President: João Bernardo Vieira (‘Nino’)
Economy: GNP per capita 5190 per year Monetary unit Peso
Main exports: Groundnuts, fish, oil and coconut, palm products, timber
Health: Life expectancy 37.
Infant mortality: 150 per 1,000 live births.
Percentage of population with access to clean water 18% (urban). 8% (rural)
Culture: Many ethnic groups: largest are Balanta, Mandinga, Fula and Manjacos. Religion: 30% Moslem. 5% Roman Catholic. rest mainly traditional beliefs.
Language: Portuguese official. ‘Creoli’ spoken almost universally.
Sources: State of the World’s Children 1984, World Bank Report 1983. CIDAC (Portugal), SIDA (Sweden).
HEAVY mist hangs over the coastline where rivers and creeks slice the land into mud flats and mangrove swamps. This terrain is probably the greatest obstacle to communications and development in Guinea-Bissau, one of Africa’s smallest and poorest states. The PAIGC (Partido Africano da independencia da Guinea-Bissau e Cabo Verde) turned the network of swamps and dense bush to their advantage: by the end of 1973, eleven years of armed struggle had liberated most of the country from a century of Portuguese colonial rule.
The war had continued despite the assassination of PAIGC leader Amilcar Cabral earlier that year. Fighting to overthrow the Portuguese gave GuineaBissau’s ethnic groups a sense of national identity. The Party built on this cohesion and used traditional social networks - the collections of huts loosely grouped by family generations living together to create democracy at the village level.
Independence brought peace but not prosperity. Roads, ports and bridges had been destroyed in the war: there were shortages of food, expertise and agricultural know-how. Export trade - of peanuts, fish and palm kernels - had collapsed and the country relied on aid from both East and West.
Trade was monopolised by the State through ‘People’s Stores’ in the liberated zones during the war but afterwards produce began to pile up and rot as the revolution turned sour. Lack of basic goods fueled an exodus from the countryside to Bissau the capital. By I980 confidence in the regime (which united Guinea-Bissau with the islands of Cape Verde) was low. Popular commander ‘Nino’ Viera led an internal party coup to oust the government of Luiz Cabral (Amilcar’s brother), severing relations with Cape Verde. The quarrel was patched up in 1982 but the two areas remain under separate control.
Today conditions are slowly improving. Although food production is increasing people still go short of rice, the staple. Women do most of the farming and earn a little cash from their peanut crop.
But Guinea-Bissau is still heavily dependent on aid and its national debt was $32 million in 1981 alone. People must queue for basic items - and this they do good-naturedly even though they often go away empty- handed. Hopes for an economic upturn are pinned on off-shore oil deposits and restrictions on trade within the country are being relaxed. Democracy returned to the country earlier this year with the setting up of the People’s National Assembly.
Watching the people of Guinea-Bissau celebrate Tabaski - their interpretation of a Moslem festival - you are impressed by their cheerfulness. With their modern political culture and modest vision of progress they face the future with a determination and optimism that won’t be dampened either by the penetrating coastal mist, or by post-independence blues.