The lessons of Guinea-Bissau

Section 7 of

Freire-inspired programs in the United States and Puerto Rico: a critical evaluation

by Blanca Facundo

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Pedagogy in Process: The Letter to Guinea-Bissau is, among Freire's most recent books, the only one available in the English language. For purposes of analysis we can divide the book into two major sections: (1) reflections by Freire, intended for the reader of the book, and (2) the text of some letters written by Paulo Freire to Mario Cabral, State Commissioner of Education and Culture in Guinea-Bissau, and to the team that within Guinea-Bissau was trying to use Freire's ideas and procedures to develop a national literacy campaign. The letters themselves comprise approximately 45 percent of the book (certainly less than half of it, at least in its Spanish version, which is the one I have used). What is written directly for the reader is intended by Freire to be a "letter-report, a letter as informal as the rest of the letters which integrate the book." Freire does not seem to realize that the letter he addresses to the readers comprises the largest portion of the book itself.

Many colleagues engaged in liberating education in the United States have told me, in a confession-like manner, that they have not read the entire book. When I asked why the reasons were that it was "too slow," "too boring," and so on. Yet, there are phrases in the book that are recited frequently by U.S. practitioners, mainly the following: [1]

In truth, experiences are not transplanted; instead they are re-invented.

Perhaps this is the statement found most meaningful by U.S. practitioners. It justifies all efforts at re-invention. The book offers no guidelines as to how an experience is re-invented. Therefore, everyone can say "I am re-inventing Freire's practice."

I made several critical readings of the book in question without any supplementary bibliography about Guinea-Bissau. Afterwards, I turned to supplementary readings. I was taken by surprise by facts which I deem extremely important to bear in mind before considering any educational endeavor in Guinea-Bissau, and needless to say, to make a critical reading of Freire's book. Some of these facts were provided by IDAC [2] one year before the first Spanish edition of Freire's book became available. These facts, as stated by IDAC, are: [3]

"It is," says IDAC, "on the basis of such a complex reality, with all its richness and its shortcomings, that the PAIGC (African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde), together with the people, is building a nation." [4]

I would ask those readers who are interested, to read Freire's book again and test my contention that none of the above "facts" and/or complexity is evident in the book. Perhaps you will be as shocked and amazed as I was. You may rightfully ask why. I certainly did.

Although the evolution of Freire's thought over the seventies has not been studied in depth, we have all assumed that he has been taking an increasingly Marxist, radical, stand. Due to this, I could not understand how anyone that uses Marx's writings -- even if only as an analytic tool -- can possibly omit the existence of so radically complex material realities when describing a pedagogical process. Freire did not offer us, the readers, an analysis of the conditions of Guinea-Bissau in which he was intervening. Why? Was this not considered an important perspective for the reader? How could we grasp the context without this information? Or, stated differently, what kind of context were we to assume?

Both Freire and IDAC state that the government of Guinea-Bissau, in the person of Mario Cabral, in the Spring of 1975, invited him and the IDAC team "to visit Guinea and participate in the development of the national adult literacy program." [5] A reaction of enthusiasm and apprehension to the invitation is stated and a reaction of surprise is implied. In the Spanish version it is stated: "we received, in the spring of last year (1975) the official invitation..." [6] (My emphasis.) A careful reading makes the reader wonder about the grammatical use of "the" instead of "an" official invitation.

No explanation is offered as to how the invitation came about; nor as to the initial, not "official" events that led to the invitation. Linda Harasim provides a different view: [7]

Paulo Freire and his team of educators from the Institute of Cultural Action (IDAC) in Geneva had offered both financial support and pedagogical assistance for the adult literacy activities. (p. 5, my emphasis.)

In January, 1975, Freire made contact with the Ministry of Education in Guinea-Bissau, expressing interest in the literacy activities being developed in Guinea-Bissau and offering technical and financial assistance for such work. (...) By May of that year the offer was accepted. (p. 195)

It seems Freire made an offer that the government, anxious to create a nation and having scarce economic resources, was not in a position to reject. [8] This is very important because it could be that Freire and the IDAC team "invited themselves," so to speak. If so, "the" official letter of invitation received by Freire and IDAC, may have been a letter of acceptance in the form of an official letter of invitation.

