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Guinea Bisseaau

Mermaids, Witches and Amazons

by William Bond


"The matriarchy on the Bijagos islands seem to correspond to the description  worked out scientifically by Heide Göttner Abendroth, according to what William Bond reports of in this paper:

"The Bijagos are a matriarchal and matrilineal society in which women choose their husbands and which is guided by female priests. Traditionally a hunter-gatherer society, they were famous for their almadias, large ocean-going canoes that could hold up to 70 people.

The Bolama-Bijagos islands are in a cluster, with Bolama the largest and closest to the mainland. Only 23 of the 88 islands are inhabited.

The semi-tropical islands 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."

This suggests the people there were gathering marine food, a job probably done by the women and this might be the reason why they would be main breadwinner and rulers of the community. Perhaps they even dived for food like other so called mermaids have done all over the world. In Westafrica their is a female goddess in folklore called “Mamma Wata” which has the shape of a mermaid

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by Águeda Gómez Suárez Universidad de Vigo, España


This is a very interesting approach of cross-cultural research pursued by Águeda Gómez Suárez,  from the universities in Spain and Mexico 2009, comparing the matriarchal system in Yuchitan with the one prevailing on the Bijagos Island in Westafrica; Guinea Bisseau, finding many common features between them both.

(Most of the text is in Spanish, so unfortunately I cannot translate it in a professional way to English as I don´t speak Spanish, just using Google translate, but anyhow this abstract is in English, and I have got a little help from a friend to translate the conclusion into Swedish.)


"The social interaction between genders has been modified historically, treating itself about a relational system that it changes according to the social, economic or cultural coordinates of every epoch and concrete space. Two singular societies exist where the woman is the protagonist of the social life and the relation of gender is exceptionally horizontal: the indigenous city Juchitán’s Zapoteca, located in Tehuantepec’s Isthmus (Mexico) and the communities Bijagó, seated , in the archipelago of the islands Bijagó (Guinea Bissau), where some authors have managed to affirm that matriarchal systems exist. With this incipient comparative study (the fieldwork stopped being realized in May, 2007), inside the area of subject matters around the gender, one tries to think about the reasons that have determined that between these societies the woman possesses a significant relevancy."

Key wordes: matriarchy, Zapotec woman, Muxe, Bigajó woman, GuineaBissau. ó Guinea Bissau


Una sociedad cuyo poder está en manos de las mujeres, no es exacta-mente el reverso de aquélla en la que éste es detentado por hombres. La antropóloga norteamericana Peggy Reeves Sanday (1981) señala que las sociedades donde la mujer goza de poder y prestigio suelen ubicarse en lugares con ricos entornos naturales, se sacraliza a la naturaleza, dominan los valores cooperativos, igualitarios y pacíficos, el papel de la madre es central, la mujer es autónoma económicamente y el parentesco también es matrilineal. Esto es así en los zapoteca y bijagó. Ambos se ubican en exuberantes entornos naturales que respetan y veneran; su sistema econó-mico se basa en la redistribución de recursos y en la propiedad colectiva de la tierra, lo que garantiza la igualdad social y la inexistencia de bolsas de pobreza. El prestigio se basa en el que “más da”, no en el que “más tiene

Las féminas poseen autonomía económica, pues trabajan, incluso, más que los hombres. Ellas son el eje principal de las ceremonias, rituales y celebraciones religiosas y laicas que se desarrollan en el ámbito público. Además, las madres conforman el núcleo de la estructura clánica familiar, en donde la maternidad es estimada y venerada, por ello disfrutan de un alto prestigio y respeto social. Pero, como corresponde a una “sociedad de madres”, a veces los hombres son tratados como niños a los que se les exime de múltiples responsabilidades y se les deja gozar de más tiempo destinado al ocio y al placer. En el imaginario zapoteca y bijagó dominante, tanto los caballeros como las damas valoran y aprecian a la mujer y a su mundo. Cualquier estudio de género es un análisis de las relaciones asimétricas de poder y oportunidad. La distribución del poder político, económico, social y cultural determina el grado de asimetría de género en ese sistema social. Cualquier dominación comporta una dimensión simbólica donde el dominador debe obtener del dominado una forma de adhesión a través de la interiorización de la ideología dominante. El género, por tanto, es el portador de uno de los mecanismos centrales de poder y distribución de los recursos (Bourdieu 2000) Sólo a través de la eliminación de los sistemas ideológicos que legitiman las jerarquías de poder basados en criterios de género, económicos, étnicos, de opción sexual, etcétera, y sólo mediante un nuevo modelo económico sostenible, recíproco y redistributivo se podrá iniciar un cambio social viable, históricamente marcado en el horizonte “utópico” de la humanidad.


