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Guinea-Bissau - People

Guinea-Bissau has a very young population, close to 50 per cent of whom are aged 15 and below. The very high unemployment rate, particularly among youth, is reason for concern and needs to be addressed to ensure social stability. According to the 2009 census, 42.5% of the population is under 15 years of age; 3.2% is 65 and older, and 49.6% are women aged between 15 and 49. The country has 1,361 schools and 537 health centers.

The population of Guinea-Bissau is ethnically diverse with distinct languages, customs, and social structures. Most people are farmers, with traditional religious beliefs (animism); 40% are Muslim, principally Fula and Mandinka speakers concentrated in the north and northeast. Other important groups are the Balanta and Papel, living in the southern coastal regions, and the Manjaco and Mancanha, occupying the central and northern coastal areas.

The national socio-economic environment of Guinea-Bissau has been influenced by a history of political instability since the country gained its independence from Portugal in 1973. In 2012, the national population of the country was 1.7 million. Only 14% of the population speak the official language (Portuguese). Guinea-Bissau is ranked 177 out of 187 countries according to the 2014 UNDP Human Development Index and has one of the lowest per capita gross domestic products in the world. Most of the population (44%) speaks Crioulo, a Portuguese-based creole language. There are many ethnic groups, with 7% of the population classified as an indigenous ethnic group (Papels).

Households are located in clusters as rural villages rather than widely distributed. Households may comprise of a single family home with a single residential structure or a compound comprised of multiple buildings that support multi-generational family members. Household sizes vary between four members to over 25 members, with an average household size consisting of 10 members. Houses are predominately made of clay, corrugated iron roofing and have between four and seven rooms.

The Bijagos archipelago, home to the Bijagos tribe, is sparsely sprinkled with tiny traditional villages where the way of life seems to have changed little in the last millennium. Grass-skirted women stand in groups of three with babies strapped to their backs pounding palm oil in massive mortars with two-handed pestles. Men repair fishing nets and go off to catch enough for a daily meal. In this matriarchal tribe, the women build the mud-brick houses and choose their mates. Some villages still have queens.

In Guinea-Bissau in general and the Bijagos islands in particular, people are passive, focusing their efforts on subsistence living, not improving their lives. There is a lack of entrepreneurial spirit to take advantage of business opportunities linked to tourism or fishing. For example, a group of traditional dancers on Bubaque said they rarely take their show to the tourist hotels just down the road from where they reside. Instead, they spoke of the need for some unidentified entity to build them a cultural center.

Infrastructure built by the Portuguese on most islands has been abandoned and their former capital of Bolama is reverting back to nature. The Greek-style administrative building is now inhabited by cows and the once majestic park that housed a larger-than-life bronze statue of Ulysses S. Grant looks like a jungle. Grant was stolen and cut apart for scrap metal.

It is common for entire island villages not to have a boat. In these cases, leaving the island for any reason, including medical emergencies, requires a long wait until a rare passing boat can be flagged to stop. The lack of transportation is particularly surprising considering the standard canoe used in the region is the dugout trunk of the polao tree which is abundant throughout the Bijagos. However, many people believe the tree is sacred and would rather live isolated and stranded than cut one down.





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