Guinea Bissau

Like most sub-Saharan nations, Guinea-Bissau is an arbitrary European construct, yet it possesses two qualities that make this small country stand out from its neighbours. First and foremost are the people themselves. You'll almost never hear the disingenuous 'bonjour, mon ami' that signals the beginning of an unwelcome sales pitch. If you're arriving from, say, Dakar, you'll be relieved to find helpful gestures are almost always just that - expressions of kindness rather than a means to extract cash. The country's other big draw? The remarkable Arquipelago dos Bijagos. These delta islands are lined with powdery, white-sand beaches, washed by azure waters, and populated by a people whose matriarchal culture, long protected by hidden sandbanks and treacherous tides, is unlike any found in West Africa.

The mainland, by contrast, provides a fine recapitulation of West Africa's attractions, including mangrove-lined rivers, a gorgeous beach at Varela and rainforests in the south - home to elephants and chimpanzees.

Always poor, the country's economy and infrastructure were severely damaged by civil war in the late 1990s. Transport and communications remain trying, and hotels and food -especially in the capital - are no bargain. However, national reconciliation seems to have arrived with peaceful elections in 2005, and there's cautious optimism about the future.

FAST FACTS

Area 36,120 sq km

ATMs There are none; come with cash or travellers cheques

Borders Guinea (Kandika open); Senegal (Salikenie and Pirada open, Sao Domingos ^ sometimes closed - check ahead) Budget From US$30 per day Capital Bissau

Languages Portuguese, Crioulo

Money West African CFA franc; US$1 = CFA498

Population 1.416 million

Seasons Dry and mild (late November - February), hot and humid (March - May & November), hot and rainy (June - October) Telephone Country code 1® 245; international access code 00 Time GMT/UTC

Visa Single entry valid for 45 days costs US$60. Required for all visitors except citizens of Economic Community of West Africa States (Ecowas) nations. Available upon arrival at Bissau airport. Otherwise, arrange before arrival.

highlights

Joao Vieira - Poilao National Marine Park

(p377) Discover the island's powdery sand beaches and disarmingly friendly people. Ilha de Orango (p377) Stalk rare, salt-water hippos after visiting the tombs of Bijagos kings and queens.

Varela (p378) Laze on the gorgeous but undeveloped beaches just over the border from Senegal's Cap Skiring. Sacred Forests (p378) Disappear into the dense jungle around Catio and Jem-berem - the westernmost habitat of the African chimpanzee. Bissau (p374) Sip your way through blackouts at the capital's amiable cafes.

climate & when to go

The rainy season is from June to October. Conditions are especially humid in the months before the rains (April and May), when average maximum daytime temperatures rise to 34°C. Daily maximums rarely fall below 30°C.

The best time to visit is from late November to February, when conditions are dry and relatively cool.

itineraries

One Week Spend a day or two in the relaxing capital Bissau (p374), before heading to Ilha de Bubaque in the Arquipelago dos Bijagos (p376).

HOW MUCH?

Small souvenir mask US$4 Shared taxi ride in Bissau US$0.50 Nescafe US$0.20

Woven indigo cotton cloth (40cm x 80cm) US$6

Main course in Western-style restaurant US$8

LONELY PLANET INDEX IL petrol US$1.20 IL bottled water US$1 Bottle of Portuguese beer US$1 Souvenir T-shirt US$5 Omelette sandwich from street vendor US$1

WARNING

Peaceful presidential elections in 2005 have raised hopes of lasting stability following the 1998 civil war. However, underlying tensions remain, so be sure to check the latest situation before arrival. Note that the region around Sao Domingos and along the Senegalese border is particularly prone to instability.

There are still land mines in some rural and remote areas. If travelling far off-the-beaten path, research your route and consider bringing a trusted guide.

Two Weeks During a second week, consider further explorations of the Bijagos. Head to Orango (p377), with its rare, saltwater hippos, and then check out one of the remoter but paradisiacal islands, like Ilha Joao Vieira (p377). Three Weeks Devote a third week to exploring the rich mainland ecosystems in-depth, such as mangrove swamps of the Parque Natural dos Tarrafes do Rio Cacheu (p377) in the north or the sacred Parque Natural de Cantanhez (p378) in the south.

history

The great Sahel Empire of Mali, which flourished between the 13th and 15th centuries AD, included parts of present-day Guinea-Bissau. For more information on the precolonial history of this part of West Africa, see p392.

European Arrival & Colonisation

Portuguese navigators first reached what is now Guinea-Bissau around 1450. They found navigable rivers that facilitated trade with the interior, and were soon extracting gold, ivory, pepper and especially slaves.

For centuries the Portuguese presence was limited to coastal trading stations, but with the end of the slave trade in the 19 th century, the Portuguese had to win control of the interior to continue to extract wealth. To do so, they allied themselves with Muslim ethnicities, including the Fula and Mandinko, to subdue animist tribes. When right-wing dictator Antonio Salazar came to power in Portugal in 1926, he imposed direct Portuguese rule, forcing peasants to plant groundnuts (peanuts) for export, like it or not.

War of Liberation

By the early 1960s African colonies were rapidly winning independence, but Salazar refused to relinquish those under his control. The result: one of Africa's longest, bloodiest wars of liberation.

