Guineans of Guinea-Bissau

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Guineans of Guinea-Bissau

LOCATION: Guinea-Bissau
POPULATION: 1.6 million
LANGUAGE: Portuguese, Crioulo, Balanta, Pulaar, Malinke
RELIGION: Indigenous African religion, Islam, Christianity
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 1: Guineans; Fulani; Malinke


Guinea-Bissau has been inhabited since the Stone Age. Early peoples in this coastal area hunted and gathered or grew rice in small communities. These communities were swept into the kingdom of Gabu, which became part of the great Mali Empire in ad 1200–1350, and then within the orbit of the Songhay Empire that flourished into the 16th century. In 1546, as the unifying power of Songhay declined, Gabu exerted its independence and gradually became semi-autonomous. Portions of this ancient kingdom existed until 1867.

Portuguese explorers first visited the coastal islands and mainland in the 15th century. Nuno Tristao is credited with exploring and mapping the area in 1446. Portuguese colonists soon followed and gained trading rights from the Portuguese government. The most valuable commodity soon became human slaves, and Guinea-Bissau became a center for the Portuguese slave trade in Africa. In the early 1800s, the French moved south from Senegal to establish trading posts along the coastal estuaries. These estuaries and other inlets offered hiding places for slave traders, allowing the trade to continue until the end of the American civil war. In 1879, Portugal changed Guinea-Bissau's status from a possession to a separate colony, which provided greater autonomy for the European settler community. Soon after, the Conference of Berlin (1885–86) reaffirmed the colonial boundaries in West Africa, giving the Portuguese undisputed control over the Cape Verde islands, the offshore islands of Bissagos, and the Guinea-Bissau mainland between the French possessions of Senegal and Guinea.

In 1951, Portugal attempted to reassert control from the metropole by designating its African colonies, including Guinea-Bissau, as overseas provinces. Five years later, dissidents founded the African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC) and began to wage a guerrilla war against the Portuguese. Its leader, Amilcar Cabral, was assassinated in 1973, but the overthrow of the Salazar government in Portugal paved the way for independence of Portuguese Africa. An agreement in August 1974 led to independence on September 10 with Cabral's brother, Luis de Almeida Cabral, as president. Cape Verde gained its independence a year later, and for five years the two countries shared the PAIGC as a common party. However, Guinea-Bissau remained a single party state because of fears of a return to Portuguese rule.

Nearly 30 years of political upheaval followed. Joao Bernardo Veira deposed Cabral in a military coup in November 1980 and established a government of crony capitalists. Agricultural production increased overall, but Veira's government was deposed by rebels in May 1999. Malam Bacai Sanha, the former head of the parliament, became the interim president. In 2000, Kumba Yala, a former teacher and popularist leader of the independence movement, was elected president in the country's first multi-party elections. However, an army rebellion that year threatened the fledgling democracy and led to the death of General Ansumane Mane. In September 2003, Yala was deposed in a military coup, and Henrique Rosa was appointed president of a transitional government. In March 2004, parliamentary elections returned a plurality to the PAIGC and Carlos Gomes Junior became prime minister. However, in October the chief of the armed forces was killed in a mutiny over back pay. In 2005 Veira returned from exile in Portugal to stand for elections. The second national round of multi-party elections was held in June 2005 and returned Veira to the presidency. The contest was fought bitterly by Uala and Sanha resulting in a run-off between Sanha and Veira. Veira eventually was declared the winner, but Sanha and his PAIGC party alleged fraud. Sanha finally accepted the results in September. In April 2007, Prime Minister Aristides Gomes resigned after being censured by parliament. A no confidence vote for his government paved the way for Martinho N'dafa Kabi to be appointed his successor.

Internationally, Guinea-Bissau has maintained good relations with Senegal and Guinea. Both neighbors sent troops to support Veira in the late 1990s to repel insurgents. In return, Veira's government attempted to dislodge Casamance rebels who established bases in Guinea-Bissau in order to launch cross-border attacks on Senegalese government troops.


