How Amilcar Cabral Shaped Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy

Curry Malott

Frantz Fanon’s influence on Paulo Freire’s thought is well known, but the Brazilian educator also drew considerably from Amílcar Cabral, the revolutionary intellectual from Guinea-Bissau.

Amílcar L Cabral was born 12 September 1924 in Bafatá, Guinea-Bissau, one of Portugal’s African colonies. He was murdered on 20 January 1973 by fascist Portuguese assassins just months before the national liberation movement, in which he played a central role, won the independence of Guinea-Bissau.

Cabral and the other leaders of the movement understood that they were fighting in a larger anticolonial struggle and global class war and, as such, that their immediate enemies were not only the colonial governments of particular countries, but Portuguese colonialism in general. For 500 years, Portuguese colonialism was built upon the slave trade and the systematic pillaging of its African colonies: Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, São Tomé e Príncipe, Angola and Cape Verde.

Despite the worldwide focus on the struggle in Vietnam at the time, the inspiring dynamism of the campaign waged in Guinea-Bissau – together with the figure of Cabral – captured international attention. In the introduction to an early collection of Cabral’s writings and speeches, Basil Davidson described Cabral as someone who expressed a genuine “enduring interest in everyone and everything that came his way”.

As a result of his role as a national liberation movement leader for roughly 15 years, Cabral had become a widely influential theorist of decolonisation and non-deterministic, creatively applied re-Africanisation. World-renowned critical educator Paulo Freire, in a 1985 presentation about his experiences in liberated Guinea-Bissau as a sort of militant consultant, concludes that Cabral, along with Ché Guevara, represent “two of the greatest expressions of the 20th century”. Freire describes Cabral as “a very good Marxist, who undertook an African reading of Marx”. Cabral, for Freire, “fully lived the subjectivity of the struggle. For that reason, he theorised” as he led.

Although not fully acknowledged in the field of education, Cabral’s anticolonial theory and practice also sharpened and influenced the trajectory of Freire’s thought. Through the revolutionary process led by Cabral, Guinea-Bissau became a world leader in what could now be termed decolonial forms of education, which moved Freire deeply.

Cabral knew that the people must not only abstractly understand the interaction of forces behind the development of society, but they must forge an anticolonial practice that concretely, collectively and creatively see themselves as one of those forces.

Cabral knew that to defeat Portuguese colonialism in Guinea-Bissau, the liberation struggle could not merely reproduce the tactics of struggles from other contexts, like Cuba. Rather, every particular struggle has to base its tactics on an analysis of the specifics of its own context. For example, while acknowledging the value of the general principles Guevara outlined in his Guerrilla Warfare, Cabral commented that “nobody commits the error, in general, of blindly applying the experience of others to his own country. To determine the tactics for the struggle in our country, we had to take into account the geographical, historical, economic and social conditions of our own country.”

Cabral focused on the political developments required for building a united movement for national liberation. In his formulations, he argued that the armed struggle was intimately interconnected with the political struggle, which were both part of a larger cultural struggle.

Resistance, for Cabral, is also a cultural expression. What this means is that “as long as part of that people can have a cultural life, foreign domination cannot be sure of its perpetuation”. In this situation then, “at a given moment, depending on internal and external factors … cultural resistance … may take on new (political, economic, and armed) forms, in order … to contest foreign domination”. In practice, the still living indigenous cultures that led centuries of anticolonial resistance would organically merge with, and emerge from within, the political and national liberation and socialist movements.

In practice, Cabral promoted the development of the cultural life of the people. Cabral encouraged not only a more intensified military effort against the Portuguese, but a more intensified educational effort in liberated areas of Guinea-Bissau. Again, while the anticolonial movement and the educational process of decolonising knowledge are often falsely posed as distinct or even antagonistic, Cabral conceptualised them as dialectically interrelated:

“Create schools and spread education in all liberated areas. Select young people between 14 and 20, those who have at least completed their fourth year, for further training. Oppose without violence all prejudicial customs, the negative aspects of the beliefs and traditions of our people. Oblige every responsible and educated member of our party to work daily for the improvement of their cultural formation.”

A central part of developing this revolutionary consciousness was the process of re-Africanisation. This was not meant as a call to return to the past, but a way to reclaim self-determination and build a new future in the country.

“Oppose among the young, especially those over 20, the mania for leaving the country so as to study elsewhere, the blind ambition to acquire a degree, the complex of inferiority and the mistaken idea which leads to the belief that those who study or take courses will thereby become privileged in our country tomorrow.”

Cabral encouraged a pedagogy of patience and understanding as the correct approach to winning people over and strengthening the movement.

This is one reason why Freire describes Cabral as one of those “leaders always with the people, teaching and learning mutually in the liberation struggle”. As a pedagogue of the revolution, for Freire, Cabral’s “constant concern” was the “patient impatience with which he invariably gave himself to the political and ideological formation of militants”.

This commitment to the people’s cultural development as part of the wider struggle for liberation informed his educational work in the liberated zones. Freire writes that it also informed “the tenderness he showed when, before going into battle, he visited the children in the little schools, sharing in their games and always having just the right word to say to them. He called them the ‘flowers of our revolution’.”

