The 12 traditional priestesses of Orango island gathered in their wide hut in a deserted clearing of ankle-deep vegetation, passing a bowl of orange palm nuts between them.
Like their grandmothers before them, the baloberas, as the priestesses are known, were using their spiritual powers to protect the forests in their part of the Bijagós archipelago in Guinea-Bissau. They were performing the secret opening ceremony for a thicket of palm trees that they had closed up in May.
There were also other religious forces at work that Sunday morning on Orango. At a tiny evangelical church around the corner, Satou Ca was leading the worship in a blue dress and wedge heels. “God is powerful. The devil is weak,” she sang. When her husband, Arlindo, arrived from the mainland in 2015 he became Orango’s first resident pastor.
Three of the 12 priestesses of Orango Island, after a traditional ceremony to determine whether it is time to harvest the palm fruit. (Ricci Shryock)
Generations of baloberas and traditional religious leaders have held sway for centuries in this unique archipelago of 88 islands off the coast of West Africa, and this is reflected in the breathtaking biodiversity they have worked to preserve, designating trees, beaches and whole islands as sacred and out of bounds.
Traditional Bijagó beliefs are now being challenged by an influx of Protestant, often Brazilian, missionaries who target the islands’ youth. Drawn away from their elders, sociologists and conservationists say the deep spiritual connections between the islands’ people and their environment are dying, putting the ecological future of the islands in danger.
“There is one great threat or risk: the installation of evangelical churches,” said Miguel de Barros, a sociologist, researcher and director of the environmental organisation Tiniguena, adding that pastors across the archipelago are encouraging building in sacred sites.
Star-shaped trunks of Ceiba petandra, or kapok trees, stretch up and tower over the islands. Every year, millions of migratory birds nest and 10 000 turtles lay their eggs there. They are home to rare saltwater hippos, and over 150 fish species.
“If you go to Scandinavia or Mauritania, people say their land is special, but ours really is,” said Honório Fernandes of the Boloma-Bijagós biosphere reserve.
While her husband prepared his sermon on John’s banishment to the Greek island of Patmos, Satou sang call-and-response hymns to attract her congregation.
Most adult Orangans ignored her efforts, standing under the trees chatting, but after half an hour some children, a gaggle of teenagers and a few older women had trickled into the green-painted church.
Worshippers sing at the Evangelical Church of Orango in the village of Eticogoa. (Ricci Shryock)
When Arlindo Ca arrived, young, an outsider and bent on stopping people’s drinking, dancing and domestic violence, he made enemies quickly.
“Traditional religion had much more power,” Ca said on his porch after the service. “I’m preaching and going door to door to try to get them back.”
His congregation swelled from 10 to 60 in three years; as well as the youth, he had converted one old woman from whom he had exorcised an evil spirit. He had his sights on bigger prizes: the baloberas.
“Some people say don’t bother with the priestesses, they have their hearts full of Satan. I say let them come. It’s my job to bring them to Christ.”
Children play at a school built by the Baptist Church on Bubaque Island in Guinea-Bissau. (Ricci Shryock)
It would be near-impossible for Ca to meet them on their turf, though: no man could go near their hut, not even the great-grandson of Okin ka Pampa, Orango’s legendary heroine who negotiated with the Portuguese for her people’s safety in the early 1900s.
Pampa’s descendent Augusto Pereira, now the traditional chief, was worried about the island’s future if the pastor was too successful.
“We’re losing hold of some of our secrets,” he said, sitting on his woven throne, a ceremonial spear to hand. “More and more people are converting, and are finished with traditional practices. Our religion protects our environment. Bijagós live in nature. If we don’t protect it, life will be worth nothing.”
Traditional Bijagó beliefs are now being challenged by an influx of Protestant missionaries who target the islands’ youth. (Ricci Shryock)
Hotels and overfishing pose grave threats to the archipelago’s unique biosphere and Bijagó culture. But environmental experts say evangelical churches are the greatest menace, their “aggressive recruitment” contrasting with their Catholic and Muslim predecessors, their popularity growing because of the educational, medical and material support they provide as well as their preaching.
They encourage people to explore sacred forests, de Barros said, and promote an “income economy and a competitive system against the model of generational and community solidarity”, as well as the privatisation of common land.
During fanado, the secret traditional initiation rites where young Bijagós spend months living in the forest, elders pass environmental knowledge to the next generation.
But with the proliferation of churches – and mosques – across the islands, people are abandoning fanado, Fernandes said. “It’s bad for our culture. Rather than spending three or four months in the forest learning their secrets, people learn that God exists, and he protects everyone.”
A traditional fetish threshold on Orango Island. (Ricci Shryock)
Until recently an “ultra- minority”, Protestants are multiplying in Guinea-Bissau, while those following traditional religion dropped from 60% of the population to 15% between 1979 and 2009, when the most recent census was done.
Orango’s pastor is so new partly because of its remoteness. Bubaque, an island with better connections to the mainland, has had a church since the 1940s.
Pastor Jorge Ocosobo, a Baptist missionary, said his British and Dutch predecessors on Bubaque had condemned fetishes, raffia skirts and drums as evil.
Ocosobo picks his battles: he tries to persuade islanders that animal sacrifices are a waste of money, and preaches against flagellation and statue-worship. But some things are useful for evangelising – like drums.
“What is good from traditional religion, we keep.”
On Ocosobo’s office wall was a mural map of the islands painted seven years ago, 11 with a church missionary presence marked with a cross. At least another five crosses are due to be painted in.
Being originally from the Bijagós, Ocosobo knew how important the islands’ flora and fauna were in local beliefs.
“Religion doesn’t exist without nature here,” he said. “Churches respect sacred spaces scrupulously. We can’t cut the trees down.”
But later, he described an occasion on which his church did just that, cutting down an old baobab that locals thought was inhabited by a devil, to build a school there.
A graduation celebration at a local Catholic School on Bubaque Island. (Ricci Shryock)
“When we cut it down, there was nothing there. People were gathering round it, thinking the devil would come out.”
Now, he said, others are happy to build on land that, before the devil-baobab incident, was feared and left “wild”.
Elders designate big, old kapok trees as “sacred” in order to protect them, knowing it’s not true, said Fernandes, and pastors cut them down to demonstrate God’s strength.
“Nothing will happen, but the pastor knows it will bring him respect.”
Young boys pick fruit off trees on Orango Island. Trees are considered sacred in traditional Bijagos religion. (Ricci Shryock)
Guinean ecologists have been trying to get the Bijagós Unesco World Heritage status for years, but have not succeeded, partly because of concerns about protection and whether the cultural criteria are satisfied.
Ocosobo related what happened six years ago when they tried to build a church on land given to them by the state, which traditional priests said was sacred land.
“The traditional priests said: ‘The first one to build the church will die.’ But in fact it was the traditional priest who led the resistance to the church who got sick and died.
“The trouble stopped. I’m not saying we killed him – but maybe our god is stronger than theirs.”
Additional reporting by Allen Embalo
This feature was originally published as part of The Guardian’s Global Development project.