Why invite themselves? Linda states: [9]

Guinea-Bissau represented an opportunity for Freire and the IDAC team to implement the Freire method of literacy in a revolutionary, Third World country. The experiment in Brazil had been limited to relatively small experiments. The Chilean experience had not significantly reduced the rate of illiteracy. Moreover, since the 1970's Freire had also been confronted by problems in his theory of conscientization for changing social structures and conditions of oppression. In the mid-70's he wrote (...) that as long as the structures of a society do not change, the education system will not change in any radical way, beyond offering reforms which still contribute to maintaining the existing oppressive structures. (...) Guinea-Bissau represented such a revolutionary Third World context, where his theory of literacy could serve national reconstruction. Moreover, through his work in Guinea-Bissau, Freire also implicitly contributes to the image that his literacy method has universal validity and appropriateness to the Third World.

I have quoted Harasim in length because her work -- a doctoral dissertation -- is the only such document which examines in a direct way the work of Paulo Freire. By direct I mean not only an examination of relevant literature, but also "two field visits to Guinea Bissau to collect primary and secondary data: in June and July, 1980 and from September 1980 to March 1981." [10] According to Linda, she directly interviewed the major actors in the studied events, including Paulo Freire. She also conducted research in the government archives of Guinea-Bissau for the five-year period 1976-80; made visits to the interior of Guinea-Bissau; observed and recorded literacy classes. Her having lived and worked in the interior of the country for seven months (including the coup d'etat in November, 1980), is an additional experience that inclines me to consider very seriously Linda's findings and conclusions. Linda concentrated on the subject of literacy, which is only tangentially relevant to the work U.S. practitioners conducted based upon Freire's educational philosophy. Yet, as it is such educational philosophy that was behind Freire's work in Guinea-Bissau, Linda also examines the thought of Paulo Freire. An analysis of the results obtained by Freire in Guinea-Bissau is relevant to us because of this reason. That is why I will try to summarize the highlights of Linda's conclusions in this section.

Among Linda's findings is the fact that in 1980, the Department of Adult Education of Guinea-Bissau declared the following: [11]

We could say that literacy in the years 1976 to '79 involved 26,000 students and the results were practically nil.

The statement has serious implications. First, as stated by Linda: [12]

This failure was unexpected and raises many questions for educators both in Guinea-Bissau and internationally, because the context [post-revolutionary] and the methodology [Freire's] of the literacy work had created expectations of success.

More important for our work in the United States: How many of us knew that Freire's practice in Guinea-Bissau was declared a failure in 1980? Why has not Freire discussed this very important matter with his different audiences in Puerto Rico and the United States? I deem it essential to summarize what Linda Harasim considers to be elements which led to the failure of Freire's literacy campaign during the national reconstruction of Guinea-Bissau after the country obtained its independence.

Overall, Linda sees Freire as having an idealist and populist ideology that led him to romanticize Guinea-Bissau and its people. The political economy of the country, its historical and cultural traditions -- including language -- were not much taken into consideration by Freire in the design and implementation of the literacy campaign.

The literacy campaign was conducted in Portuguese [13] which not only is the language of the colonial power and the élite, but also a language spoken by only 5% of Guinea-Bissau's entire population, "who are all literate." The main languages of Guinea-Bissau and the percentage of the population that speaks these are described by Linda as follows: [14]

Balante -- 26%

Fula -- 23%

Mandingo -- 12%

Manjaro -- 10.6%

Creole -- 45%

Creole is usually spoken as a second language to any of the above.

These are all oral languages dominant in all rural areas and were not available in any written form during the campaign. Guinea-Bissau had no literate tradition and this created a serious problem: a lack of motivation. Peasants saw no need for literacy nor did they have any economic motivation to learn to read and write.

The economy of the country was based upon subsistence agriculture -- a pre-capitalist mode of production in Marx's theory. The country had an "underdeveloped" technology. Moreover, its ethnic groups (more than thirty, according to Harasim) not only were very different, but also lived in isolation from each other. [15] Peasants, the majority of the population, had had little contact with the colonizers and had not experienced direct exploitation. Thus, they had little awareness of the colonizers as an oppressive force. [16] This was stated by Amílcar Cabral during the sixties. [17] Yet, Amílcar believed (or stated) that the war and the deliberate efforts of the revolutionary armed forces had successfully ameliorated tribal differences, and these were not considered by him to be a major problem. [18] Freire stated that in his studies about Guinea-Bissau he gave special importance to the writings of Amílcar Cabral. I must insist that Freire seems to take at face value the writings of revolutionaries, not giving a thought to what Alinsky established as Rules.

In the midst of a war a revolutionary leader (no matter how "authentic") just cannot afford to increase the enemy's strength by an admission of weaknesses of revolutionaries in the cause of national liberation. I wonder if this fact was one of the elements which misled Freire in his understanding of Guinea-Bissau.

