"Western Africa" story # 20

Bubaque, Guinea-Bissau           April 24, 2012

It occurred to me that I loved the Archipelago of the Bijagos, while I was lying in bed with Patricia (a woman with full hips and shiny, black skin; a round nose and mouth; and delicate, curious fingers), my hand resting on the beaded "comta" which Guineans decorated their lower waists with, and the patter of rain came to ease me into sleep.
     Rain was a constant friend here.

"I love the rain! Here she comes again ..." - sung by The Cult

On one of my first nights here, it had begun to rain. Then, it began to rain "hard". Then, it rained the hardest possible. Then, it rained even harder. It sounded like marbles were falling on my tin roof.
     As one traveled farther south from the Sahara Desert, the rainy season began to last longer and longer. In northern Senegal, it lasted three months. In Guinea-Bissau, it lasted six. It would last through October, meaning my entire "thrump" (three-month stay) here would be a rainy one. Rain fell on practically every day, sometimes all day. I missed it when it didn't rain for a few days.
     The quiet woman, Patricia, was also my friend. She'd been the second of my female neighbors to join me in bed during my first ten days in the archipelago. We got along well. She was a less constant friend than the rain, though ...
     It had been my theory that the women of a matriarchal society would have a more casual attitude toward romance. They'd be stronger, more independent, more predatory. This was good news for men who loved free love. (That was why I'd come here!)
     Thus far, my theory seemed to be correct. (I was so damned smart!) All around the village, girls called me to them. The young men on my soccer team said, with smiles, they had no problem finding girlfriends.
     The matriarchal lifestyle was evident in the structure of families. I was told that mothers, grandmothers, and aunts held power. It was, in fact, rare to see a mother living with the father of her children. Many women, such as Patricia, seemed to raise their children alone.
     Fathers, no doubt, contributed financial support. And many older boys, such as Patricia's thirteen-year-old, went to live with their fathers.

"I don't see why the woman and the children should not be the unit without the man." - Mr. Phillotson (a Thomas Hardy character), propounding matriarchy

Seeing as how most people's idea of romance was one that included sex, it was important for people to realize that nature's reaction to this was the impregnation of the woman. Societies that accepted and cared for their single mothers were, in essence, breaking down the barriers to free love. And most men, even in possessive societies like Muslim Morocco, desired freedom in love. (The popularity of Morocco's brothels was testimony to this.) It was idiotic for these same men to persecute women for being impure. They might-as-well have shot themselves in the feet.
     The matriarchal society of the Bijagos supported single motherhood.
     Independent Patricia lived near me with her elderly mother and three daughters. She spent her time washing clothes, cooking over firewood, and laughing at her children.
     Three-year-old Fenda had a goofy smile becuase she was missing several top teeth; eyes she seemed to be pushing open as wide as possible; stubby hair and light skin; and a silly giggle for a laugh. She enjoyed carrying around and kissing babies. She danced superbly: twisting her ankles to rotate her waist, and putting her hands on her knees and pumping her butt up and down. She liked it when I winked at her, but she could only blink back.
     Eight-year-old Tatyana had her mother's dark skin; big, beautiful eyes; and a wide smile that pushed her cheekbones up because she had such big teeth. She enjoyed playing with my hair, amazed at its length and straightness. She and the other, beautiful kids in my neighborhood seemed constantly happy.
     -- In 2010, while I'd been teaching university English in China, one of my class topics had been "gender and gender roles". One question asked, "How would the world be different if women were in charge? Would there be an end to war?
     -- I didn't know. But, the Archipelago of the Bijagos seemed to be a gentle place. Even the ocean currents, lapping against the beaches, sounded gentle. They weren't the mean, manly waves I was used to seeing in patriarchal countries. (Ha ha!)
     -- The first difference I'd noticed between Senegal and this archipelago was that Bijago children played together so lovingly. In Senegal, even in villages, kids were hitting each other constantly. --
     Tatyana and Fenda and the neighborhood children held hands in a line. Playing a Portuguese game, Tatyana asked the other children, "Quantas galinhas estâo na capoeira?" (How many chickens are in the pen?) The others replied, the chickens had been burnt! "Quem queimou?" (Who burnt them?) "A dona da casa!" (The woman of the house!) "Que merece?" (What does she deserve?) "Castigo jara!" (Corporal punishment!)
     The kids looped around each other. Still holding hands, they became entangled. The two ends pulled in opposite directions, and whichever child let go first, she was labeled the chicken bandit. Her wrist was slapped by the others, and then they played again.
     Evening fell, on this night without rain. The kids ran around in circles, screaming.
     "As crianças estâo felizes," I said. (The kids are happy.)
     My male neighbor, Neto, said, "As barrigas deles estâo cheias de arroz." (Their bellies are full of rice.)
     I asked Neto if he preferred the rainy season or the dry season. He said he preferred the dry season.
     I figured he preferred the dry season because there were more foreign tourists then, and this was possibly good for the economy. But, young Neto had a better reason. He said the rainy season was a time of sickness. It was rare to see someone sick during the dry season.
     This was true. My neighbors and their children were constantly going to the hospital. I, myself, suffered two quick health problems.
     First, I went to the hospital to have myself tested for malaria. I'd been feeling really knocked out by the heat lately, and since I was joining a soccer team here, I wanted to make sure I was in good health.
     The doctor informed me, malaria victims could experience up to four symptoms: headaches and fever; chills; muscle aches; and stomach pains.
     He informed me, malaria was the # 1 cause of hospitalization and death in Guinea-Bissau. (Respiratory infections were # 2.) There existed four strains of malaria; the most deadly strain was the most common in Guinea-Bissau.
     My finger was pricked (ouch!), my blood was examined, and it was found I was mutating into a frog. Just kidding. I was told I had ...
     ... "um pouco de pelodismo" (a little bit of malaria).
     I'd already paid $1 for the doctor's consultation and $1 for the lab test. Now, I paid $0.80 for forty pills. I took them over the next three days and never suffered anything worse than the finger-prick.
     I returned to playing soccer. To show my commitment to the team, I paid $3 to buy Chinese plastic which wrapped around my feet like soccer cleats. I wore these once, suffered five cuts from the plastic, and never played soccer again.
     Because it was the rainy season, the cuts on my feet grew worse. Diseased flies loved to nibble on them. I went to consult Roberto the Italian Priest, who was $1 cheaper than the doctor.
     He said my cuts were dangerous; I needed to prevent infection. He gave me a big bag that included wet wipes, anti-septics, band-aids, and bandages. I hoped I now had this injury under control.
     Yikes. It seemed the Archipelago of the Bijagos wasn't so gentle during the rainy season.
     On the night when I'd felt I loved this archipelago, more rain than ever fell. Patricia had left by this time.
     It sounded as if my house were beneath Victoria Falls. It was so dark out that the shadow formed by the land and palm trees hardly differentiated from the sky. Metallic flashes of silver-gold lightning blinded me. Thunder cracked like a wrecking ball striking the building next door. A hurricane wind sprayed the rain around.

"I hope you're in for nasty weather. I hope you're quite prepared to die." - sung by Credence Clearwater Revival

I still loved it.

The Modern O.

go to the previous story                                                                                go to the next story

J. Breen's modern-o.com