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THE STORY OF GUINEA-BISSAU'S
INDEPENDENCE


(excerpts from "The Ethnography of the Bijagos People of the Island of Bubaque" (1978),
written by the researcher of anthropology, Luigi Scantamburlo)

 
 


Guinea-Bissau is a small, young nation on the west coast of Africa, bordered on the north by Senegal, on the south and east by Guinea-Conakry, and on the west by the Atlantic Ocean. Covering an area of some 36,125 sq. km., it has a population of 1,300,000 people (35 people per sq. km.).

Independent since September 1973, after twelve years of war against Portuguese colonialism, it was divided into eight regions, in addition to the autonomous sector of Bissau, the capital: Biombo, Cacheu, Oio, Bafatá, Gabú, Tombali, Quínara and the Region of Bolama-Bijagos, with Bolama as its capital.

These differences were made in accordance with the differences in environment and traditions of the inhabitants. Except for the few large cities (Bissau, 80,000 inhabitants; Bafata, 10,000; and others, less than 5,000), the basic unit of the country is still the village. It's governed by the traditional authorities who act under the guidance of political representatives appoved by the government.

The government, following twelve years of fighting, is still very weak. At the time of independence, there was little else in the country but a brewery, a factory that was geared to the extraction of palm oil, and a few sawmills. There was no port worthy of the name, roads were few, and the primary schools were insufficient and there was only one junior college with 400 students, 60% of whom were Portuguese.

The leaders of the PAIGC (African Party for the Independence for Guinea and Cape Verde) began as best they could, looking not for grandeur and power, but to meet the needs of the people. As a consequence, programs were initiated though which, by 1980, the quantity of rice produced was sufficient to meet the needs of the people. So far, the results have been satisfactory. The rice grown within the country has reduced the need for importation by one half, from $84,000 in 1974 to $42,000 in 1975. Urbanization has been discouraged and the people have been helped to return to their own villages.

One great accomplishment of the government has been an increase in educational facilities. There were about 85,000 students enrolled in 1976-77, while in the colonial days the country had a total of only 12,000 students in all its classrooms. Today, 10% of the population jams into the existing schools, spending 23% of the country's budget. Illiteracy is still high (90%), but the first step has been taken and, for the first time in Guinea-Bissau's history, every boy and girl has the opportunity of obtaining at least four years of schooling.


One nation with a composite of 30 ethnic groups

In Guinea-Bissau, there are at least thirty different ethnic groups living together, each with its own language and traditions.

The five most numerous groups are the Balantas; Fulas; Manjacos; Mandingas; and the Papéis. The first two groups number over 100,000 people, while the other three have between 50,000 and 100,000.

Other important groups are the Mancanhas; Felupes; Bijagos; Baiotes; Beafadas; Nalús; Cassangas; and the Banhuns.

In spite of the great diversity of languages and traditions, they all seem to live in amazing harmony. Following the creation of a new republic based on the principle of equality among all citizens and the right of all to live according to their own cultures, we now see arising a natural consciousness in which each ethnic group is beginning to feel itself as part of a much larger group, the nation. This has been helped by twelve years of struggle against colonialism, which combined people from all the different ethnic groups.

According to Amilcar Cabral, the founder of the PAIGC, who was killed in Conakry on January 20, 1973 (reportedly by agents of Portuguese colonialism), the armed struggle was powerful, though painful, means to developing a higher cultural standard, both for the leaders and the people. The leaders, mostly coming from the city's bourgoisie, were helped via the struggle to understand the value of those people living in the rural areas. The leaders had the opportunity to learn what the real needs and hopes of the villagers are, and to appreciate their reasoning and dialectic abilities, often despised by the colonialists.

The armed struggle also helped the rural people overcome their feeling of inferiority before the more literate people of the city; to break the limited boundaries of the village by everyday contacts with different ethnic groups; and to adopt better technologies for their work. But, most important for their cultural survival, they were incorporated as valid elements in the new national process without abandoning their traditional views and values, contrary to the trend imposed by the Portuguese. Thus, the liberation of Guinea-Bissau resulted not only in a new cultural fact but also in a new popular culture.

The awakening of a national consciousness has been greatly assisted by a common language spoken by the majority of people, Guinean Creole. Forbidden and despised as broken Portuguese during the colonial period, it rose to the status of national language after independence. It is already understood by almost everyone.

Most of the credit for this improving situation must be attributed to Amilcar Cabral, one of the greatest leaders in recent African history. His writings provided the basic principles for the policy-makers of the new government. Day by day, during the long struggle for independence, he helped forge the principles of liberty and equality on which the new nation is based. Cabral believed liberty and equality should be given to everyone; they should not be based on race, color, wealth, or the educational level attained. He believed that not only the oppressed, but also the oppressors needed liberation. The PAIGC never fought the Portuguese people but only the leaders of Portugal, who were denying freedom to citizens in their very own country. When Guinea-Bissau obtained independence and the Portuguese army of 25,000 withdrew in September 1974, there was not one single incident.

Today, not only at the government level, but throughout the country, the ideals of liberty and mutual respect are being discussed and improved. In spite of great economic difficulties, the new republic has been able to provide the people with enough food every day; and so it seems that at least one of Amilcar Cabral's hopes has already been achieved.

He said, in one of his famous speeches during the armed struggle: "We want to build a nation where everyone no matter where he comes from, can live, work, and think freely. The only condition is that everyone must respect each other's rights."

I think that this is very important for the Republic of Guinea-Bissau. The different ethnic groups are challenged every day by more advanced technologies, literacy, and broughter social relationshps brought after independence. Peace, equality, and a certain freedom of choice offer a fertile environment where traditional ways of life and the new world views interact and are reshaped.

 
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