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Published: August 11th 2006
Well I haven't written for a long time mostly because Alana who is travelling with me has been writing so I didn't feel the need to but there is one island I went to that she didn't so I will describe it. It was Roxa in Portuguese but Canhaba in Bijago. I went with an English banjo researcher we met at Bubaque, the most developed of all the islands. Bubaque seems to have seen more prosperous days. Laundry dries on old sagging power lines, and the only electricity is by generator. There are a lot of ghostly old ruins of hotels. The scariest was on the other side of the island where we cycled to. It was during a sort of storm, so the shutters were banging, and it was all decrepit. I could imagine Portuguese people on holiday sitting on the overgrown deck eating, 30 years ago, before the independence and the war(s). It's all overgrown now, but the caretakers shack behind is still inhabited and I think he raises some cows there. There are a couple of other, completely in ruins. I am shocked... I guess the locals prefer huts to squatting in abandoned luxury hotels.
Canhaba never saw any development or any colonial administration of any kind. I think the people there have just sat out the slave trade, colonialism, the wars without really changing the way they do things. We were late getting there, so as we manouevered up the river through the mangrove marshes, the tide was sinking. It was a cloudy day, and the only sound was some isolated birds squawking. The mangroves are so thick you can't see even a few yards inland, and I thought of Heart of Darkeness while going up the river.
Eventually the tide got too low and we were stuck in the mud, and had to wade through thigh deep mud for about 15 minutes before we got to solid river bed and continued on to the beginning of the trail. We were there with the owner of our hotel, Titi, and the crew of the small canoa we came on. The jungle was really dense at first, almost so much that it seemed dark, but it eventually became lighter and eventually turned into low underbrush with nothing but palm trees sticking up. The main produce here seems to be palm oil. We saw the
On the way to Orango
fruit all over on the ground, about the size of two basketballs with red buttons all over it. You can probably look it up if you want to see. There were some monkeys leaping around in the trees. They are cautious of humans because they are a favorite meal in Guinea.
Titi had told me about a tradition on this island. When a man likes a woman, he goes out into the forest and hunts a rat. He kills the rat and prepares it in a dish and then offers it to the girl he likes. If she accepts, she goes with him to her family, and if they accept also then they can become a couple. The society on this island is matriarchal so children take their mothers name, and people can change partners if they want. After about an hour of walking through the forest, we arrived at the village, the biggest on the island with about 400 or 500 people.
The only sign of modern life was some plastic buckets and on old propane tank in the middle of the village on which we sat. Everything else was as I imagine it must have been for hundreds of years. We sat under a mango tree for an hour while the people of the village stared at us. After a while some of them started playing a Portuguese card game on an old cow skin. The village was mostly empty because most of the people were out in the fields working. It seems like most people in Guinea work at subsistence agriculture, and they get a lot of their electricity from solar power. It seems like a hippie's paradise, but all the men here just seem to want to go to the US to work. They don't use very much currency on the islands, just some to buy candles and rope and things. It seems a lot like a place where hippie's in the US would live, but it's just a natural state of being, poor, but everyone gets on well enough without much medicine or things of that nature. Eventually a man came, and interesting looking man with a good energy, and I bought a rooster for him for the ritual I had come for.
After another half hour of sitting we went into a small hut, and 15 or 20 people crowded into a dark room about the size of an American bathroom. The village chief, a woman, who we had met earlier, was there, wearing her palm fiber skirt, looks like a grass skirt, that the Bijagos are famous for. She was also wearing a broken calebash on her head with designs painted on it. Only the chief can wear this calebash. A calebash is a round wood like thing that in Africa is used to make bowls, musical instruments, and other things. It is smooth, round and hollow. She gave the okay for the ceremony and I gave the priest man a bottle of rum and some tobacco. The chief gave her okay. She would talk to the priest, he would talk to a village boy, the village boy talked to Titi, Titi talked to me, languages went from Bijagos to Bijagos, to Crioulo, to French. It was a lot fo translating. He poured some rum on a small altar on the floor. He then took the chicken and cut its head off. It started flopping around like mad, thrashed into the corner and then out the door and into the bush. I was surprised it didn't crash into anyone, but it did knock over the altar. He sent a kid to bring it back and then he cut out the intestines and showed them to me. According to the color he said that the ritual was good and it was a good sign, that I would have a safe trip and that I could continue travelling. We went out and the English guy cleaned blood off of his shoe. Since he is searching for the African root of the banjo we then asked about musicians, but the only had percussion. So he consented to record some drumming and singing. We gave the village older people more rum and tobacco and they told the boys to do the dance ceremony. They came out in elaborate costumes that I can't describe. I didn't take any photos either, I didn't bring my camera to the island. It was really lively dance, not even closely resembling anything I've seen in life or in National Geographic. Amazing, they had a fire at first but then they were dancing so wildly through and around the fire that the stamped it out with their bare feet. Then, unfortunately, after about ten minutes, a torrent of rain interrupted the singing and dancing and everyone ran into a hut. We waited for about half an hour, and since we wanted to leave the same day and catch the tides, we said our goodbyes and left, walking through the rain and mud. I almost stepped on a little black poisonous snake on the way back to the boat. When we got back to the boat we found we had come to early, so we sat in the pouring rain for a while. Then I had 7 mud wrestling matches with the biggest and strongest of all of the crew of the boat, all of which I lost. Then we got the boat out of the river and headed back home, powered by an outboard motor. There was pounding rain and thunder and lighting and waves. The Englishman huddled in the bottom of the boat. He kept panicking, thinking we were going the wrong direction, since there was no visibility. He was convinced that the distance of thunder was 1 mile for every three seconds between lightning and thunder, not one, and was sure we were going to be struck by lighting. There was really no cause for concern though... I never worry until I see Africans worrying, and then I really worry. That's fairly rare though. We arrived safely in any case, but very wet. I was shivering. All in all it was a very good day, so it's a good one to describe, and that's the only one I will describe for the moment. We are going to Guinea Conakry, or French Guinea, tomorrow.
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