My transl into English:



A society whose power is in the hands of women is not mirroring reversal of the one in which it is held by men.  The American anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday (1981) points out that societies where women enjoy power and prestige are often located in places with rich natural environments, and in which nature´s  sacralization, cooperation, egalitarian and peaceful values ​​dominate, the role of the mother is central, the woman is autonomous economically and the kinship is also matrilineal. That´s the way it is in the Zapotec and Bijagós. Both are located in lush natural environments which is held in high respect and veneration; its economic system is based on the redistribution of resources and collective ownership of land, which guarantees social equality and the absence of pockets of poverty. The prestige is based on the one that "gives more", not on the one "who has the most".

Females have economic autonomy, since they work even more than men. They are the main axis of ceremonies, rituals and religious and the celebrations that take place in the public sphere. In addition, 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. In the imaginary Zapotec and dominant bijagó, both knights and ladies value and appreciate women and their world. Any gender study is an analysis of the asymmetric relationships of power and opportunity. The distribution of political, economic, social and cultural power determines the degree of gender asymmetry in that social system.

Any domination involves a symbolic dimension where the dominator must obtain from the dominated a form of adhesion through the internalization of the dominant ideology.

Gender is therefore the bearer of one of the central mechanisms of power and distribution of resources (Bourdieu 2000) Only through the elimination of ideological systems that legitimize power hierarchies based on gender, economic, ethnic, sexual, and so on, and only through a new sustainable, reciprocal and redistributive economic model can a viable social change, historically marked on the "utopian" horizon of humanity, be initiated.

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Doctor Agueda Gómez Suárez from the University of Vigo, in her article “Sistemas sexo/género “matriarcales”: los bijagós (Guinea Bissau) y los zapotecas (México)” (Matriarchal Gender Systems: The Bijagós (Guinea Bissau) and the Zapotecs (Mexico) takes the Bijagós as an example, as she herself says:

“We have chosen the Zapotecs of Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico and the Bijagós of Guinea Bissau as exceptional laboratories to be able to observe how daily life is conducted in a population where the women possess social power and prestige.”

An extraordinary trip is one which gives you the possibility of understanding many books through lived experience, or one which makes you feel like one of those investigators or explorers from decades ago. Places where there is still room for discovery. In the Bijagós villages, it is still possible to learn many things about how the ways in which men and women relate to each other can be very different from the ways that have predominated in western societies for hundreds of years.

The women of the Archipelago, despite centuries of influence from Portuguese colonialism, are key pieces in the organization of family and village life, and their authority is recognised and respected by all, without exception of their male compatriots. In the political sphere, it is the advice of the elderly that is heard to deal with the issues of the “tabanca”, and daughters inherit from their mothers a name of one of the four clans to which all the inhabitants of Orango are ascribed. Pampa Kanyimpa, a queen that even today is confused with the myth, belonged to the Okinka clan. At the beginning of the 20th century, she abolished slavery, and although she had not been the only female ruler among the Bijagós, she is remembered with special admiration by her descendants.

“A trip can be extraordinary when it teaches you to see things with new eyes,” said none other than Marcel Proust. And in the day-to-day life in Orango, among the palm groves, dancing and parties and aquatic birds, other lives are shown before us to teach us, above all, that there´s no better way to understand yourself than to understand others, and that nothing is the way it is because there are no other possible alternatives.

To learn more about daily life in the Bijagós and the matriarch, we recommend the work Matriarcados by Anna Boyé. The Bijagós Archipelago is, without a doubt, an exceptional territory to learn about and to enjoy a culture that has known how to maintain its traditions.

Los Dias en la selva de Orango Grande

Un texto de la antropóloga Anna Boyé:


"Durante todos los días que pasé en la selva vivía con Quinta y Estevo en una cabaña de barro.  En el día a día observaba la cotidianidad de las personas de la tabanca (aldea).  Las mujeres se organizaban en asociaciones. Eran las jefas que gestionaban el bienestar social, la economía y la ley y eran respetadas por toda la comunidad. Yo asistía a sus reuniones, donde ellas con actitudes maternales se esforzaban en resolver los problemas de la comunidad.

Con Quinta y Estevo tenía largas conversaciones sobre los roles, el temperamento y la manera de hacer de hombres y mujeres. Y en la intimidad que da la convivencia le preguntaba a Quinta (27 años), qué le gustaba de Estevo (33 años). Ella apreciaba de él su sensibilidad, su fuerza física y su sexo. Y a Estevo le gustaba de Quinta la inteligencia con que tomaba las decisiones. Incluso, un día,  me manifestó que a él ya le gustaría ser el jefe de la familia pero no tenía capacidad para ello. Después aseguró que el hombre había sido creado para apoyar en todo a las mujeres, porque ellas les cuidaban y protegían.

