Bissagos Islands, on the Mysterious Islands of West Africa | Full Documentary
Today, Somewhere On Earth invites you to discover the Bijagos Islands. An isolated territory of Guinea-Bissau in West Africa. These sacred lands resemble a vast river delta. Marcelino is an elder, an Omi Grande, the highest position in the social hierarchy. The forest, which he knows so well, is where he finds the plants for his ancestral remedies.
Marcelino is a traditional doctor on the island of Carache in the northern Bijagos. The island of Orango in the far south is a world biosphere reserve and the country's first national park. This is where Pedro lives. He's the reporter for Okinka Pampa, Orango's small radio station, so he's always on the lookout for stories.
On the island of Caravela, Quintino is about to undergo the most important phase of his life. The Fanado, the highest initiation rite, which will open a mysterious secret world to him. Over the centuries, the Bijagos have forged a very close relationship with nature. I don't know what's going to happen to me if I'll be equal to the challenge and able to do what they want me to. That's why I'm anxious.
The Bijagos Islands are off in a backwater of time, isolated from the rest of the world. Just a few miles from the mainland, they form a labyrinth of sandbanks and mangrove swamps, they have the strongest tides in Africa. These islands are inhabited by spirits.
They form a mythical boundary between the land of Africa, the ocean, and the endless sky. Islands tossed into the sea and forgotten in the vast Atlantic Ocean. There are 88 of them spread out over roughly 100 kilometers, north to south. It is the only archipelago in Africa born from a river delta formed thousands of years ago following a rise in the level of the seas.
The early Portuguese navigators brought back tales of wild islands inhabited by indomitable warriors. The Bijagos people never submitted to the colonial authority. The villages are all inland, away from the sea, as if the inhabitants needed to protect themselves from unknown outside forces. For centuries, this isolation has allowed these islands to remain unspoiled.
Hello there. How's the family? How are you? Marcelino is a traditional healer in Empicha, a village on the island of Carache. He learned the traditional medicine from his father and began to treat people in the northern islands with him. A few years ago, Marcelino received training in the fundamentals of modern Western medicine from foreign doctors. How's the baby? [Bijago spoken audio] Thanks to the children, I became a healer.
I've liked children ever since I was young. It's still the case. What I do, I do for them. I instruct the mothers how to take care of their little ones. I teach them about the most frequent wounds.
The moms trust me, whether it's traditional or modern medicine. Wherever I go, I look after the children and my greatest joy is curing them because I see the results of my work. [Bijago spoken audio] Does he suckle well? Yes, he does. He has a fever? Yes, at night. [Bijago spoken audio] We're doing our best for the children to get a decent upbringing so that they'll have a good head on their shoulders. This is what we're teaching them.
When they're seven, they start to go out into the bush to say hello to people, to know their manners. The children here learn by example. You learn by watching grown-ups. If I ever see children doing something wrong, I stop and scold them. I'll give them some guidance and they listen to me because they know that I'll be telling their parents about it. A child is not just his parent's child.
He's also the child of the entire community. That's why we treat them all the same. We take care of all the children. When I see a newborn baby, it just feels my heart with joy. Marcelino, who's close to 60 years old, is an elder of his village, an Omi Grande. The younger generations have to submit to the decisions and demands of their elders.
This is the principle of payment to the elders, who are the ones who guide the children's upbringing. [Bijago spoken audio] There are not many schools here and very few clinics. More often than not, Marcelino has to turn to Mother Nature to treat his patients, to save lives.
The Bijago elders are all the living memory and guardians of the community's secrets. In order to keep the traditions alive, Marcelino passes on his knowledge to the younger generation. [Bijago spoken audio]. The palm tree plays an important role here in the Bijagos.
We use the trunk to build our houses. We make palm wine with the sap. When the nuts ripen, we can make oil. We use the fronds to make string. These are the palm fronds that we use to make brooms and the ropes we use to climb the palm trees.
We also make soap from the blossom. Every part of the tree is good. We can use everything in the palm tree. Plant lore and traditional medicine are great secrets.
