"Western Africa" story # 26

Angumba, Guinea-Bissau           October 31, 2012

Food was easy to come by in the Archipelago of the Bijagos.
     But, Father Luigi emphasized the importance of the quality of the food which one ate. Eating more healthily, one could work harder, and one's body could combat the aggressive bacteria which thrived during Guinea-Bissau's rainy season. Luigi claimed the locals worked little because their diet was little more than white rice and cheap fish.
     My diet was little better than theirs. I cooked mostly with eggs, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, pumpkin, and pasta. And I was a man who had a lot to do. Walking around, I often felt that my steps were quicker than what my body desired them to be.
     On October 8th, I ran into problems. My upper body felt too hot for me to work, my muscles so weak I could barely draw water from the well. I'd just finished taking malaria medicine for the third time.
     (I would be diagnosed with malaria a fourth time, too. I came to believe that all these harmless "outbreaks" of malaria were not necessarily caused by separate mosquito bites, but by my unhealthy lifestyle.)
     I told Domingos Norte, the hard-working Guinean co-founder of Father Luigi's NGO, that I'd had enough and was ready to go to America. But, he said he'd have his Bijago wife send me huge amounts of food each day. And she came from the Island of Unho, renowned for its cooking.
     On each of the following days, I was brought enough fat vegetables and plump fish for two meals. On October 13th, I ate spaghetti and an entire chicken! My health and high spirits were restored.
     I would stay in the Archipelago of the Bijagos the full three months, until October 28th. I would hang out with my new girlfriend, Tida, a young mom. And I would finish Father Luigi's website.
     But, first ...
     There were two weeks left. I had to get out and see some more islands!

Within sight of our island, Bubaque, was the island of Canhabaque (pronounced: "Kahn-yuh-bah-kee"). Its inhabitants were known for having resisted Portuguese colonial rule for a long time. In more recent times, they were known for putting on the best cultural shows. I guessed this meant they performed Cabaro dancing, in which young men wore cow masks or shark dorsal fins and held spears.
     Father Luigi's NGO was sending a motorized canoe to transport teachers to a school it ran there. I hitched a ride on this fifty-foot, yacht-sized canoe. We took an hour to cross the clay blue water, and then we motored alongside the jungle that was Canhabaque.
     We turned into this jungle, and navigated a narrow channel hidden by mangroves. Bright gray-and-white ducks with red feet flew ahead of us, skimming the canal, showing us the way.
     We passengers ducked the massive mangroves' branches, in tight spots. We came to "the port"; upon a dirt stump on the shoreline, four women sat beside collections of branches to be sold as firewood. We disembarked. I wanted to photograph Domingos Norte, the poor fifty-year-old whom Father Luigi had asked to accompany me on this journey, in a sparse jungle of spiky palm leaflets. But, my camera stopped working.
     We walked through shallow estuarine water, then alongside fields where bright rice grass was decorated with tall palm trees. Old Bijago men with emaciated bodies and emaciated white goatees sat among the edges of the grass, wearing colorful wraps. I greeted them in Bijago, and they laughed.
     We came to the village of Angumba.
     It felt like I was stepping backwards in time or to another world, nearly to the time of the dinosaurs. Small square clay houses were being eaten away by rain or rats. They wore triangular, straw hats for roofs and had small windows. Some buildings were elevated from the ground on foundations made of sticks. Were they storage places for rice? Sacred huts of the ancestors?
     A pale, cylindrical bell (or gong) looked identical to the tree it hung from. It was rung to call the villagers to important meetings, about once a month. I spotted the bombolon drum - shaped like a small cement-mixer - which was played during cerimonies. The closely situated village seemed very united.
     Domingos Norte then introduced me to my first village chief. He wore Western clothes and a baseball hat. His look was a bit disappointing. He looked like his name could be Joe, and he could be from Missouri.
     Domingos Norte and I would be staying in a mortar, round house of Father Luigi's on the outskirts of the village. I wasn't content with going there for an afternoon nap, however. Naps were for fifty-year-olds! I wanted to walk three miles to the beach.
     A high school student named Eduardo showed me the way. We passed through grassland, jungle, and villages.
     Eduardo studied in Bissau, but he came from Angumba. Home during school holidays, he hunted monkeys, wild goats, and fish. Despite the fact that there was no fair on Canhabaque, Eduardo said people ate a varied diet. There was one hospital. I figured the people probably had little use for money.
     As we walked and passed people and greeted them, I noticed things about Canhabaque that made me like it much more than Bubaque. 1. Virtually no one begged. 2. No one called me by my skin color, "Branco" in Portuguese nor "Aurora" in Bijago. 3. With no packaged food for sale, there was no litter.
     Through the jungle, I heard what sounded like women yelling in celebration. Eduardo said they were yelling to scare birds away from their rice fields. Our jungle opened up to fields of tall rice grass. We reached a long beach. Eduardo disappeared to visit relatives. I went for a swim.
     Returning to the beach, I spoke Bijago to a happy man who was repairing a torn fishing net. I asked if it was a lot of work. It looked like a lot of work; he had to re-sew each torn square, and quite a lot had been torn. He said no, it would only take a few hours. What a refreshing work attitude. When the net of my fishermen friends in Bubaque had been torn, they made it sound as if the world were collapsing.
     I said good-bye to Happy Mario the Fisherman and went to look for Eduardo. I came to an old man sitting in the grass, weaving a spherical chicken box.
     I then came upon a clearing, where women boiled gray pots over red flames with black smoke pouring upwards. They were making salt.
     Eduardo reappeared. We began walking back towards Angumba through the rice fields.
     Women and girls worked beside hut-like camps in the midst of the rice. Made from long straw, these camps included elevated covered platforms. Quiet nature surrounded the people. A cute girl used thick wood to pound rice, and even this sound was harmonious.
     Eduardo and I were given uncooked grains of white, brown, and black rice to eat on our walk home. This rice was healthier and tastier than the white rice bought in Bubaque.
     We reached the village of Angumba at sunset. Three hours later, the thumping of handheld drums could be heard in the village. The Canderes (teenaged girls) would be dancing tonight.
     When I arrived in the dark center of the village, red flames danced from burning brush. The brush had a good odor and may've been burnt to repel mosquitoes.
     People sat and stood, gathered around the circle of girls wearing brown-and-black Bijago skirts. Some girls lacked animation, as they turned and danced. Were they forced to dance? They kind of resembled slaves turning a wheel. I guessed this activity encouraged village patriotism among the girls. "Angumba is the best!"
     I left this village entertainment early, but the music went on until two or four in the morning. The drums became hot and feverish. I wondered how the girls danced at this time?
     I really enjoyed my trip to Canhabaque. During the canoe ride home, I took off my shirt and absorbed the sun.
     We approached one of Canhabaque's beaches, where women awaited our canoe. They were to load plastic containers full of red palm oil (made by pressing chabeu fruit) on-board.
     I looked towards the sea and raised my eyebrows in a question at Jorge the Sea-Captain. He nodded, okay. I dove off the canoe and swam to the beach.

enjoying the archipelago,
Modern Oddyseus

Much thanks to Father Luigi for the house to stay in!

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