Balanta: How this tribe in Guinea-Bissau resisted Islam, Christianity and Westernization

The name Balanta, translated as “those who resist” should give a clue about the set of people you’re about to know. The Balanta tribe of Guinea-Bissau is known in colonial history for their fierce resistance, preserving their societal values from being ‘influenced’ by foreign cultural elements. Unlike other ethnic groups who absorbed foreign values with ease, mostly under duress, this group stayed true to its indigenous practices.

Prior to the arrival of the then Portuguese colonial power, the Balanta tribe built a very simple people-centered society, grounded in tradition. They established relatable social institutions and organizations that defined their core values. Social aspects such as, family, religion, traditional rites, music, marriage, etc were deeply rooted in their own perspectives. Like most African cultures, the Balantas too preserved their African family system of man, woman and child. The concept of the cycle of life beginning from birth, initiation and marriage to the opposite sex is fundamental to Balantas way of life.

Locally, they evolved their own spiritual traditions with which they worshipped God. They, have rights of initiation and indigenous means of socialization. They were self-reliant as the tribe were mainly fishermen, herders, and cultivators of different types of crops for survival.

The arrival of the Portuguese saw disruptions with attempts to distort their already existing social structure. There were attempts to introduce westernization, Christianity and Islam. However, these were resisted to maximum extent. Historical researchers such as, Murray Last revealed that, these people perceived the above-mentioned concepts as negative, in relation to the kind of society they had.

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Historians equally mentioned that, through the colonial period, the Balanta refused to go through formal education as introduced by the Portuguese, they prioritized their own language and maintained their initiation practices. Their survival amidst this resistance was attributed to their physical strength and hard work.

The Balanta people gradually developed interest towards movements to rebel against colonial rule following several forced attempts to make them adjust to Portuguese demands. This led to their alignment with the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde, which was very instrumental in Guinea-Bissau’s fight for freedom from the Portuguese.

Describing their resistance, Amicar Cabral, the anti-colonial resistance leader of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde said: “Balanta farmers became involved in the anti-colonial guerrilla war more quickly than any other group”. He further stated that the Balanta’s adherence to the anti-colonial struggle is due to their decentralized and egalitarian social organization. The anti-colonial leader compared the Balantas attitude to those of other groups in Guinea such as the Fulanis who were more open to forming alliances with colonial powers.

According to historians, the Balanta were those who suffered the most with slaps, and lashing because their refusal to adopt to western way of life and were often deemed “backward,” by others groups.

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