The Walking Archives – Recovering the stories of the history of the national liberation struggle of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC)

Sónia Vaz Borges

Sónia Vaz Borges is a militant interdisciplinary historian and social-political organizer. She received her PhD in Philosophy from the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (HU). She is the author of the book Militant Education, Liberation Struggle, Consciousness: The PAIGC education in Guinea Bissau 1963–1978 (2019). Along with filmmaker Filipa César, Vaz Borges co-authored the short films Navigating the Pilot School (2016) and Skola di Tarafe (2021). She is currently a research assistant at the HU in the History of Education Department and is working on education and liberation struggles with focus on Mozambique and Nicaragua. Parallel to this, Vaz Borges is also developing a book proposal focused on her concept of the “walking archive” and the process of memory and imaginaries.

PAIGC Armed Militants Walking in Guinea Bissau circa 1972.
Photo: Lars Rudebeck

The liberation struggle: between imaginaries and realities

In my family, stories about Cape Verde have always been present in everyday life. Stories about childhoods in Cape Verde, about relatives and their adventures, about work in agriculture and the rainy and dry seasons, stories of travels in the territory as well as of emigration, about traditional cultural rituals, everyday people and religious figures and their mischief, with the names of streets, mountains and roads mentioned here and there. All these stories built my imaginary, of the life and the quotidian on the island of Santiago.

Among the various stories that were told to me, or that I would secretly listen to, one always stood out: the story of a very important man in our history who one day appeared in the Santa Catarina market. On that day, the International and State Defence Police (PIDE) had surrounded the building and closed all the exits, not letting anyone enter or leave the market without being identified. As the day went by, people were leaving and by the end of the day, the market already empty, the person the police were looking for was still nowhere to be found. All they found was a name written on a banana peel. The name, that was Amilcar Cabral. The story was told to my mother by my grandfather, a policeman in Santa Catarina who witnessed this whole event. This is how, first with the name and much later with the History of the PAIGC, I began to develop my imaginary about the liberation struggle and its daily life.

This imaginary developed without many bodies and faces, a romanticized imaginary, of a place where I only knew the names of the places, the official facts and writings of the little that is told in textbooks, archival research, documentaries, and written books. My curiosity to better understand this imaginary, to deconstruct or refine it, made me think of questions and other curiosities about the daily life of the struggle.

It was with some of these questions in mind that I ventured into a doctoral project, to understand the educational everyday life of a liberation struggle and to learn about the bodies and faces of that former everyday life.

The officialization of history through books and commemorations tends to omit from its documents an entire archive of individual and collective sacrifices, as well as the suffering and the physical, psychological, and emotional joys and pain that remain alive long after. The Walking Archives are, then, the bearers of these narratives. To this extent, it is important to define the liberation struggle in a less reductionist form, as a process that goes beyond the struggle for national independence against a colonialist policy. It is necessary to incorporate into this narrative of the struggle the experiences of an entire anonymous collective, which joined it over a period of 11 years and continues to fight for its ideals to this day, “people who sacrificed a lot producing for guerrillas, receiving us in their tabanca, protecting us against the adversary, and especially providing food and everything they could give so that the struggle would succeed” (André Corsino Tolentino, Praia, August 21, 2013).

The history, or versions of history, that is made known to us through the voice of the Walking Archives is never told in the same way, in the same words, in the same space and to the same person. The memories they transmit and express to us are dynamic in their various forms, being triggered differently and with a constant change of intonation or words due to the environments and contexts in which they are told and the people to whom they are told.

The national liberation struggle (…) is not what it immediately appears to be, a gentleman or a lady grabbing a rifle, taking ammunition, possibly food on the way, and going out there shooting at the enemy. A fight is always very expensive. It’s expensive in lives, it’s expensive in health, especially for people who are crippled for life, it’s expensive in the sense that there are family members who are completely unprotected because they’ve lost their loved ones or because they’ve lost their health and their arm or their leg. People need to know that any liberation struggle is a collection of victories and suffering, and sometimes the two things are in the same person, or the same family, or the same group.