Guinea-Bissau is one of Africa's smallest countries. It is approximately the size of Switzerland or slightly under three times the size of Connecticut. It is wedged between Guinea to the south and east and Senegal to the north. Its coastline spans 299 km (186 mi), and it encompasses an archipelago of islands about 48 km (30 mi) off the coast. In all, Guinea-Bissau counts 36,120 sq km (13, 946 sq mi).

Guinea's eight regions reach from a swampy coast to gradually rising savanna in the east. Mangroves and winding estu-aries provide rich fishing grounds along the highly indented coastline. Sparsely wooded savanna dominates the eastern reaches. The highest point of the country is in the northeast about 305 m (1,000 ft) above sea level. This area joins the northern reaches of the Guinean Fouta Djallon plateau. From June to November, monsoonal rains pound the coast, where up to 4 m (13 ft) of water falls annually. Two-thirds of this rain falls in July and August. The reverse is true for the rest of the year when cooler dry winds blow off the deserts of north central Africa.

Guinea-Bissau's population is young. About 41% is 14 years old or younger and population growth is at about 2% per year. The population consists of four main ethnic groups and several smaller groups. The largest group is the Balanta (30%), followed by the Fula (20%), Manjaca (14%), Mandinga (13%), and the Pepel (7%). The Balanta occupy the central region and the Fula the north, while the Manjaca, Mandinga, and Pepel have settled mostly in the coastal areas. In addition, Cape Verdean expatriates, Syrian Lebanese, and some Portuguese are found in the capital of Bissau and in secondary towns. Two of the groups—the Fula and the Mandinga—form part of greater transboundary ethnic groups living in Senegal, Mali, Guinea, and beyond. The Mandinga trace their ancestry directly to the founders and rulers of the Mali Empire.


The peoples of Guinea-Bissau speak Portuguese, Crioulo, and several African languages. Portuguese is used widely in government and is the language of instruction in high schools and universities. Aside from Portuguese, the languages spoke regionally are Pulaar (Fulfulde), which is spoken by the Fula, and Mandinka, which is spoken by the Mandinga group. Guinea-Bissau is a member of the Lusophone states of Africa, which include Mozambique, Angola, Sao Tomé and Principe, and Cape Verde.


Guinea-Bissau, like most African countries is rich in folklore. Elders and professional storytellers recall myths, legends, and tales handed down over generations. Their stories often feature animals whose cleverness, foibles, and personalities illustrate human character and experience. The glories of past empires, such as the Mali and Songhai Empires of the 13th and the 15th centuries ad, also serve as backdrops for folkloric exposition. In the retelling of such stories, Guineans become part of the peoples of greater West Africa who share ancient cultural traditions.

Some folklore, having emerged from the decolonization period, is more recent. It recalls a colonial past of repression, servitude, and humiliation broken by revolutionary struggle. For Guinea-Bissau's youthful population, the revolutionary war of the 1950s seems like ancient history. Leaders of the liberation struggle, like Amilcar Cabral, born in 1924, are now revered national heroes and have entered the pantheon of national folklore. Through their poems, speeches, and armed struggle, they have become larger than life.


Nearly half (45%) of the population is Muslim. The Muslim community dominates the commercial sector and, increasingly, the government. Despite centuries of Catholic missions, dating to the Portuguese explorations along the Atlantic coast, Christians account for only 5% of the population. African indigenous religion overlays these faiths with at least 50% of the population practicing some form of African traditional religion.

In African traditional religion, ancestors exercise power over their living descendants through spirits. Spirits may be evoked through offerings at household shrines or at shrines staffed by priests, witches, and traditional doctors. In coastal villages, one finds many such shrines, to which animals are sacrificed, and local alcohol and food are offered. People mainly visit the shrines to seek advice and protection or to make special requests. Guineans abroad often return to visit the shrines. However, if they are unable to do so in person, they send remittances to relatives to make sacrifices and say prayers on their behalf.


