"Western Africa" story # 25

Acanho, Guinea-Bissau           November 2, 2012

On the canoe returning from Canhabaque, one of Father Luigi's teachers was hitting on a short girl with an attractive body.
     The young woman, who casually enjoyed the attention of good-looking guys as did all Guinean women, sat with a relaxed posture that said she wasn't too interested in this guy. I said, she probably already had a fisherman boyfriend.
     The young teacher had a good sense of humor. He said, in Portuguese:
     "Of course, she's going to go for a fisherman. He has a canoe, a net, a motor. Me? I'm a teacher. I only have pencils, books, and pens. When I want to go somewhere, I have to wait for a fisherman to come and take me."
     By the time we reached Bubaque Island, the short girl had warmed up to the teacher.
     All of Father Luigi's teachers were Guineans. Though this was the Archipelago of the Bijagos, many came from non-Bijago ethnicities. This served to point out that, even within Guinea-Bissau, the Bijago people lacked development and the means for a good education.
     Many of Luigi's teachers were Bijagos, also. Most of these had graduated from one of the dozen primary schools which Luigi's NGO maintained. Some had labored for the NGO in exchange for sponsorship of their high school studies.
     Many of these Bijagos had come from Luigi's primary school on the island of Orangozinho (Portuguese for: "Little Orango"). These included:
     Du Muscate - the manager of Luigi's internet cafe (where I worked), a wide-faced man whose eyes and smile shone with innocent friendliness
     Daniel Muscate - Du's younger brother, who worked in a restaurant, spoke English, and had a wide happy face with a gap between his front teeth
     Mario - a handsome man who, like some Guineans I didn't trust, was able to give his smile a movie star sparkle.
     The day after Luigi's canoe had returned from Canhabaque, it set off with more teachers for Orangozinho. Du and Daniel Muscate, Mario, and I were on-board.
     The canoe traveled along the jungly coast of Bubaque, until we were beside the beautiful beach of Bruce. We traversed an expanse of open water, towards another great and flat island. This was Orangozinho.
     We disembarked in waist-high water, and walked with our bags over our heads to an idyllic little beach. We walked on, penetrating the jungle. We passed wetland rice fields. We had to take off our shoes, as our feet sunk deep into the trail of mud. I said aloud: "I like Orangozinho!"
     We reached a path of sand, and walked between caju orchards. A slightly thick-bodied, young woman ran at us from the village, and gave big hugs to Du, Daniel, and me. Her name was Fatu; she clearly had a fun sense of humor. Next, an old woman conversed with Daniel. I passed Daniel and waited to greet the woman. She got mad at me for passing her without greeting, and she made me return to Daniel's other side.
     Then, we reached the village of Acanho.
     I soon felt I liked this village less than the one on Canhabaque. The homes seemed bigger, and they were made of orange mud bricks. Their shaggy straw roofs hung down too low, making it difficult to talk with someone seated beneath them. The villagers looked at me with drunken, aggressive eyes. They were harmless, but it looked like they didn't want to be.
     Du and Mario shone with glee. I recognized Mario's humility and innocence, and trusted him.
     Daniel in his shiny colorful baseball hat - who hadn't been home since Christmas - seemed a bit uncomfortable.
     As for me, I felt relieved once they'd shown me to Father Luigi's home on the edge of Acanho. I'd be staying here. The rooms of this round home radiated out from a well and garden in the middle. Beautiful. Du and Daniel had fond memories of it.
     Du remembered when Luigi used to bring clothes to this home. They were for sale, but not for money. Luigi needed fertilizer. So, he asked the kids of the village to go and collect hippo poop.
     By afternoon, I was ready to go out again. Daniel and I prepared for a walk to the village of Eticodega.
     Still in Acanho, we ran into several men. One short man had aggressive eyes, and was missing a front tooth. A tall man had gentle eyes, and a swollen and red tongue or lower lip. Speaking Bijago to them, I asked, "Anamo?" (What's your name?)
     "Ya-kenyen," said the short one.
     For a long time now, I had been disappointed that people always told me their "official" Portuguese names. I was delighted to hear Ya-kenyen's Bijago name. Ya-kenyen saw my delight, and was delighted by my delight.
     The tall man introduced himself. "Nyitamo."
     A third was called, "Otikoro".
     Daniel explained the meanings of these names: "They didn't offend" ... "Ask him" ... "It was he who fastened". He explained the names had been given to them by the village elders, once they'd completed all initiation cerimonies and become men. Until then, they'd been called "Cabaro" (Young Man) or "Canhokam" (Boy).
     I asked if the meanings of their names reflected some personal stories from the initiations, but Daniel said no. The names were common, and Bijagos anywhere could share the same name. Daniel's name was "Nagbe". Du was still a "Cabaro".
     Walking on, Daniel and I came to the village elders. They'd been drinking. If I was afraid of any Guineans, it was the white-goateed Bijagos. They commanded authority.
     One of these explained that they'd been drinking because there was to be a cerimony this night, a goat would be slaughtered. He requested I present myself before the village at this cerimony. I didn't exactly want to, but I agreed. As he walked away, he joked to his friends that I'd pay him 1000 Francs ($2) just because he'd told me his name.
     Daniel and I walked past Acanho's sacred hut, which housed a wooden religious statue. We passed another sacred hut, for women.
     We walked towards the neighboring village of Eticodega, through a shaggy grassland beside shaggy jungle. Shaggy Johnny should've been here. I repeated happily to myself: "Ya-kenyen, Ya-kenyen, Nyitamo ..."
     The peaceful village of Eticodega lied beneath rotting huge baobab stags. Milky brown earth, cultivated and giving way to green fresh bean sprouts, surrounded the village. In Bubaque, no one ever ate beans anymore. I missed beans.
     One field had been cultivated over a big pit, and Daniel explained this was where people had taken dirt to build a house.
     We walked past a small tree. "It usually looks better than this," Daniel said. Oh? Did the tree require maintenance? He explained it was a sacred tree.
     We went to the village chief's house. A tall man awoke from a nap. He wore rags and a drunken look that suggested he was sniffing a pile of poo. At first, he became happy to see Daniel. Then, he somberly related a message to me through Daniel:
     "Our country is bad, but you are welcome here. We have no hospital, no potable water. Well, there is one hospital. We have a well, but no potable water. Things are bad, but we are working hard to change. Maybe you can help us, or tell someone else who can ..."
     This message was depressing from the beginning. Why should his village feel it must change? I urged Daniel to leave.
     On our way home, Daniel agreed with me that no people should feel obliged to change. "In fact, we're okay," he said. "But, people come from other countries and say, 'They have no potable water.' This makes us feel bad."
     Did the village chief's drunkenness come from feelings of inferiority? We couldn't all be Rudy Giuliani.
     Other than one woman who tried to beg the shirt off my back, the people of Orangozinho were peaceful. Nevertheless, I told Daniel I felt too exhausted to present myself at the village meeting. He understood. If we were lucky, half the villagers would've been passed out by now anyway.
     Back in Acanho, we saw Mario. "Anamo?" I asked.
     "Nyitamo," he said happily. "Anamo?"
     I didn't have a name. "Cabaro," I said. But then, I realized I hadn't completed any of the initiation cerimonies. I changed my answer to: "Canhokam".
     We laughed.
     Next, we saw Fatu. This thick-bodied funny girl had stolen a living stingray from a fisherman's basket. For a joke, she ran around with it while the fisherman chased her. I asked: Wasn't that a bit dangerous?
     Fatu responded by grabbing the animal's tail near its stinger, pushing it towards my face, and waving her tongue at me. Aah! Ha ha.
     The owner of the stingray was actually a woman, who had gone to the beach at low tide to collect molluscs and eely worms. This young woman happened to be the mother of Daniel's son.

