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


Religous Ceremonies

Bijago life in the archipelago remains difficult and unpredictable. The endemic diseases, such as malaria and elephantiasis, and the uncertain food supply help make the villages believe that their existence is a continuous gift from God. "If God helps," is the usual expression. Life, food, and harmony come from the world of spirits and not from man.

Using religious ceremonies, some Bijagos have the skill to fight sickness and combat misfortune.

Different Yypes of Ceremonies

The killing of a chicken is an important role during the ceremonies. The chicken jumps in its convulsions, revealing many things to the Bijagos:

1) Misfortune is possible if the chicken does not jump at all.

2) The best luck is when the chicken, after jumping all over, lands flat on its shoulders. This means that the spirit has already accepted the dialogue. If the chicken lies on its side, it means that the spirit is watching, but you must wait for a further sign. Also, it is good luck if the chicken ends up lying on its neck and facing east.

3) Usually, it is believed that the chicken has to pass close to or touch all the persons involved in the ceremony, and then return to the spirit Orebok or to the sacred stool.

4) If the chicken jumps and twirls itself, this is a sign that someone in the village is close to death.

Many times, the killing of a chicken can resolve a situation of uncertainty with a quick answer to give the people direction.

In these ceremonies, it's important that the people eat together. On some occasions, when people are very upset because of a calamity, they kill an animal and throw it into the forest as an ultimate appeal to the spirit.

There exist ceremonies for: the religious consecration of people and objects; the cultivation of rice; to ask protection for new crops; to ask for rain or stop its excess; and to ask for a pleasant journey, a pregnancy, or other necessities.

There is also a ceremony asking for the death of an enemy. It is performed with a chicken and an egg.

The Medical Practitioners

Plants used for medical purposes are called unikan, which means "medicine". They are effective. For example, the medicine to treat snake poisoning is very effective.

Become of the autonomy and self-sufficiency of the village, the powerful class of medical practitioners has not developed in the same ways as in other societies of West Africa. But, some villages have skillful people with knowledge of the healing powers of the plants. These medical practitioners also develop skills for predicting the future and performing tricks.

One has to start early in life to recognize the different plants of the forest, and must find someone to train him. A father may never tell his son nor a close relative the knowledge he possesses, unless he is paid the price he demands. It is a Bijago belief that it is worthless and dangerous to tell people your secrets without being rewarded. The medicine may lose its effectiveness, and the world of nature will withdraw its cooperation and harmony with the world of man.

The practitioners rely heavily on religious ceremonies for the efficiency of the medicines they use. Great importance is given to the powerful world of the spirits, in the healing process.

Those medical practitioners who engage in evil practices for the sake of harming people belong to the category of sorcerors.

They might live in the village without being recognized. Sooner or later, however, they will be discovered and expelled.

The religious ceremonies have the power to create friendly relationships between the people. Once, while I participated in an important ceremony with two Bijagos, one of them said to me in front of the spirit Orebok: "Now, we cannot refuse anything to each other. I would give you everything I possess."

The Bijago Personality

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