Three weeks in Guinea Bissau

Guinea Bissau didn’t feel like Africa. The capital, Bissau, was like a part of Portugal, full of low level villas with red-tiled roofs. Except that I can’t imagine such a run-down town anywhere in Europe. The second city, Bafatà, was similar but even more run-down, seemingly two-thirds of the way towards becoming a ghost town. More than half of the buildings were empty, and in this hot, damp climate the deterioration sets in fast, with black mould growing up the walls and vegetation colonising any holes. The roads had more potholes than tarmac, and a couple of petrol pumps had rusted away to stumps.

I’m hoping someone from UNESCO will turn up here soon to give them World Heritage status, or that a far-sighted millionaire will buy a few blocks and do them up, because they are beautiful towns. Bafatà, especially, could attract so many tourists. Not just with the delapidated Portuguese colonial houses but also the deserted outdoor swimming pool with its terraces overlooking the river, the old statues of both Guinean and Portuguese heroes (now surrounded by goats and pigs snuffling around in the weeds) and the river itself next to the empty market-place, now with the occasional fisherman in a traditional pirogue but formerly serving a sizeable trading port, apparently,

In the countryside the Portuguese influence was not apparent, but here I felt I could have been in Belize, seeing mile after mile of cashew trees. Off the coast is the Bijagos Archipelago, some 80 islands of white sand beaches and palm trees, where I saw flamingos on the sand banks between them although unfortunately not the dolphins, manatees and saltwater hippos that live in the water. One day this will be as developed as the Caribbean is now. Only the villages were obviously African, with their traditional mud-walled houses roofed with dried palm leaves.

I hope someone discovers Guinea Bissau soon and starts off its development into a tourist haven, because their economy needs something. 88% of the population live on less than $1 a day. Most people are illiterate. Under-five mortality is over 20%.

It would be unfair to blame the Portuguese, but it cannot help that when the country got its independence in 1974 only 2% of the population were literate and there was already a substantial national debt. Then the 1998 civil war frightened off the few foreigners who had invested there, and since then the government’s lack of money has meant an inability to invest in anything, or even to pay many civil servants, such as teachers, who responded by going on strike a few years ago with the result that there was no school at all for a whole year. How does a government raise money when no-one earns enough to pay any tax?

I’m not surprised when I see poverty in the Sahelian countries; having holidayed in Mauritania, Mali, Sudan and Djibouti I am used to seeing hardship in the harsh, bare environments of the desert fringes. But Guinea Bissau is so lush and green – certainly at this time of year the trees are dripping with cashew fruit and mangoes – and I have eaten so many prawns and oysters, that it does feel in some ways like a land of plenty. But the population are so uneducated that they really have no idea as to what to do in order to move forward. I saw a small mill (for grinding grains) that had been constructed for one community, but after only a couple of years it was covered in dust and harbouring a wasp nest, the villagers looking at us in despair but seemingly unable to grasp the concept of maintenance despite extensive training. & I was told that there was once a project to provide solar panels for a few villages, but within a short time someone had dismantled them so as to sell the copper wiring inside.

One thing I did not see any sign of was the drugs trade, but apparently Guinea Bissau is turning into a major conduit for drugs travelling from South America to Europe, its offshore islands impossible to police for a state with no resources. & now there are suggestions that at least some of the police/army/government are involved. There have been two seizures of drugs in the past year, each with a street value of more than 10% of Guinea Bissau’s GDP, but the drugs from the most recent seizure mysteriously vanished.

A bigger problem, perhaps, is a legal drug – cashew wine. At this time of year you can smell the fermenting cashew fruit as you travel through the villages, and I do wonder whether this contributes to the lack of progress in the country? I can’t help but compare it to Belize, where the fruit is made into delicious juice or jam, adding an additional income to that the farmers make from selling the nuts. I did ask whether it was possible to get cashew jam but was told the Guinea Bissauans ‘don’t know how to make it’. But then again there is no-one in the country, apart from a handful of expats and government ministers, who would have the money to buy it, so why bother?

Overall though an attractive and laid-back place that I enjoyed visiting. With great beetles.

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