The forest is like a pharmaceutical factory. If you're not a doctor, you're not allowed to learn the secret formulas. We don't transmit the mysteries of the plants to outsiders.
If you don't live here on this land, we'll never show you anything. Before cutting a root, I ask the tree's forgiveness. I ask it to help me cure the sick person.
You can't just come into the forest, take what you need, then turn around and leave. [Bijago spoken audio]. Marcelino has to take care of a child on a nearby island. Before undertaking a voyage, he has to invoke the spirit, so that he'll ensure a smooth journey and watch over his family during his absence. [Bijago spoken audio].
He got hurt while playing. They brought him to me four days ago. I took care of him and now I'm seeing him again. He tells me he's feeling better.
This is what I use to treat him. It looks like he's doing better. I treat stomach aches, indigestion, cuts, bruises, headaches, and snakebites. I take care of all of that. Yes, even snakebites. Nature jealously guards her secrets.
There are a number of sacred sites on the islands. They are the realm of Iran, the spirit of the islands. Tradition is the bond that ensures the social cohesion of the Bijagos people, and only they hold the key to it. This land beneath its vast sky is a sanctuary of unspoiled nature.
Marcelino is wise in his people's law. The Bijago draw their force and energy from the natural elements all around them. The first thing my father taught me was how to observe the fish, how to study the water. If it's windy, the sea gets stirred up and you can't see anything. However, if the water is clear, you can see the fish a few meters in front of you.
If you can't reach the fish with your net, you have to approach like this. You stalk them. It's a very long apprenticeship.
We, here in the Bijagos, remain pure and independent all our lives. We are poor, but our land is generous. It is our riches. Bijagos are very remote. We're a free people. Not many people can say that, and it's a privilege to live here.
We have enough to eat here. We are as pure as the clear seawater. That's the Bijagos. That's our riches. This is an old tree, and me, I am an old man. The tree and I are two wise old men.
It's the biggest tree in the Bijagos and I'm one of the oldest men around here. Yes, that's how it is. Orango, the largest island of the Bijagos, is a land of savannas and forest bordered by mangrove swamps. There are very few villages, and the island is a national park. Everyone on Orango knows Pedro, a generous man, always ready to help out the community with his two-wheeled tractor. Pedro's life changed 20 years ago, the day he received his tractor broken down into its parts.
His brother, who had emigrated to Portugal, managed to dig up this great bargain for him. I transport all sorts of things. Soil and bunches of palm fruit too. However, not only that, I also carry coconuts, peanuts, wood, anything that's heavy.
I do it to help the community. Anything people need, I'll carry it. I even transport people.
It's really kind of a museum piece. I have to start it with a rope. The villagers on Bubaque and Uno, the neighboring islands, also want me to come and help. However, I don't want to take my tractor to other islands.
I'm here to help the community of Orango because there's no other means of transportation here. I like helping people because I think you should help your neighbor. As I have the means, I do it. It's good to help people in need because you have to think ahead.
Someday, I could be the one who needs help. A few months ago, an incredible project saw the light of day on Orango, a community radio station. Pedro is one of the volunteer reporters of Radio Okinka Pampa.
That wraps up the news. Good night to all. We hope you join us when we come back on the air at 10:00 tomorrow.
The radio station creates a bond between all Orangos inhabitants. The single daily program deals mainly with questions about public health and the environment. In just a few months, Pedro has become a story collector, and thanks to his work as a radio reporter, he has been discovering new facets of his country every day. Orango is a labyrinth of mangrove swamps and bolongs, vast sea inlets where salt and fresh water mix.
This morning, Pedro is off on an assignment with João, a ranger of the Orango National Park. They're headed for the southern tip of the island to a marshy zone, very difficult to reach. There, they hope to find the emblematic animal. Thanks to which the Bijagos was declared a World Biosphere Reserve. We have a large biodiversity here. There are a lot of animals.
Most of them are very dangerous. There are horn vipers, mambas, scorpions, poisonous stingrays. Walking around here can be fatal as you could be bitten by a horned viper, a mamba, or stung by a scorpion. It's really dangerous.