Guineans celebrate nine holidays per year, including Christmas, New Year's, International Women's Day, and Labor Day. Two holidays are dedicated to Muslim feasts: Korité, which celebrates the end of Ramadan, and Tabaski, the Feast of the Sacrifice (of Abraham's son). The Anniversary of the Killing of Pidjiguoiti, National Day or Independence Day (September 24), and the Anniversary of the Movement of Readjustment (November 14) are also commemorated.

The biggest holidays are faith-related. Carnival was once identified with Catholic Crioulo culture, but is now a popular multi-ethnic festival. In a sense, the entire month of Ramadan has become a holiday, as fasting during the day and feasting at night slow the pace of work. Korité celebrations of special meals and gatherings with family and friends may last from two to ten days. Tabaski begins with prayer at the mosque, followed by feasting and gift giving among families and friends.


Rites of passage vary by ethnic group and by religion, but uniformly celebrate birth, puberty, adulthood (marriage), old age, and death. Muslims traditionally name their children at baptisms, when the father whispers the baby's name into its ear. Names are significant because they normally have meanings that tell about the family, its caste, and its ancestors.

Circumcision marks the attainment of puberty, suggesting purification in Islam, and also a mystical supernatural dimension for traditionalists. For girls and boys, this ritual is the most important because it is the gateway to adulthood and full participation in society. In some cases, a child may be circumcised at a younger age. Islam advises that circumcision take place on the seventh day, the fortieth day, or when a child reaches the age of seven, but depending on the beliefs of the family, it may be carried out in peer groups and conducted as part of a week-long rite of initiation. Girls, however, may be circumcised as infants.

Weddings are cause for festive celebrations. For Muslims, after the religious celebration at the mosque, couples will also need to be officially married by a civil administrator at a government office. These ceremonies may be held on the same day. In some areas, the passage to death is the most celebrated event as it marks the afterlife, and still more importantly, ancestorhood (see Religion). At funerals, wealthy families may have hundreds of people in attendance and will slaughter several cattle for feasting. Non-Muslims may make gifts of food and local palm wine as ritual offerings. The deceased will be wrapped in several layers of expensive cloth. Muslims bury their dead on the day after death and hold eulogy ceremonies 40 days after death.


Guineans are extremely social people and spend considerable time greeting friends and maintaining relationships. The Muslim greeting, salaam alekum, meaning the “peace of God,” is commonly shared not only among practicing Muslims, but also by people who may be greeting each other in a Muslim neighborhood or region. The common reply is alekum salaam, meaning “and peace with you.” It is considered rude not to acknowledge someone by offering a verbal greeting, by bringing one's right hand to one's chest, or by shaking hands (only with the right hand) in most company. However, it is unusual for men and women to shake hands with each other, especially in the village. Greetings often involve asking questions about one's well-being and that of their family.

Guinea-Bissau is an affective society where relationships largely are determined by birth. The strongest link is to the nuclear family, which may include mother, father, and siblings, and in polygamous households, a co-mother and her children. Cousins usually are thought of as brothers and sisters. The strength of this bond gradually weakens as the relationship widens to the clan or lineage and ethnic group. But, the power of these relations is seen in the importance people attach to membership in various associations that include peer groups, hometown associations, secret societies, and inter-tribal relationships.

In rural areas, rights to land are determined locally. Rules vary according to tribe, but generally land is passed down in the family through males. Among the Manjaco and Papel, rice fields are inherited by a sister's sons, who as caretakers and custodians of the trust, determine which family members receive which portion of land. In any case, it is expected that members of a kinship group help each other till and harvest their fields. Not to do so would be to invite ostracism, a punishment of the worst kind.

Affective relationships are often hierarchical and demand proper respect. A child must show deference to his parents and older siblings, while adults and young adults must defer to their elders. Again, not to do so would be seen as disrespectful. Because of the hierarchy of these relationships, people are used to authority figures, secrecy, and limited decision-making.