Daniel didn't have a great relationship with the mother of his son. In Orangozinho, Du had a much better relationship with the mother of his child.
     Daniel told me he had several girlfriends in Bubaque. One of them, he said, was his girlfriend since childhood. He saw them when he had time.
     Hearing this, and thinking a bit, I realized something. It must've been that, in the Archipelago of the Bijagos, one never stopped being another's boyfriend/girlfriend. One could gain boyfriends or girlfriends, but never lost them. It was the perfect solution to heartbreak, loneliness, break-ups, rejection ...
     During our second full day on Orangozinho, Daniel and a schoolteacher and I walked to the beach. We passed the sacred spot in the jungle where initiation cerimonies were held. From the beach, we could see to distant Joao Vieira Island, a bird refuge with a hotel for tourists.
     The young schoolteacher said he liked to spend his school holidays on Orangozinho, because there was always work to be done.
     On Orangozinho, young women cooked beans beside their work camps; old women shaved tree bark to make Bijago skirts; people walked far to collect drinking water; men erected electrical fences to keep hippoes from eating their rice.
     Daniel's grandfather had been a traditional healer. The roots he'd given Daniel to counter stingray stings had been effective. The traditional medicine worked, Daniel said; he preferred it. He claimed that Bijago villagers could live to be a hundred, that they could still walk around and do small jobs.
     Daniel's uncle currently harvested the yellow caju plum for its wine, which he sold. It surprised me that this island succeeded in exporting any alcohol whatsoever.
     Although the people of Orangozinho drank a lot, I felt lucky to be able to spend two nights here.
     "Bye, Ya-kenyen!"

Nyisoka ("I'll come again" in the local dialect),
Canhokam Oddyseus

Much thanks to Father Luigi for another place to stay!

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