This is an excerpt from The Ringtone and the Drum: Travels in the World’s Poorest Countries
We leave Bissau and take the small passenger ferry to the island of Bubaque in the Bijagós archipelago off the coast of West Africa. It is late December, and although the Bijagó people are predominantly animist, Christmas and New Year are public holidays and the ferry is full of people returning from the mainland for the festivities. It leaves Bissau’s Pidjiguiti harbour two hours late, and the passengers take advantage of the delay to get drunk. Some have brought jerrycans full of palm wine; others buy bottles of beer from the on-board café. On deck a speaker belts out loud West African pop music. Passengers lean on the railings, drinking and chatting merrily. A few dance, clutching beer bottles and waving their arms in the air; the women jerk their backsides provocatively, in time with the music. The sea is flat and calm, the air hot and moist.
The forty-mile journey takes four hours. Two smaller boats, which have hitched a ride to save fuel, bob at the end of ropes in the ferry’s wake. After two hours we pass the first of the archipelago’s eighty or so islands: a muddy strand of beach, a long fringe of palm trees, thick dark forest behind. Only a handful of the islands are inhabited, with a few more settled temporarily during the rice-growing season. This one appears deserted, although from this distance we cannot be certain – many Bijagó villages are hidden deep in the jungle, away from the shore where they would be exposed to flooding and attack. (The Bijagó are notoriously hostile to outsiders. As far back as 445 BC the Phoenician captain Hanno, who sailed down the African coast from Cadiz, was shocked to find the islands inhabited by ‘hairy, swift, monstrous wild women who could not be subdued even with bonds.’ Two thousand years later the first Portuguese explorers met their deaths here. Early slavers, too, encountered fierce resistance and quickly switched their attention to the mainland. And in the colonial wars of pacification, the islanders were the last to be quelled.)
Half an hour later we pass another far-off islet. It is long and low, barely rising above the still sea; in the haze of the late afternoon it shimmers like a mirage. This island too appears empty of humanity, but with the aid of binoculars I make out a small village, thatched roofs resting atop tiny mud houses, nestling among the trees behind the mangroves. A villager, a tiny speck even through the lenses, emerges from the forest, perhaps after a day spent hunting bush rats. A woman is sitting on a stool beside a house, sifting rice. In the foreground a lone sacred ibis scours the beach, its curved black bill burrowing for grubs.