Once a woman becomes a mother among the Bijagos in Guinea-Bissau, she is given the maximum respect and gets immense prestige. And being a women-controlled society, the birth of a female is especially significant, given that she would grow up to become a major figure in the organization of family and village life.
Located in the Atlantic Ocean off the African coast, the Bijagos archipelago is made up of twenty main islands and some smaller ones. And despite the years of influence from Portuguese colonialism, women of the archipelago have the upper hand in social welfare, the economy, and the law.
Before the days of Queen Pampa Kanyimpa who protected the Bijagos islands against Portuguese conquest, European explorers described the Bijago people or the Bissagos “as a seafaring people, fierce and warlike, immersed in both the slave trade and piracy,” a report by CBD-Habitat Foundation said.
They defeated the Portuguese who wanted to take over their lands in the 1530s until the late 1900s when they were finally colonized. Queen Kanyimpa, the most famous sovereigns of the Bijagos Islands, later concluded a peace agreement with the Portuguese colonizers.
Today, the archipelago is inhabited by about 33,000 people living in a lush, fertile, and rich natural environment with power in the hands of women.
Consisting of small villages where houses are largely made of mud and straw, women are the owners of these homes, and they even constructed them. An island based on a subsistence economy, inhabitants own farms and grow vegetables, rice, and cashews, and women have economic autonomy, organizing labor and even working more than men.
Even though men fish, collect sap and fruit of palm trees, and clean and burn the fields for the planting of rice, they are “sometimes treated as children who are exempt from multiple responsibilities and allowed to enjoy more leisure and pleasure time,” said an article in mmstudies.com.
Generally, Bijago women are in charge of the housework; they cultivate small gardens and grow rice, process palm oil, cut straw to cover houses while educating their children and taking care of the village temple.
Apart from managing the economy and social wellbeing, women also choose their husbands and decide when they want a divorce.
“The girls choose their husbands by placing a large plate of food at the house of their choice. If the young man is willing to accept her proposal, he eats the food. After doing so, the future husband goes to live with the girl in the hut which she will raise, and the couple is then married… until she drags her husband’s belongings out the front door, thus indicating she does not wish to live with him any longer,” the CBD-Habitat Foundation report said.
Even at ceremonies, women are in charge of everything, from cooking, playing music, dancing to serving drinks to the men. Having an animistic religion and believing in reincarnation, most of their ceremonies come with a lot of rituals and mysticism, and women are in charge of relations with the spirit world as the society is led by priestesses who are chosen from maternal clans.
Among the Bijagos, one of the sources of power are clans, whose lines of succession are from the maternal side. Thus, the oroñô or chief of a village on the island is also chosen from these maternal clans in an activity that is regulated by a council of elders.
Despite depending on the natural resources of the archipelago including its palm forests, mangrove swamps, sand banks and aquatic zones, the Bijagos directly contribute to the preservation of the natural environment, leading to their area being declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1996.
There is more about the archipelago and what has been described as its rigid form of matriarchal system in the following video: