New Internationalist


January 2011

Contrasts and contradictions abound in the West African state of Guinea-Bissau. This is a land of mangrove-lined waterways, white sandy beaches, lush uninhabited islands, sleepy colonial towns, thick steamy forests and sprawling dry savannas. But it is also a land of cramped urban slums, war-damaged buildings and seriously devastated habitats.

Guinea-Bissau bears the name of its capital city so as to distinguish it from the other two Guineas in Africa. It is one of the least known, poorest and least developed nations in the world.

In the 1960s the country achieved some notice for the prominence of its struggle for liberation from Portuguese rule, an increasingly successful guerrilla war headed by one of Africa’s most prominent anti-colonial thinkers, Amilcar Cabral. But Cabral was assassinated just before independence was finally achieved in 1973 and the ensuing reality has far from lived up to his hopes. The country has endured decades of coups, countercoups and assassinations, is often described as a hotbed of corruption and was recently called a ‘narcostate’ by the UN – it has become a hub for international drug trafficking. It is ranked a lowly 173 out of 177 countries in the UNDP Human Development Index.

The current state of its healthcare is particularly troubling. I am inside the National Hospital in Bissau, capital of Guinea-Bissau. I watch a mother holding a limp, swollen-bellied infant in her lap. The health assistant tells me the child is undernourished and riddled with worms. ‘Most people here – particularly in the rural areas,’ she says, ‘do not have access to safe, clean drinking water, proper sanitation facilities, electricity or the necessary nutrients. If they had that, this child would probably not need to be here.’

Here, the stark reality is that people are poor and dying from lack of simple, basic facilities. Hospital staff often go without pay for months on end. Patients go without medicine and their families go without hope. The National Hospital, one of the biggest hospitals in the country, often has no vitamins, oxygen, paracetamol, bandages, alcohol, ferrous sulphate, respirators, MRI machines, CT scanners or blood. Patients often have to buy medical necessities themselves. If someone needs a major operation they have to go to Senegal. In spite of these problems, many lives are being saved by staff who are dedicated and deeply involved.

Health is, of course, not the only problem. Logging, mining and hunting are taking place here on a large scale on a daily basis – often by foreigners and politicians. Fishing by foreign fleets is depleting the shoals of fish off the mainland coast and around the islands. Today, Guinea-Bissau is haemorrhaging flora and fauna. As with other countries in a state of current, recent or recurrent war, the conservation of wildlife in Guinea-Bissau is not a priority. Faced with so many pressing problems in health, education, food and agriculture, and with limited financial resources, the government is forced to give wildlife conservation low priority.

So this is a land facing myriad problems, being exploited by foreigners and domestic politicians alike. But it is also a land of great imagination, creativity and merriment, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the carnival that takes place every year before Lent. To celebrate this, thousands upon thousands of masked and elaborately costumed dancing, singing, whistling, drumming men, women and children take over the crowded and dusty streets of Bissau. The carnival clearly unites a disparate people. For three days every year, Muslims, animists, Christians, members of every political party, farmers, fisherfolk, traders, beggars and even foreigners are as one and Guinea-Bissau is united in joy and exuberance.

Dawn Starin
Guinea-Bissau Fact File
Leader President Malam Bacai Sanha.
Economy GNI per capita $250, among the five poorest countries in the world (Senegal $970, Portugal $20,560).
Monetary unit West African CFA franc.
Main exports Cashew nuts, fish, shrimp, peanuts, palm kernels, sawn timber. The economy is traditionally reliant on cashew nuts but a shadow economy is emerging based on the country having become a transit point for drugs from Latin America. The main crop raised for domestic consumption is rice. The economy was devastated by the 1998 civil war. There has been some prospecting for offshore oil deposits but none have yet proved viable.
People 1.6 million. Annual population growth rate 2.4%. People per square kilometre 44 (UK 253).
Health Infant mortality 117 per 1,000 live births (Senegal 57, Portugal 3). Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 13 (Portugal 1 in 6,400). HIV prevalence rate 1.8%. Access to clean water 57% and access to decent sanitation 33%.
Environment CO2 emissions per capita 0.3 tonnes (Portugal 5.7). Uncontrolled bushfires; constant chopping down of vegetation; heavy mining and hunting; ‘protected areas’ being lamentably unprotected: the people of Guinea-Bissau are on the way to becoming eco-refugees in their own land.
Culture The Balante and Fulani each make up around a quarter of the country’s people, with the Malinke, Mandyako and Pepel each accounting for another 10%.
Religion The majority of people (around two-thirds) practise traditional animist religions, with around a third following Islam and only a tiny minority Catholicism.
Language Portuguese is the official language but crioulo (a mixture of Portuguese and local languages) is much more common. Each ethnic group has its own language.
Last profiled link
Guinea-Bissau ratings in detail
Income distribution
The poorest two-fifths of the population have an estimated 19% of income, compared with the richest one-fifth’s 43%.
Previously reviewed
Life expectancy
48 years – the world’s eighth lowest (Senegal 56, Portugal 79).
Previously reviewed
65% – but this is an improvement on just 37% at the time of the last profile. Only 54% of children are in primary school.
Previously reviewed
Position of women
Although women are found in every profession and serve on many government boards, female genital mutilation is practised, while child marriage and wife beating are not uncommon. Although it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex, race and religion, the government does not effectively enforce this.
Previously reviewed
Freedom of expression and freedom of the press are supposed to be guaranteed by law but the government suppresses these rights in practice, closing down radio stations and harassing journalists.
Previously reviewed
Sexual minorities
Homosexuality is not illegal but it cannot be openly discussed or practised.
NI Assessment (Politics)
Guinea-Bissau's history has been punctuated since independence from Portugal in 1974 by war, political corruption, coups, army mutinies and assassinations. None of the presidents elected in Guinea-Bissau between 1994 and 2009 finished their terms in office, having been ousted or killed by the army. Presently this multiparty republic is unstable and is verging on the edge of anarchy primarily due to cronyism, inherent corruption and its position as an international drug-trafficking transit hub.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 439 This column was published in the January 2011 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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Country ratings (details)
Income distribution2
Previously reviewed4
Life expectancy1
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Previously reviewed1
Position of women2
Previously reviewed2
Previously reviewed3
Sexual minorities3
NI Assessment (Politics)1

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This article was originally published in issue 439

New Internationalist Magazine issue 439
Issue 439

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