In pictures: an introduction to Guinea Bissau

Diana Jarvis

written by
Diana Jarvis

updated 10.11.2018

Sitting on the far west coast of Africa, just south of Senegal, Guinea Bissau is a small yet vibrant African nation just beginning to take its place on the tourist map. Years of colonial rule followed by decades of political instability kept this once-Portuguese outpost a secret, known only by dedicated deep-sea fishermen and a handful of NGO workers. But it’s not going to remain a secret for much longer, as Explore begin running trips to Guinea Bissau in November 2016. We sent photographer Diana Jarvis to uncover Guinea Bissau – here are some of her best shots.

1. The capital: buzzing Bissau

Like any African nation, the capital city is abuzz with endless human activity, night and day. But aside from a few sights – an impressive Roman Catholic Cathedral and several remnants from the Portuguese era – the main fascination here is watching the inexhaustible variety of life.

Bissau was founded by the Portuguese in the late seventeenth century and had various roles during the colonial era but didn’t officially become the capital of modern-day Guinea Bissau till 1942, taking the title from the island city of Bolama further south.

Bissau, capital of Guinea Bissau

2. Ancestral shrines

Guinea Bissau is one of the few places in Africa you can still see traditional ancestral shrines in situ, being used for the purpose originally intended: to connect the human and spirit worlds. These totem-like structures each represent a departed family member and is a common feature in animist tradition throughout the region. Traditionally the wood was simply carved and left bare but as western artistic practices made their way into the consciousness of the people, the carvings started to become more and more representative of the person they’re commemorating.

African art, Guinea Bissau

3. Meeting King Pedro Mendes

Guinea Bissau is divided into many ancient kingdoms, which date back as far as the Mali Empire. During the colonial rule each king was officially recognised by the government and was paid accordingly. But since Independence in 1973, however, it’s a notional role only.

4. A firey sunset

Owing to the lush mangroves and proximity to the equator, coupled with fairly low-lying land and coastal position, the country is a haven for tropical wildlife. More than one million birds opt for a migration route between Europe and the southern hemisphere and take in the fertile grounds on their way.

Tree at sunset, Guinea Bissau

5. Kids returning from working the fields

Like many villages in the tropical mainland, access is via unpaved roads and the homes are scattered over several miles. Children must attend school from the ages of 7–13 but, despite this, there is still a huge number of kids in the workforce. The children below, in Bassares village, are pictured returning from the fields picking peanuts but they attended school earlier in the day.

Children of Guinea Bissau

6. The colourful women of Guinea Bissau

Bissauans take their fashion seriously and everywhere you look you’ll find brightly clad men and women of all ages in dazzlingly kaleidoscopic patterns.

The country’s population is around about 1.7 million and although the official language is Portuguese, you’ll find relatively few people actually converse in it. An array of other languages and dialects are spoken including crioulo (a kind of Portuguese creole), tribal languages, as well as a smattering of French, particularly in the north, near the border with Senegal.

Colourful women of Guinea Bissau

8. The Cacheu Fortress

On the banks of the River Cacheu lies a town of the same name. It was one of the first places in sub-saharan Africa to be colonised by European traders owing to its proximity to the ocean– but as well as merchants and adventurers, it also became a Portuguese outpost for felons and criminals whereby outcasts where sent here for their misdemeanours.

The fort was established in the sixteenth century, when the town was known as a centre in the slave trade. It was here that Sir Francis Drake and John Hawkins fought against the Portuguese in 1567.

Cacheu Fortress, Guinea Bissau

9. Fishing on the harbour in Cacheu

The waters around the mainland and islands of Guinea Bissau are extremely good places to find fish and seafood, so much so that the primary reason for western tourism to the region in recent years has been on tailor-made deep-sea fishing holidays.

The fishermen in Cacheu, however, only have to cast their dinner-plate sized nets out into the harbour and, invariably, wait no more than a few minutes before hauling in an array of crustaceans and small fish.

Fishing in Cacheu

10. Sailing in the mangroves to Elia

Much of Guinea Bissau's coast is low-lying and covered in mangroves, so villagers use dugout canoes to get around rather than cars and roads.

The adobe mud houses are round and are designed with maximum shade in mind: at the centre of the building and in complete darkness is the grain store, off which you’ll find a couple of very compact bedrooms while everything else – cooking, eating and animal rearing – takes place under the wide thatched awning.

Thatched houses in Guinea Bissau

11. King Jihca Ghadda of Elia

It’s a long boat ride through the mangroves towards the far north of the country to reach the village of Elia, but it’s well worth the trip. The villagers are incredibly warm and welcoming. The village is presided over by Jihca Ghadda (pictured), whose kingdom stretches across several islands.

Old man from Elia, Guinea Bissau

12. The way to the road, Elia

Owing to its proximity to the sea, the low-lying estuarine land around the river Cacheu is frequently inundated with a mix of both fresh and saltwater. In order to increase the fertility of their land, the villagers of Elia have constructed their own water purification system, which separates the saltwater from the freshwater. This tract of land is part of that system, though it doubles up as a convenient path from the village to the main road in an otherwise wild and tropical area.

