Carnival in Guinea Bissau


Uniquely in West Africa, Guinea Bissau follows the latin tradition of holding a carnival on the days leading up to Lent.  As a desperately poor country this clearly isn't the extravaganza of the one in Rio, but I had heard that the people make up in inventiveness what they lack in financial resources and so I used some of the precious time I have left in the region to fly down to Bissau for a long weekend to see the carnival parades.

What a good decision that was - I would recommend this carnival to anyone!  A riot of drumming and colour!

The parades started at 4pm on Monday, with each of nine districts of the capital putting on their own displays in a relay that lasted until well after dark at 7.30pm (a little sad for those parading last given the lack of street lighting in Bissau), with the same pattern the next day for the regional displays.  The basic format was the same for each district, first the dancers in costume, and then those sporting giant papier-mache masks, all accompanied by fast and frantic drumming.

The costumes varied enormously.  There were many troupes of near-naked women and girls, wearing just strings of shells and beads with a grass skirt or for some just a piece of snake skin hanging from the waist for modesty, their bodies gleaming with a yellowy sheen of palm oil.  I was very surprised at the amount of bare flesh on show for a region of the world where the female body - at least the lower half - is usually very well covered.  There were traditional fibre costumes and wooden masks, some of the locally made 'lapa' strip-woven cloth, and some more modern outfits such as army uniforms, the dancers carrying fake machine guns (remember this is a country whose politics is dominated by the army) and in one case handing over the guns, as part of their dance, to women wearing the white of peace - this latter was very popular with the crowd!

Other dances were focused on the need to stop female genital cutting and enforced early marriage.  Some included mock fights, or sharing the rice contained in a big calabash, and one involved two men walking around carrying a large live crocodile, its mouth tied shut with pink string.  Nobody near me in the crowd could explain the significance of that one.

The papier-mache masks were enormously varied and impressive, from tigers and dragons, pieces of fruit and vegetables, army chiefs and colonial administrators, fishing boats and - my favourite - a turtle mask, its poor 'wearer' having to crawl along on all fours around the carnival route.

The crowd were enjoying it all immensely, pressing forward into the road; every so often the police would hit out with big sticks to get them back into place.  Others were perched in the branches of trees to get a better view - and at one point a branch fell with the weight of the people there and a commotion ensued as an ambulance forced its way through the crowd to collect the injured.  But nothing could stop the party spirit.

It all reminded me, again, of what it is that makes me so enjoy my life here.  It is that Africa, unlike the West, has not yet lost its primitive side.  The rhythms are of night and day, and seasons (rather than of clocks and calendars) accompanied by the rhythms of the drums and the wonderfully expressive forms of African dance.  They bring both a feeling of being at peace with the environment and a joy in being alive.  Perhaps that is why most Africans, despite the pervasive poverty, are usually smiling.

1 comment:

beaver boesl said...

I would love to see a carnival like that & even let the local dancers dress me in traditional & bodypainted with oil covered skin as they wear :)