The Bijago Islands: A Woman’s World


American Funk icon James Brown once famously said, “This is a man’s world, but it would mean nothing without a woman or girl.” A lot of times in western culture, those words ring true and it does feel like we live in a man’s world because of the patriarchal structures that birthed societies. 

Historically around the world, women needed to be controlled. They were meant to stay at home and tend to the needs of their families. They weren’t supposed to make decisions, they were supposed to obey. Because of that men had all the power, and without this dominance, a man’s world would mean literally nothing.  

But what if it was a woman’s world? Would that mirror a man’s world? Could it be better than a man’s world? What role does femininity play in a society where women are in charge?

One example of a woman’s world that can give some insight to this comparison can be found off the coast of Guinea Bissau in West Africa on the Bolama-Bijagos Islands. There, a community known as the Bijagos go about life under a matriarchy. 

The Bolama-Bijagos comprises about 88 islands and 23 of them are inhabited by humans. The islands are rich with resources, which allowed the hunter-gatherer society of Bijagos to emerge. In the article, “Facts About Matriarchies at the Bijagos Islands” author William Bond describes the area as being “semi-tropical islands [that] consist of mangrove forests, saltwater swamps and palm trees interspersed with zones of dry forest, coastal savannah and sand banks. Island rivers release nutrient-rich freshwater into the ocean, creating a breeding ground and habitat for many species including crocodile, hippopotamus, fish, sea turtles, crustaceans, and mollusks.”

Bond went on to explain that because of the seafood they were gathering, it was probably women’s work to retrieve it, thus making them the main breadwinners of the family. This then could’ve been what put women at the highest regards and utmost respect in their community. Bond also cited the West African folklore of the infamous Mami Wata-a water goddess that represents femininity amongst countless other traits and is commonly portrayed as being half mermaid-and how women may have been related to her at times as they dove in the water for food. It is because of the greater income women had that solidified themselves as leaders in the community though. 

There is also a local legend amongst Bijago people that explains the birth of their societies and emphasizes the power of females. The story follows the first Bijago woman-a nomad from the south-who gave birth to four daughters. Each of the daughters derived one of the four clans that exist in Bijago culture in modern times: Oraga, Ominca, Ogubane and Oracuma. In society, the mother’s lineage determines what clan the child will belong to. 

In this matriarchal civilization, women are also the religious leaders, the centers of any festivities and homeowners. They choose and seduce their husbands while men accept the “passive” role. Women are the ones to assign jobs and councils of women are made up to observe power distribution and form judiciary courts. 

Going back to the question of a woman’s world mirroring a man’s world, what I find interesting in Bijago society is that even though the power seems to directly transfer over to women, the community doesn’t reflect a patriarchal system flipped over. In fact it seems pretty peaceful, and makes me wonder-what is it about femininity that needs to be so heavily controlled in patriarchal societies? 

On the Bolama-Bijagos Islands, there is little to no crime and there are principles of fairness  and giving that reign in the community. In the article, “Sistemas Sexo/Genero ‘Matriarchals’: Bijago (Guinea Bissau) y Zapoteca,” author Águeda Gómez Suárez (who was translated by William Bond) said in regards to the Bijago society that “the prestige is based on the one that ‘gives more,’ not on the one ‘who has the most.’” This means that sharing holds more value than capitalizing on the islands. This correlates between the older and younger generations too as the younger people are meant to bring offerings for their elders in return for their wisdom.  

Another principle that is a center of Bijago culture is called arebuko. This is the belief that women have a greater life force within themselves that connects them to the spiritual world. This makes the mother sacred and the central figure in the home. Men in turn are seen as incomplete. They are set on a lifelong “rite of passage” called fanado. During this personal journey they must learn to respect women and do so by connecting with the nature around them. If they die young, it is believed that the men go to a spiritual purgatory. If they complete fanado, they are able to reach paradise. 

Even though Bijago women disproportionately hold power, their priority doesn’t seem to be power or money at all. Instead the communal focus is peace, respect and synergy. It seems like in a woman’s world, everyone matters. 

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