Trail Of The Unexpected: Wild in West Africa

Delight then darkness for chaotic Guinea-Bissau

Sometimes, life for the traveller offers little choice. I'm about to catch the only public transport off the isle of Orango for another week. A fight breaks out on the beach over the price for transporting cargo; the captain of the leaky wooden pirogue has been drinking palm wine since early that morning, but he's cutting a pretty sharp deal.

In a lull in the general chaos, I scramble aboard to find a niche among the vast rolls of matting, containers of palm wine, heaps of luggage, vats of food, countless women, children, chickens and one indignant goat.

At last the overloaded boat sets out for a neighbouring island. The sea is mercifully calm. But as Uno's golden, green-capped shores draw near, I stare at the crowd that awaits us. No. Surely not...? Erm, yes. This is Uno's only transport, too, and mayhem ensues as another 50 people pile on with their luggage, palm wine, children and chickens; completing the cargo are five shrieking pigs who seem to sense that this journey might be their last.

I try not to think that they could be right. Everyone knows it's madness; palm wine changes hands and I knock some back, trying to ignore the furious bailing out that's going on. I reflect instead on the beauty of Orango, where I've watched flocks of pelicans and flamingos, wound inland along pristine mangrove creeks, and followed the tracks of rare salt-water hippos. Now I'm joining the villagers as they converge on the isle of Bubaque, where the annual carnival is due to kick off in a few days' time.

The carnival, along with these unique Bijagós islands situated off-shore, is what has drawn me to the tiny, impoverished country of Guinea-Bissau on the west coast of Africa. Traces of Portuguese architecture still dot the nation; Lisbon ceded control of Portuguese Guinea in 1974, and since then a series of coups and a brief civil war have impeded progress.

The infrastructure is in tatters, with no running water nor mains electricity; the government is mired in corruption. After surviving the journey back to Bubaque, I take a walk into the forests through cashew groves and past enormous kapok trees, and hit upon a village of thatched huts where a group of girls are laughing and shouting around the water pump.

"Brancooo!" they cry gleefully, on spotting me.

I grin, having very little Creole, and wonder whether I'll be breaking some taboo if I proceed through the village – animism holds strong here, and sacred spots are dotted everywhere. But Bijagós hospitality kicks in. One of the girls jerks her head at me and I follow her.

We sit down outside her hut and she shows me what she's been making – a tree-bark saia, or skirt, the traditional dress of the island women. I watch as she rubs the fibres into hundreds of delicate ropes between her palm and thigh. Her name is Feena and, after a while, she disappears into another hut where I spot a pot bubbling over a fire. She emerges with two bowls of thick bean stew – one for the children who have gathered around us, and one to share with me. We tuck in; it's rich, slightly sweet, and delicious.

Lunch over, we're off around the village, meeting her mother and sisters; then I'm taken along to join a bunch of young guys who are making their carnival gear of intricate wooden masks and helmets.

It's been a perfect day, and it's followed by another: in complete contrast, I cycle to an immaculate white-sand beach that stretches as far as the eye can see. There's no one there; just a few cows, and grey hornbills mewing in the forest. And then there's a day spent on the isle of Rubane, where children lead me through the forests and find me snakes, lizards and an owl. All this, and the carnival has yet to begin.

When it does, I have some idea of the effort that has been expended, and it is intensely moving. I see the first round of events on Bubaque, where the islanders compete for the right to go to the parade in the capital, Bissau. (The city's name was appended to the nation to avoid confusion with other Guineas in this part of Africa.)

I join the winners on the ferry, and then it's the big day: the Bijagós islanders' bodies glisten with palm oil and rustle with grass; boys dowsed in mud or white powder re-enact their initiation rites; Fula acrobats from the east gambol in brilliant reds; Pepels rub shoulders with Balantas and Mandinkas; topless dancing girls mingle with Muslim drummers. It's overwhelmingly spectacular but somehow gentle, too.

The crowds are peaceful, curious, and when the parade is over they simply walk the streets, up and down, looking and being looked at.

I'm falling in love with this country, but time's almost up. I'm travelling north towards the border when I hear the news. It comes on the Sunday evening as I share a beer with a Belgian expatriate. Her phone rings. Something's happened in Bissau, she says. Some kind of explosion. People have been killed.

The locals tune in to the radio. Mobile phones ring. Everyone wants to know what's going on; but no one in this beleaguered country wants to believe it. It's nothing, they say. My Belgian friend's not so sure, and by morning she's been proved right. The chief of the army was killed in the explosion and his supporters have blamed the president; they've taken tit-for-tat action and President "Nino" Vieira is no more. He has been assassinated at his home overnight.

I'm due to take a pirogue from Cacheu to São Domingos, back through the mangrove swamps, but now nothing moves. The border has been closed and the streets are deserted. The nation holds its breath, but few shed tears for Vieira, who's been in and out of power ever since independence.

Slowly, as the day goes on, it seems that nothing else is going to happen for now. People let out a long, sad sigh and things start moving again. I cross the border into Senegal without mishap. But Vieira has left more questions behind him than he ever answered. Elections may or may not happen in the coming months. I hope they do, but many in Guinea-Bissau must feel as I did in that leaky, overloaded pirogue: all in it together with a drunken captain, and not much in the way of choice.

peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark episode 8, review
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: MI Developer

    £35 - 45k: Guru Careers: An MI Developer is needed to join the leading provide...

    Recruitment Genius: Fitness Manager

    £20000 - £22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leisure organisation manag...

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Manager

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Delivering an inspiring, engagi...

    Recruitment Genius: Learning Team Administrator

    £17500 - £20500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for a great te...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions