On the islands of Bijago archipelago off the coast of Guinea-Bissau, there is a matriarchal society where women in the tribe manage the household, the economy, law, as well as initiating courtship.
Located in the Atlantic Ocean, The Bijago archipelago consists of 88 islands scattered off the coast of the African nation Guinea Bissau Only 23 of the 88 islands are inhabited.
The population is composed mainly of the Bijagó ethnic group.
The Bijago people make up just 2.5% of the Guinean population (about 30 thousand people) but they have a strong cultural and ethnic identity.
The Bijagos are a matriarchal and matrilineal society in which women choose their husbands and which is guided by female priests.
Bijagó women also play a key role in the family economy with their work and they also fulfil the cultural task of transmitting the values and rituals of their ethnicity.
Creation Story and the Origin of Matriarchy in Bijago
According to an ancient legend, in the beginning, the Bijagó creator, (Nindo) created Orango, the first island, which was the world. He then formed a man and a woman named Akapakama.
Akapakama gave birth to four daughters named Orakuma, Ominka, Ogubane and Oraga. Each of them had several children of their own, and they were bestowed special rights.
The Orakuma family received the land and management of the ceremonies to be held therein; also the right to carve statuettes representing Ira , the fundamental spirits in the Bijagò cults.
The Ominka family received the sea, and thus set about fishing.
The Oraga family received nature, fields and palm trees, which would provide them with great wealth.
The Ogubane family received the power of rain and wind, thus enabling them to control the sequence of dry and rainy seasons.
The four sisters all played distinct yet complementary roles. This is the origin of matriarchy in the Bijago society.
Bijago women have economic autonomy, since they work even more than men. They are the focal point of ceremonies, rituals and religious and the celebrations that take place in the public sphere.
“mothers form the nucleus of the family clan structure, where motherhood is esteemed and venerated, so they enjoy a high prestige and social respect. But, as befits a “society of mothers,” men are sometimes treated as children who are exempt from multiple responsibilities and allowed to enjoy more leisure and pleasure time.” said an article in mmstudies.com.
Apart from managing the economy and social wellbeing, women also choose their husbands.
The choose their husbands by placing a large plate of food at the house of their choice. If the man is willing to accept her proposal, he eats the food. After doing so, the future husband goes to live with the girl in her hut, and the couple is then married.
Generally, Bijago women are in charge of the housework; they cultivate small gardens and grow rice, process palm oil, cut straw to cover houses while educating their children. women are also in charge of relations with the spirit world as the society is led by priestesses who are chosen from maternal clans.
Due to difficulties of communication with mainland Guinea-Bissau that persist to this day, the population has a considerable degree of autonomy and has shielded its ancestral culture from outside influence.
The area where the Bijagos live in was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve (Bolama Bissagos Biosphere Reserve) in 1996 due to its high diversity of ecosystems.