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Guinea-Bissau - Religion

The US government estimates the total population at 1.7 million (July 2015 estimate). Guinea-Bissau is the only former Portuguese colony without Christianity as its majority religion. Estimates of the religious composition of the population vary widely, but according to a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center, approximately 40 percent is Muslim, 31 percent follow indigenous religious practices, and 20 percent Christian. CIA estimates indigenous beliefs 65%, Muslim 30%, Christian 5%. Around the year 1900, the population, including the islands, was esrtimated at 1,000,000. The population was generally given as including 260,000 Roman Catholics; and there are about 170,000 Mohammedans and over 500,000 pagans on the mainland. At that time, the Catholic religion was professed, but its practice was mingled with many superstitions.

Before the Great War, Portuguese forces, with some assistance from the Muslim population, subdued animist tribes and eventually established the territory's borders. The anti-colonial insurgency of the 1960s spurred the Portuguese to greater efforts to woo the province's 17 tribal groups through economic and social action projects. Some progress had been made among the province's Muslim tribes, notably the large Fulani group, although these groups traditionally had cooperated with the government. The rebels' recruiting efforts had been most successful among the animist tribes, particularly the Balantas, the province's largest and most backward tribe. The pagan Balantas had long resented the favoritism shown by Portugal toward the Muslim tribes. The rebels and Portuguese, who were increasingly aware of the necessity of winning the allegiance of the indigenous people, were stressing their respective abilities to provide health services, schools, and security to the population. The government embarked on a strategic hamlet strategy, which occasioned the resettlement of large groups of people.

Muslim communities have increased dramatically during the end of the 20th century and continues into the 21st century, mostly through the Fulani and Malink ethnic groups which comprise approximately 30% of the population. The Fula (Peuhl or Fulani) and Mandinka (Malinke) ethnic groups are the most numerous followers of Islam. Muslims generally live in the north and northeast, and most Muslims are Sunni. Adherents of indigenous religious beliefs generally live in all but the northern parts of the country. The Christian population, including Roman Catholics and Protestants, is concentrated in Bissau and other large cities or towns. Large numbers of Muslims and Christians hold indigenous beliefs as well.

The constitution establishes separation of religion and state and the responsibility of the state to respect and protect legally recognized religious groups. There were no reports of significant government action affecting religious freedom. Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant leaders occasionally met informally to discuss issues of common interest.

The constitution stipulates the state shall be separate from religious institutions and shall respect and protect legally recognized religious groups, whose activities shall be subject to the law. It holds freedom of conscience and religion as inviolable, even if the state declares a state of siege, and provides for freedom of worship as long as it does not violate the fundamental principles cited in the constitution. It establishes that all citizens are equal under the law with the same rights and obligations, irrespective of their religion. Political parties and labor unions are barred from affiliating with a particular religious group. The constitution recognizes the freedom of religious groups to teach their faith.

The indigenous religions practiced by many citizens are largely animist in nature, and reverence for ancestors is ubiquitous throughout Guinea-Bissau. Most households contain shrines to forefathers, and villages are likely to have shrines to guardian spirits that are at the center of religious festivals. Spirit possessions during festivals are common, and sacrifices of alcohol, food and animals are made publicly to avert misfortune. The tenacity of these beliefs can also be seen in the heavy syncretism evident in national varieties of Islam and Christianity.

The Sieur Briie narrated that at Bissao, the island off Portuguese Guinea, the favorite wives of the king were killed at his death. Whether or not the privilege was allowed to those of less rank is doubtful. Once a foresighted noble picked out three damsels for ghostly company, but at'his death, an unsympathetic king sold them and gave the money to his heirs. In the Kingdom of Guinala, south of Cape Verde, the most beloved wife of the king and several of his servants were killed "to wait on and serve him in the other world." His horse is also killed "that he may want for no conveniency there."

In West African rural areas, the daily routine includes collection and distribution of vegetable products for medicinal use. In poor countries, where public health systems are under-resourced, the practices of traditional medicine are of great importance. This is certainly the case of Guinea-Bissau. In terms of plant-picking habits, all healers follow a common principle: harvesting the vegetable elements needed for preparing medicine causing the least possible damage to the plants. Thus, while picking roots for instance, only a sufficient portion of the root is cut so as not to compromise the plants survival, just as in the collection of tree bark, the least damaged barks are chosen.

The Guinea-Bissau traditional medicinal systems are largely based on the use of plants for pharmacological use. There are two distinct types of plants used in the African medicinal systems non ritual plants, used in non-religious treatments, and ritual plants used in ritualistic treatments. The means used to confer symbolical efficacy upon the treatments using medicinal plants, are different for healers who summon non-Muslim supernatural entities and those who invoke the words of the Quran.

Different agents coexist in the treatment of different illnesses: healers who are specialized in the treatment of specific ailments, mostly physical disturbances, without resource to divination; djambakus (healers who are diviners and make ritualized treatments); marabouts (Muslim medicine-men); and even ordinary members of the social group, especially the elderly.

Sicknesses fall essentially into two categories: simple sicknesses - manifestations of various physical symptoms-, and irn sicknesses. Irns are supernatural beings that populate the Nalu imagery, and irn diseases are disturbances, most of them of psychic nature, believed to be provoked by these spirits.

In the treatment and cure of the illnesses, different symbolic and cosmological frameworks are called forth, both pre-Islamic and Muslim beliefs. Healers summon the power of the spirits (irns), which is essential to their cosmological explanation of the world and nature, whereas for Muslim medicine-men (marabouts) the effectiveness of the remedies resides basically in its association with the sacred word of the Quran.

Another important aspect derives from the fact that the infirm pursue different therapies and visit several agents of traditional medicine while also - and often simultaneously seeking the help of state health services, based on the belief in the effectiveness of modern medicine (the white mans medicine).





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