25 interesting facts about Guinea-Bissau

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The most interesting facts about Guinea-Bissau, from hippos adapted to saltwater, to briefly having two presidents and two prime ministers.

Interesting facts about Guinea-Bissau include its the Bijagós archipelago
Interesting facts about Guinea-Bissau include its the Bijagós archipelago (Shutterstock)

Fast facts

Official name: Republic of Guinea-Bissau
Population: 1,976,187
Area: 36,125 sq km
Capital city: Bissau
Major languages: Creole (Portuguese-based), Portuguese, Pular
Major religions: Muslim 45.1%, Christian 22.1%, animist 14.9%
Time zone: UTC 0 (Greenwich Mean Time)
– Source: CIA World Fact Book

Interesting facts about Guinea-Bissau

1. Guinea-Bissau is a country located in West Africa on the North Atlantic Ocean bordering Guinea and Senegal.
– Source: CIA World Fact Book

2. Guinea-Bissau takes its name from the Guinea region of West Africa. The country uses the name of its capital, Bissau, to distinguish it from its neighbour Guinea.
– Source: Britannica

3. There are four countries in the world with the word Guinea in their name: Guinea-Bissau, Guinea and Equatorial Guinea in Africa, and Papua New Guinea in Oceania and Asia.
– Source: The Economist

A beach in Guinea-Bissau from above
Guinea-Bissau is located on the Atlantic coast (Shutterstock)

4. Despite the name’s prevalence, it is unclear where the name Guinea originates. Some suggest it could be a corruption of a Berber word meaning “land of the blacks,” while others suggest it can be traced to a word in Tuareg, aginaw. Others consider it may refer to Djenné, a trading city in Mali. Additionally, during the 15th century, Portuguese sailors used “Guiné” to describe what is now Senegal, and by the 18th century, Europeans used “Guinea” to refer to much of West Africa.
– Source: Britannica, The Economist

5. In West Africa, Portuguese Guinea became Guinea-Bissa, Spanish Guinea became Equatorial Guinea and French Guinea would become Guinea.
– Source: The Economist

6. Guinea-Bissau used to be under the influence of the Mali Empire and was a sub-kingdom known as Gabu.
– Source: BBC News

Map of Guinea-Bissau and West Africa
Map of Guinea-Bissau (Shutterstock)

7. In 1446-47, the Portuguese began to arrive in the region and took control of what would eventually become Guinea-Bissau as part of the Portuguese Cape Verde Islands. The area became an important outpost in the slave trade.
– Source: BBC News

8. Guinea-Bissau declared independence from Portugal following a guerrilla war in 1973. The country was formally recognised as an independent nation in 1974.
– Source: BBC News

9. Guinea-Bissau’s flag features two horizontal stripes of yellow and green and a vertical red stripe with a black star. Yellow represents the savannas of the north, green the forests of the south, red represents the struggle for independence and the blag star represents the people of Africa.
– Source: Britannica

Guinea-Bissau's flag flying in the sky
Guinea-Bissau’s flag (Shutterstock)

10. Guinea-Bissau has one of the world’s lowest life expectancies. As of 2021, it had the ninth-lowest at just 58.0 years. The global average life expectancy is 72.6.
– Source: World Bank

11. Since independence, Guinea-Bissau has been rocked by a series of military coups (in 1980, 2003, 2010 and 2012), a civil war in 1998/99 and the assassination of its president, Joao Bernardo Vieira, in 2009.
– Source: ReliefWeb via United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)

12. As such, Guinea-Bissau is one of the poorest countries in the world when measured by GDP per capita based on purchasing power parity (PPP). In 2021, it was ranked 14th-poorest. It is also ranked among the least developed countries in the world.
– Source: World Bank

A busy and dusty street in the city of Bissau
The city of Bissau (Shutterstock)

13. Over the last two decades, Guinea-Bissau has struggled to stem the flow of drugs, particularly cocaine. Described by the UN as a narco-state, Guinea-Bissau has become a drug-trafficking hub for cocaine flown or shipped from Latin America to Europe and North America.
– Source: BBC News, The Guardian

14. Guinea-Bissau suffers from some of the world’s worst air pollution. As of 2021, it was ranked the sixth-worst country for air pollution when measured by the number of deaths (161.8) per 100,000 people.
– Source: Our World in Data

15. In 2020, nearly 1,000 hooded vultures died from mass poisoning in Guinea-Bissau, driving the endangered species towards the verge of extinction in Africa. The birds likely died from accidental poisoning after strychnine was used to control the feral dog population.
– Source: The Guardian

A close up of a hooded vulture
A hooded vulture (Shutterstock)

16. The country’s capital, Bissau, was founded by the Portuguese in the 17th century but didn’t officially become the capital of modern-day Guinea-Bissau until 1942 when the capital was moved from the island city of Bolama.
– Source: Rough Guides

17. The former capital Bolama was quickly abandoned by the Portuguese and has since fallen into decay and ruin. 
– Source: Rough Guides

18. The people of Guinea-Bissau are among the lightest smokers in the world. According to the sixth edition of the Tobacco Atlas, Guinea-Bissau smokes the second-least number of cigarettes (25.28) per capita after only Brunei.
– Source: The Tobacco Atlas

19. Guinea-Bissau is one of the few places in Africa you can still see traditional ancestral shrines. The totem-like wood-carved structures are intended to connect the human and spirit worlds.
– Source: Rough Guides

A wood-carved traditional ancestral shrine
A traditional ancestral shrine (Carsten ten Brink, CC 2.0)

20. On Uno Island in Guinea-Bissau, at some point in their lives, boys must go into the forest for several months to live alone in a ceremony called Vaca Bruto, which means ‘strong cow’. The rite of passages is supposed to transform the boys into men but only takes place when it “feels right” as opposed to at a set age or date.
– Source: Rough Guides

21. Guinea-Bissau is one of 27 countries that does not have a single UNESCO World Heritage Site. It does have one property (see below) on the Tentative List of sites to be submitted for nomination.
– Source: UNESCOThe Telegraph

22. The Bijagós archipelago located off the coast of Guinea-Bissau is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The archipelago is made up of 88 islands and is home to a significant diversity of mammals, reptiles, birds and fish.
– Source: UNESCO

Saltwater hippos in Guinea-Bissau
Interesting facts about Guinea-Bissau include saltwater hippos (Carsten ten Brink, CC 2.0)

23. The Bijagós archipelago is also one of the few places in the world where you can see saltwater hippos, particularly on the island of Orango (which is also a national park). During the day, the hippos sit in freshwater lagoons and then at night, they go down to the sea to bathe and disinfect their skin.
– Source: Financial Times

24. Also in the region, the island of Poilão is the most important green turtle nesting site in Africa and third in the world after Costa Rica and Ascension. From June to January, up to 30,000 turtles return to the island’s beach to lay their eggs.
– Source: Financial Times

25. In 2020, Guinea-Bissau briefly had two presidents and two prime ministers. Following disputed elections, the winner Umaro Cissoko Embalo swore in a new leader while the current parliament simultaneously appointed a rival interim president.
– Source: Reuters

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