The Baga people are a West African ethnic group who live in the southern swampy lands of Guinea Atlantic coastline. Traditionally Animist through the pre-colonial times, they converted to Islam during the colonial era, and some continue to practice their traditional rituals.
Typically rural and known for the agricultural successes particularly with rice farming, the Baga people speak a language of the Atlantic branch of the Niger-Congo family. They are also known for their historic animist artworks, which are on display for their beauty and sophistication at many major museums of the world. After independence, a totalitarian Islamic-Marxist government took over Guinea in 1958, whose forced seizure and program of "demystification" till 1984 destroyed the ritual arts of the Baga people.
The Baga people include a number of tribes that share cultural characteristics. The subgroups include the Mandori, the Sitemu, the Pukur, the Bulunits, the Kakissa (or Sobané), the Koba, and the Kalum. They are also closely related to the inland Landuma, to the Nalu of Guinea-Bissau and to the Temne of Sierra Leone with whom they share linguistical roots.
The name Baga is derived from the Susu phrase bae raka, “people of the seaside.”
They speak the Baga languages, but many also speak the Mande language Susu because it has been the regional trade language. The Baga language exists in many dialects, and some of these have become extinct.
According to Baga oral tradition, the Baga originated in Guinea's interior highlands and were driven by aggressive neighbors westward to the coastal swamplands. Nevertheless they are considered "first-comers" along the many areas of the Upper Guinea coast, and accrued landlords rights in consequence of this. Here they constituted an acephalous society comprising a series of autonomous communities.
From the sixteenth century the development of Portuguese trade routes extending down from further north reached the region, which had simultaneously attracted trade routes from the hinterland. The Baga people, principally involved in the cultivation of rice and kola nut, and the production of salt, were a source for supplies to these traders. This new economic activity attracted new settlers to the area and led to the transformation of the society. Portuguese settlers, primarily Lancados, integrated into the evolving multi-ethnic society by marrying the daughters of Baga chiefs, some coming to assume the role of political leaders and establishing ruling dynasties. Thus for example there arose the Gomez and Fernandez Dynasties, and with them the start of the colonial era influence.
In the eighteenth century, the Fula people created an Islamic theocracy from Fouta Djallon, thereafter began slave raids as a part of Jihad that impacted many West African ethnic groups including the Baga people. In particular, states Ismail Rashid, the Jihad effort of Fulani elites starting in the 1720s theologically justified enslavement of the non-Islamic people and also led to successful conversion of previously animist peoples to Islam.
The demand for slaves in colonial plantations made the slave trade economically lucrative. The Atlantic coasts of Guinea became attractive for English and American traders, generally involved in the slave trade. During this period the Susu people also migrated into the area where Baga people lived, and established dominance in land-based trade in cooperation with the Imamate of Futa Jallon. The Futa stationed a santigi in Bara to collect taxes and pay tribute to the Imams.
In the late 19th century, Guinea became a French colony which impacted all ethnic groups of Guinea including the Baga people. After Guinea's independence in 1958, the Islamic-Marxist Government adopted Islam as the state religion, then implemented the policy of "forced demystification" of its population, confiscated and destroyed all Baga traditional religious icons and outlawed non-Muslim religious practices. Only after the death of Sekou Toure in 1984 did Baga culture began to reemerge as an affirmation of tribal identity.
The Baga people, particularly their women, are known for their skills in rice farming in the swampy lowlands of southern Ghana coastline. The men are typically fishermen who also tend palm and kola trees. The joint family is lineage-based, and patrilineal authority rests with the male elders of these kin groups. The elders constitute a village council, but Guinea's nationalization of land and property with socialist laws in mid 20th-century ended the effective power of the Baga elders. Most families live in clusters of cylindrical mud structures with thatched roofs made from rice straws, and these clusters are sometimes grouped to form small villages.
The Baga people historically refused to convert to Islam and retained their animist beliefs. During the colonial slave trading period of West Africa, almost all Baga people converted to Islam. Now predominantly Muslim, they continue to practice animist rituals. For example, they ritually expose their dead for a period of time in a sacred grove, burn some of the possessions and the house of the dead person, before the Muslim style burial.
The Baga people are known for their rich history in arts, particularly with wood and metal. These include the mask called Nimba, an icon for the goddess of fertility and the largest known masks ever produced in Africa. They also carved Elek symbols as guardian symbols and for coding their Simo society secret lineage into it. Various utilitarian arts included similar encoding of spiritual themes. Another mask called Bansonyi the Baga used to make was a painted pole (some were 20 feet long), colorfully decorated, ending in a calico flag and a triangular icon. The Bansonyi was used in male initiation ceremonies. After the systematic destruction over the 30 period rule of Islamic-Marxist government, this art is nearly extinct.