Affective relationships have economic dimensions. The Mandingo are born into castes, which historically have promoted skills, trades, and vocations. Blacksmiths, storytellers, pastoralists, agriculturalists, doctors, and herbalists are determined by caste, and these societies have established long traditions and rules that govern relations between members of different castes. The Fula know who among them descended from a slave or free family. Social mores are changing, but it is a gradual process.


Living conditions for most people are difficult. On the Human Development Index (HDI), which measures chances to live long, be educated, and have a decent standard of living, Guinea-Bissau ranks third to the last out of 177 countries. Wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few elites distinguished by their Mercedes Benz cars, fancy suits, and the latest electronic gadgets.

In contrast, most people live in small rectangular houses with galvanized iron roofs, or cylindrical huts made of dried mud and thatched roofs. These homes typically have no windows or chimneys to vent smoke. Cooking may be done outside with firewood and large stones, on which a kettle is placed. Malaria, tuberculosis, and other life-threatening diseases are rampant. Most people cannot afford western medicines, and those that can, may find them beyond their expiration date. Affordable health care means seeking out local healers and diviners and making sacrifices at shrines. Fewer than 60% of people have access to potable water and 40% will not live past the age of 40.


For the subsistence farmer, family life revolves around seasonal work in the fields, supplemented with weekly markets and punctuated by visiting with family and friends. Families rise early, usually at dawn, have a meal of porridge or stew, and walk long distances to their fields. If the children are not in school, they will accompany the adults to help with weeding, harvesting, or tending babies and small children. Girls help their mothers fetch water, carry firewood, and wash clothes at the river or stream. Despite the heavy work, children find time to play, and boys will be seen kicking a soccer ball in the village squares. Evenings are a time for eating the large meal of the day. Depending on the tribe, men may eat separately from the rest of the family. Evenings also are a time for relaxing and storytelling, and during full moons, dancing and drumming may take place. In town and country, baptisms, weddings, funerals, and holidays are times for getting together to celebrate, to grieve, and to share experiences. City children may have better chances for schooling, but many of them must peddle wares and do domestic chores to help generate income for the family.


By and large, Guineans have little discretionary income for expensive clothing. Hence, everyday work clothing consists of hand-me-downs and used clothing purchased at local markets. Western clothes, t-shirts, and sports jerseys from American universities and professional sports teams have found their way to Africa in bulk shipments of used clothing. People are conscientious about how they look though, and if at all possible, they dress up to go out in public.

In coastal areas it is common to see women wearing brightly colored pieces of cloth (wraps or lappas) with matching blouses and headscarves, although these are found throughout the country. Men may wear eye-catching prints that have been made into shirts and trousers. Children wear these as well. Many men wear boubous, which are flowing cotton robes with open sides, worn over matching pants. Their color and quality speak to the owner's wealth. The higher the quality of cloth and the more exquisite the tailoring, the greater one's wealth. They may wear matching skullcaps. Women wear a version of these that comes in three pieces: a wrap that ties around the waist and a matching blouse and headscarf. Friday prayers and holidays are the best times to observe and appreciate fine clothing.


Guineans are fond of white rice, which is a staple for coastal people and also imported to feed urbanites. In the interior, millet is the staple crop. Both are enjoyed with a variety of sauces typically cooked in a base of palm oil, onions, and tomatoes, supplemented with meat, fish, chicken, pounded seeds, greens, or peanut pastes. These stews vary somewhat by tribe and region, but they are cooked in large kettles over wood fires. For lack of refrigeration, mothers or their helpers will buy produce daily at the local market. Millet, peanuts, seeds, and other ingredients are pounded in a mortar and pestle. The coast is known for its fresh fish, while upcountry, guinea hens, and beef are popular. On ceremonial occasions, people eat large quantities of meat and, unless proscribed by religion, consume large quantities of palm wine, rum, or other local beverages.


