The land that time forgot

From the excitement and adventure of the Congo, my next trip was so different: the peace and tranquility of Guinea Bissau. One of my favourite countries, I always try to take the opportunity to add on a little personal time after business trips here.

This time it was just a long weekend, but that was enough to visit the island of Bolama. To get there I had to take a “canoa” – one of the traditional wooden boats that transport people and goods between the islands – some 30m long, and I’d guess about 150 of us passengers. Pretty packed, but not dangerously so, and to my surprise on the way there they handed out life jackets, although admittedly only enough for about half the people on board. The trip was very pleasant as I’d found space to sit on the side of the boat so I spent a relaxing three hours watching the sea, the pelicans and the mangroves.

The town of Bolama was the capital of Guinea Bissau from 1879 to 1941. Consequently it has quite a few grand old colonial buildings as well as such luxuries as pavements, street lights, parks and even a public swimming pool. Except that the buildings have lost their roofs and have trees growing out of the walls, the street lights don’t work, many of the streets have long since disappeared beneath the bush and even those that remain are now rutted dirt tracks, the parks are overgrown and of course the swimming pool is empty. The place is dripping with atmosphere but really is fighting a losing battle with nature, as there is no money to maintain anything there. In fact a local told me that when the president visited the island a few years ago, some money was found to buy fuel for the electricity generating station and all the street lights came on – it must have been quite a sight.

Very few of the old buildings are locked or boarded up, so you can wander around them at will. I went inside the old colonnaded town hall and the tiled floors are largely undamaged although covered in bird and bat droppings, but the shutters are hanging off, most of the windows are broken and in a couple of places you can see the sky through the holes in the ceiling and roof. Piles of broken tiles lie on the back veranda. I find it very strange that the town isn’t UNESCO listed and protected from further damage. If I had the money I would love to buy and restore one of the old buildings, set up a little museum of the history (photos of Bolama as it was in its heyday, something about the Portuguese slave trade, maybe also something on the local religion as I saw a fetish outside one house so clearly the traditional beliefs have not been totally eclipsed by Catholicism), perhaps with a little cafĂ© attached (I saw oranges and mangoes on sale, but there is nowhere to buy a fruit juice). It wouldn’t make money but would provide a job or two for the locals, and maybe generate a little more pride in the history so that in time it would be possible to organise a group of volunteers to clear the bush away from one of the parks…

I don’t know how many tourists visit Bolama. As we are at the tail end of the rains it is not yet the tourist season, and I was the only foreigner in town. The only proper hotel (also with a restaurant attached) was still closed but thankfully the budget accommodation – mattress and bucket shower in the cement block rooms – was open so I was able to stay there. Eating meant buying something (bread and a tin of sardines) from the small market as there were no restaurants open, although with the help of some locals and a torch I did find one bar on the edge of the town that was cooking up chunks of goat meat for my first evening.

The island apparently has three rather good beaches – white sand, coconut palms and clear turquoise water – but all are many kilometres away from the town so I opted instead just to go out walking. A long trail goes along the spine of the 22km-long island, and I walked for many hours passing just two hamlets, an empty school (with two barn owls roosting inside!), and just a handful of local people passing on bicycles or motorbikes. The locals mostly leave you in peace, especially when your Portuguese is limited to “good day” and “fine thank you”, although an irritating minority of those who can speak some English or French are hard to shake off. Four different men told me they loved me within the space of one day despite my assurances that I was happily married. That was though the only negative aspect to my stay there. I continue to wonder what can be done to publicise this country as a tourist destination as it really is a wonderful place – and the people badly need the revenue.

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