Special iSSue: Guinea-Bissau Today
From the Margins of the State to the
Presidential Palace: The Balanta Case
Marina Padrão Temudo
abstract: Balanta farmers of Guinea-Bissau are often regarded by neighboring
communities as “backward” and as a people who have refused modern life-worlds.
Despite the fact that these farmers played a very important role in the making of
Guinea-Bissau, they were progressively removed from power after independence.
However, they also developed original forms of contesting marginality. This article
portrays the Balanta as complex historical subjects with strategic agendas. It exam-
ines the tensions between centrality and marginality in today’s Guinea-Bissau and in
the Balanta’s own ways of imagining their place in the nation.
Victims and Raiders
The classic historiography of the Upper Guinea Coast (e.g., Rodney 1970)
presented a precolonial situation in which ethnic groups with a hierarchi-
cal social organization (mainly the Fulbe and the Mandinka) were opposed
to decentralized or “stateless” groups (e.g., the Balanta); the former were
considered as actively engaged in the slave trade and the latter as passive
victims and a reservoir of slaves. This historical model is being challenged
today by authors who offer a much more complex model in which all groups
have their part in the making of this Atlantic region (Brooks 1993; Fields
2001; Sarró 2008).
African Studies Review, Volume 52, Number 2 (September 2009), pp. 47–67
Marina padrão Temudo is a senior research fellow at the Tropical Research In-
stitute (IICT) in Lisbon, Portugal. She has conducted extensive field research
in Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Mozambique, S. Tomé and Príncipe, and the
Republic of Guinea. She has published articles on the impact of rural devel-
opment interventions, NGOs, and natural resources management, the effect
of war on rural societies, and the way agrarian tensions have fed conflicts.
48 African Studies Review
Hawthorne (2001, 2003) is one of the major critics of the “predator”
model that opposed centralized “slave-raiders” to decentralized “slave-reser-
voir” societies. He also challenges general ideas that present the slave trade
not only as giving rise to the depopulation of whole regions but also to
the feminization of agricultural work (2003:14). His book Planting Rice and
Harvesting Slaves (2003) focuses on Balanta rice farmers (Guinea-Bissau’s
largest ethnic group, constituting one-quarter of the country’s population)
and the way they strived in “the slaving frontier” of the Mande and Fulbe
states by changing their social, political, and economic structures.1 The Bal-
anta were able to defend themselves by settling in fortified compact villag-
es in isolated and difficult-to-reach mangrove habitats that