs of Dufuntu. Each girl acts out a specific dance, according to the will of the soul inside her.

The songs are related to the dreams, hopes, and disappointments of everyday life. The girl and the mother of the deceased recall these in front of everyone, in order to receive consideration and help. The songs act as a catharsis for the mother, and it helps relieve her of the suffering and pain she feels from his early death. The mother asks for compassion and help from the souls to bring her health and prosperity on Earth.

The sacred drum is always present with the Dufuntu in order to talk with them and interpret their will.

The day the girls come back from the forest, they wear a pair of trousers and men's shoes. They are covered with palm leaves and have a triangular hat on their heads. They dance for three days.

When the dancing is over, the girls return to their real status. They stay in the place of the elders for ten days, wearing beautiful skirts. Many visitors come to greet the girls and congratulate them. From this time on they are called Kamabi, like the young men. Like the corresponding men's age set, they start making offerings to the female elders.

Other Dufuntu Ceremonies

At least once a year, the girls will again receive visits from the souls.

These are unpredictable events. They can be related to a big event, such as the death of the chief or another calamity. The villagers interpret these calamities as punishment for their transgressions against the spirits. The Dufuntu, through their ceremonies, will restore harmony.

The Religious Ceremonies

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