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Sónia Vaz Borges, Militant Education, Liberation Struggle, Consciousness. The PAIGC Education in Guinea Bissau 1963-1978

Berlin, Peter Lang, 2019, ISBN 9783631719428.
Branwen Gruffydd Jones
p. 133-136
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Sónia Vaz Borges, Militant Education, Liberation Struggle, Consciousness. The PAIGC Education in Guinea Bissau 1963-1978, Berlin, Peter Lang, 2019, ISBN 9783631719428.

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1Movements in Africa and Europe led by students and youth are calling for decolonisation of the university, decolonisation of the curriculum. Two of the most widely known earlier works addressing such questions are Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind (1986) and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1972). Probably far less widely known is the actual project of decolonising minds, institutions and curriculums constructed by the PAIGC in the liberated areas and neighbouring countries during Guinea Bissau’s war of national liberation. At the time PAIGC’s project attracted journalists and researchers such as the Swedish scholars Birgitta Dahl, Knut Andreasson and Lars Rudebeck, whose studies remained for many years the only detailed accounts of these experiences. In this book Sónia Vaz Borges makes a major contribution to our knowledge of Guinea Bissau’s liberation struggle and the PAIGC project of militant education, and to contemporary debates about decolonising the content and practice of education in Africa and Europe.

2Borges contributes to the extensive scholarship on Guinea Bissau’s liberation struggle through her focus on the project of education in the context of the liberation war, but also through her attention to the ‘individual experiences and the collective work’ (p. 16) of the struggle. Borges’ research in archives in Lisbon, Praia, Bissau, Uppsala and Berlin is complemented by interviews with a wide range of people directly involved in PAIGC’s liberation war and education project. She describes these complementary sources as a combination of written and walking archives. The concept of ‘walking archive’ ‘refers to a collection of memories that is not fixed in one place or house and whose information is not constant or fixed in time, but whose contents are brought to life by the questions and curiosity of those who are interested in accessing them’ (p. 20). This compelling notion, inspired by the militants’ characterisation of the experience of the liberation war as ‘a struggle made of walking and marching, a constant walking’ (p. 19), also entails a sense of the researcher as committed and engaged rather than neutral or detached.

3Borges develops the concept and practice of militant education by examining several dimensions across four chapters: the character of colonial education and the process of developing a political and anti-colonial consciousness; the work of constructing a network of schools in the context of liberation war; the content and praxis of militant education; and the broader and subsequent coordinates of this project, in other contexts across Africa especially Angola and Mozambique, and beyond the moment of independence. The analysis is constructed through an intricate weaving and interpolation across oral testimonies, archival documents, drawings, photographs, and secondary and theoretical literature.

4The book’s method of narration centres on a rich engagement with interviews. This provides strongly textured analytical insight into Portuguese colonialism and the liberation struggle in a way which mirrors Amílcar Cabral’s own approach to consciousness raising. In an interview in Khartoum in 1969 Cabral explained how PAIGC militants would engage first in practical discussion with their fellow Guineans in rural areas: ‘We had to find appropriate formulae for mobilizing our peasants, instead of using terms that our people could not yet understand. We could never mobilize our people simply on the basis of the struggle against colonialism – that has no effect. To speak of the fight against imperialism is not convincing enough. Instead, we use a direct language that all can understand.’ (Cabral 1969, cited p. 57). In a manner which echoes Cabral’s approach, Borges moves from the richness of direct detail and description, as recounted by Guineans and Cape Verdeans and reconstructed from PAIGC reports, to conceptual or theoretical analysis. The analysis and argument of the book is amply supported by theoretical insight – by Mudimbe’s characterisation of colonialism as a process of reorganising non-European societies into European constructs through domination of physical space, incorporation into the European economic structure and ‘the reformation of natives’ minds’ (Mudimbe 1988, 2); by bell hooks’ characterisation of the work of teaching as a performative act and the teacher as a catalyst calling on students to become active and engaged participants (hooks 1994) – but the central substance of analysis is elaborated through the words and experiences of the militants Borges interviewed. In this way the distinction between the ‘theoretical’ and ‘empirical’ is transcended as conceptual insight emerges from the texture and detail of the written and walking archives. For example the second chapter provides detailed accounts of the construction of schools within Guinea and in neighbouring Guinea-Conakry and Senegal. A network of schools were established close to villages, while at a greater distance from the villages were boarding schools or semi-boarding schools. The schools were built with basic materials in the forest and designed to be itinerant – to be dismantled and moved in case of bombing raids. One such boarding school, Internato Aerolino Lopes Cruz, moved a total of ten times because of air raids. This radical and extraordinary practice of forest education in the context of war is reconstructed through personal memories, archival reports and photographs. Borges concludes by noting the impossibility of locating these schools on a map. She analyses this not simply as a lack of information, a gap in the archive, but as a clash between almost incommensurable epistemologies and politics of place: ‘This difficulty is intrinsically connected with how maps are made, and who had made them and their purpose… we are dealing with two different maps. On one hand we have the Portuguese colonial map’, the Map of the Province of Guinea of 1961; on the other hand ‘the cognitive map of the local population with completely different location names, roads, regions, only understandable by those who share this similar cognitive map and interpretation of the territory’ (pp. 93-4).

