Paulo Freire and the Politics of Literacy in Lusophone Africa after Independence

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"Paulo Freire and the Politics of Literacy in Lusophone Africa after Independence" by Andrew J. Kirkendall Presented at the Lusophone Africa: Intersections between the Social Sciences conference, May 2003, Cornell University
I would like to thank the organizers of this conference for allowing me to participate. I
am a Latin American historian by training and not a specialist in Lusophone Africa. As a
Brazilianist, I have long had an intellectual and personal interest in the area and never miss an
opportunity to talk about Portuguese Africa in my world history classes at Texas A&M
University. More to the point, I am currently working on a second book project on Paulo Freire
and the politics of literacy in Brazil and Chile and I have been trying to decide whether the third
leg of this project should be Portuguese Africa, above all, Guinea Bissau. Mass literacy
campaigns played a major part in postwar plans for social and economic progress, and I am
firmly convinced that the time has arrived for historians to try and make a contribution to the study of "development" issues.
My paper seeks to examine the political context in which Freire
operated in Guinea Bissau and to reflect on why the literacy campaign in this newly independent
country was a failure. Inevitably, I will be drawing upon what I know of his other experiences in
South America to help me understand what went wrong in Africa.
By the 1970s, when Paulo Freire was asked to help the newly independent government of
Guinea Bissau create a mass literacy program, he was already internationally renowned both for
his writings on educational theory and for his practical literacy training techniques which
promised to teach functional literacy in a short period of time. Freire had developed his ideas on
literacy training while working for the Popular Culture Movement in his native state of
Pernambuco in Brazil's impoverished northeast. The late 1950s and early 1960s were the creative
peak and crisis period of the so-called populist republic, the northeast was undergoing an
unusually intense and politically dynamic period in its history. The region had long been
relatively stagnant economically and politically. Literacy rates were still relatively low in the
region, and school attendance rates in some states were as low as those in some of the newly
established independent African countries during this time period. Freire began teaching adults
to read and write by giving them a sense of their own ability to create culture, rather than be
immersed in nature. According to Freire, this created a new raised consciousness in people who
would for the first time understand that they could act politically as citizens ofthe nation and
subjects in their own history. They would have a new motivation to learn how to read and write
because the illiterate could not vote in Brazil at this time. Freire's ideas were rooted in the
developmental nationalism of 1950s Brazil and his own deeply held Christian faith. In a country
known for the historically low level of political participation among the popular classes, Freire's
techniques seemed subversive, and it is hardly surprising that when the military coup of late
March 1964 cut short this period of political experimentation, Freire and his colleagues involved
in local, state, and an incipient national literacy campaign were all, by and large, imprisoned. For
this reason, it is difficult to judge how effective his early efforts in Brazil were. 1 After a series of
imprisonments and interrogations, Freire took refuge in the Bolivian embassy. Promised
employment in a literacy program in that Andean nation, his plans were once again interrupted
by a military coup before he had even worked a day. He then moved on to Chile, where many of
his former associates in the Brazilian government were living in exile and working for the
recently established Christian Democratic administration of Eduardo Frei. In Chile from late

1964 until early 1969, Freire's ideas could be developed more fully, as he worked primarily with