In short, there's biodiversity. I love animals. Then again, I don't have a choice. I have to deal with them. Nature is dangerous, but I protect it. This park is home to the very rare saltwater hippopotamus.
Over thousands of years, the River Delta has become an archipelago, and these hippopotamus have gradually adapted and become acclimated to seawater, where they take refuge when the freshwater lagoons dry up. Do you know how many hippos there are in the National park? It's hard to say exactly. Some are still in the mangrove swamps. Others head for the rivers of Orangozinho.
However, in the lagoon here, there's probably around 40 at most. Tell me, João, how can you tell the difference between the male and the female? It's easy to tell. The male is always bigger.
His head is bigger, and his maw is longer and he has a hump on his back. The female has a flat back. Hippos have a lovely place in our lore.
It's a sacred animal, highly respected in our culture. Here they say that a brave person is as strong as a hippopotamus. If they say a person is like a hippopotamus, that means he's a great person, someone strong. When he dies, we hold a traditional ceremony. The Bijago people have always held the hippopotamus in great esteem, even before they founded this National Park. This morning, the little port of Orango is bustling with activity.
Once a week a pirogue comes in from the mainland. Pedro carries on with his reporting for the radio and is off to Poilão, the southernmost island. It's a very isolated island. There's no drinking water and there's nothing to eat. All the products come from here, from Bissau or from Bubaque, the main island. We mustn't forget about the people living out there.
[Bijago spoken audio] Poilão is a sacred island. The Bijago people discovered it a long time ago. It's quite sacred for all of us. It's a magnificent island and we protect it. This is the first time Pedro has set foot on Poilão.
Santino is one of the guardians. What's that tower? That tower dates back to the time of the Portuguese. On the tip of the island, there are a few rusty remains from the time when Poilão was an important sea mark for navigators. For a long time, Poilão marked the sea route of the Portuguese colonial forces. It is the furthest point South of the archipelago.
Lapped by the waves of the Atlantic Ocean, it is the last land before Brazil. The island is home to one of the largest colonies of green turtles in the Atlantic Ocean. Fore months of the year, the females of these creatures straight out of another age, climb up onto the beach, where they were born, to lay their eggs. Is it easy to live on such an isolated island? What does it feel like when you're out here? Well, it's like that here. You can't get away whenever you want to.
You're stuck. I'm not here by chance and I'm not here on vacation. When I'm in Poilão, it's to work. My job is to protect our riches, the nature all around. The rangers on Poilão do good work.
Not only for Guinea-Bissau, it's useful for the entire world. I know there are endangered species, and it's important that Guinea-Bissau begins to think about protecting its resources and wild animals. I feel good here. I would like to be able to help this turtle.
When I see the effort she has to put out to get back to the sea, it's incredible. It's tiring for her. If I could, I would carry her right to the water. It's so hard for her to get back to the sea.
It's a beautiful animal, gentle and it really moves me. Turtles are not aggressive. They don't attack. They don't bother anyone and that's why we have to make an effort to protect them.
It's really a lovely animal. The deserted beach still bears the mysterious tracks of the fascinating life cycle of sea turtles. At dawn, Pedro is witness to the fragile equilibrium of this wild land imbued with the spirit of the Bijagos. In the north, the island of Caravela is the gateway to a mysterious realm.
Quintino is a kabado. In traditional society, it's the free and carefree age. Soon, he'll undergo the most important passage in the social hierarchy.
Quintino, 30 years old now, has reached the age of maturity. He's preparing for the final initiation ceremony, the Fanado. This ritual takes place in the forest, based on suffering, endurance, and deprivation. This much-feared ordeal lasts several months. Once he has passed the Fanado, Quintino will be a Kamabi, a respected man, capable of helping the community and protecting his family.
Quintino has four children. Soon, he'll have to leave them for several months of exile in the sacred forest. The Fanado is a long voyage on the path blazed by the spirits. A woman is very important in the life of a man, because if you have no wife, you could turn bad. However, if you have a wife, you have to work for her.
