Book Review | Guinea Bissau’s militant educators

In a radical new book, Sónia Vaz Borges centres the voices of the men and women who contributed to the revolution, giving us a collective sense of history.

Sónia Vaz Borges, the author of the recently published Militant Education, Liberation Struggle, Consciousness: The PAIGC Education in Guinea Bissau 1963-1978, describes the book as “history, or, more like militant history”. Because somehow “history” is not enough.

One description of a militant used by Borges in her book is “the person who struggles to defend an idea or an ideology, with the will to change the society where [he or she] lives.” Following this, is “militant history” just stories of militance or militants or is there another dimension? How does militant historical practice look?

It was in the “underground self re-education centres in Lisbon” that many African students studying in the metropolis were radicalised into African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) cadres. In the clandestine study groups and political organisations, among other things, the students confronted and explored history on their own terms. For many petty bourgeois students, largely alienated from indigenous cultures due to their position in the assimilation pipeline, this was the first engagement of this type.

Historical practice

Mario Pinto de Andrade, a founder of the Centro de Estudos Africanos (Centre of African Studies), reflected on the centre’s work: “It took us to our culture. It made us think about our problems and then it would open political perspectives. It was not a pure reflection over African situations of the past, but it plunged us directly in the real, the real in movement. Various topics flowed directly into the social reality in our lives and the need to act.”

De Andrade illuminates a certain militant historical practice. Their engagement was not only a reflection on situations of the past, it was a reflection on history in the political context of the present. Studying those histories called them to something in the present: the “need to act”. In other words, there was a responsibility associated with studying those histories. Amílcar Cabral might have called that the responsibility of a colonised people to re-enter history. Or the responsibility to struggle for the conditions that would allow their people to re-enter history, on their own terms, to determine their own future.

The collective past

This raises a central issue with writing liberation struggle histories. Popular knowledge and recollection of various movements and organisations tends to be centred on one or a few individuals, usually men, and usually those who occupied leadership positions or those who wrote and gave speeches on behalf of the movements. Think of the black consciousness movement’s fixation on Steve Biko or the rainbow nation’s obsession with Nelson Mandela. The problem with these big-men narratives, regardless of whether we adhere to their political ideas or not, is that they obscure the fact that these people were part of collective and historical processes.

Cabral is one of the greatest revolutionary thinkers of the 20th century, whose writing and speeches collected in Our People are Our Mountains (1972), Return to the Source (1973), Unity and Struggle (1979) and other seminal works shaped how we think about the PAIGC and the revolution in Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde. This is not because of some nefarious plan to discredit and silence all other PAIGC thinkers. Rather, it is part of the architecture of patriarchy and of how people imagine “leadership” looks, the nature of the publishing industry, as well as the often-hierarchical lines along which revolutionary groups were organised.

Militant Education, Liberation Struggle, Consciousness implicitly de-centres Cabral, situating him in the collective PAGIC struggle rather than as the embodiment and manifestation of it. The book doesn’t ignore him and pretend that he wasn’t important. He pops up frequently in the words and recollections of other militants, and some of his speeches are quoted. But Borges very subtly does major work to socialise and collectivise the history of the liberation struggle in Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde. This is one of the great achievements of the book.

The sound of living histories

One of the methods by which this is achieved is the extensive foregrounding of ex-PAIGC militants’ recollections, perspectives and stories. In some of the chapters, the words of these people make up at least half of the word count. While this might be viewed with some scepticism from an academic perspective, it is as a radical intervention. Through this, Borges plays the role of a Freirian facilitator rather than an academic expert, insisting individuals in the group hold knowledge collectively.

Understood as walking archives, the PAIGC militants or freedom fighters were the sources to which Borges returned in her attempt to uncover the silences produced and reproduced in PAIGC history. These pervasive lacunae are in part due to the limitations of the archetypal archives – some based in Portugal – which “present an unfavourable picture of the PAIGC and their achievements”. Others in Guinea Bissau are fragmented and incomplete, partly due to the destruction and mistreatment of PAIGC documents and archives during the civil war.

Against this silence, the sonic background of the interviews was “the clatter of dishes in the kitchen, cars passing in the street, phones ringing and birds chirping”. Chosen by the interviewees, the venues for conversation were sites of everyday social life – home or work spaces, where “children running outside or playing on the living room floor stopped to listen to their grandparents’ past experiences while neighbours passing by decided to stay for a while, hear the story, and perhaps raise a question”.

This mode of conversation feels present almost throughout the book as Borges samples sections from these interviews, chopping them up and interspersing them with her own interludes for context, to introduce topics or to link narratives. The effect of this is to give the book a composite voice, turning it into a collective project.

Education towards action

In the sampled stories, the historical process emerges through which individuals became militants and were recruited into the collective project of national liberation. Tracing militants’ formal educational experiences from childhood to tertiary education – after which many of them became enlisted by the PAIGC as teachers (who were understood as the “frontline of struggle, the vanguard”) – also reveals how the process of class suicide was organised and facilitated by the party. Militants who had done the teacher training – often recent university graduates whose “proper trajectory” would have to become professionals or work jobs in the colonial administration – were sent to the liberated zones of the country to organise with communities to build and start schools. They were then supposed to teach at those schools and facilitate the development of militant students who were aware of the region’s history, anti-colonial war, the work of the PAIGC and the project of building a new society after defeating Portuguese colonialism.

Conditions under which these militants worked and taught for the revolution were tough. They often had to evacuate students or hide under desks because of bomb threats from colonial forces. Pencils were cut into three parts so everyone could write. Forests were searched for a place hidden enough for a school. Parents had to be convinced to send their girl children to classes and reluctant community members had to be mobilised to help build a school. These were just some of the challenges of building and growing a free, happy and self-determined society through education in the midst of war. The PAIGC understood and believed deeply, and acted on this belief, that education (for militance, not professionalisation) was the vanguard of the liberation struggle.

Mao Zedong said that to be a materialist means to participate in the struggle to change reality. In our historical moment, materialism seems to have been captured by “left” academics and the university project, such that it exists and is understood primarily as a lens or a mode of interpretation. What Mao reminds us is that it is also a political tradition, a mode of action in and on the world. Knowledge calls us to certain kinds of action in the world. What is that these histories of militance call us to be or do today? Where is the liberated zone? How do we create and sustain it and extend the project of the PAIGC’s militant teachers? These are some of the questions this history elicits, compelling us to take action both in and on the world.

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