the agrarian reform program of the reformist administration. Frei sought to incorporate the
historically marginal peasantry into the otherwise vital, combative, and inclusive Chilean
political system. In Chile, Freire had the resources of a national administration behind him
through the ministries of agriculture and education, and the literacy program was by the late
1960s considered one of the exemplary literacy training programs in the world by UNESCO. (It
was estimated at the time that illiteracy was reduced from 16 percent to 11 percent during this
time period.2) More conservative elements in the administration grew to distrust Freire and his
links to the more left-leaning members of the administration. By 1968, Freire was working for
the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization rather than directly for the Frei administration itself.
It was during this period that he wrote his most famous books, including Pedagogy of the
Oppressed. By 1969, political pressures and invitations from abroad convinced him to leave
Chile. He first went to Harvard (where he grew his famous beard because of the cold weather in
Cambridge) and then to Geneva, Switzerland, where he spent roughly a decade with the World
Council of Churches' Department of Education. There he created the Institute for Cultural
Action (hereafter IDAC), an "organization for study and experimentation," through which he
promoted his ideas internationally.3
The independence of Guinea Bissau having been formally conceded by Portugal in 1974,
the new administration approached Freire in May 1975 and invited him to help them design a
mass literacy training program for the new nation. Guinea Bissau, like many former Portuguese
colonies, had relatively little to build on in the way of educational infrastructure. (It might be
noted here that Brazil had also suffered in this regard after independence in the 1820s. This is
illustrated by the fact that while Spain had established the first universities in the Western
Hemisphere, Portugal had refused to let universities be founded in Brazil). Freire was evidently
excited by the prospect of working with a newly independent country, and he and his associates
at IDAC began to immerse themselves in the writings of the late Amilcar Cabral. As many
outsiders then and since, he was impressed by Cabral's success in staging a war ofliberation
against Portuguese imperialism. Although Freire's main work had been with reformist
administrations of various types, he by this time considered himself a revolutionary, and he saw
Cabral as a kindred spirit. Both had a faith in dialogue and in the possibilities of participatory
democracy. As was typical of Freire, he and his associates did not want to be considered outside
experts or as "foreign technicians with a mission," but as a fellow militants engaged as "true
collaborators" in the reconstruction of the country. He promised that he would not provide any
"prefabricated" solutions to the nation's problems. He claimed to not consider his own previous
experiences to have any "universal validity." Perhaps for this very reason, he relied heavily
upon Cabral's writings for his understanding of Guinean reality, and his views of post­
independence social realities were filtered through the prism of the experience of a unifYing
national war of liberation.4
Freire's literacy training techniques were grounded in extensive interaction between
teachers and students. The discussion circle practices which had been developed first in the
Popular Culture Movement in his native Recife sought to encourage students to move beyond
traditional patterns of passivity and receptivity and begin to talk about their own reality. In
Guinea Bissau, Freire and his associates counted on what he understood to be an unusually high
level of political consciousness forged in the revolutionary struggle. While 90 percent of the

people of Guinea Bissau could neither read nor write, the population was "politically highly

literate," according to Freire.s
Freire's misreading of Guinean reality was grounded in incorrect assumptions regarding
Portuguese colonial policy (again, largely based on his reading of Cabral). Since the Portuguese
had devalued African culture and had believed that only by learning the Portuguese language and
a more Portuguese way of life could people become civilized, the goal of a new nation must be to
re-Africanize the population and to "decolonize" their "mentality." Freire was most concerned
about the urban Guineans who had not been "touched in any direct way by the war" and who
were "deeply influenced by the colonialist ideology." This was particularly important for the
(admittedly small) Guinean middle class, which was supposed to divest itself of its world view
and commit "middle class suicide" in Cabral's terms. Freire wanted the urban youth to be
reeducated by the people themselves.
His distrust of Guinean middle-class youth is itself quite
striking considering the important role that members of the urban middle class had played in
literacy campaigns in Brazil and Chile. Freire also seems to have neglected to examine the
crucial role that newly urban young had played in the liberation struggle; Cabral talked about
their awakening of consciousness that came about as they compared the new environment with
their previous environment. Had Guinea Bissau had more educated youth, they undoubtedly
, could have served a valuable role as teachers (as they did in numerous successful literacy
campaigns around the world in the twentieth century). Freire should have known that in many of
these campaigns, the privileged young frequently themselves were politically transformed in the
process, as they had been in fact in both Brazil and Chile.6
In late 1975 and 1976 Freire visited some of the country's first "liberated zones" and in
February of 1976 had his first contact with Guinean peasants.
Although based in Switzerland
by this point, Freire saw himself as "a man from the Third World." Guinea Bissau reminded him
of Brazil, and the similar climate and many of the same foods, the sights and the sounds, as well
as the 'joy in living," filled him with a "deep nostalgia for Brazil." (He playfully wrote of
having a "solemn meeting with mangoes and cashews."f Between 1975 and 1978, Freire and
his associates continued to engage in dialogue with the officials of the education ministry in
Guinea Bissau, whether in person, in Europe as well as in Africa, but communication was often
slow and certainly intermittent. It must be said that Freire's connection to Africa remained fairly
If Freire tended to view the Guinean peasantry positively, if somewhat sentimentally, he
had a particularly high opinion of the Guinean military, the Armed Forces of the People or
F ARP. During the liberation struggle there had been some attempts at popular education. Basil
Davidson reported on having met teen-aged soldiers who were learning to read. "They spelt out
their letters and formed words with a quiet astonishment." 9 F ARP members, according to Freire,
had already developed a highly "critical approach to reading and writing," based largely on the
fact that they had already made history and were not forced to "read alienating stories" about

other people's struggles. They already had a larger comprehension of "the significance of