The father of independence was Amilcar Cabral, who in 1956 helped found the Par-tido Africano da Independencia da Guine e Cabo Verde (PAIGC). In 1961 the PAIGC started arming and mobilising peasants, and controlled half the country within five years. The PAIGC built schools, provided medical services and encouraged widespread political participation. Cabral was assassinated in 1973, but freedom was inevitable. When Salazar's regime fell in 1974, the new Portuguese government quickly recognised the fledgling nation.

Independence

Once in power, the PAIGC government faced staggering problems. Only one in 20 people could read, life expectancy was 35 years, 45% of children died before the age of five and rice production had fallen by 71%. The new socialist state made significant inroads, especially relative to other postcolonial countries. Nevertheless a coup in 1986 forced President Joao Vieira to abandon socialism and sell off state enterprises.

Meanwhile intractable poverty as well as growing corruption under Vieira culminated in national strikes in 1997, which quickly devolved into a civil war. Vieira was forced to flee the capital in 1999. Remarkably, military commanders handed power back to civilians. Nevertheless, several subsequent coups kept the war-weary country on edge, and separatist conflict in southern Senegal frequently spilled over Guinea-Bissau's northern border.

Guinea-Bissau Today

Despite fears of continued factional violence, the 2005 presidential elections were deemed largely free and fair. The winner? Deposed president Joao Vieira, who returned from exile to run a successful campaign based on national reconciliation. While fundamental problems of corruption and poverty could yet destabilise the current peace, Guinea-Bissau nationals geneally express cautious optimism about their country's future.

culture

Despite wide religious and ethnic differences, Guinea-Bissau nationals are united by a neighbourly goodwill that is genuinely remarkable. Even in the capital city, violence and even aggressive salesmanship are rare. Mainland ethnic cultures are similar to those in neighbouring Senegal and Guinea. However, the Bijagos people have very distinct customs (see Queens of the Bijagos, p377).

While Guinea-Bissau is one of the world's poorest countries, regular rains and relatively fertile land make outright hunger rare. Most people scratch out a living from fishing and subsistence farming. Villages consist of mud-brick houses roofed with thatched grasses.

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GUINEA-BISSAU

Except for a lucky few, life is hardly easier in cities and towns. In a nation with virtually no industry, most people eke out a living as small-time merchants.

PEOPLE

Current estimates put the population at about 1.4 million, divided among some 23 ethnic groups. The two largest are the Balante (30%) in the coastal and southern regions and the Fula (20%) in the north. Other groups include the Manjaco (or Manjak), Papel, Fulup and Mandingo (Mandinka). The offshore islands are mostly inhabited by the Bijagos people (see p377).

About 45% of the people (mainly Fula and Mandingo) are Muslims. Christians make up less than 10% of the population, mostly around Bissau. Animist beliefs remain strong along the coast and in the south.

ARTS

Guinea-Bissau has a modest tradition of sculpted figures and masks, similar to other countries of the region. The Bijagos people, on the other hand, have evolved a more distinctive style.

On the mainland, dance and music are largely influenced by the Mandingo and Diola people of neighbouring Senegal. The harplike kora and the xylophone-like balafon are common. The traditional Guinean beat isgumbe. Modern music shares the same roots, though the Portuguese colonial legacy has given it a Latin edge.

ENVIRONMENT

Guinea-Bissau has an area of just over 36,000 sq km (about the size of Switzerland). Coastal areas are flat, and feature estuaries, mangrove swamps and patches of forest. The landscape continues to remain flat as you move inland but grows drier as it transitions into the Sahel.

Guinea-Bissau's rivers shelter fresh-water hippos, while the Bijagos have a few salt-water examples. The Bijagos are also an important nesting ground for aquatic turtles. The rainforests of the southeast are the most westerly home of Africa's chimpanzee population. The coastal wetlands harbour a stunning variety of birds, including parrots, cranes and peregrine falcons.

The natural vegetation of the inland areas is lightly wooded savanna, though much is under cultivation. Mangrove swamps dominate the coast.

Environmental issues include rapid loss of mangroves to rice plantations. Extensive groundnut production has leeched nutrients and promoted erosion, and over-fishing in rich coastal waters is a growing concern.

Guinea-Bissau has a number of protected areas, including the Bolama-Bijagôs Biosphere Reserve, which contains Orango Islands National Park (p377) and Joâo Vieira-Poilâo National Marine Park (p377). On the mainland, the Parque Natural dos Tarrafes do Rio Cacheu (p377), near the border with Senegal, encompasses impressive mangroves. Near Buba, the Parque Natural de Lagoa de Cafa-tada (p378) protects rich freshwater wetlands. And Parque Natural de Cantanhez (p3678) is planned to protect estuarine mangroves and several sacred forests.

For more information, contact IBflP ( §§ 207106; Rua Sâo Tomé), the institute that oversees all the parks from Bissau.

FOOD & DRINK

Seafood is the highlight of Guinean cuisine, including shrimp, oysters and meaty bica (sea bream), served grilled or sautéed with onions and limes. Rice is supplemented by yams, beans and mandioca (cassava). Vegetables generally include okra, carrots and squash. Palm oil is another key staple.

Canned soft drinks, bottled water and beer are widely available. Local brews include palm wine and cana de cajeu (cashew-flower rum). Beware homemade distilled products, which often contain high levels of toxins.

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