top of page

How Restless a Nation Can Be

Guinea Bissau, where slave-hunting on an industrial scale began, is a world leader in instability


Geographical, November 2019

Text and photography

by Marco Magrini

"AND HERE IS WHERE HE SLEPT", SAYS the museum lady with patriotic pride, pointing at a new bed with fresh linen, in a restored house that never was this empty and tidy. This very corner is where once stood the bed of Amílcar Cabral, the national hero, in his hometown Bafatá. A city that visibly carries both the wounds of the collapsing Portuguese buildings of colonial times, and the curse of a tangible, almost unescapable, poverty today.

As a country, Guinea Bissau is not short of world records: the former cradle of slave-hunting, it is now ranked 8th in the Human Development Index (when counting from the bottom up) and 177th in GDP per capita; it has a high-standing reputation as a hub for drug smuggling to Europe. And, above all, it is an indisputable leader in instability: an independence war, a civil war and two coups over 45 years (out of five attempted), make the current political uncertainty appear trifle.


Yet, travelling through this West African nation, geologically carved by two ancient river deltas and ethnically fragmented in some twenty tribes with nearly as many languages and religions, you don’t spot in people’s eyes neither fear nor desperation. While walking down the market of Gabu, former capital of the eponymous kingdom at the time of the Mali Empire, nobody harasses you with begging or selling; rather, you are the subject of anthropological curiosity (and of pictures taken) since foreigners are rarely seen up here.


Walking down the streets of the modern capital Bissau, nobody offers you any cocaine because, provided this is indeed a trafficking hub, it is certainly not a market for selling drugs at a price. While driving throughout inland Guinea Bissau, you only see children, children smiling everywhere. A third of the population is less than 18 and the average lifespan is a meagre 54 years. Then, there is caju, caju everywhere.

An independence war, a civil war and two coups in 45 years make the current political uncertainty seem like a mere trifle

‘The caju (cashew) nut represents an important wealth and may become a relevant part of our budget,’ wrote Amílcar Cabral in the Political Manual of the PAIGC, the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde that he co-founded with his brother and four others. A party that has marked life in Guinea Bissau ever since: from a peaceful movement to a guerrilla army before independence; then, in times of freedom, from a marxist-leninist regime to a regime of corruption. Yet, the ideas of the party founders were lofty and forward-looking. This is probably why Cabral’s comments on caju resulted in an economy where 80% of the people live on a monoculture of cashew nut production and sale. Around 150,000 tonnes were exported last year.

In the past, the country used to export human beings. Portuguese Guinea, as it was known until independence, had been a slave reservoir since Prince Henry the Navigator, having ignited colonialism, in the mid 15th Century inaugurated the human trade on an industrial scale. Ironically enough, in 1761 Portugal was the first country to ban slavery, but in India and in China exclusively. Here in Africa, the subjugation went on for more than a century.
‘Freedom begins within ourselves, in the grace of God,’ shouts a Red Cross instructor to a little army of teenage volunteers, who are marching in uniform along the only modern building in Cacheu, a city not too far from the Senegalese border. The building hosts the brand-new Museum of Slavery, paid for by the European Union, in remembrance of the thousands and thousands of Guineans who were abducted, branded and shipped in chains to the Americas. 


The 70-metre high tree in Cantanhez National Park

IT WAS NAVAL TECHNOLOGY that made little Portugal a first mover on colonialism’s chessboard. Thanks to his swifter and handier caravels, in 1448 captain Nuno Tristano was able to sail up the Cacheu River and usher in the age of human trade. It is such a painful road, that eventually brought to the PAIGC and its liberation struggle.

The road that leads to the heart of the Cantanhez National Park is hellish to say the least. After 65 Km of unpaved surface, the last trail deep inside the tropical forest would challenge the mightiest of 4x4 jeeps, with a bumpy succession of pits up to one meter deep. It takes two hours to cover 18 Km, while passing through smaller tabancas, or villages, crawling with young people and farm animals. It is a temple for wildlife in here, from arachnids to pachyderms, but especially for scores of chimps who punctually climb the top of coconuts trees at sunset, to descend at dawn sharp. This is a reservation and they should be safe here, at least in theory. ‘It is now forbidden to kill chimps and we are here to protect them’ says Abubakar Serra, an elderly and cultivated man that runs an ‘ecolodge’ in Cantanhez, where a guest’s carbon footprint is low indeed. If only there were tourists.

Cantanhez has a monument hidden in the depth of its forested temple, itself dominated by countless colonies of termites devouring any decaying bit of wood. After a few minutes walk off the beaten track, it suddenly appears. It is a kapok tree (ceiba pentandra guineensis), probably 70 meters high, with a labyrinth of buttress roots much taller than a human being, each one of them extending meters away from the prodigious trunk. A plant so special, it well deserved a special name. They call it the Amílcar Cabral Tree.

