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Not many have heard of Guinea Bissau partially because there are a host of other countries with the Guinea name and partially as it is a tiny addition to the large number of countries that make up Africa.
One would assume the capital would be a sleepy backwater and it doesn’t disappoint. Most remarkable is how little things seem to have progressed since independence. The old colonial core lacks any maintenance as it crumbles elegantly into a ghost town. The port still lacks modern cranes or even any land based devices for unloading ships. To be fair the city has had a hard life with civil war raging in the last years of the century and modernity mostly bypassing this part of Africa.
Probably the biggest change is the population which has grown five times as large over the last five decades. The resulting sprawl lacks paved roads or significant infrastructure.
In the dry season dust chokes the city leaving any street food tasting gritty and everything else cloaked with a red hue. In the dry season it becomes a giant mud pit with pot holes big enough to submerge small cars. Throughout the year it is generally stinking hot but at least the malarial mosquitoes die down in the dry.
With a GDP per capita of around $800 USD per year Guinea Bissau is one of the poorest places on earth and it shows. As with many African countries statistics aren’t well kept so no one knows how populated or poor they really are.
The heart of the city is a colonial area and an old Fort now used as an army base but little changed. They ramble down to the port which is only able to handle one small container ship at a time. The only other pier is home to a pair of beached and abandoned navy boats as well as a sunken vessel and some large fishing canoes. Small ferries leave from here once a week for outlying islands.
These small outlying islands apart from being famous for landing points for South American cocaine headed for Europe host saltwater hippos, and manatees in National Parks as well as an old Portuguese capital now in picturesque ruin. Considered the highlight of this country we tried to charter a boat but was told it would be over a thousand USD for the few hours it would take to reach the closest islands. Add in landing fees and other expenses and it would have been over $160 usd each for a day trip. Shockingly high considering the average wage here is $60 a month. The boat cooperative surprisingly would not budge on the price. (Similar trips in neighbouring Senegal cost around $10 per person.)
Standing on the end of the pier did not give the impression of anything more than a village let alone the largest city in the country. Few boats could be seen out at sea and the shore was mostly mangroves. A Turkish power generating ship is anchored off to the side providing the city with a stable power supply. The city view consists of broken colonial rooftops with the occasional tree dwarfing any building.
Back on the streets there are few private vehicles. Brightly painted taxis and passenger vans bounce along, the potholes keep vehicle speed to a crawl on most roads. Many other city streets are overgrown with bushes and best traversable on foot or with a 4×4. Only the corrupt have private vehicles and these are generally high end and often broken down as there simply aren’t the parts or knowledge to fix modern cars. Abandoned cars in various stages of disassembly dot the city streets.
The busiest part of the city is the market about a kilometre from the central roundabout. The front road was jammed with brightly painted passenger vans while the backroad had massive semi-trucks offloading sacks of imported onions from Holland. It seems little is produced here. Walking alleys crisscross between the roads each grouped into areas. At the start of the market are men selling live chickens with their feet tied to prevent escape. Middle men carry them in bunches by their feet through the market to shoppers. Environmentals would approve due to the lack of packaging but animal rights activists not so much. The market continued on into used clothing and electronics each area thronging with people. In the lingerie section women in burkas could be seen comparing brightly coloured frilly panties heaped on road side tarps. The majority of women were not covered but dressed in bright coloured outfits with smiles a mile wide.
The people while friendly when engaged do not like photos taken so I have few snapshots from my wanderings.
Guinea Bissau so named to differentiate it from Equitorial Guinea and Guinea used to be a Portuguese colony. Like many African colonies it uses its colonial language as the main language however not everyone speaks it. To confuse matters schools teach French as Guinea is surrounded by Francophone countries.
The country consists of a handful of tribal languages with the largest tribal language just reaching over 25 percent. It boggles the mind how difficult it must be to do anything in this country as most people don’t speak a common language. Apparently even registering a new business takes the better part of the year in paperwork.
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