Monday, December 24, 2012


The Bijago Archipelago is about 30 miles off the coast of Guinea Bissau.  The Archipelago is made up of 88 islands, 50 of them are inhabited. The Capital of the Islands is Bubaque, which is the more touristic island.  The others are less so. My step-dad was born on Orango, which is known for its beautiful beaches. My uncle works for a non-profit called Tiniguena which works on three of the islands ( Formosa, something, and something) which have made an alliance called UROK. I went to Formosa for a week with my Uncle and his family as he closed up work on the island for the year.
           Formosa is a big island.  It is 20 miles long and completely covered in forest and savanna. Surprisingly there are few beaches on the island since the change in tides is so drastic.  There are no cars, so most people get around by foot, bike or motorcycle. From the ports there is a small dirt road that goes from one end of the island to the other.  Small villages or tabankas can be found along the main road. Smaller roads leading off the main road will lead you to other tabankas deeper in the forest. Village sizes range from 5 to 400 people, the total population of the island being 1,400 or so folks.
This is the house I stayed in for the week
            I was lucky if I could find anyone who spoke Portuguese. Most people speak Creole and the native Bijigo language.  While it surely was a struggle to communicate, since I’ve been back I’ve noticed a great improvement in my creole.  On the island I would go for bike rides along the roads and run into kids and ask them questions with the words I knew. My favorite question was “ Bu tene cabras?” or “ Do you have goats?”. As silly as that question might sound, it was a very legitimate question! There were goats everywhere! You could find most domesticated animals like dogs, cows and chickens everywhere you turned. I was surprised that no one was eating them since they were in such abundance. The reality is that there is an abundance because no one is eating them! Most get shipped and sold in Bissau or are kept for eggs, milk, etc. What people are eating is fish. That makes sense because it is an island, but once you've had the fish you quickly learn beef and chicken are no comparison. The fish is so amazing! You become pescetarian without even realizing it!
Contraption used to scale palm trees
This woman is making mats to be sold in Bissau
My uncle works on the island with a team of folks, but his main partner on the island is a woman named Sabado. Her 24-year-old son, Naidi, also works for the non-profit. I told Naidi I was from California and he told me his Dad and brother live in California as well. He wasn’t sure what city he was living in, so we left it at that.  When I got back to the main land my step-dad explained that I knew both his dad and brother and saw them both in Fresno this past October.  Little coincidences like this continue to happen here in Bissau. It’s such a small world! Anyways, when Naidi had time to spare he took my cousin and I around by bike to explore some of the nearby tabankas. I was on a honey search because I heard one of the nearby tabankas had pure honey from the forest. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any, but I did see women making mats, traditional skirts, and instruments used for climbing palm trees.  Everything being made was both to use on the Island and to sell in Bissau.  

My cousin Joao's birthday celebration
           One tabanka in particular, that was a 20 minute motorcycle ride away, is where I was able to try fresh palm juice. By fresh palm juice I mean a man climbed to the top of a palm tree and grabbed a plastic bottle that was filled with palm juice. What they do is tie a plastic water bottle below the palm where they have made and incision. They create a filter using the palm leaves and let the juice from the palm drip through the filter into the plastic bottle. Letting the 2 liter water bottle sit for half a day can fill the entire thing.  I was told that the longer you let it sit,  the stronger the palm flavor.  I have yet to try the wine, but to get to that point you just need to let a bottle of palm juice ferment to the point where you like it. The flavor of the juice was strange at first, especially to my foreign palate. But after a couple sips the combination of the sweetness and palm flavor made for an irresistibly refreshing treat.
      The non-profit Tiniguena is a pillar of sorts. I say this because Bissau is in the middle of a Military coup, so a lot of activist and other organizations ( the UN being one of them) are keeping a low profile due to the nature of their work and its political implications. My uncles work is funded by a Swiss foundation, so financially they are able to keep their work going despite the local politics. Since their work is on the islands they aren't in any direct or immediate danger. Therefore, they can continue working remotely while having impacts on the islands and the city of Bissau. Unfortunately I didn’t see too much of their work in action. It’s the end of the year so they were performing closing activities and closing things up for the Holidays.  My uncle and the crew will be back on the Island near the end of January. The invitation to go back with them was open, so hopefully I’ll have more to share about them soon!

Mortar and pestle used to separating rice grains from the plant


  1. Hi Aliesha! I'm a journalist from Australia and would like to ask you a few questions about Guinea Bissau please? Is there a way we can communicate privately? Loving your blog! Thanks Peta

  2. Hi Peta! I'd be more than happy to answer any questions you might have. You can reach me via email at Thanks for reading!