(André Corsino Tolentino, Praia, August 21, 2013)

Memories and daily life of a walking archive

In June 2014 I visited Guinea-Bissau for the first time. The aim was to continue the conversations with the Wandering Archives about the liberation struggle and their lives, a process that I had started in Cape Verde in 2013. In addition, I imagined finding a previously undiscovered document about the liberation struggle. It was in this state of excitement that I found myself in front of the National Institute of Studies and Research (INEP) hoping to find a pioneering document on education during the liberation struggle. Created in 1984, this institution houses in its archives the National Historical Archive (AHN) of the Republic of Guinea-Bissau. Papis Sedjou Touré, responsible for managing the archive, was my first contact.

After a brief presentation, and after I was told about the main problems facing the archive, among them the lack of equipment, the lack of trained staff, and the lack of working and research conditions that so many employees and researchers faced, Papis Touré took me to the main room of the archive. A dark storage-room, with several shelves lined up, with several bundles of brown paper waiting for financial and human resources to be catalogued, scanned, and made available to researchers.

The documents in the archive were mostly documentation produced in Guinea-Bissau during the colonial period. When, on a second visit, I asked Papis Touré where the documents referring to the liberation struggle were, he could only show me a 25x34x26 cm box, and said “This is all we have.” In a state of shock, I swallowed dryly what Papis had just said. The history of the liberation of the country in a single, simple box, unregistered and undated.

When I returned the next day to further check the contents of the box, Papis asked me about my research. In a pleasant conversation under the shade of a tree in one of the courtyards of the archive, I talked about the research I had in mind, as well as the questions that had led me to Guinea-Bissau, and also about my disappointment with the box he had shown me. I also talked about the Pilot School in Conakry, the schools and boarding schools in the liberated zones, and the textbooks. I commented on my stay in Cape Verde and with whom I had spoken, but I also vented my frustration about the fact that I had the opportunity to speak with very few students and teachers from the liberated zones.

At this, Papis Touré replies, “I was a student in the liberated zones and at the Abel Djassi Military Boarding School in Madina do Boé. All my school was done in the PAIGC schools in the liberated zones.” Equipped with a tape recorder and a notebook I started my conversation and the discovery of Papis Touré’s memories and his history and participation in the liberation struggle.

Papis Sedjou Touré was born in the administrative post of Farim, grandson of Senegalese Marabou and son of Papis Mamadi Touré and Bobo Maria Mansebo, having “two birth days”. Indeed, his date of birth remained an unknown throughout our conversation, the only thing recorded was that his actual date of birth was not the one indicated in the identification provided by the liberation struggle.

Papis did not have the opportunity to attend school, because at that time, in 1963, he recalls, it was very difficult to leave the liberated zones because of the danger of attacks. It was his brother Madi Touré, stationed in the Canjambare tent as a platoon commander, who began to teach him the first letters during his visits to the tabanca. Papis later became responsible for taking care of this brother, who lost a leg after a mine exploded.

Put in charge of his brother’s care, Papis began his school life more effectively while accompanying him at the PAIGC Lar (Center) in Zinguinchor (Senegal). From his life as a student, Papis recalls his time at the Kundara Lar (Center) in Boké (Guinea Conakry), where the group of 24 children and six teachers stayed for a few months until returning to Madina do Boé (Guinea Bissau), where the Abel Djassi Military Boarding School was set up. Papis attended the Military Boarding School until independence, when the school was dismantled and transferred to the northern part of the territory in the Campada region, where he continued his studies.

On the trip from the south to the north, Papis remembers that, due to an error in the driver’s interpretation of the route, the column almost ran into the Portuguese barracks in Lumé, in the Cossé area. This error forced the entire column to take the opposite route to Badunlengo and spend the night sleeping by the river.

From life at the boarding school, Papis also recalls the military training received over an entire weekend and given by the military instructor Joni, who had belonged to the former colonial command. He also remembers when there was a shortage of rice reserves at the boarding school, because some teachers and military personnel decided to exchange the rice for wine. The shortage led to a meeting of students to highlight the problems of the school, which led to the transfer of some teachers to the Political-Military Training Center (CIPM) in Madina do Boé, and from there to the front line. Papis recalls the day when PAIGC militants visited the boarding school along with journalists and filmed the entire school and the straw barracks where they lived, as well as traditional cultural work activities and plays performed by the students.

