Friday, February 15, 2013

Carnival Bissau 2013

            Carnival! Its all people have been talking about since I’ve been here and it finally arrived! Carnival in Bissau is 4 days long and this year it started February 9th and lasted until the 12th. 
Folks in a tree trying to watch the parade
            From what I experienced, Carnival can be divided into 2 parts, the barakas and the parades. A Baraka is a small bungalow make from the bark of sugar cane intertwined into a fence.  It’s a quick set up given the brevity of carnival and it costs about 25,000 fc to build ($50 US dollars). Barakas can be found around the city, but the biggest setups are in 2 neighborhoods, Bairro de Ajuda and O Centro. In these neighborhoods there are between 20-50 barakas that serve food, drinks and alcohol throughout the night. You can order things like grilled pork, chicken, salad, french-fries, and of course grilled fish.  Beers and caipirinhas are the beverage favorites.   These barakas are raking in at least 300,000fc (600USD) a night! That’s because people will show up around 5 in the afternoon and stay until late hours of the night. Even after the barakas folks will look to continue their night at one of the local clubs. On average people are getting home at 6am.
            But baraka culture didn’t used to be so strong. I was told that in the past carnival was more about walking around town and displaying costumes and masks. People still get dressed up now, but the focus now is more towards meeting up with friends at the barakas to hang out.
            I spent the first 2 days of carnival at the barakas The environment here is actually pretty child friendly (or there were just a lot of children there). They play music and there is lots of chatter and laughter. Occasionally a really popular song would come on and people would get up and dance, but for  the most part dancing isn’t a part of this scene.  In Barrio Ajuda there is a stage for live music, but I didn’t get the chance to check it out. The roads close at 3pm everyday of carnival, so if your going anywhere you are walking and Barrio Ajuda is at least a 30minute walk one way.
            The last 2 days of carnival were the days Bissau put its colorful culture on expose. Monday was battle of the barrios or neighborhoods. Every neighborhood participated and had 4-5 different dance groups to represent it. Each dance group had their own dance, which was usually the dance of one of the ethnicities. Guinea Bissau has 13+ ethnicities, each with their own culture and language and dance.
             The cultural richness is deep and it was moving to watch the parade, especially since the traditional side of Guinea Bissau can only be seen in glimpses. Here it was magnified many times over. Folks in the parade seemed so proud and full of life, there was a power you could feel while watching them dance. And the crowd responded equally with their support and active engagement. The feeling was contagious. I felt an immense sense of pride in being Guinean and part of this culture.
            By the end of the day it was decided that Barrio Misra was the winner of Bissau.   The following day, Tuesday, was the battle for Guinea-Bissau. The drill was the same, but this time the groups in the parade were not neighborhoods in the city of Bissau but cities throughout Guinea-Bissau. The winner from the day before, Barrio   represented Bissau the city in the parade. People came from as far as Gabu and the Bijagoes.  Unfortunately, I didn’t attend this parade. The night before I had eaten something bad at one of the Barakas and had food poisoning. But I did watch it on TV, although it wasn’t nearly as exciting.  It was definitely a lot safer though. Monday’s parade drew lots of people and the competition for getting a good spot to view the parade was fierce! Folks were sympathetic with me because it was obvious I was a foreigner (big camera and fair skin is always the give away) and had never seen the parade before. At one point there was a huge eruption of people from behind me fighting for space upfront. In response, the police came waving their batons trying to get people to move back. The pressure from the front and the back was humorous to me, but I’m sure the crying child who lost his mom didn’t think so. I just thought about those videos of stadiums collapsing and people being crushed. Realizing my physical vulnerability I decided I had seen enough and went on to walk around to try and get some better pictures. 
    I got really lucky and was able to snap some pictures without getting a permit. If the police catch someone who looks like a foreigner taking pictures with out a permit they will take your camera. They are really strict about this because of the history of foreigners taking pictures and selling them abroad for thousands of dollars without the people in the pictures receiving anything. To avoid that they make you go through a permit process that ensures you wont be selling any of the pictures they are taking.
            I was surprised to learn that not everyone is a fan of Carnival here. I have met lots of folks who said they weren’t participating, many of them being Muslim, but some even from other religions.  Once you really break carnival down its just an opportunity for people to get drunk before lent. So if you don’t drink and you aren’t big about the party scene then its easy to see why it wouldn’t interest folks. It’s also an especially dangerous time. People are wearing masks and costumes so if something happens you can’t always tell to who it is. Fortunately I didn’t experience anything of the sort, nor did I hear anything from people that I know.
            With the end of carnival folks have head back to work. The barakas are still up and folks are still heading there at night. Kids are not back at school yet because the teachers at the state schools are now on a month long strike.  

(Quick note: The pictures taken during carnival will not be sold)

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