En esta isla, el temperamento de las mujeres y de los hombres se manifiesta justo al reverso de mi sociedad. En Orango se considera “natural” que las mujeres sean las jefas en todos los ámbitos de la estructura social: la economía, la ley, el bienestar y en la espiritualidad. En realidad todo está relacionado (del documental “Matriarcados: La isla de las mujeres”).


Photo of Quinta & Esteva family by Anna Boyé

The days in the jungle of Orango Grande
A text by the anthropolist Anna Boyé;
Google transl:

"During all the days I spent in the jungle I lived with Quinta and Estevo in a mud hut. On day to day  basis I observed the daily life of the people of the tabanca (village). Women were organized in associations. They were the heads that managed the social welfare, the economy and the law and were respected by all the community. I attended their meetings, where they with maternal attitudes struggled to solve the problems of the community.

With Quinta and Estevo I had long conversations about their roles, the temperament and the way man and women  relate to one another. And in the intimacy that gives the coexistence I asked Quinta (27 years), what he liked about Estevo (33 years). She appreciated his sensitivity, his physical strength and his sex. And Estevo liked the intelligence with which she made decisions. Even one day he told me that he would like to be the head of the family but he did not have the capacity. Then he said that the man had been created to support women in everything, because they cared for and protected them.

On this island, the temperament of women and men manifests itself right in the back of my society. In Orango it is considered "natural" for women to be the leaders in all areas of social structure: economy, law, welfare and spirituality. In fact everything is related (from the documentary "Matriarchies: The Island of Women”).

Women are responsible for managing social welfare and the law and do so in a maternal way. For example, during my stay in Orango Grande they dibbled on the bad behavior of Nene Pereira, who had beaten her brother in a fight, after drinking the wine from the palm trees...

In punishment to her action she had to  pick up the straw - her own work of women  (bad translation by Google translate) - thereafter everything was forgotten."

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    Photo Anna Boyé; herself in the middle of these young matriarchs from Orango Grande

"I want to make some clarifications that may be useful to you. In this Bijagó community in Orango Grande, each gender has different functions, the women follow the tradition of their ancestors and organize the work, the economy and the law, but with a value system that appreciates the man for his sensitivity and delicacy and values ​​him through the tasks he carries out like the fall of the field, hunting and fishing. It takes into account when determining social problems to drive the common good.

Bijagó Society is very peaceful and no one remembers any crime of violence or blood done earlier. 

In my blog you can read the summaries of two further matriarchal communities: Mosuo, China and the Powerful Women in Juchitán, Mexico. Each community follows different traditions. In the multitude of societies is the kingdom of the Matriarcados project. ....


....It is a matriarchal government that connects the woman with a mother who commands her people, her authority is based on it, not in a form of forced government. Among the Bijagos people, men feel worthy and loved for what they are. Men and women, women and men walk along together side by side albeit their differences. Another thing is that we don´t like this kind masculinity so far from the patriarchal values ​​that we are used to.

I nurture a  great compassion for the study of these matricarhal societies, because through the knowledge acquired from them, I learn that there are new ways of organizing society, new ways to be and this is a challenge that forces me to review everything as Learned."

Tank you Anna Boyé for these encouraging words! I Quite agree with you!

Africa Queen : Bissagos Islands (Documentary, Discovery, History)

The old ship Africa Queen takes you on a fascinating and exotic trip from the mainland in Guinea Bisseau in Westafrica out to the people on the Bijago islands who live like they have done since times immemorial, and invites you to encounter a proud people with high selfesteem and integrity as well as an astonishing untouched well preserved wild nature of paradisiac beauty.

As a tourist or newcomer to this people you have to correct your manners and behaviours according to their customs and self-sufficient  giftgiving economical system, by offering something the Bijagos people  are in the need of themselves. I think that´s a favorable attitude, not to let your own culture being devoured by modernity, but making the way for a progress on ones own terms.

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 W H Y   M O D E R N I T Y ? 

The Swedish artist and ardent opinionator Marianne Lindberg de Geer who comments Leyla Assaf Tengroth documentaries about these Bijagos people expresses her scornful disregard for their supposed unwillingness to "develop" into modernity, but I think quite the contrary that they very wisely stick to their own choice of what kind of development they actually need.