This is my wife, Saffie. We've been married for a long time. I love her very much. I work for her. I go fishing, I go into the forest, I work in the fields. Sometimes I go off for longer periods in order to feed my children and I bring home what we need.
We both love each other very much. We get along well and when I go off for two or three weeks, I miss her and she misses me. We're sad and that's why we enjoy spending time together like today. The Fanado is approaching, but before that, Quintino has to take care of the coming harvest. The Bijago have always led a nearly self-sufficient existence.
Very few products come over from the mainland. Each family has its own rice field, and there's only one rice harvest per year after the rainy season. In a few days, the rice will be ripe. It's a very tricky moment for Quintino. He could lose his whole crop if he doesn't keep a close watch over his field. For the palm trees are full of weaver birds just waiting to swoop down for a feast.
Right from the age of seven, the children learn how to protect the rice fields. It's the staple food of the Bijago. We come out every day. We get up at 6:00 in the morning before the birds get here, and the next day we do it again.
That's how it goes every day until the rice is ripe, like this rice right here. The Bijago people are not seafarers, but this has not always been the case. There's a legend that once in the northern islands, the men would rig out large pirogues and attack foreign ships.
One day the Europeans in reprisal, pillaged the land, and the Bijago people saw that as the spirits of the sea who had come to seek revenge. Now, the only arms made here are the Kanyagos. We make the Kanyago with materials we find out in nature. It's the traditional tool of all the Bijagos.
We make it with what we get from the forest, like this rope. The elders show us how to make a Kanyago. It's the first thing they teach you when you're little.
It's indispensable for catching fish for food. When you know how to use the Kanyago, you become an independent person. You have what you need to work. You can have your own house and all that. It's a gift of nature. The waters are full of fish here.
All sorts of fish. Nature is generous. There are sharks, stingrays, and they're very poisonous. Sea bream, barracuda. However, the fish we're the most afraid of are the rays.
If you get stung, it's very painful and you suffer for weeks. Enormous clouds drift over the Atlantic. They come from a spot much feared by seafarers, the horse latitudes where storms and hurricanes are born. It's still the rainy season, the time of silvery seas and leaden skies. A tornado can arise in just a few seconds. I don't like thunder and storms, but I don't have any choice.
We have to live with nature. I would rather go home, but if I go home, we won't have anything to eat. I don't have a choice. In this part of the world, the heat rises up out of the earth like an invisible wave.
A storm always brings a bit of coolness. It's a good time to head for the beach. Quintino's wife Saffie has come to gather what has been exposed by low tide.
The women are just as active in the quest for food as the men. I grew up observing my elders. Now with Quintino, we have our own children and I can't let them go hungry and cry. We grow rice and when there's not enough, I go fishing. I know that in other parts of the world, people have an easier life.
However, I'm happy with the life I lead. It allows me to take care of my children and bring them up to adulthood. [Bijago spoken audio] Preparations are underway for the first initiation ceremony.
The village elders have chosen the date and duration of Kintinos Fanado. It will last three months. I'm afraid because I don't know if I'll be able to do what they want me to do, that's why I'm anxious. Today, Quintino is wearing the fetishes of his father, Francisco.
Chief of the village of Anipoc. These sacred objects have been handed down from one generation to the next. His time has come. Right from his early childhood, he has been passing the different stages of initiation. This is the last rite of passage.
That's why I gave him this costume. He's on the path of the Fanado. It's a natural event that all our ancestors have been through. We've all been through it. This costume symbolizes the force of nature. When you put it on, it gives you strength and courage.
It's like these horns I'm wearing for the ceremony. When you're wearing them, you're a different person. It's as if some force enters you. You become strong and wild, something like a bull. Now I'm ready.
I'll be going into the Fanado House. It's forbidden to talk about what goes on inside. It's really secret. Only the initiates know what takes place there. Even I don't know yet.
This is a great day. I'm fulfilling our tradition, and on account of that, I'm respected. The elders, the women, everyone respects us when we were wearing the costume, it's sacred.
Quintino will come out of his initiation ordeal a different man. He will soon pass a major turning point in the life of each of the Bijago. These people living on the fringes of the world, somewhere in Western Africa.