Guinea-Bissau Today

A telling fact and microcosm of the country's political instability is that there have been five prime ministers since May 2014. One resigned after 48 hours in office. In late 2016 President José Mário Vaz once again dissolved the government. A new prime minister, Sissoko Embalo was sworn in. Once again things are in limbo. Optimistic observers note that there has been no violence and there's an agreement in place, the Conkary Accord, as a framework to resolve the impasse.

Top heavy with officers, qualifications for high-ranking military positions are still largely dependent on the legacy of the independence struggle. Parliament is marginally dominated by the ruling PAIGC party, which some observers compare unfavourably to the African National Congress of South Africa.

Because of the political instability, there's little tourism to speak of, except in the Bijagós. Fishing stocks are said to be hijacked by Chinese boats, and drug-trafficking (while declining) is nevertheless rampant enough for some to label the country a 'narco-state'. Outside of cashew production, the economy is largely based on international project funding. Such is the scale of the lack of funding that teachers are often waiting months for their salaries.

All of this aside, Bissau-Guineans are warm and welcoming to visitors. They look less to parliament and more to their traditional community's régulo, basically a body of elders that settles disputes, sets harvest dates and regulates life. No matter their situation, they carry on with elaborate rituals for births, initiation rites, weddings and deaths, celebrating always with music and dance.

Culture

Despite grinding poverty, a severely damaged infrastructure and wide religious and ethnic differences, Bissau-Guineans are generally united in their approach to the troubles in their country – although there are tensions between the Balanta ethnic group and rivals. While many feel detached from the military-government chaos, its impact is felt on a daily basis, in everything from making banking transactions to the challenges of the decrepit healthcare system.

Politeness and sincerity are deeply respected in Guinea-Bissau. Among the citizens of neighbouring countries, Guineans are known as relentless partygoers, but people in Guinea-Bissau will tell you they just know how to let their hair down properly. There's a spirit of liberty, joy and acceptance in many situations.

People

Guinea-Bissau's 1.7 million inhabitants are divided among more than 27 ethnic groups. The two largest are the Balanta (30%) in the coastal and central regions and the Fula (20%) in the east and south. Other groups with significant numbers include the Mankinka, Papel and Manjaco; there are also smaller populations of Beafada, Mancanha, Felupe and Balanta Mane. The offshore islands are mostly inhabited by the Bijagós people. In the last few years, tensions have been growing between the Balanta and other ethnic groups.

About 45% of the people are Muslims and 10% Christians. Animist beliefs remain strong along the coast and in the south.

Arts & Crafts

The Bijagós people are famous for their traditions of mask making (such as bull, cow and hippo masks) and sculpture – you will see these come out in carnival season. Statues representing irans (great spirits) are used in connection with agricultural and initiation rituals.

Eastern Guinea-Bissau is a centre of kora (a harplike instrument with over 20 strings) playing, being the ancient seat of the Kaabu kingdom, where the instrument was invented. The traditional Guinean beat is gumbé, though contemporary music is mainly influenced by zouk (a style of popular music created in the Caribbean and popular across Africa, with a lilting, sensual beat) from Cape Verde. Besides the reformed Super Mama Djombo, perhaps the country's most famous band, other contemporary artists include Manecas Costa, Justino Delgado, Dulce Nevas and Rui Sangara. However, the centre of Guinean pop is Lisbon, not Bissau.

Environment

Tiny Guinea-Bissau has an area of just over 36,000 sq km (about the size of Switzerland), making it one of West Africa's smallest countries. The coastal areas are flat, with estuaries, mangroves swamps and patches of forest. The natural savannah woodlands have largely been replaced by cashew plantations. The landscape remains mostly flat, with the highest ground, near the Guinean border, just topping 300m.

In the Bijagós archipelago you find rare saltwater hippos, aquatic turtles, dolphins, manatees and sharks. The rainforests of the southeast are the most westerly home of Africa's chimpanzee population. There is also a stunning variety of birds, especially within the coastal wetlands, including cranes and peregrine falcons.

Among the main environmental issues are mangrove destruction, deforestation, soil erosion and overfishing. A number of areas are protected, including the Bolama-Bijagós Biosphere Reserve, the Parque Natural dos Tarrafes do Rio Cacheu, the Parque Natural das Lagoas de Cufada and Parque Nacional do Cantanhez. For more information, contact IBAP, the institute that oversees all the parks from Bissau.