As a pedagogue of the revolution Davidson refers to Cabral as “a supreme educator in the widest sense of the word”.

The importance of education was elevated to new heights by Cabral at every opportunity. It therefore made sense for the Commission on Education of the recently liberated Guinea-Bissau to invite the world’s leading expert on decolonial approaches to education, Freire, to participate in further developing their system of education.

Freire was part of a team from the Institute for Cultural Action of the Department of Education within the World Council of Churches. Their task was to help uproot the colonial residue that remained as a result of generations of colonial education designed to de-Africanise the people. Just as the capitalist model of education will have to be replaced or severely remade, the colonial model of education had to be dismantled and rebuilt anew.

“The inherited colonial education had as one if its principal objectives the de-Africanisation of nationals. It was discriminatory, mediocre and based on verbalism. It could not contribute anything to national reconstruction because it was not constituted for this purpose.”

The colonial model of education was designed to foster a sense of inferiority in the youth. Colonial education with predetermined outcomes seeks to dominate learners by treating them as if they were passive objects. Part of this process was negating the history, culture and languages of the people. In the most cynical and wicked way then colonial schooling sent the message that the history of the colonised really only began “with the civilising presence of the colonisers”.

In preparation for their visit Freire and his team studied Cabral’s works and learned as much as possible about the context. Reflecting on some of what he had learned from Cabral, despite never having met him, Freire offers the following:

“In Cabral, I learned a great many things … But I learned one thing that is a necessity for the progressive educator and for the revolutionary educator. I make a distinction between the two: For me, a progressive educator is one who works within the bourgeois classed society such as ours, and whose dream goes beyond just making schools better, which needs to be done. And goes beyond because what [they] dream of is the radical transformation of a bourgeois classed society into a socialist society. For me this is a progressive educator. Whereas a revolutionary educator, in my view, is one who already finds [themselves] situated at a much more advanced level both socially and historically within a society in process.”

For Freire, Cabral was certainly an advanced revolutionary educator. Rejecting predetermination and dogmatism, Freire’s team did not construct lesson plans or programmes before coming to Guinea-Bissau to be imposed upon the people.

Upon arrival Freire and his colleagues continued to listen and discuss learning from the people. Only by learning about the revolutionary government’s educational work could they assess it and make recommendations. Guidance, that is, cannot be offered outside of the concrete reality of the people and their struggle. Such knowledge cannot be known or constructed without the active participation of the learners as a collective.

Freire was aware that the education that was being created could not be done “mechanically”, but must be informed by “the plan for the society to be created”. Although Cabral had been assassinated, his writings and leadership had helped in the creation of a force with the political clarity needed to counter the resistance emerging from those who still carried the old ideology.

Through their process revolutionary leaders would encounter teachers “captured” by the old ideology who consciously worked to undermine the new decolonial practice. Others, however, also conscious that they are captured by the old ideology, nevertheless strive to free themselves of it. Cabral’s work on the need for the middle class, including teachers, to commit class suicide, was instructive. The middle class had two choices: betray the revolution or commit class suicide.

The work for a reconstituted system of education had already been underway during the war in liberated zones. The post-independence challenge was to improve upon all that had been accomplished in areas that had been liberated before the war’s end. In these liberated areas, Freire concluded, workers, organised through the party, “had taken the matter of education into their own hands” and created, “a work school, closely linked to production and dedicated to the political education of the learners”.

Describing the education in the liberated zones Freire says it “not only expressed the climate of solidarity induced by the struggle itself, but also deepened it. Incarnating the dramatic presence of the war, it both searched for the authentic past of the people and offered itself for their present”.

After the war the revolutionary government chose not to simply shut down the remaining colonial schools while a new system was being created. Rather, they “introduced … some fundamental reforms capable of accelerating … radical transformation”. For example, the curricula that was saturated in colonialist ideology was replaced. Students would therefore no longer learn history from the perspective of the colonisers. The history of the liberation struggle as told by the formerly colonised was a fundamental addition.

However, a revolutionary education is not content with simply replacing the content to be passively consumed. Rather, learners must have an opportunity to critically reflect on their own thought process in relation to the new ideas. For Freire, this is the path through which the passive objects of colonial indoctrination begin to become active subjects.

Freire and his team sought “to see what was really happening under the limited material conditions we knew existed”. The clear objective was therefore “to discover what could be done better under these conditions and, if this were not possible, to consider ways to improve the conditions themselves”.

What Freire and his team concluded was that “the learners and workers were engaged in an effort that was preponderantly creative” despite the many challenges and limited material resources. At the same time, they characterised “the most obvious errors” they observed as the result of “the impatience of some of the workers that led them to create the words instead of challenging the learners to do so for themselves”.

Freire’s work and practice have inspired what has become a worldwide critical pedagogy movement. Cabral is a centrally important, yet mostly unacknowledged, influence of this movement.I n the last prepared book before his death, subtitled Letters to Those who Dare Teach, Cabral’s influence on Freire seems to have remained central, as he insisted that “it is important to fight against the colonial traditions we bring with us”.