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Tontege sacred site, Guinea-Bissau

Sacred sites of the Boé Sector, Guinea-Bissau: A case study of Tontege sacred site

The Boé sector

The Boé sector covers almost 3,300 km2 and is located in the south east of Guinea-Bissau. It contains about 80 small villages, whose inhabitants identify with the dominant Fula culture, but are of different ethnic backgrounds. The Boé sector is extremely remote and has poorly maintained dirt roads connecting the bigger villages. At the end of the rainy season cars cannot enter the area because the ferry that brings them stops being in service. There is almost no electricity, and no national mobile telephone signal or internet. As a result, the local populations are highly dependent on the area’s natural resources.

Spring of the sacred site of Tontege (June of 2017 by A.D. Puijk)

Natural resource use in the Boé sector

The local populations create a living from small scale slash and burn agriculture (mainly rice and peanuts), horticulture (a small range of fruits and vegetables), fishing, hunting and livestock breeding, as well as creating a small amount of cash income mostly from cashew plantations. Furthermore, contributions in money and kind from emigrants from the Boé sector to the city or abroad allow them to sustain their families. The local populations also collect wild fruits and traditional medicine from the forested areas, but these are not sources of income.

Sacred sites in the Boé sector

The local populations really value nature and natural resources, all of which have a link with spiritual beliefs. Each area of the Boé sector is connected with a Djinna[1] (Spirit or Djinn in English; Suhum in Pular; Iran in Creolo) which may be present in various forms. The manner and extent of natural resource use is connected with the presence of, and established agreements with, the Djinna. Spiritual presence varies in different areas of the Boé sector and the spiritual connection differs between members of the community. The sacred sites in the Boé sector were identified by the first people using the area, when certain human activities were declared unacceptable. These sites are called Nokudje Atchade in Pular, meaning “sacred sites”, and hundreds of them exist, scattered throughout the Boé sector.

COMBAC Boé project

In 2016 the COMBAC Boé project (Community based conservation of the cultural and natural values of the Boé sector) was launched by Chimbo Foundation and the local NGO Daridibó. It was financed by the EU and Chimbo Foundation. Within the five-year project timespan, 29 villages from the Boé sector participated in mapping a selection of their sacred sites to strengthen their conservation. Of the more than 200 sacred sites mapped, 178 wanted to be included in the ICCA registry. One of these sacred sites is called Tontege (English: Tuntedje), located near the village of Béli, which is the administrative centre of the Boé sector.

The history of Tontege sacred site

The sacred site of Tontege is a forest area surrounding the spring of the Tontege river, which has water year-round. The area of Tontege belonged to an elderly man who was known by the name of Selo ‘Tontege’ Balde. Selo and his large family used to live in the area, only leaving for the village occasionally. He was a famous farmer, known by everyone from the Boé sector. He cultivated large rice fields along the Tontege river to support his family. He used to support others that came to him for food, as he had enough rice for the whole year. This is not common in the Boé sector nowadays.

Selo’s descendants say that he had a contract with the Djinna of Tontege to produce enough food to support his large family and his neighbours. After a few years Selo went blind, which was believed to be part of his contract with the Djinna. Despite this, he still continued his work, becoming even more famous because of it. He produced enough rice towards the end of his life (about 50yrs ago) to feed all the people of the Boé sector. Everybody came to Tontege to look for rice.

The exact agreement that was made between Selo and the Djinna was and still is a secret. All people know is that Selo used to have ceremonies to honour his contract with the Djinna; for a good harvest and for protection from accidents and poor health. Every Thursday and Friday he used to bring an offer of rice-flour balls and Tagale (a local bean) to the sacred site where the Djinna lives. After Selo died, no one continued this, so currently no ceremonies take place in Tontege sacred site.

Amadu Sadjo drinking from the Spring of Tontege’s sacred site during dry season (January of 2018 by R.S. Puijk)

Tontege sacred site today

Today, his rice fields are still cultivated in Tontege, and are managed by Selo Tontege’s descendants. They live in the valley downstream from the sacred site during the rainy season and in Béli village during the dry season. A piece of fallow land is cleared every 7-10 years alongside the river, and only cultivated for one year.

The sacred site is still intact, and people are permitted to collect drinking water and resources for traditional medicine. However, cutting, hunting and fishing are prohibited at the site. If people are found to be undertaking prohibited activities, the Djinna will make them ill. According to local stories when someone cuts a bush or tree they will get sick, including a possible headache, pain in their leg or hand, or in whichever part of the body that was used in the prohibited activity. However, there may be other more severe punishments depending on the type of prohibited activity that was carried out.

The Djinna of Tontege appears in many forms; sometimes as a snake, other times as a human. In human form the Djinna might appear as an old man or an old woman, or as a young girl or a young boy. At other times the Djinna appears as a stranger, but after greeting one another, or after a short conversation, one realises this is the Djinna. The Djinna will disappear a few minutes after the encounter has ended.

A story of Bucari Camara (grandson of Selo ‘Tontege’ Balde) noted down by Anouk Puijk. Bucari has been part of the Management Team of the Chimbo programme in Boé until May 2021.

[1] Djinna ia a word taken from the holy Q’uran. It is a local spirit living at a sacred place and needs to be respected.

This case study was originally published by UNEP-WCMC in May 2021. The content was provided by the custodians of this ICCA. The ICCA has been self-declared and has been gone through a peer-review process to verify its status. More details on this process can be found here. The contents of this website do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of UN Environment Programme or WCMC.