On the other hand, Amílcar Cabral did analyze class stratification in Guinea-Bissau. He described the various ethnic groups and their different modes of production, religious attitudes and even the role of women in each population segment. He anticipated problems during the national reconstruction stage after immediate independence, focussing these problems on the role of the petty bourgeoisie before and after independence. [19] The role of the bourgeoisie is the only "class" aspect which Freire mentions in his book.

Upon independence, Guinea-Bissau had no national identity as understood by the industrial West: culture, language, centralized market economy, or political consciousness. Yet, Freire strongly believed that a national consciousness was present in Guinea-Bissau. It did not have an infrastructure to allow for travel to and communications with the interior of the country with any regularity. The minimum qualified person-power required to take on the many complex duties of creating a state machinery for the planning, coordination and implementation of a project for a new society in a country devastated by war was simply not available. During the entire four centuries of Portuguese domination, the number of university graduates among the population of Guinea-Bissau was less than 15 persons.[20]

In short, Linda Harasim states that Freire did precisely what in his book on the subject he stated should not be done: he assumed that he understood more than he did and transferred his method from one Third World country to another. [21] Freire did not consider that the economic under-development of Guinea-Bissau and the conditions we have briefly described would create a context completely different from that in which he developed his theory and practice; a context in which his literacy method and ideas simply could not work.

What I deem fascinating in Harasim's analysis is that she pinpoints ideas behind Freire's practice in Guinea-Bissau that are very similar to those described by Pereira Paiva regarding Freire's intellectual formation in Brazil in the late fifties: an idealist-populist ideology; the impact of Christian existentialism (from which emerges Freire's concern with "authenticity" and intersubjectivity); the concern to prepare "the masses" for democracy through a process of educating consciousness for liberation [22] and his Christian ethics in which the petty bourgeoisie commits class suicide in solidarity with the oppressed in a sort of: [23]

Mystical transformation of hitherto very materially determined beings, the leadership class, by an act of sheer moral and religious will.

Ultimately, Harasim asserts, Freire acts as if class struggle could be "neutralized by spiritual will." [24]

I have already discussed how many of us ignore what Harasim calls "the objective class interests of the leadership, educators and learners." Harasim points out that Freire also ignored this aspect (the class roots of consciousness). In her opinion, which at the outset she states is based upon historical materialism, "the proletarianization of the petty bourgeoisie is the result of material, economic factors rather than of moral conversion." [25]

Some of Freire's major misconceptions about the country he was working with, in Harasim's view, were: (1) the belief that Guineans had been oppressed by inclusion in colonial schools, and (2) the belief that Guineans were politically literate. [26] The latter is based on Freire's stated view that the war of liberation politicized the population. Freire does not offer us any indication as to the evidence upon which he based that conclusion.

On the "pedagogical" aspects of Freire's failure in Guinea-Bissau, Harasim found that Freire did not offer practical, concrete advice for the areas of training, curriculum development and evaluation. [27]

The activities envisioned and eventually implemented were inappropriate, unrealistic, and beyond the capacities of the country... [A particular] strategy was more concerned with orchestrating the "class suicide" of the animators [literacy teachers] than with such concrete tasks as teaching the population to read and write. There were simply not enough literates in the country to go out to live in a village for two years in order to achieve class suicide.

Freire had to know that Guinea-Bissau did not have the qualified personnel needed for the role of "animator" (literacy teacher or "facilitator" as the role is called in the United States). We have seen that not offering practical advice seems to be "standard procedure" of Freire, at least in his dialogues with practitioners of his ideas in the United States. However, in Guinea-Bissau he was to a great extent directing the literacy operation. His fame and prestige probably had a great deal of influence in a country plagued by thousands of problems for national reconstruction, among which a 99 percent illiteracy rate would inescapably be a major obstacle. If in the United States Freire has been considered almost an oracle -- we can imagine how he would be heard in Guinea-Bissau. If in the United States we have found it extremely difficult to find and train (form) this type of staff, we can well imagine what the situation would be in a society overwhelmingly integrated by an illiterate, technically underdeveloped and linguistically-divided peasantry.

According to Harasim, the responsibilities assigned to the animators in Guinea-Bissau "were massive," including: [28]

Volunteers for this work "came from the primary and secondary schools" (mostly urban and almost untouched by the war). They were hard to find and among those who did volunteer there was a high drop-out rate. Harasim believes that: [29]

Freire's conceptualization of a literacy animator was beyond the capacities of anyone who was available.[emphasis added]

What kind of training or assistance was provided to these volunteers? The Department of Adult Education in Guinea-Bissau summarized the results of the training provided to animators as follows: [30]

The program content of the training program was simply too vast, (...) it reflected a lack of linking theory with practice, and there was no real linking of literacy with the socio-economic development of the country.

