Anyone been to Guinea Bissau?

Every island of the Bijagos archipelago in Guinea Bissau looks like the archetypal tropical island of your dreams. When you wander along a deserted beach here, you wouldn’t be surprised to come across Robinson Crusoe, Tom Hanks, Joanna Lumley or anyone else whose life has featured spending time alone on a remote, exotic island.

I asked if anyone’s been here, because Guinea Bissau is one of the least visited countries in the world. It may look like paradise, but the life expectancy here is 52 years, and ten years ago it was just 45 years. The Bijagos Islands have been my first encounter with a matriarchal society. Here women choose their husbands and make any decisions about divorce, and the children take their mother’s family name.

As there are no landing docks on small islands, we had to clamber into Zodiacs to be transported from our ship to the beach and then we waded ashore, to be greeted with a traditional grass necklace and a coming-of-age dance.

Our guide explained that there are seven different coming-of-age ceremonies, at the ages of 7, 14, 17, 20, 27, 34 and 50. Once you’ve completed the last one you’re considered an elder – although given that you’re likely to die two years later, your turn in the driving seat is short and sweet.

The ceremonies take place in the forest and they are secret. They’re used to teach people how to be independent and autonomous, and to learn about their role in society at each particular life stage. The only part of the ritual that anyone is allowed to know about is the dance. Males and females each have their own separate ceremonies, which usually happen once a year and last for several days.

The dance we watched was the coming of age dance for 27 year-old men. They create their own dance based on an animal of their choice and, being 27 year-old men, most of them choose to be a bull. Although a friend of our guide’s went rogue and chose to be a crab, which was apparently ‘interesting’.

We were treated to a dance featuring a very macho, foot stomping, head tossing bull …

One of the local girls did her best to join in and make him dance with her, but the bull was too absorbed in his own magnificence and he was having none of it …

Boloma used to be the capital of Guinea Bissau when it was a Portuguese colony, and Boloma was obviously a very impressive town in its heyday. Unfortunately, once the Portuguese had left, there was no money to maintain the place and it has now become a Miss Havisham-style wreck of its former glorious self. Goats wander along the very wide, dusty boulevards, and the neo-Palladian government buildings are now majestic ruins with trees growing up through them.

We visited a woman’s co-operative where they make fruit juice and liqueurs from local fruits. The one they were currently brewing was a fruit called misery, and it was very popular with our group. Everyone wanted to be able to invite their friends around later and offer them a cup of misery.

They were busy lining up the next crop to start juicing after the misery … cashews. They’re very attractive, like little peppers, and come in a range of bright colours, but there’s only one nut per fruit, so that’s obviously why they’re so expensive.

Apart from the co-operative, I’ve no idea what people do to earn a living. There’s one tiny shop and a couple of roadside stalls, but I haven’t seen other commerce or industry. A lot of people sit around in the shade chatting, but that’s not exactly a career unless you’re Graham Norton. There used to be a printing press, a hospital and even a discotheque – but they’ve all gone now.

With more than 65% of the population living below the poverty line, but virtually nothing for tourists to buy to contribute to the economy, the ship decided to donate five tonnes of rice to the community on the island of Inorei, and there was huge excitement as the villagers staggered up the beach carry the huge sacks of rice. I noticed that a lot of them were wearing old Swan Hellenic shirts, also donated by the crew.

It wasn’t a lot, but at least it was something.