. national reconstruction." Viewed more pragmatically, there had already been a more concerted
effort to eliminate illiteracy among the military before Freire had even arrived in Guinea
BissaulO. Freire's faith in the military is striking, almost one might say touching, were it not for
the fact that he himself was barred from returning to his country by a military dictatorship.
Despite Amilcar Cabral's campaign against militarism during the war for national liberation, it
7seems clear that the process of independence had created an opportunity for an enhanced political
role for the military to develop.
The most careful study of the campaign, an unpublished doctoral dissertation by Linda
Harasim, suggests, unfortunately, that it was a complete and utter failure. Indeed, as the
country's Department of Adult Education itself reported, "of the 26,000 civilian Guineans
reached by the literacy campaign practically none had learned to read and write." As Harasim
argued, this was due to a number of factors, some of which were largely technical. Despite
funding from outside sources like the WorId Council of Churches, there was often a lack of
sufficient material support for the campaign. There were never enough people who completed
the basic training course in Freire's techniques. There was a lack of consistent commitment from
above. As Harasim suggests, these problems were clear from the beginning, but never addressed
sufficiently. Some were undoubtedly insurmountable.11
But there were other larger factors related to overall socioeconomic development. As
Harasim suggests, the "Freire method was not relevant to the real conditions of Guinea Bissau."
Although the city of Bissau itself had been growing before independence, the nation as a whole
was predominantly rural. This contrasted strongly with the Brazilian and Chilean examples.
Chile had been a largely urban nation since the 1940s. Brazil was urbanizing rapidly by the late
. 1950s, even in the underdeveloped northeast. An urbanizing population had aspirations that
were more in keeping with the goals of a literacy campaign. To the degree that agriculture was
modernizing, as well, as it was in Chile with the agrarian reform campaign, it created a need to
read and write that the ninety percent of the Guinean population that were peasants did not
possess. The lack of a market economy, with 4 out of 5 people engaged in subsistence
8agriculture, was an inhibiting factor in terms ofthe success of the campaign. Literacy rates, as
has been noted, were higher among members ofthe FRAP. Unlike Guinean peasants, however,
Guinean soldiers had practical reasons for learning how to read and write. With the civilian
population, the literacy campaign remained "sporadic, spontaneous, and largely isolated
experiences lacking in organized relationship to national economic or political objectives."
Dropout rates were high. The motivation simply was not there, and the teachers had failed to
establish a connection with the peasants that would have helped convince them that there was a
need to learn to read and write in Portuguese. 12
Undoubtedly, some of the problems with the Guinean program stemmed from Freire's
own historical experiences. Very few Guineans had practical reasons or motivation to learn how
to read and write (which, as I have suggested, was much less true in Brazil and Chile). Brazil
relied on teachers whose motivations were as much political as educational to accomplish what
they could in the limited time available; Chile had a much more developed "educational
infrastructure" and used it professionally and well. Plainly put, Brazil, Chile, and Guinea Bissau
all may have been Third World countries, but clearly the label meant less than Freire and others
at the time thought it did in terms of levels of social and economic developmept.13
Furthermore, as Harasim suggests, the existence of a "revolutionary state" is "not in itself
a sufficient condition for guaranteeing a successful literacy campaign.,,14 Freire had never
worked for a one-party state in Brazil or Chile. Brazil's political parties were marked by
personalism and opportunism, but there were at least a number of them which were active before
the coup of 1964. (Freire did not join a political party himself until he returned to his native
country in the 1980s and played a role in the creation of the Workers Party or PT.) Chile's
9political parties covered a broad political spectrum and tended to be more ideologically
consistent in their practices, but they took part in a competitive political system that accepted the
existence of opposing political views. (This is not to suggest that political parties in either
Brazil or Chile did not try to make use of the literacy campaigns for partisan purposes.) This is
not to suggest that Freire was altogether out of place politically in Guinea Bissau at this time.
There is no doubt that by the I 970s, the P AlGC and Freire shared a certain number of what
Harasim calls "ideological congruencies" such as "idealism and pedagogical populism." There
also seems little doubt that P AlGC had the legitimacy to create the new nation-state. Although
he had tended to resist partisan identification in the 1950s and 1960s, the Paulo Freire ofthe
1970s felt no hesitations about working with a revolutionary one-party state. Other literacy
campaigns in Lusophone African one-party states seem to have been more successful, at least on
some level. Freire's experience in Sao Tome e Principe between 1975 and 1978 suggests the
intellectual impoverishment of working in such a setting. The primers used there seem to have
reduced literacy training to sloganeering on behalf of the vanguard party, the Movimento de
Liberta9ao de Sao Tome e Principe. Nevertheless, enrollment in the literacy program in this
small country seems to have been fairly high. According to some studies, 72 percent of those
who finished the course became literate. Clearly, this success was due largely to the lack of
linguistic divisions in the country, a subject which I will address shortly.15 On the other hand, in
Mozambique, where Freire was not involved directly, although his methods were adapted,
illiteracy, according to one study, was reduced from 90 percent to 72 percent, despite the onset of
civil war.16 Revolutionary will in any case was not sufficient, and to some degree, one must look
back to the colonial experience to explain some of the difficulties in Guinea Bissau.
Freire had assumed a Portuguese colonial presence that hardly existed in relative terms.
The Portuguese had transformed Guinea Bissau less than any other African colony. And
whatever one may think of Portuguese education policies and schooling practices, they certainly
had a minimal impact on the majority of the population. The problem of "re-Africanization"
seems to me to have been less significant then either Cabral or Freire thought, with an estimated
.5 percent of the population being "assimilado." 17 Cabral's experience studying agronomy and
his association with the Casa dos Estudantes do Imperio in Lisbon clearly shaped his vision, but
while it was a valuable one in creating the national unity he craved, it may be doubted that it was
absorbed by his followers. In the countryside, in particular, the European presence was virtually
non-existent and an interest in learning to read and write in Portuguese must have been
particularly undeveloped.
Undoubtedly, the decision to use the colonial language as the means of instruction was
one of the major reasons that the literacy program in Guinea Bissau failed. Like most
postcolonial African countries, there was a preference for using the language of the colonizer as
the new national language. (In the Mozambican war of independence, Portuguese had been
considered the language of liberation.) 18
Although Cabral had intended to use Portuguese as

