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The Bijago People

A people with matriarchal patterns

Fanado: secret ceremony in the sacred forest

In this initiation ritual, women and men renounce the opposite sex. Neither communication nor physical contact are permitted for six months to four years. Those who experience and survive fanado gain respect and a higher position in the community. With the Bijagos, men may only marry ceremonially if they have completed fanado.


“I was twenty-five years old when I did the fanado ritual. I didn’t talk to a man for four years.”

The Bijagos in the Bijagos-Archipel off Guinea-Bissau are a courageous people. Until 1936 they defended themselves against colonization with their strong fleet. Grande Orango, one of the main islands, was never able to be captured by the Portuguese thanks to its queen, Okinka Pampa. Strong female figures are as ubiquitous as the many spirits the Bijagos invoke.

From the very tranquil and abandoned city of Bissau with its morbid charm of dilapidated colonial buildings on the mainland, we set off on an adventurous boat trip to the islands. The archipelago consists of eighty-eight of them, only twenty of which are inhabited. The remaining islands have been declared sacred ground by the Bijagos and are designated as commons. Here, where the slave trade once flourished, efforts are now being made to protect species. In 1996, a large part of the archipelago was declared a biosphere reserve. Since then, sustainability has been the benchmark for fishing and tourism. The few tourists who visit the country can be found fishing in the archipelago. It is rare for travellers like us to be solely interested in culture.

An alien world in the Atlantic

Augusto, the cook at our lodge, turns out to be a knowledgeable guide who was spontaneously given time off to accompany us to Canhabaque, Bubaque, João Vieira, Maio, Uno, Poilão and Orango Grande and to introduce us to his relatives. He himself left his family and his home island in his youth to seek work in tourism. He now lives with his smartphone in another world, but is still proud of his roots.

As we land with our long boat on the white sandy beach of Canhabaque, a local with a big shotgun and a dead monkey slung over his shoulders approaches us. It’s hot and dusty as he leads us into the interior of the island where villages lie protected by palm groves. Augusto’s village, which is represented by a royal couple as well as a council of female elders, appears almost deserted. Most of the inhabitants are on the neighbouring island of João Vieira for the rice harvest. Electricity, running water and even medical care are non-existent here.

Simple, small wooden, palm or clay huts with thatched roofs offer whole families space to sleep, the household effects spread out around the huts. They proudly explain to us that the huts are owned by women and that women organise the work and make all the important decisions: “In the event of a break-up, it’s the man who has to leave the household”. On Canhabaque, traditions are still practiced most strictly, we hear from the old women who relax in front of their dwellings: customs, rites, religions and the privileged status of women.

Rituals, symbols and spirits

Kundere is a celebration of womanhood: girls aged thirteen to fourteen dance and sing together. They wear traditional raffia skirts and small ringing bells around their ankles. Jumping, stamping and dancing, they vigorously express their joy. For the girls, kundere is a very extraordinary experience which they eagerly anticipate, as afterwards they are allowed to have friends. It’s a moment that the whole village regards as a major event.

In the past, women placed a bowl of rice in front of their chosen one’s hut. The request was considered accepted if the man and his family consumed the rice. On some islands, it is still the case nowadays that only women are allowed to end relationships. Only the fanado allows men to leave their wives for a time or forever. Accompanied by experienced elders, women and men retreat separately into the sacred forests and undergo secret shamanistic ceremonies and incantations with the goal of attaining a higher self.

Small patterns are carved into people’s skin as a sign that they have passed the test. The fanado is only complete once the ritual injuries, which are coated daily with palm oil, are completely healed. Men generally receive smaller markings than women.

A few women present to me the artistic scars on their arms, stomachs and backs like badges of honor. The markings tell of social status, courage and pain. As they face me naked with their heads held high, I have the sensation that through my camera lens I‘m able to catch a glimpse of their innermost beings.

For the Bijagos with their animistic beliefs, spirits are omnipresent and everything is imbued with spirit. They attribute special powers to the old trees in particular, which is why certain ceremonies are celebrated near specific trees. Another important role is played by women: they are the ones who guide the souls of the deceased into heaven.

Behind the scenes

maria haas - projects - The Bijago People