Among these and other school activities, Papis recalls being one of the students selected to join, with military personnel and other older students, a mission column whose destination was the warehouse of a Homem Grande named Alfan on the Guinea-Conakry border in order to bring essential goods for the boarding school, including boxes of cassava, sardines, milk, and medicine.

Papis shared also some comical stories. Among them he highlights the time when the Portuguese troops thought they had identified the boarding school after noticing some movements in the foliage during a reconnaissance flight. So, they mounted a bombing operation and announced on the radio the attack and the destruction of the boarding school. However, this was not what happened, and the movement in the foliage was nothing more than a group of monkeys. The news heard on the radio prompted the students to go to that area to retrieve the remains of the monkeys, which served as a meal at the boarding school. But Papis also recalls a bombing at night, when students and teachers were forced to leave the boarding school and take refuge under a valley of rocks at the risk of being bitten by snakes.

Of the teachers, Papis remembers with special affection Mário Ribeiro, from whom he learned to read and write thanks to a teaching method developed in loco by the teacher himself. He also remembers with special affection the Militant Education and history classes, affirming even today that if by chance one day he were called for a written test in these two subjects, he would get the best grade.

In 1971, the boarding school was moved to the North of the country, to the Campada region. After independence, the boarding school moved to a former colonial military barracks, located on the border line with Senegal. Of his memories of the struggle, the most striking was the death of Amilcar Cabral and the doubts and uncertainties about continuing the struggle. But, according to Papis, he interpreted the continuation of the struggle starting from the sayings of the tradition of the old Mandinka, who used to say “Si matcho ka morri, matcho ka ta ten.”

The story of Papis Touré in the liberation struggle intersects with the story of Segunda Lopes. It was at the end of the interview with Papis that he mentioned the importance of also contacting the teacher in the liberated zones and director of the Abel Djassi Military Boarding School, who lived in Bissau, in the Bairro dos Antigos Combatentes, on the way to Antula.

The first contact with Segunda Lopes came as a surprise. After a trip to the Bairro dos Antigos Combatentes by bus, I kept asking people I came across for the exact location of the neighborhood. Once there, I asked where the Segunda Lopes house was. The neighbors told me where she lived and so I knocked on her door. One of the daughters opened the door and, after hearing who I was, she accompanied me to the kitchen where Segunda Lopes was crouched down peeling some cassava. When I introduced myself again and told her what I had come for, Segunda stood up, gave me a hug and said: “I have been waiting for a long time for someone to talk about this story”.

Segunda Lopes was born in 1950 on the island of Komo, daughter of Pedro Lopes and Maria Sábado Vieira. With the death of her mother, Segunda Lopes, left to the care of her cousin Henriqueta Baldé and her husband, teacher Simão Silá, went to live in Madina de Baixo in the sector of Empada. It was during the liberation struggle that Segunda began her school education. From her schooling childhood, Segunda remembers that the will to study made her run away several times from home and from domestic chores in order to attend school. Scolded by her cousin, Segunda countered with the fact that she was a mother and father orphan, and that she wanted to study in order to “have a future tomorrow”.

Segunda Lopes signing the book A Arma da Teoria Guinea Bissau 2014.
Photo: Sonia Vaz Borges

Her request was granted with the agreement that, before going to school, she would first have to do all the housework she was in charge of. Thus, she recalls that, before going to school, she had to leave the rice already pounded and prepared to be cooked. She would stay at school from 8:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., at which time she would go home to continue her household chores, which included preparing the meal for the family. If she was unable to return to school in the afternoon, one of her classmates would copy the lesson on the blackboard. In the evening, after finishing the household chores, which included cooking, serving the meal, and tidying up, Segunda would sit down by the light of a makeshift candle and study the lesson she had missed. And so she studied until the fourth grade, often with the help of her teacher Zé Dinis Sequeira, who sometimes accompanied her during her studies.

