Queens of the Bijagos

Protected by the shallow channels and treacherous tides that wash their islands, the peoples of the Arquipélago dos Bijagós have, over the centuries, developed a largely matriarchal culture that is remarkably distinct from that of mainland Guinea-Bissau. The islanders are ruled by a king and queen (they’re not married) who serve as co-regents – the king managing men’s affairs and the queen managing women’s affairs. Women often serve as chiefs of individual villages, and they’re also the sole homeowners – only fair since they are entirely responsible for homebuilding, from brick-making to actual construction.

Marriage is also a matriarchal affair. On some islands, when a girl reaches puberty, the young men venture forth with as much rice and other goods as they can afford in the hope of buying their way into her favour. She chooses a suitor, but if she’s not pregnant within a year, or if someone else makes a better offer, she can ditch her man and choose another. The man usually only stays around until she gives birth, then returns home and becomes eligible for other liaisons. Children take their mother’s name and are often unable to identify their father.

The majority of the people remain almost untouched by modern civilisation, and their culture’s survival depends entirely on its isolation. If you travel to the more remote islands, tread very, very lightly.