“Photograph everything, as beautiful as possible, but don't photograph me, please!” asks us F., a Frenchman who we cannot identify, out of respect for his request.
"It's just that we agreed between us, but my wife doesn't know that I came here."
We continue aboard a speedboat that takes us from Quinhamel to the island of Kéré. Us, and a group of French fishing enthusiasts. In particular, for fishing in Bijagós.
All around, dolphins show off their acrobatics. From time to time, we see the smooth sea break out, full of shoals harassed by hungry barracudas and the like.
The boat is moving at good speed. It moves away from the estuary of the great river Geba, towards the ocean, through a vast expanse of salt water that already looks like the Atlantic, although the archipelago of the Bijagós that intervenes, hides to the southwest.
Unaware of the subject, we asked one of F.'s friends, what endows the Bijagós with such special fishing, if, for example, the Azores are not up to par. “Oh no, no way. Us Azores blow the trade winds, it's not like here.” We are almost the same. F. intervenes with the good disposition that, little by little, we realize that distinguishes him.
“You see there. Don't ask him anything that doesn't have to do with fishing. His brain only works for fishing. Right now, it's in sonar mode, scanning around!"
We all laughed our asses off. Soon, we returned to contemplate the shallow sea, attentive to what else it would reveal to us.
We follow the west coast of the island of Maio. After almost an hour of navigation, other coastlines are defined in front of us.
Kéré Island in sight
Between them, there is another, by comparison, insignificant.
We arrived at the island of our destination with sunset setting itself. It is only when we circle it towards the west that we see it with the light of sight.
The white sandy beach, the baobab trees that are still leafy and, somewhat veiled by the vegetation, the huts of the resident ecolodge.
Laurent, the host, appears. He greets and welcomes visitors.
French fishermen seem ecstatic to see him again. F. can't resist.
Trap us with a new tirade that makes us laugh almost to tears. “Well, here we are again! Looking forward to dedicating ourselves to your activities, pilates, yoga, even pottery!”
We greeted Sónia in a hurry.
The sun bathes Kéré in a precious gold and Sónia is busy, and besides, she knows what we're going to do.
Without ceremony, grant us release.
Low tide. It increases the inclined sand.
For the first time, we circled behind the line of vegetation.
Attentive to the graceful silhouettes generated by the baobab trees, the birds that inhabit them and even the bittersweet gourds hanging from the trees of life.
It gets dark.
Customers enjoy meals of freshly caught fish, barracuda, carp, mermaids.
Awakened by dusk, a community of fruit bats that inhabit nearby trees feast on ripe bananas from a large bunch exposed on the threshold of the restaurant.
Conversation here, conversation there, we surrender to the tiredness of the day.
We went back to the hut we had been given, a few steps from the sea of Bijagós, under the hyper-starry vault of the Universe.
A New Day, in the Exuberant Nature of Bijagós
We woke up with the dawn, to the sound of a natural symphony such as we had not heard for a long time.
The shrill chirping of the crickets was joined by the synchronized cooing of the island's prolific community of turtledoves.
Other assorted birds added their characteristic chirps.
A few roosters crowed solo. All that unexpected sound energy is contagious.
It inspires us to jump out of bed and experience the African splendor that Kéré had in store for us.
In the same few steps, we reach the southern edge of the island.
We found that the ocean was still invading the exposed bed around it. Successive shoals followed him.
As in the previous afternoon, from time to time, the fish suffer attacks from predators. They panic, project, squirm.
They generate bursts of crackling noises that stir up the fast-moving water.
Kéré Island and the Bijagós. A Guinean Eden that has long attracted fishermen
Such a sound and vision returns to unsettle the fishermen. Most are veterans. A few are learning.
They landed in Kéré accompanied by fishing guides. Without exception, everyone yearns to set sail in the boats and cast their hooks and baits where the Bijagós are most promising.
The group of Frenchmen did not take long to leave, in the first of several incursions. Laurent accompanies them, a few, we imagine with renewed pleasure.
Fishing has always fueled Laurent's life. Looking at things well, it was fishing that ended up giving him Kéré, in a life story that, well told, would make a movie.
