“You’re pioneering tourists,” declares our guide, Alberto. “I only discovered this place two years ago,” he adds, as we pull up to a beach studded with shells and flotsam wood; the forest greenery clawing toward the shoreline. A man wearing ragged sports shorts and a grubby white vest emerges from the undergrowth and silently beckons us to follow him.
We’ve landed on Uno — one of 88 palm-fringed islands making up the Bijagós Archipelago, off the coast of Guinea Bissau in West Africa. Cut off from the mainland, the Bijagós (meaning ‘perfect people’ in Bidyogo, the local language) have kept their customs, despite five centuries of Portuguese colonisation.
We’d come to see this emerging destination and it’s authentic traditions. Outsiders rarely venture as far as Uno. “If we miss this island, the next one is Cape Verde and after that it’s Brazil,” jokes Augusto. The island is famous for having the best vaca bruta, an animistic initiation ceremony where young men don immense carved wooden masks bearing the horns of a bull and compete to see who is the most artful fighter.
We traipse along a sandy trail until the trees clear to reveal a village of simple mud huts. A gaggle of children pounce on us like lion cubs; tugging our sleeves to encourage us to play football. Nearby, two pigs are rutting in the dirt — nonplussed by their audience.
The queen — many of the islands are matriarchal — apologises for not getting up to greet us. She has a splitting headache and holds her hand to her turbaned head to confirm it. We leave her in peace and wander further, chatting with the women who lounge on splintered chairs.
Shafts of afternoon sun are starting to penetrate the treetop canopy when the beating of drums announces the arrival of the vaca bruta. We gather round as the young men pace in circles, sizing each other up; then the beat intensifies and they begin kicking up dust, pawing the dirt on all fours and locking horns with their opponents. The kids run away squealing whenever the combatants mock-charge them.
Shaped by master carvers, the masks can weigh up to three kilos and are decorated in black (symbolising land), red (sacrificial blood) and white (spirits), with trinkets tied to the horns. Each man has his own rhythm, which is pounded by a the drummer pounds on the stretched skin to call him to dance.
“They’re strong, but not wise,” says Alberto, who explains that after their dance, the performers must go into the forest for their full initiation. But first they must ask the permission of the elders — “that part is secret, we can’t see it. They call on the spirits beforehand to make them stronger — a nip of home-brewed alcohol usually speeds up the process!”
By the end, the men are glistening with sweat but stand around proudly, basking in the admiring glances of the women — including me!