The Balanta people are found mainly in Guinea Bissau, although they may be found in areas of Senegal as well, particularly in the Casamance. Their heartland is north of the Geba River, an area rich in elephants, beeswax, and coveted hides. The people are intelligent and dedicated agrarians, growing lots of foods, including rice and peanuts. In many ways, their religious ideas and cultural ideas have been impacted by the historical, political, and economic upheavals of the region.
Although the Balanta are found in the coastal regions of West Africa, they are said to have migrated from the East, possibly from the Nile Valley region of East Africa. Their oral narratives and their commercial history have established them as significant players in the development of the trade along the coast. However, it is at the level of custom, culture, politics, and traditions that they exhibit strong African religious practices. They cultivate yam, paddy rice, and maize. They are known principally as rice producers, although they only started that practice when they moved their villages to the mangroves during the European slave raids of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.
The intensive human labor that was required by rice farming also impacted the structure of the community's religion because it required high-density and compact village patterns. The Balanta had to develop the use of the iron tip shovel, kebinde, to compete with their neighbors in the practice of agriculture. Although the Balanta are not the most numerous people in Guinea Bissau, they occupy a large geographical area and still produce millet, maize, and peanuts.
The Portuguese created an enormous crisis in the culture of the coastal people as the Muslims had done hundreds of years earlier. The Balanta had worked to maintain customs and traditions based on their ancestral histories; however, nothing could prevent them from being seduced by the unchecked slave raids along the coast. The European slave trade reinforced ethnic distinctions and led to neighbors fighting against neighbors. The Bijagos ethnic group was well known as supporters of the European slave traders. But other groups, such as the Papel and the Manjaco, were dedicated to producing food supplies for the European coastal trading posts. When the slave trade ended, the Balanta, involved tangentially in the trade, sought to continue their traditional customs, but the commercial interests established by the Portuguese produced a desire for many of them to migrate to Europe and Cape Verde as share croppers and to Senegal and Gambia as rubber producers.
Balanta and other groups sought to limit Portugal's control of the coast. However, Portugal gained power over this coastal region through trade and maintained it by fostering interethnic conflicts among neighbors. For example, in 1913, the Portuguese under the leadership of Teixeira Pinto formed an alliance with the Fula army under the leadership of Abdulai Injai to defeat all coastal groups, including the Balanta. By exploiting the competition among the African groups, the Portuguese were able to gain control of the food and water supplies along the coast and contain the Balanta people. Of course, what they could not contain or restrain were the traditions of the people and the survival of their will to respect their ancestors.
- Lobban, R. A., Jr., and Mendy, P. K. (1999). Historical Dictionary of the Republic of Guinea-Bissau (3rd ed.). Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.
- Lopes, C. (1987). Guinea-Bissau: From Liberation Struggle to Independent Statehood. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Rodney, W. (1970). A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545–1800. New York: Monthly Review Press.