The Incredible African Life of Frenchman Laurent Durris
Laurent Durris grew up in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. Laurent did not achieve, at school, the success that his parents, teachers, expected of him. He found himself trapped with a boat. While still in Abidjan, he started fishing.
He perfected his fishing skills, to the point that, later on, he aspired to better boats and seas full of fish.
Added to this was an inexplicable passion, visible in his childhood bedroom, decorated with countless images of islands of the world.
Faced with the obligation to earn a living, Laurent chose to be in the military. He remained in the French military for eleven years, a period in which several conditions dictated that he live in France.
By that time, Laurent's brother was in Guinea Bissau, already a fishing destination idolized by most French fishermen. Laurent joined him on a fishing and exploring retreat in the Bijagós. Everything went smoothly.
But when Laurent returned to France, he was suffering from a severe case of cerebral malaria. He was close to death, so much so that the doctors asked his family for permission to turn off the machines that were sustaining the coma he was in.
The family refused. Contrary to predictions, sixteen days later, Laurent woke up. He had severe motor damage, but he wasn't the vegetable the doctors said he would become. Intensive physiotherapy enabled him to recover fully.
Back to Life and the Arms of the Bijagós
Instead of rejecting Africa and Guinea Bissau, he embraced them and his dream. He left France.
He returned to his brother's company. Together, they guided life from the island of Bubaque, working as sailors and fishing guides for the Bijagós lodges.
On one occasion, they were hired by a team of scientists.
As they traveled through the archipelago, they came across Kéré. Laurent didn't appreciate Bubaque's more confused life beyond that.
He felt that this was the island of his dreams.
But Kéré was sacred.
In order to inhabit it, Laurent had to visit and ask permission from the irans (spirits), initially through a balobeiro, a kind of Guinean spiritual guide.
At first, his will proved short-lived. It became enough when he helped a woman with broken waters to give birth. The woman was the daughter of a chief of a village in Caravela.
This régulo acknowledged Laurent's help. He became so fond of French that he adopted him.
As a reward, he also helped him to obtain from Djamba, the competent balobeiro, permission from the irans to settle in Kéré.
This was followed by the also necessary legalization in Bissau.
Finally, Laurent was able to settle down on the island he dreamed of.
And invest in infrastructure and equipment, with a view to a lodge dedicated to fishing in Bijagós.
Laurent, Sónia and the Shared Life of Kéré Island
For her part, Sónia had been working for an NGO supporting Guinea Bissau for three years. She landed in Kéré and in Laurent's life as a mere client.
There they fell in love.
Laurent and Sónia decided to praise the opportunity that the Bijagós had given them.
Out of respect for the people who welcomed them, they underwent preparatory ceremonies. They were married according to the Bijagó tradition.
Experienced in the development of NGO projects, Sónia formed the perfect duo with Laurent.
Kéré didn't even have fresh water.
Even so, little by little, while raising Gabriela, their daughter, they equipped Kéré with the welcoming ecolodge that, in the busiest periods, employs more than forty Guineans, most of them of Bijagó ethnicity.
And that continued to amaze us.
The Arrival of the Great Supply Canoe
In mid-afternoon, with the tide ebbing again, the “starfish” an enormous and colorful pirogue, one of the many that cross the Bijagós, anchors in front of Kéré, in order to deliver to the island some of the provisions it needs.
Two or three young Bijagós, with the bodies of Spartan warriors, unload and roll barrels and jerricans up the beach.
They also leave a few fish caught along the way.
A "starfish” moves away towards Caravela.
Shortly afterwards, it stops at a strategic point on the channel, waiting for the rising tide to make the rest of the route viable.
We are heading in the same direction.
The Corner of the Island “of Laurent and Sónia”, but of All
To the north of the island where, amongst the baobab trees, Laurent and Sónia make their home.
Egrets and white-bellied crows give us away. Ospreys take off from their nests on a reconnaissance mission.
Chica walks, barefoot, on the laterite with the appearance of lava stone, which the sea hastily covered.
"Hi, how are you? Did you miss something” we ask her when we see her peering into the rocks and puddles. “
No, I'm looking for some snacks that are hidden around here”.
Kéré measures little more than two football fields.
It is still hard for us to believe that, in the beginning, sacred and unknown, it now shelters all that life.
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