Militant History

Asher Gamedze

The article is a review of a recent book on the PAIGC education programme in the anticolonial movement for national liberation. The piece raises questions about what a militant approach to history might be.

When she gave me the book (to carry back for my friends), Sónia Vaz Borges, the author of the recently published Militant education, liberation struggle, consciousness: The PAIGC education in Guinea Bissau 1963-1978, described the book to me 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/she] lives,” (pp.104-105). Following this, is “militant history” just stories of militancy or militants; or is there another dimension? What does militant historical practice look like?

It was in the “Underground self-re-education centres in Lisbon” that many African students, studying in the metropolis were radicalised into PAIGC [African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde or Partido Africano para a Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde] cadres. In the clandestine study groups and political organisations, amongst 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 type of engagement was for the first time. Mario Pinto de Andrade, a founder of Centro de Estudos Africanos (Centre of African Studies), reflected on the work of the Centre:

“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,” (p.40).

de Andrade illuminates a certain militant historical practice. Their engagement was not only a reflection on situations of the past; it was the 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. Amilcar 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.

Speaking of Amilcar Cabral, 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, and/or wrote and gave speeches on behalf of the movements. The Black Consciousness Movement’s fixation on Steve Biko, and the Rainbow Nation’s obsession with Mandela are cases in point. 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 processes, and historical processes.

I am a self-confessed Amilcar Cabral fanatic. I think he was one of the greatest revolutionary thinkers of the 20th century and my own knowledge of the PAIGC and the revolution in Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde is very deeply shaped by Cabral’s writings and speeches collected in Return to the Source, Unity and Struggle,Our people are our Mountains, and others. This is probably not because of some nefarious, explicit plan to discredit and silence all other PAIGC thinkers (or other revolutionary thinkers more broadly), but it is part of the architecture of patriarchy and people’s imagination of what “leadership” looks like, the nature of the publishing industry, as well as the often-hierarchical lines along which revolutionary groups of the 20th century were organised. Having said all this, the book’s treatment of Amilcar Cabral is profound in that it seems to implicitly de-centre him, situating him in the collective PAGIC struggle rather than as the embodiment and manifestation of it – as many other accounts seem to. 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 here and there. But Borges very subtlety 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.

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 who Borges interviewed for the project – which emerged from her PhD – make up at least half of the word count. While this might be viewed with some scepticism from an “academic” perspective – “relying too heavily on the words of others” or being too lazy to paraphrase and make their words your own – I see it as a very radical intervention. Through this, Borges seems to play the role of a Freirian facilitator rather than an academic expert – insisting that knowledge is held collectively by individuals in the group, rather than being held exclusively by her or needing to pass through her to be validated or legitimated.

Understood as “walking archives”, the PAIGC militants, the freedom fighters, were the sources to which Borges returned in the attempt to uncover the silences produced and reproduced in PAIGC history. The pervasive silences are in part due to the limitations of the archetypal archives – some based in Portugal that “present a unfavourable picture of the PAIGC and their achievements,” and others in Guinea Bissau, fragmented and incomplete partly due to the destruction and mistreatment of PAIGC documents and archives in the Civil War.

Against silence, the sonic background of the conducted 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 “[c]hildren 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 collectivity and conversation feels present almost throughout the entire book as Borges samples sections from these interviews, chopping them up and interspersing them with her own interludes for context, introduction, or to link things together. The effect of this is to give the book a collective voice, turn it into a collective project.

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. And then 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: Evacuating students midday or hiding under desks because of bomb threats from colonial forces; cutting a pencil into three parts so everyone could write; searching the forest for a place hidden enough for a school; convincing parents to send their girl-children to class; and mobilising often reluctant community members to help build a school, these were just some of the challenges of trying to build and grow a free, happy and self-determined society through education in the midst of war. The PAIGC understood and believed deeply, and acted on their belief, that education (for militancy, not professionalisation) was the vanguard of the liberation struggle.

Mao 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, or certain knowledge at least, calls us to certain kinds of action in the world. What is that these histories of militancy 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? I think these are some of the questions this history asks us to respond to through action in and on the world.

Asher Gamedze is a cultural worker, working mainly through writing, music, and education.