Guinea-Bissau: in Bijagos, the breakthrough of evangelical churches upsets the social order

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Ceremony in one of the evangelical churches on Bubaque Island. In a trance, the pastor utters a long tirade which provokes the elation and the tears of the young faithful.

In a trance, on his platform, the pastor of the Evangelical Church of Bubaque declaims a tirade in Portuguese Creole over the microphone, arousing deep reactions among the faithful. Some, kneeling in front of their plastic chairs, pray and cry. At the back of the room, a man is agitated, imploring God with his eyes closed. A celebration like it stands every week on the main island of Bijagos, this archipelago located off Guinea-Bissau.

Pastor Jorge Antonio is delighted to attract more and more people to the Evangelical Church he created in 2013. “Modern religions liberate people, allow them to go to school, lift taboos”, he justifies, asserting that“Today there are Protestant churches on each inhabited island of the Bijagos and sometimes three, four or five on the same island”.

Episode 1 : Endangered matriarchal traditions

Long in the minority, evangelical Protestants are gaining ground in Guinea-Bissau, and in particular in the Bijagos. This religious current emerged on the archipelago in the 1950s and has seen an influx of the faithful for the past fifteen years.

“There is a great proliferation of so-called new churches, in particular evangelicals, run by Brazilians, confirms Miguel de Barros, a Bissau-Guinean sociologist. They seek out the most remote areas, associating evangelization and social actions. “

Attract the favors of the populations

After a religious formation in Brazil, the Bissau-Guinean Jorge Antonio settled with his Brazilian wife on the island of Bubaque. She takes care of the school, he of the church. “These missionaries appeal to families and young people because they respond to a request that the State does not honor: they install water pumps, open schools and health centers …”says Allen Yéro Embalo, a journalist based in Bissau, the capital.

The success of evangelical churches is global. In 2020, they numbered more than 660 million faithful around the world, a figure that continues to increase each year. Its followers are more and more numerous in the countries of the South, in particular in Africa as in Nigeria, in South Africa or in Cameroon.

Faced with certain evangelical speeches which promote the destruction of sacred places, the Homi Grande, names given to the wise men of the village, are the animist guardians of nature. For them, it is out of the question to destroy the sacred groves and to adopt a mode of consumption that would not be respectful of the environment.

In Bijagos, the missionaries succeed by a thousand means in attracting the favors of the populations. Some pastors are involved in family conflict resolutions and in village councils, winning the confidence of the inhabitants. “They marry the women of the villages and are accepted in the communities by the in-laws”, assure M. Embalo.

Their sometimes virulent preaching calls into question the animist model and the education considered archaic of parents and grandparents. Animism has long been practiced by a large part of the village population, often at the same time as Islam and Catholicism. But the discourse of the evangelicals contrasts with that of other denominations.

The message carries

“They are illusionists who make people believe that the spirit of nature wants them harm, that animism is a religion of Satan and that by changing religion, they will be able to reach paradise”, says Hamadou Boiro, a socio-anthropologist at the National Institute for Studies and Research (INEP) in Guinea-Bissau.

Speeches that are viewed with a dim view by defenders of the bijago culture, especially the older inhabitants. “We are just here to spread the word of God, Jorge Antonio defends himself, however. Whoever wants to convert, we do not force him. “

Read also President Umaro Sissoco Embalo’s crusade against drugs and corruption in Guinea-Bissau

The message carries and local youth are gradually turning away from animism. At the risk, some fear, of calling into question the deep links that have long united the islanders and their environment.

Once converted, the former animist communities are pushed to “Abandon their ancestral practices, sometimes going as far as destroy their sacred shrines: primary and secondary forests sources of food and economic resilience ”, worries sociologist Miguel de Barros, who is also president of the environmental NGO Tiniguena. “All those who adhere to the evangelical religion no longer make traditional sacrifices”, adds Hamadou Boiro.

The resistance of the old wise animists

The breakthrough of the new churches also contributes greatly to shaking up traditions and a social order based on solidarity, believes Miguel de Barros, who points out “The capitalist spirit brought by the evangelicals”. These latter “Defend competition, individual merit, the privatization of land, production and the economy”, continues the sociologist.

A reverse vision from that of the Homi Grande, old wise animists responsible for the social and economic life of the village and very attached to respect for sacred places and the environment that surrounds them. They advocate a family and reasoned vision of consumption.

“We only fish and hunt what we need. We don’t kill to kill and we cultivate around the village for the village, explains Caintanio Depina, the representative of the king of one of the villages nestled in the national park of the island of Orango.

But already, change is underway as the archipelago is turning more and more to the outside – in particular as a result of the development of tourism – and young people aspire to more modernity. A generational gap that benefits new pastors.

« When religion no longer corresponds to people’s deep aspiration, it must be reinvented, explains Hamadou Boiro. It is in this context that evangelicals arrive. They question values ​​that no longer speak to the youngest. “

The researcher fears that this religious surge will create strong tensions within the archipelago: “If they become radicalized, how are we going to perpetuate this savoir-vivre between communities which has always prevailed on these islands and in the country? “

Guinea-Bissau: the Bijagos archipelago, a fragile paradise

It takes more than three hours to sail aboard a motorized canoe from Bissau, the capital of Guinea-Bissau, to reach the 88 islands and islets that make up the Bijagos archipelago. The remoteness has long allowed ancestral traditions to continue in this paradise of sea hippos and turtles where some 30,000 people live.

But the archipelago is gradually opening up to the world: island tourism is developing, new religions are taking hold and attracting more educated and connected Bijago youth. The dominance of women and animist beliefs are declining and the gap is widening between the generations.

More accessible, the archipelago is also of interest to researchers who are carrying out scientific trials to fight against the many diseases affecting populations. The World Africa offers you a three-part series to tell about some of the changes underway on this unique but fragile archipelago.

Episode 1 : Endangered matriarchal traditions
Episode 2 : The breakthrough of evangelical churches upsets the social order

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Guinea-Bissau: in Bijagos, the breakthrough of evangelical churches upsets the social order