Representative masks of all the country’s ethnic groups star in the Bissau Carnival parades

In Europe we are used to carnival parades in which costumes act as masks to escape from reality, or to make a veiled criticism of society.

However, in Guinea Bissau the carnival party is one of its most authentic cultural manifestations, since it shows the essence of its ethnographic richness as it is.

The streets of Bissau are filled with people from all over the country, and from some of the 88 islands of the Bijagó archipelago, to participate in the greatest artistic representation of Guinean culture.

Preparations for the carnival begin 3 or 4 months before the date it takes place. In the alleys of the city’s neighborhoods, children and young people begin to prepare the masks. At this moment, a hasty collection of paper begins all at once. The paper sacks that wrap the cement dust for the works and that are already empty scattered along the street are perfect. It is the best raw material to shape the masks, the paper stained with traces of dust together with water gives the perfect combination to have a malleable material, which will later be very hard when it dries. Each one puts their hands and their ideas about the character or characters to represent and they agree among themselves.

“Then get to work! They knead the paper and shape it”

hipopotamo agua salada isla orango guinea bissau

The elaboration of the masks takes months, it is a team effort and everyone contributes their grain of sand. The prizes awarded by the government to the best mask, at the end of the carnival, motivate each and every one of them, since these are prizes that can reach 2 or 3 million CFA francs, which would be equivalent to between 3,000 and 4,500 euro.

Origin of the Bissau Carnival masks

How could it be otherwise, the Bissau Carnival parades overflow with percussion music and authentic ceremonial dances, which reflect the reality of a society that expresses its feelings and emotions through art.

Dances that normally celebrate a good harvest, or show mourning after the death of a person, and dances that serve to pay respect to the elderly or to announce the departure of young people from the tabanka to the fanado initiation rite, merge turning the streets of Bissau into an absolutely ethnographic carnival parade.

And it is that a large part of the majority ethnic groups of the country participate in it. Their costumes give them away, and their masks confirm their provenance. The most numerous ethnic groups in Guinea Bissau are the Bijagó, to which 90% of the inhabitants of the homonymous archipelago belong, and already on the continent the Pepel, Manjakos and Mandingas ethnic groups predominate, among many others.

Among the most used masks in the Bissau Carnival, that of Nimba (“big soul”) stands out, which for the Nalu ethnic group represents the goddess of fertility and is venerated at harvest and rice harvest festivities. This mask is large and imposing and is always worn on the head and adorned with ears of rice.

Another mask that is very present in the Bissau parades is that of the Koni bird, which according to the Nalu ethnic group symbolizes the spirit of good, in its fight against the spirit of evil. The front part of the mask represents the evil and the back part the goodness that, when winning the contest, occupies more space. It is done in very bright colors, and the person who wears it on their head accompanies their parade with choreographic movements alluding to that fight between two worlds.

The only character that is always present in all the Bissau Carnival parades, and that is common to all ethnic groups, is N’Turudu. It is a figure that goes through the city in search of those who have not behaved well during the year, to reprimand their action with light touches of a broom. This tour is accompanied by a complex expressiveness based on dance, music and unique choreography.

All of this makes carnival parades act as open-air museums, where it is possible to observe multiple aspects of the country’s idiosyncrasy, such as its veneration for nature.

Something that is evident in these highly aesthetically rich masks, which walk the streets of Bissau inviting visitors to dance to the sound of ceremonious songs and authentic rituals of life.

If you want to know the essence of Guinean culture, don’t miss the Bissau Carnival, the best ethnographic manifestation of its rich and interesting culture.