Alice’s diary: the Bijagos Islands

22nd April.

A 5am start to loading up the pick-up with necessary tools, tents and food for the next 5, 6 or 7 days… let’s see! Now accustomed to four people in the back of a three seater, with air-conditioning and the road in good nick, the short drive felt very comfortable. The speed boat, however, was very bumpy. Getting out in to the open seas, against my own reckoning I took Howard’s advice and lay stomach down at the bow of the boat – although not comfortable, seasickness evaded me and I sat upright in time to enjoy the view of our approach to Carache – a spectacular vast white sandy beach dotted with a couple of traditional fishing boats, a few pigs and cows and a small group of people waving from the shade of palm trees.

After a gentle climb on a sandy path through forest we were met by Marcolino Sanja, one of the agriculture interns employed by Wellfound (usually recent graduates from Bissau Agricultural College) to stay at the villages to oversee each market garden project. We reached Binte – a charming 25 house cluster, quite different to the other villages we’ve visited.

Hammocks in the shade outside almost every house, less litter, everyone perhaps a little more confident to initiate chat with me. As Anderson and Joao got stuck in to sorting one of the two wells in the village, Marcolino took Paul and I to the market garden.

Women were busy at the well and tending to the crops, which looked less successful than others we’ve seen, but, like all market gardens on the islands, they were established earlier so had already been harvested. They’re now preparing to plant beans, pumpkins and okra for the rainy season.

Before getting back on the boat we sat in the shade and a quiet 16 year old joined us. She shyly began to tell us about her wish to go to Bissau for secondary level education. They only teach up to grade four in the islands, and as is the case of so many young people here, it is unlikely that they’ll be able to finish their schooling. It is frustrating to see this situation come up again and again. Paul had a bag of pencils for the girl to share at school which were gratefully received, but we agreed how it’s uncomfortable to realise that our best efforts are never going to be quite enough.

Onwards on the boat to Caravela. We gave a handful of women and babies a lift, who needed to visit the small and only health clinic available to them. The clinic was little more than a couple of rooms with some rudimentary supplies, staffed by two friendly nurses doing the best they can in a difficult situation.

The island also hosts a huge conspicuously pink government building, next to a large solar energy system and a radar tower. The building is now all but empty – having been vacated with the change of government a year ago. A strange contrast to the typical square mud, straw roofed houses in the village.

The well is serving its purpose as it should although the garden is suffering from the shanty village made up of fisherman from The Gambia, Ghana and Sierra Leone. They live separately from the local community, but they are thought to be stealing vegetables from the garden and making use of the well which results in long queues and so causing some conflict. Locals decided to padlock the well and now wear keys around their necks. This is something we see in other islands – also done to prevent community members who don’t pay the monthly 200 XFA (around 30 euro cents) pump maintenance fund.

After another bumpy boat ride we had a chaotic arrival to the picturesque Unhucomu, as large waves rolled in making unloading very difficult and wet. It meant we had to leave the heavy generator on board… another visit without the chance of a film screening! We climbed some wooded sand dunes to Egara – which looked less well cared for than Binte, but there is a fair amount of construction going on, so there must be something drawing people in.

After a little confusion about where to stay we opted for the beach and set up camp with Joao. At this stage Paul and Edi headed back towards Bissau – it was good to have spent the day with Paul who got to see the WellFound at first hand today after many hours working for them behind a computer back in the UK!

Happy with our tents, we cooked some food, star gazed (amazing!) and went to sleep listening to the sea.

23rd April

Egara had two problem-wells, the open well having run dry and the pump in the closed well not producing nearly as much water as needed. These problems had been going on for a long time, but being the furthest away from the main land, access to and communication with Unhucumo is difficult. Whilst Anderson had his work cut out, I joined Joao for another under-a-tree meeting which addressed management of the market garden and about the WellFound commitment to fix the pumps before they replant

Once again, the large group consisted of all women bar one man – seemingly an enduring problem! However, this community is a success story, with good use of the WellFound public latrines and a good crop of vegetables last month which was enough to feed the families and also to sell to a small fishing-fanatics hotel on another island.

I then took myself back to camp to catch up on some writing – the most beautiful tropical beach as my office! At ‘break time’ I took a dip in the calm clear sea, acutely aware of how lucky I am to be here. Joao and Anderson returned having been successful with the well and carrying a large pot of delicious rice and fish with mango relish given to us by Quinta, the head of the women group who later bought us a huge bucket of fresh water (not an easy task) and about a kilo of freshly roasted cashews.

Anderson and I then set off on a walk to the other side of the island, bird-spotting along the way and greeting cashew-fruit pickers and juice makers working in the bush. We got to a four-house village, that despite lacking easy access to clean water, was one of the most charming we’ve come across. We were shown around by Filipe Sa, a teacher at the village school who we later learnt was involved with a dramatic skirmish between island inhabitants and the government in the 70s. Back at camp we tried our hand at fishing using a homemade fishing line leant by someone from the village. As the sun set we threw the line in to the sea from an outcrop of rocks, only to repeatedly get the hook stuck on the rocky sea floor, having to swim each time out to retrieve it. We’d used the only small fish we had for bait, so it was rice and beans for dinner again!

The evening was passed with Joao recounting the history of the islands, some stories seeming almost mythological. We also got a good insight in to current politics in Guinea Bissau. I won’t go in to things in great detail, but in a nutshell, complex, frustrating and alarming. Joao recounted all with great humour – as he says, sometimes all you can do is laugh.

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