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.

Fact file

Monetary unit
Main exports
Human Development Index
Last profiled June 1994

At a glance

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  • Income distribution
  • Life expectancy
  • Position of women
  • Freedom
  • Literacy
  • Sexual minorities
  • NI Assessment (Politics)