A notion which is  strongly supported by contemporary male anthrolopologists taking the young Bijagos men´s perspective:


R E F E R E N C I E S:

Resistance is Fruitful: Bijagos of Guinea-Bissau Brandon D. Lundy












Anthropologist Dr. Lorenzo Ibrahim Bordonaro, 2006


"According to Neil Smith, ‘the global restructuring of the 1980s and 1990s embodies not so much an evening out of social and economic development levels across the globe as a deepening and reorganization of existing patterns of uneven geographical development’ (1997: 183)

Page 228:

While major world institutions affecting national policies and pushing towards ‘globalisation’ of world economy (the BWIs, Bretton Wood Institutions), keep claiming that this process will bring economic growth and consequently development, democratisation and human rights, and social equity, a number of scholars (see for e.g. Silbey 1997, Mkandawire 2002. See also infra, Introduction) criticized the term ‘globalisation’ itself for it does not describe appropriately the kinds of interconnections between the local and transnational institutions, and does not communicate the idea of the hierarchy of transnational centres that control the flows of financial capital, cultural images and goods in what Michael Hardt and Toni Negri has called ‘the Empire’ (2000). Gupta and Ferguson wrote in a remarkable passage:

The production and distribution of mass culture [...] is largely controlled by the notoriously placeless organizations, multinational corporations. The “public sphere” is therefore hardly public with respect to control over the representations that are circulated in it. Recent work in cultural studies has emphasized the dangers of reducing the reception of multinational cultural production to the passive act of consumption, leaving no room for the active creation by agents of disjunctures and dislocations between the flow of industrial commodities and cultural products. However, we worry at least as much about the opposite danger of celebrating the inventiveness of those “consumers” of the culture industry (especially on the periphery) who fashion something quite different out of products marketed to them, reinterpreting and remaking them, sometimes quite radically, and sometimes in a direction that promotes resistance rather than conformity. The danger here is the temptation to use scattered examples of the cultural flows dribbling from the “periphery” to the chief centers of the culture industry as a way of dismissing the “grand narrative” of capitalism (especially the “totalizing” narrative of late capitalism), and thus of evading the powerful political issues associated with Western global hegemony (1992: 19).

Ulf Hannerz admitted as well that ‘the overarching communication structures of the world today are, after all, center/periphery structures, heavily asymmetrical’ (1992: 29. See also 1996)

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A young man working as a cooker at Orango Hotel simultaneously as  he - longing for "modernity" - and  against his parents will is going to school. But that will not render him a job or a passage in to "modernity" as things functions today. These young boys dreams of modernity end far too often up up in Libya, where they are put in concentrations camps to get sexuallay abused by their slavetraders and or killed and thereafter shipped out in overcrowded thin plastic boats in order to get drowned in the Mediterranean see. And for that they have had to pay their saved  life income which often would have been enough to build up an own business at home. It´s the strong impact of the dreams of "modernity" in Europe, mediated by the modern music and video consumption all over the world, as well as the neoliberal economy / ideology and very often by people as for example  Assaf Tengroth / Lindberg de Geer who delineate themselves as feminists, socialists or lefties with the ambition to assist the "underdeveloped" countries to obtain a modern lifestyle like their own. But history shows that this kind of exporting our own modern western values and ways of thinking  never has been of any help, but sooner the contrary, and especially not so when it comes to the societies still organised according to the matriarchal principles. A fact that has been increasingly stressed by a multiplicity of female indigenous scholars today as for example the Nigerian born Ifi Amadiume as well as the participants in the World Congresses of Balance and Peace  arranged by Heide Göttner Abendroth /  International Institute of Modern Matriarchal Studies; HAGIA

Matriarchy in the archipelago of the islands Bijagó

This is what is said in a tourist advertising of the Bijao Islands:

"In times when traveling is increasingly becoming a form of everyday consumerism (the average for Europeans is four trips a year), there are still some trips that will be recorded in our memories as exceptionally extraordinary… No universal formula exists to ensure these magical experiences will occur, however, there are some places that just seem to make it happen. When you are there, you feel almost instantly that those places will leave their mark on you. You realize that the world has many more smells, sounds, and colours than you had imagined… The Bijagós Archipelago, off the coast of Guinea Bissau and a little more than a four-hour flight from Lisbon, is one of those places: In Orango, the echo of its myth is heard throughout the islands.

Between myth and reality are tales of the existence of a matriarchal society among the Bijagós. The German anthropologist Hugo Adolf Bernatzik left us an amazing story in his work, “In the kingdom of Bijagós”, where we can read: “In the land of the Bijagós, the expression, ‘the weak sex’ does not ring true at all to the female inhabitants of Orango.”

This matriarchy, this way of social organization of which so much is said and so little concluded… Did it really exist? Does it still exist today? Anthropologists themselves, still limiting and correcting the frequent misuse of the term, do not seem to come to an agreement."


Well - so what´s the problem? Why argue for this matriarcy not to exist? That seems to me really strange  - as to deny the most evident reality!

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Ethnologist Hugo Adolf Bernatzik, 1897 - 1953, Vienna, Austria 

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M O R E   W I L L   C O M E !