The government has made education universal, but in practice only one in three children actually attends school. Schools are often built in or near villages in three- to five-classroom structures. Children are not unaccustomed to walking a few miles to school. Pencils, textbooks, and chalk—materials taken for granted elsewhere—are in short supply, and families may need to pay extra for them. But, the greatest challenge at the primary and secondary levels is teachers. Teachers prefer to live and teach in towns where quality of life is higher. Low pay and erratic salaries hurt motivation.

At the university level, the few Guineans who obtain scholarships study abroad. In colonial times, only a few students—primarily of Cape Verdean ancestry—received higher education. They went to Portugal. In the 1970s, those with the right connections went to East Germany, the Soviet Union, Cuba, and China for their degrees. During the revolutionary era, the government embarked upon an ambitious literacy program led by the well-known educator-activist, Paolo Freire. The program was meant to be universal, but given the extreme challenges facing the country, it failed to have lasting effect.


Like most of Africa, Guinea-Bissau's cultural heritage is embodied in sculpture, music, dance, and theater. The national media support the performing arts in telecasts and radio broadcasts, which are extremely popular. Guineans have passed down their history and literature orally through storytelling and song. Only recently have these been the subject of written accounts. One notable example is the writings of Amilcar Cabral, who led the armed struggle for independence. Cabral's influence is still felt through his masterful speeches on national liberation. Crioulo fiction has also gained popularity thanks to Guinean writers of Cape Verdean ancestry, such as Fausto Duarte and Joao Alves da Neves. Duarte, a government employee educated in the Portuguese assimiliçao (assimilation) program, distinguished himself as one of the earliest African novelists, first writing in Portuguese and later in Crioulo. He died in 1953.


Guineans start working early in their lives as children. Many of them are subsistence farmers and artisanal fisher folk, living off their own produce. Women and children also perform domestic tasks. Children herd goats and cattle. Market trade is usually conducted by women. Those lucky enough to find employment in the public sector have steady work, but barely make a living wage. As elsewhere in Africa, many people count on remittances from friends and relatives abroad. Trade and commerce are mostly of the petty variety and relatively unimportant for the GDP. In Bissau, men drive taxis or load and unload ships at the docks. Pontas, former colonial concessions now owned by members of government, are worked by landless peasants who receive farm implements from the landowners so they can grow cash crops. However, the sharecroppers must give a portion of their harvests or profits to the landowner.


Either as spectators or players, Guineans love soccer. All other sports, such as basketball, though played by schoolchildren, pale in comparison. One bi-annual tournament in West Africa is named for Guinea-Bissau's national hero, Amilcar Cabral. The Amilcar Cabral Cup has never been won by, but has been hosted by, Guinea-Bissau three times since it began in 1979.


Most forms of entertainment and recreation are fairly simple and do not depend on electricity. In the village, swapping tales around a fire in the evening, a boys' game of soccer with an undersized plastic ball, or a game of checkers in front of a market stall may be all there is for entertainment. One popular game that is played throughout West Africa is Ouri (also called Wari), which is played on a wooden board with seeds and six pockets. The object of the game is to capture more seeds than one's opponent. Since the game has only 48 seeds, capturing 25 is sufficient to win. Ceremonies and feasts provide opportunities to socialize and to meet members of the opposite sex.

In the towns, small bars and coffee shops, internet cafés, TV, and DVDs provide ready forms of entertainment. Soccer fans watch matches on TV, at clubs with satellite dishes, or at the national stadium. At night, discotheques attract people of all stripes. Guineans love to dance the passada, a highly suggestive Portuguese-African dance with lots of pelvic motion and rhythm. The local music beat is called gumbe. Men tap out the rhythms to gumbe on giant gourds cut in half, which they float upside down in a basin of water. Lyrics to gumbe music are in Crioulo and are sung throughout the country. Gumbe artists from the 1980s and 1990s used their songs to protest against the dictator-president, Joao Bernardo Vieira. Gumbe has borrowed heavily from Congolese soukous, French Antil-lean zouk, and rap, reggae, and salsa. Cover charges at most discos are high, but in reality almost anyone can get in to forget about their problems in their music and dance.