She completed the fifth grade of schooling in the liberated zones and, at the age of 17, in 1967, she was selected to go to Conakry to attend a Teacher Training and Retraining Course, under the direction of Maria da Luz Boal, Maria Amélia, and Vasco Cabral. After passing her final exams, she started teaching in Cãn in the South of the territory. Before starting classes, she went to Madina do Boé to receive military training in order to know how to defend the school and the students in case of an attack. In Madina do Boé she took his oath of office in the presence of Amílcar Cabral and Commander Pedro Pires. In 1969, from Cãn she was transferred to Catdjoar, where she was not only a teacher, but also an assistant in the People’s Courts alongside Fidélis Cabral. Later she was transferred to the hospital in Caboconde, where she taught during the day and at night she worked in the hospital service treating the sick and wounded. Segunda Lopes also worked at the Donka hospital in Unar, from where she was transferred to Quinara, having witnessed the bombing of March 28th, 1972. She then returned to Madina do Boé to work at the CIPM, where she met and married the military instructor.

It was Amílcar Cabral who appointed her as director of the Abel Djassi Military Boarding School, where she was in charge of approximately 275 people, including students and teachers. Segunda Lopes remembers her duties as director of the boarding school and her trips between Lugadjor and Guinea-Conakry to pick up school supplies together with Caetano Semedo, who was responsible for the transport car. Once the material was obtained, the trip would continue from Conakry to Boké, where they stopped to rest, and then on to Lugadjor in Madina do Boé, the same place where the country proclaimed its independence on September 24, 1973.

The Walking Archive in the collective memory of the History of Guinea-Bissau

Quotidianly we speak of ‘memory’ as if it were a skill or a function, when, in fact, memory comprises a number of skills, systems and functions that work together (Pollock, 2005).

The PAIGC militant Walking Archive and its memories about the liberation struggle, in addition to being experiential and lived memories, are, at the same time, also the result of a reflected and constructed historical memory. However, unlike the constructed memory catalogued and stored in traditional archives, that of the Walking Archive comprises an unknown archive of the liberation struggle. Not only are the documents in this Archive private, but they are often only shared at family events or when a conversation between these Archives and a researcher takes place in the process of collecting oral testimonies. In this case, the memories are narrated in a non-linear way and placed in dialogue with a present that projects a still utopian future. However, these memories present a chronological disorder with individual and collective information loaded with personal meanings and interpretations.

Guinea-Bissau – a country that everyday lives in a limbo of construction, destruction, and historical reconstruction – after forty-five years of independence, several coups d’état, and a violent civil war, is faced with the physical disappearance of the Walking Archives. They disappear due to time, age, and health, as well as the neglect and urgency of other matters of a state under construction.

The recent history of Guinea-Bissau is documented in two ways. One consists of the colonial archive and the other one of the Wandering Archives of the liberation struggle. However, while the former is enclosed in an archive room whose dates mark its limitations, the latter brings together three episodes of history, namely the colonial history, the history of liberation, and the history of utopia. This last Archive, unlike the first, circulates freely throughout the country and can be consulted even in the most distant tabanca. Living in the present, the Walking Archives occupy the intermediate and transitional space of the country’s history, they are part of both the past and the future, and their presence, as well as their passage, reminds everyone that the history of the liberation struggle is ongoing.

The Walking Archives Guinea Bissau 2014. Photo: Sonia Vaz Borges

However, documenting and archiving the history of the liberation struggle that the Walking Archives bring with them is not an easy process, since their wandering and nomad path, both of place and of memories and recollections, also makes the researcher herself a wandering and walking collector of the stories.

The recording of these voices, even contradictory or dissident ones, is of absolute urgency, since they also represent the collective that was and made the liberation struggle, as well as the history of oppression, resistance, and utopias.

To register the memory of the Walking Archives, despite the limitations that such a recording presents and the contradictions that many narratives may present, is to give future generations tools to imagine the individual or collective future, and, consequently, the future of the country.


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André Corsino Tolentino, (Praia, August 21, 2013)

Papis Touré (Bissau, May 13, 2014)

Segunda Lopes (Bissau, May 26, 2014)