Cabral co-founded the party as a means of non-violent pressure over the Portuguese regime run by António Salazar, who refused to pull out of colonialism, as Britain was about to do. But when in 1959 a peaceful protest of workers ended up in a bloodbath, the PAIGC turned to guerrilla tactics altogether. Four years later, hostilities became a full-fledged war of independence now eloquently called ‘Portugal’s Vietnam,’ which involved the archipelago of Cape Verde – the letter ‘C’ in the party’s acronym. Cabral, born to Capeverdean parents, is the national hero there, too. Unfortunately, he didn’t live long enough to see his dream come true. He was mysteriously killed in 1973, in nearby Guinea Conakry. Along the dusty road that leads out of Cantanhez, lies a heavy piece of Soviet artillery. It is probably a reminder of how bad was the conflict here, in this rebel-held zone.

Bissau was the Portuguese brancos’ only stronghold. The capital, built in 1687 on an island which is now a peninsula, was not liberated by insurgence but by the sudden fall of the Salazar regime at the hands of its own military, certainly weary of the long wars in Guinea, Angola and Mozambique. In Bissau, the ensuing disaster is clearly visible everywhere. After the devastations of the independence war, the civil conflict definitively obliterated the old colonial infrastructures: road, bridges, ports, farms, even the few existing factories. PAIGC’s posters and flags, still the winner in the controversial elections held last March, are everywhere. ‘We don’t have issues anymore with ethnicity. We get along well together,’ claims Felix Gomes, a 41 year old mechanic and driver. But that’s fake news, maybe because Felix belongs to the PAIGC’s 35% majority and to the 10% christian minority. The truth is that the Parliament is hung, the President is at odds with the Prime minister (both belonging to PAIGC) and confusion is rampant in every walk of life.


Julio, a chimp in captivity at Cantanhez National Park. The former Portuguese governor's set in Bubaque. Kids are everywhere.

LAST YEAR PUBLIC SCHOOLS WERE CLOSED for several months, as teachers refused to work anymore without a salary. ’In just six months, 746 people died at the Simao Mendes National Hospital. They should call it the Mendes Cemetery,’ harshly remarks Manuel Martins, a Portuguese engineer who fought in Angola and ended up running a restaurant in Bissau. He believes ethnic and religious tensions are here to stay, as well as the invisible drug smuggling business. ’There is no way this country may survive without international aid,’ tells me, with added brutality, the director of one of the four banks in Bissau, none of which is Guinean. ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, maintains its peace-keeping force in the country and keeps an eye on every election. China has built the new Parliament and a ministry building. In Bissau, the presence of white UN, FAO, UNDP and WHO vehicles is noticeable. Instead of tourists, my hotel on Avenida Amílcar Cabral hosts international officers and operators.

From the caju market price to securing a peaceful living, everything is being decided outside of the nation.

But everything changes in the remaining, offshore portion of the country. The few tourists that come to Guinea Bissau, head to the Bijagós archipelago, 88 islands or islets that compose a graceful mosaic of diversity. They could be divided into national parks (like Orango, home of rare saltwater hippos), the habited islands, the inhabited ones and those ‘colonised’ by French people. As curious as it seems, all the resorts and other lodgings around here are run by French entrepreneurs, mostly migrated from Casamance, Senegal’s southernmost province. In Bubaque, the most populated island (with 6,500 people), teenagers have learnt some French in order to cater to the tourists and run a few business, like a rusty-bike rental.
This paradise made of mangroves forests, coastal savannas and sand banks – a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve – was thrown into the hell of war, too. The masterpiece of Amílcar Cabral was to have the major ethnic groups (Balante, Fula, Manjaca, Mandinga, Papeis, Barmes and the Bijagós) fight together for freedom. Today, they are disunited as before but the people of this archipelago, thanks to their scattered remoteness, feel a smaller impact from the country’s perennial instability. The Bijagós tribes tend to be matriarchal, with some of them actually led by a woman. Or maybe the chief is the oldest living man, like the Soga people who live uncomfortably right in the middle of the forested Soga Island, because there lies the only freshwater well available.

Just facing Soga, there is Angurman, a little paradise within the paradise. Frenchman François Gagelin has built a business out of four huts facing the ocean. He serves the catch of the day under an imposing baobab, with the help of a handful of nice locals. His ‘ecolodge’ mostly deserves its self-appointed green title. Touring around the uncontaminated island takes less than one hour walk and it’s a little depressing to find it contaminated with plastics from the ocean. ‘It comes and goes with the tides,’ Gagelin replies. ‘Please no, don’t collect it. What can I do with plastic here? Burn it?’

There are too many dilemmas, facing Guinea Bissau. The upcoming presidential election in November, still under the fear of yet another coup, may not solve any of them. From the caju market price to securing a peaceful living, everything is being decided outside of the nation. It is not what young Amílcar Cabral dreamed of, in that little bed in poor Bafatá. 

bottom of page