In times when traveling is increasingly becoming a form of everyday consumerism (the average for Europeans is four trips a year), there are still some trips that will be recorded in our memories as exceptionally extraordinary… No universal formula exists to ensure these magical experiences will occur, however, there are some places that just seem to make it happen. When you are there, you feel almost instantly that those places will leave their mark on you. You realize that the world has many more smells, sounds, and colours than you had imagined… The Bijagós Archipelago, off the coast of Guinea Bissau and a little more than a four-hour flight from Lisbon, is one of those places: In Orango, the echo of its myth is heard throughout the islands.
Between myth and reality are tales of the existence of a matriarchal society among the Bijagós. The German anthropologist Hugo Adolf Bernatzik left us an amazing story in his work, “In the kingdom of Bijagós”, where we can read: “In the land of the Bijagós, the expression, ‘the weak sex’ does not ring true at all to the female inhabitants of Orango.”
This matriarchy, this way of social organization of which so much is said and so little concluded… Did it really exist? Does it still exist today? Anthropologists themselves, still limiting and correcting the frequent misuse of the term, do not seem to come to an agreement.
Doctor Agueda Gómez Suárez from the University of Vigo, in her article “Sistemas sexo/género “matriarcales”: los bijagós (Guinea Bissau) y los zapotecas (México)” (Matriarchal Gender Systems: The Bijagós (Guinea Bissau) and the Zapotecs (Mexico)), takes the Bijagós as an example, as she herself says: “We have chosen the Zapotecs of Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico and the Bijagós of Guinea Bissau as exceptional laboratories to be able to observe how daily life is conducted in a population where the women possess social power and prestige.”
An extraordinary trip is one which gives you the possibility of understanding many books through lived experience, or one which makes you feel like one of those investigators or explorers from decades ago. Places where there is still room for discovery. In the Bijagós villages, it is still possible to learn many things about how the ways in which men and women relate to each other can be very different from the ways that have predominated in western societies for hundreds of years.
The women of the Archipelago, despite centuries of influence from Portuguese colonialism, are key pieces in the organization of family and village life, and their authority is recognised and respected by all, without exception of their male compatriots. In the political sphere, it is the advice of the elderly that is heard to deal with the issues of the “tabanca”, and daughters inherit from their mothers a name of one of the four clans to which all the inhabitants of Orango are ascribed. Pampa Kanyimpa, a queen that even today is confused with the myth, belonged to the Okinka clan. At the beginning of the 20th century, she abolished slavery, and although she had not been the only female ruler among the Bijagós, she is remembered with special admiration by her descendants.
“A trip can be extraordinary when it teaches you to see things with new eyes,” said none other than Marcel Proust. And in the day-to-day life in Orango, among the palm groves, dancing and parties and aquatic birds, other lives are shown before us to teach us, above all, that there´s no better way to understand yourself than to understand others, and that nothing is the way it is because there are no other possible alternatives.
To learn more about daily life in the Bijagós and the matriarch, we recommend the work “Matriarcados” by Anna Boyé. The Bijagós Archipelago is, without a doubt, an exceptional territory to learn about and to enjoy a culture that has known how to maintain its traditions.