Day 12 |
Sep 27, 2012

Roxa Island, Bijagos Archipelago, Guinea-Bissau

By Claire Allum, Archaeologist

Co-ordinates: 11° 15’ N 016° 05’ W
Weather: Warm and sunny
Air Temperature: High 32 C / 90 F

It was an early start this morning, after a late night watching turtles on Poilao Island yesterday.

At sunrise I climbed into a Zodiac. Grey, orange and red bands of cloud stretched across the sky. The sea was calm and shimmered silver in the morning light. At my feet lay a child’s backpack filled with school supplies donated by Silversea guests for the village we were to visit.

It took half an hour to cross to Roxa Island and then our Zodiacs entered an estuary filled with mangroves. Despite the Zodiac motors I could hear the rich and diverse birdlife calling from the tangle of roots and leaves.

Our path to the village began about one kilometer up the river. We moored the Zodiacs, climbed up a muddy orange bank and passed under a small gate made of sticks and leaves that marked its entrance. The path was sand, and I realized that most of the vegetation along its sides grew only on a thin overlay of organic matter. As we approached the village, I heard distant drumming.

The Bijagos villagers were waiting for us. As soon as we walked in, male dancers dressed in elaborate costumes made of raffia, twisted bark fiber, leather, palm leaves and other textiles started performances. Masks, bells, rattles, headdresses, palm leaves, charms and amulets twirled and shook as they danced in a large cleared area at the center of the settlement. Female dancers, singing and wearing natural and black-dyed bark fiber skirts, moved in a large circle, slowly scuffing their feet and bowing their bodies, accompanied by a single singer and a drummer.

The performances we watched were associated with a number of different traditional celebrations including men’s initiation, the diagnosis and curing of illness and the policing, safe-guarding and sanitation of the village. Alberto, our guide to the Bijagos Islands, gave us a short explanation of what the dances and costumes represented.

The chief of the village sat at one side of the cleared area with a number of his village elders. Jarda and Alberto made a presentation to the chief of the school supplies donated by Silverea’s guests. In order for Jarda and the chief to understand each other, their respective languages had to be translated from English to French to Kriole and back again.

I went on a short tour of the settlement. Most villagers lived in small round mud houses with thatched roofs and kitchen gardens—small areas planted with useful industrial and food crops. There were a few signs of the outside world. An Italian NGO (non-governmental organization) had dug a well and supplied solar panels to run a pump providing clean drinking water. They also supported a village infirmary, radio tower and resident nurse.
Our visit to the village had to be short, as we needed to ensure we returned to the Zodiacs at high tide for our trip back down the river. By 10:30 am we were motoring back to the Silver Explorer. The temperature had increased substantially in the few hours we were at the village and I was grateful we had been able to make our visit in the cooler air of early morning.

By 11 am we had pulled up anchor and set course for Sierra Leone. After lunch on board, Kara gave a talk on sea turtles—very appropriate considering our sea turtle adventure the night before.

At evening recap Olga talked about matrilineal society, and the expansion of Bantu languages and culture. The village on Roxa Island is matrilineal, its priests female, and they speak a Bantu language. Stefan corrected the impression guests had that the island of Meio—which we had visited yesterday morning—was volcanic. He said the beautiful yellow and white sand was the give-away. The island was, in fact, sedimentary and the sand a result of the erosion of the dark lumpy rock we saw on the beaches. Patri gave ornithological enthusiasts a quiz on birds they had seen over the last couple of days.

I was tired at the end of the day, given the previous night’s turtle adventure and the early morning village visit, but it was a full and exciting day and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.