5Having documented PAIGC’s extraordinary achievements of education in the liberated zones in terms of the number and range of schools established, in chapter three Borges focuses on the content of the education. Through conceptual reflection on the notion of militant education, and detailed accounts of the design and organisation of schools, relations between teachers and students, the training of teachers and the collaborative design of new textbooks, Borges gives shape to the PAIGC vision of the role of education in the liberation struggle. One vital element of this was the production of new teaching materials. Well before the publication of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s seminal Decolonising the Mind the PAIGC teachers and directors of education gave substantial attention to constructing school textbooks in which African children would recognise themselves and their worlds. The teachers and militants who worked on the new school manuals had experienced in the Portuguese colonial system a ‘complete absence in a positive and dignified form of images and daily activities that they could relate with’ (p. 143). They therefore designed manuals with stories such as ‘life in the village’ and illustrations depicting African clothing, hair styles, domestic utensils, plants and animals. Until that point the little education that had been available in Guinea had been based solely on the Portuguese and European experience. Though only one element of a much broader project, the design and production of these school manuals must be acknowledged as a historically radical and pioneering achievement.

6Much recent scholarship has started to foreground the global and transnational dimensions of anticolonial struggles including the liberation war of Guinea Bissau (Lopes and Barros 2019). The significance and role of international support for the PAIGC struggle, while not the central focus, is brought to life in the detail. We learn for example that it was Swedish psychologists, pedagogues and printers who assisted in finalising and printing the first PAIGC school manuals in colour, and that other school texts were produced in Conakry using mimeograph machines provided by the USSR.

7This is a committed but not uncritical work. Borges is not afraid to address limitations and failures of the educational project, inevitable gaps between vision and practice, and occasional cruelties that took place in the context of war. The final chapter reveals that, no matter how great the challenges of building education in the context of liberation war, the challenges after independence of constructing a new mode of education in Guinea Bissau, Mozambique and Angola suitable for the ‘task of building new liberated societies’ (p. 168) would prove even greater. In their collection on the militant image Ros Gray and Kodwo Eshun (2011) reflect on the politics of exploring archives of the radical anticolonial struggles and practices of the 1960s and 70s. They caution against looking back from our own times to earlier anticolonial and socialist visions and struggles with what E. P. Thomson called ‘the condescension of posterity’ (Thompson 1963). It is the centrality of the oral testimonies of militants as well as her intellectual sensibility which enables Borges to avoid such a trap. The memories, feelings, experiences and details contained in these interviews bring alive what some today might otherwise see as a utopian and outdated vision of the teacher as the vanguard of liberation and social transformation.

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Eshun, K. & Gray, R. 2011, “The Militant Image: A Ciné-Geography”, Third Text 25/1: 1-12.

Freire, P. 1972, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Harmondsworth: Penguin, first published in Portuguese in 1968. hooks, b., 1994, Teaching to Transgress. Education as the Practice of Freedom, New York, Routledge.

Lopes, R. & Barros, V. 2019, “Amílcar Cabral and the Liberation of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde: International, Transnational, and Global Dimensions”, International History Review, DOI:10.1080/07075332.2019.1703118.

Mudimbe, V. Y., 1988, The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy and the Order of Knowledge, Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indianan University Press.

Thompson, E. P. 1963, The Making of the English Working Class, London, Victor Gollancz. wa Thiong’o, N. 1986, Decolonising the Mind, Nairobi, Heinemann.

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Branwen Gruffydd Jones, « Sónia Vaz Borges, Militant Education, Liberation Struggle, Consciousness. The PAIGC Education in Guinea Bissau 1963-1978 »Lusotopie, XIX(1) | 2020, 133-136.

Référence électronique

Branwen Gruffydd Jones, « Sónia Vaz Borges, Militant Education, Liberation Struggle, Consciousness. The PAIGC Education in Guinea Bissau 1963-1978 »Lusotopie [En ligne], XIX(1) | 2020, mis en ligne le 02 janvier 2022, consulté le 07 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Branwen Gruffydd Jones

School of Law and Politics, Cardiff University

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