the unifying national language, during the liberation war itself, the "political work of

explanation" had been "done in the local languages." Creole might have had somewhat more
potential as a unifying force, even though it was only spoken by 45 percent of the population and
had only penetrated into the interior of the country to a limited degree. The lack of written texts
would not have been as significant a factor had it been practical to adapt the Freire method in its
entirety, since Freire himself had always advocated teaching the working vocabulary of the
students themselves. Freire's techniques did not work in teaching what was fundamentally for
most of the students a foreign language.19 Ethnic divisions certainly did not play the divisive
role in Guinea Bissau that they did in other parts of Lusophone Africa.. Nevertheless, linguistic
divisions were a significant factor in defeating the aims of the literacy campaign. Freire's

experience had been in primarily monolingual countries since the indigenous population, reduced

to roughly one percent, was not much of a factor in Brazil during this time period; the Mapuche
in southern Chile were marginalized, as well, and had no impact on the literacy campaign as a
The success of the Partido Africano da Independencia da Guine e Cabo Verde in leading
a liberation struggle did not translate into success in state building. Unlike Freire, clearly a
historian must view the early post-indepepdence period more through the prism of Amilcar
Cabral's half-brother Luiz. And one must view the failure of the literacy campaign within the
larger context of the failure of the state project of Luiz Cabral and the PAIGe.. In that sense,
Freire's participation was consistent with his experience with the failed regime of Goulart in
Brazil. Luiz Cabral's experience certainly demonstrates how quickly political capital can be
squandered. His economic mismanagement and overemphasis on the urban sector, as well as his
increasingly repressive rule, clearly played a role in his downfall, although it could be argued on
some level that the emphasis on the urban sector (so common in post-independence African
countries) might have encouraged the young to become literate, as required by a more urban
society. It is difficult for a non-Africanist to judge how significant ethnic rivalries were in
shaping the outcomes of this early period. Patrick Chabal, for example, discounts the importance
of ethnic rivalries between Cape Verdians and Balanta (who were well-represented in the armed
The new government of Joao Bernardo Vieira which replaced Cabral in November 1980
would rely "entirely on the army as its base of power." 21 Literacy training had been most
successful among those in whom political consciousness and indeed a national consciousness
was already most highly developed. Literacy campaigns benefitted those who had already
gained an enhanced political role through the independence process. The Guinean peasantry
would remain outside of the boundaries of the larger nation-state project, as they had been during
the colonial period. In Brazil the fear of an awakened consciousness among the popular classes
was one of the factors that enhanced the political consciousness of the military. In Guinea
Bissau, it was those who already had an enhanced political consciousness who would overthrow
the Luiz Cabral regime.
1. See my forthcoming "Entering History: Paulo Freire and the Politics of the Brazilian Northeast, 1958-1964," Luso-Brazilian Review (forthcoming). The best books available on the development of Freire's thinking are Vanilda Perierra Paiva, Paulo Freire e 0 Nacionalismo­Desenvolvimentista (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Civiliza<;ao Brasileira, 1980) and Celso de Rui Beisiegel, Politica e Educa<;ao Popular (A Teoria e a Pnitica de Paulo Freire no Brasil (Sao Paulo: Editora Atica, 1982). Regarding global trends in education, see Mehrahgiz Najafizadeh and Lewis A. Mennerick, "Worldwide Educational Expansion from 1950 to 1980: The Failure of the Expansion of Schooling in Developing Countries," The Journal of Developing: Areas 22: 2 (ApriI1988): 333-357. Regarding trends in enrollment in Guinea Bissau specifically, see p. 344.
2. See "La Educaci6n de Adultos en Chile," Informe del Ministerio de Educaci6n, Mayo, 1969.
3. John L. Elias, Paulo Freire: Pedagogue of Liberation (Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company, 1994), p. 12.
4. The main source on Paulo Freire's thinking about his experience is his Pedagogy in Process: The Letters to Guinea-Bissau Translated by Carman St. John Hunter (New York: Seabury Press,