Path to the main road, Elia

13. The Bijagós (Bissagos) islands

The Bijagós is an archipelago of 88 tropical islands – the largest archipelago in Africa – off the coast of Guinea Bissau. Around only twenty of them are inhabited and the whole region has been a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 1996. The people of the islands are quite distinct from the mainland population, mainly thanks to the distance and time it takes to reach by boat. As a consequence, many of the islands have developed in isolation and traditions have remained intact.

The Bijagos islands, Guinea Bissau

14. Fishing on the Bijagós islands

Most of the inhabitants of the Bijagós islands subsist with incomes from farming and fishing. The boats are often simple wooden structures and, without access to new technologies, the fishermen navigate by the sun (or stars).

Fishermen in Guinea Bissau

14. Subsistence farming

Most islanders subsist on a small income from fishing or farming. Produce grown includes cashews, mangos and groundnuts among others.

Uno Island, Guinea Bissau

15. The Vaca Bruto ceremony, Agande, Uno Island

At a certain time in their lives, all the boys of the Agande go into the forest for several months to live alone, and supposedly return as men.

These rites of passages take place when it ‘feels right’ rather than at a set age. They generally happen once in a generation, so the ‘boys’ vary in age from 20–34 years old.

Vaca Bruto ceremony, Guinea Bissau

The process of initiation they go through isn’t exactly clear – it’s a secret, even to the village’s womenfolk – but once they return home, they take part in a ceremony known as the Vaca Bruto, which loosely translates as the ‘strong cow’.

The villagers of Agande on the island of Uno (shown here) are known to be more powerful in this dance than others. The spirits come to them while dancing and it’s the spirits, according to local lore, who give a man his power.

Vaca Bruto ceremony, Guinea Bissau

The ceremony starts with the beating of a drum and the appearance of a man making rhythmical sounds on a calabash who is known as the ‘conductor’ of the ceremony. Gradually the men, bare chested, adorned in tribal garb and sporting their heavy cow masks, appear from the forest.

Vaca Bruto ceremony, Guinea Bissau

The man in the black mask is the leader, followed by several in white masks who are second in command and represent the sky and the gods. The red mask, however, represents the land, blood and fire and is the sacrificial animal.

Vaca Bruto ceremony, Guinea Bissau

The men dance about each other for a while, the red-masked man flirting with the ladies but eventually a fight takes place and the red masked man is attacked, downed and tied up.

Vaca Bruto ceremony, Guinea Bissau

16. A green turtle nests on the island of Poilão

The island of Poilão is a favourite nesting site for green turtles. Using an in-built navigation system, they always find their way back to the place they were born in order to lay eggs. Ordinarily they head back into the water before first light but this one had become beached after the low tide revealed a rocky shore. Thankfully there were representatives from the UNESCO-funded turtle research project to help her back into the sea.

The turtle digs out a nest in the sand and lays her eggs – perhaps as many as 200 – covering them back up with the sand before returning to the sea. Between 50-70 days later, the hatchlings emerge from the nest and, when night descends and the moon is visible, they instinctively head out to sea.

Poilão, Guinea Bissau

17. A little bit of luxury on Rubané

The island of Rubané is about as touristy as it gets in Guinea Bissau and yet it still feels like you’re a million miles away from anyone. Here you’ll find the resort of Ponta Anchaca, a luxury island hideaway with beach-side lodges made of local wood and an al-fresco dining room that serves huge portions of locally caught fish.

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18. Hippos

Orango is the largest of the Bijagós islands and contains a huge diversity of ecosystems, including savannah grassland and swamps. This tree, literally dripping with weaver bird nests, is on the shores of leech-infested swamp water. The birds create elaborate, pouch-like nests from leaf fibres, twigs and grass and happily live alongside much larger birds like egrets as well as the crocodiles and hippos in the waters below.

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Hippo in Guinea Bissau

19. Bolama, the old capital

Bolama was the capital of Portuguese Guinea from 1879 till 1941, but when the country declared its independence Bissau became the country's main city. Bolama was promptly abandoned by the Portuguese inhabitants and since then has been left to ruin and decay. It still retains the essence of latin grandeur but the grass has grown around it and the bats moved in. Some of the buildings are inhabited, thoughthere has been little investment in infrastructure.

Bolama, Guinea Bissau

All photographs © Diana Jarvis

Explore’s ten day Guinea Bissau and the Sacred Bijagos Archipelago tour travels by bus, boat and canoe across lagoons, rivers, forest, mangroves and the ocean to the tribal villages and islands of this captivating country. The trip departs in November and December 2016 and costs from £2959 per person. See more of Diana's photography on

Diana Jarvis

written by
Diana Jarvis

updated 10.11.2018

Diana is a photographer and writer based in Margate, Kent. She has shot ten guidebooks for Rough Guides and undertaken numerous commissions for Visit England, National Geographic Traveller (UK), GreenTraveller and Cool Camping, among others. She is currently the editor of Eye for the Light a subscription-only, digital publication in association with Travel Photographer of the Year and is also the Publishing and Photography Director at the British Guild of Travel Writers. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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