Five facts about Guinea-Bissau in West Africa: Its people, food, languages, economy – and islands run by women

Streets of Guinea-Bissau

At first glance, the country of Guinea-Bissau doesn’t seem like much more than just a tiny speck on the map. In fact, it may be the most forgotten country in Africa.

But take a closer look, and you’ll discover a land bursting with rich cultural heritage, an economy centered around buttery cashews and sweet mangoes, and 90 beautiful islands run by one of the last remaining matriarchal tribes in the world. Here are some of the most interesting facts about Guinea-Bissau in West Africa.

1. Cashews, mangos, papayas and more!

Despite being a country that is roughly the same size as the state of Maryland, Guinea-Bissau is one of the top five cashew producers in the world. The smooth and delicious nut that can be eaten like candy is the cash crop in the country. Each year, millions of pounds of cashews from the tiny country of Guinea-Bissau are exported throughout the entire world. About 85% of the populations relies on harvesting and selling cashews for some or most of their income.

The country is also bursting at the seams with mangoes and papayas. During mango season in the spring, you can find them dropping from trees almost everywhere you go!

cashew growing in Guinea-Bissau West Africa

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Cashew fruits are often used to make cashew wine in Guinea-Bissau.

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2. Guinea-Bissau’s islands are run by women

Guinea-Bissau, which borders the Atlantic Ocean, is home to a massive network of almost 90 islands off its shores. These islands, called the Bissagos or Bijagos Islands, are run by a matriarchal society. On these islands, women are leaders in law, economy, spirituality, and marriage arrangements.

Head to the market and you will see women bartering and selling. Attend a meeting regarding legal proceedings in the village and you will see a woman determining the verdict. Visit a spiritual ceremony and you will witness it being led by a priestess. Even when it comes to the home, women not only own their houses, but are responsible for constructing it as well.

A documentary about the Bissagos Islands can be found here.

3. It’s probably not the “Guinea” you’re thinking of

Chances are you’ve heard of at least one country with the name “Guinea” in it. That’s because there’s a lot of them! There’s Guinea and Equatorial Guinea, both of which are in West Africa. There is also a Papua New Guinea, which is in southeast Asia. However, none of those are the same as Guinea-Bissau.

Though there are multiple theories on the origin of the word Guinea, the common narrative is that it was an early word used to collectively refer to the people of West Africa. Bissau (the name of the capital city) was added to the name in order to differentiate the country from the neighboring country of Guinea. Thus, the name Guinea-Bissau was born!

hut in Guinea-Bissau West Africa

4. The country has its own language: Guinea-Bissau Creole

Because Guinea-Bissau was colonized by Portugal, the official language is Portuguese. However, only about 11% to 14% of the population actually speaks Portuguese. The real language of Guinea-Bissau is a Portuguese-based creole that’s only spoken in Guinea-Bissau (with a variation of it spoken in Cape Verde). Though not officially recognized as the national language, this creole is used in government, entertainment, and day-to-day communication.

Hear a snippet of Guinea-Bissau creole from a WAVS vocational school teacher and give it a try yourself!

5. Most people in Guinea-Bissau live on less than $2 each day

Political instability, criminal drug trafficking, and a lack of educational and skills training opportunities for youth in Guinea-Bissau means that most people live below the poverty line. More than 70% of the population of Guinea-Bissau earn less than $2 a day. In fact, the average person in Guinea-Bissau only lives off of $1.40 a day.

a woman and child in Guinea-Bissau West Africa

Though Guinea-Bissau has plenty to offer, it has been overlooked time and time again by the rest of the world. The United States doesn’t have an embassy there, and major aid organizations like World Vision and Compassion International don’t have a presence in the country. It’s because of these challenges that West African Vocational Schools has chosen to work here – to help equip West Africans with life-changing job skills so they have the opportunity to work for a brighter future.