1978), pp. 6, 8, and 17-19.

5. Freire, Pedagogy in Process, pp. 10-12.
6. See the oral interviews included in Augusto Nibaldo Silva Trivinos and Balduino Antonio Andreola, "Da Opressao para a Esperan9a: 0 Tempo do Exilio de Ernani Maria Fiori e Paulo Freire no Chile: Contribui9ao de Fiori e de Freire para a Educa9ao Chilena," Relatorio de

Pesquisa, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do SuI. This report is available at the Instituto Paulo Freire in Sao Paulo.

7. Freire, Pedagogy in Process, pp. 31-32, 67-68, and 129..
8.. Moacir Gadotti, Reading Paulo Freire: His Life and Work Translated by John Milton (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), pp. 45-47.
9. Davidson, The Liberation of Guine, pp. 70 and 82.
10.. Freire, Pedagogy in Process, pp. 13-16,23 and 25-31.
11.. Linda Harasim, "Literacy and National Reconstruction in Guinea Bissau: A Critique of the Freirean Literacy Campaign," Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Toronto, 1983, abstract and pp. 335-337.
12.. Linda Harasim, "Literacy and National Reconstruction," pp. 69-70, 194, 239, 250, 254-255, 274, 280, and 296.
13.. Linda Harasim, "Literacy and National Reconstruction," p. 197.
14.. Linda Harasim, "Literacy and National Reconstruction," p. 14.
15. Freire, "Quatro Cartas aos Animadores de Circulos de Cultura de Sao Tome e Principe," in Carlos Rodrigues Brandao, A Ouestao Politica da Educayao Popular (Sao Paulo: Brasiliense, 1980), pp. 156, 158, Gadotti, Reading Paulo Freire, p. 47.
16. See Judith Marshall, Literacy, Power, and Democracy in Mozambique: The Governance of Learning from Colonization to the Present (Boulder: Westview Press, 1993), p. 132. Regarding Tanzania and its greater success in promoting popular education, see James R. Sheffield, "Basic Education for the Rural Poor: The Tanzanian Case," The Journal of Developing Areas 14: 1 (October 1979): 99-110. Freire was involved in designing Tanzania's adult education projects.
17. Basil Davidson, The Liberation of Guine: Aspects of an African Revolution (Hammondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1969), p. 25; Harasim, "Literacy and National Reconstruction," p. 368..
18. See Marshall, Literacy, Power, and Democracy in Mozambique, pp. 107-108. See also Christopher Stroud, "Portuguese as Ideology and Politics in Mozambique: Semiotic
(Re)constructions ofa Postcolony," in Jan Blommaert, ed., Language Ideological Debates (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1999), particularly pp. 343, 346, 348, 351-352, and 374.
19.. Linda Harasim, "Literacy and National Reconstruction," pp. 174-175. Freire had hopes that Creole would work in the long run in any case. See his Pedagogy in Process, p. 127.
20. See Patrick Chabal, Amilcar Cabral: Revolutionary Leadership and People's War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 139 and 161-166; Joshua Forrest, "Guinea Bissau," in Patrick Chabal, ed., A History of Postcolonial Lusophone Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002), pp.250-251 and 261 ; Patrick Chabal, "Revolutionary Democracy in Africa: The Case of Guinea Bissau," in Chabal, ed., Political Domination in Africa: Reflections on the Limits of Power (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 98-100; Carlos Lopes, Guinea Bissau: From Liberation Struggle to Independent Statehood Translated by Michael Wolfers (Boulder: Westview Press, 1987), pp. 91-92 and 137; Jock McCulloch, In the Twilight of Revolution: The Political Theory of Amilcar Cabral (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983), pp. 33-34.
21. McCulloch, In the Twilight of Revolution, p. 33.

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