Art generally has a religious, mystical, and otherworldly significance. Each ethnic group has its own arts and crafts, and some, like the Baga of the southwestern coast, have achieved world recognition for their woodcarvings. The Baga, who number perhaps only 60,000 people, are divided between Guinea-Bissau and the Republic of Guinea to the south. They make wooden busts of females, the Nimba, which are fecund images. Owing to their distinctiveness, Nimba have become internationally renowned as superior works of art. In addition to finer forms of art, Guineans also make tourist art and crafts, such as animal carvings, rattan baskets, jewelry, and toys made from tin cans, but there is limited demand for such items.


Guinea-Bissau has many social problems stemming from cultural, social, economic, and political causes. Women face discrimination, and most children do not finish primary school. Schoolgirls often face sexual advances from teachers and older students. Extreme poverty has forced many girls and women into prostitution, and a growing number of boys living on the streets of Bissau have become part of gangs. Some children are trafficked, especially to Senegal, where boys are sold to work for religious leaders (marabouts), and forced to beg on the streets to pay for their upkeep and schooling. Buying and selling of child brides is a reality, and child labor is common.

Government corruption and neglect is part of the problem. Government posts are seen as opportunities for self-enrichment, and officials do little to enforce laws or regulate behavior. Judges and policemen are poorly trained and paid and commonly take bribes, and prisons fail to measure up to minimum standards of decency. While the personal use of illicit drugs is not the problem it is in Westernized countries, Guinea-Bissau has become a transit point for international narco-traffickers smuggling Columbian cocaine to European markets. Journalists who report on the drug trade have received death threats. In the absence of strong checks and balances, Guinea-Bissau has a powerful executive and a system that has encouraged military coups and counter coups. Political instability, coupled with crime and unemployment, has encouraged many of the best-educated Guineans, who are most needed in leadership positions, to leave the country. This brain drain has deepened poverty and social injustice for most people.


As elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, gender issues are prominent on the social agenda, and a number of human rights organizations have mobilized—usually with foreign donor assistance—to defend women's rights and bring balance to gender roles in Guinea-Bissau. Women and girls have less job mobility, complete fewer years of schooling, do most of the subsistence farming, and enjoy far less protection under the law than men. There is, for example, no law against wife beating, and many women are subjected to violence as a means of settling disputes in the home. While the law prohibits rape and prostitution, the government provides little enforcement, and women are harassed sexually. Certain ethnic groups do not allow women to own or inherit property.

Girls are also subject to female genital mutilation (FGM), which is practiced widely throughout the country. Known as Fanado, it is estimated that 45% of women aged 15–49 are excised. As many as 2,000 girls (including infants) undergo this procedure annually, often under unhygienic conditions. Fanado is steeped in religious and cultural tradition, and the cutters, who are women, often learn the practice from their mothers and grandmothers, and earn their livelihoods from it. Families pay between $10–$15, not including gifts, to have their girls circumcised. Even non-Muslim women who marry Muslim men will undergo Fanado, because during the holy month of Ramadan, Muslim men will refuse to take food from an uncircumcised woman. Uncircumcised women are also not allowed to pray in the mosque. In June 2008, government launched a program to ban the practice, but it is likely to take years before it is stopped.


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Chabal, Patrick. Amilcar Cabral: Revolutionary Leadership and People's War. New York and Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Forrest, Joshua. Lineages of State Fragility: Rural Civil Society in Guinea Bissau. Athens: University of Ohio Press, 2003.

“Guinea Bissau.” CIA World Factbook. (October 2008)

Lobban, Richard Andrew, Jr., and Peter Karibe Mendy. Historical Dictionary of the Republic of Guinea-Bissau. Th ird Edition. Metuchen, NJ and London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1999.

—by Robert J. Groelsema