By way of illustration, although Guinea-Bissau's economy is described everywhere as overwhelmingly agricultural, "Mario Cabral had to point out to the literacy team that they had forgotten to mention agriculture in the draft of the first [literacy] manual and that, given the importance of agriculture to the people and economy of Guinea-Bissau, they should do so." [31] [emphasis added]

This, by itself, gives me the impression that the work being conducted --Freire's statements to the contrary notwithstanding -- was almost alienated from the context for which it was intended.

An overall view of the educational materials used was provided as follows: [32]

[The materials] were not always written in a language accessible to the reader and many times the form of presentation of the content was too theoretical and difficult to understand.

Harasim strongly criticizes Freire for considering all sorts of problems as essentially "political." For Freire, problems are the result "of an incorrect attitude and wrong political stance on the part of the educator." [33] This reminds me of his evaluation of the Cuban presence in Africa: the important thing was the attitude with which Cubans went to Africa. Attitudes may be important, but surely not everything can be reduced to "incorrect attitude and wrong political stance." For instance, Linda mentions very serious practical problems she encountered during her research. The lack of a duplicating (photocopy) machine which left her no option but to transcribe by hand many government documents; lack of transportation to go to the interior of the country, and so on. We have no reason to believe that animators did not face many such practical, irritating problems; problems that obstruct and delay any previous plans that do not take material conditions into consideration.

Let us not forget that we are referring to animators with little formal schooling -- not the Christian university students in Brazil, nor the university graduate Latinos and other faculty members in U.S. universities. If we had problems translating Freire's ideas into action, we have no reason to think that Guineans found it any easier.

Lack of practical advice from Freire to U.S. practitioners can be understood and even justified. The conditions of Guinea-Bissau do not warrant such a justification. Freire has always insisted on acting upon reflection about local conditions as a basis for further action.

Pedagogy is political, but not only political. It seems that little (if any) attention was given by Freire to the total unfamiliarity of the Guinean animators with what could be called the art and/or science of teaching, and, within, to the development of oral, visual and manual skills; different learning styles, and psychological factors that facilitate or impede learning. [34] A considerable number of specific and very concrete errors in the Freire-directed program in Guinea-Bissau identified by the government itself is presented and analyzed by Harasim. I have only touched upon the surface of her work because my subject is not literacy.

My purpose in highlighting Linda Harasim's doctoral dissertation is to encourage a discussion on the extent to which Freire's ideas can be translated into a coherent, successful practice, by looking at how Freire himself did it in a Third World country. Granted that he attempted to work within most difficult material conditions. However, he had the government fully behind him -- which practitioners in the United States do not have -- and plenty of information about the conditions of the country in which, Freire thought, he was not a stranger.

I believe that Freire was misled by an attempt -- perhaps unconscious -- to force a reality to "fit" his pre-formulated theory. As all of us, he selected or perceived from the reality he worked with only those elements that seemed to support his theory. The contradictions in his theory -shared to a great extent by Amílcar Cabral and the PAIGC -- led them all astray and prevented them from comprehending the totality of the country. Ambiguous objectives with no concrete priorities (to politicize, to teach to read and write) in a desperate, chaotic and disorganized need to create a national government without a nation, probably needed more central authority than either Freire or the PAIGC were prepared to allow. Independence does not, in any conceivably way, erase class conflicts and vested interests in a population. Amílcar Cabral himself said it time and time again before he was murdered in 1973. According to Linda Harasim, soon after the independence of Guinea-Bissau, "the bureaucratic petty bourgeoisie and the pro-industrialist socialist sectors," developed an alliance to give priority to urban-industrial development, practically abandoning the needs of peasants and ignoring the country's mode of production. [35] The Party, according to Ziegler, wanted the development of an essentially agricultural society that would be self-sufficient to cover the basic needs of the population. [36] As of 1978, Ziegler asked whether Guinea-Bissau would be capable of avoiding "frenetic industrialization, the intensive exploitation of the country's mineral resources and the rigid entrance of the country to a world market almost totally dominated by multinational societies and industrial states." [37]

By Harasim's account, it seems that the PAIGC was defeated in the priorities it had established. Frank Tenaille offers us the following information: [38]

Tenaille asserts that the coup was well-received by the population and that the reasons which brought it about were: [39]

As of the time in which he writes, Tenaille describes the structure of the state in Guinea-Bissau as based upon the regional decentralization policies established during the war. At the economic level, he reports that Guinea Bissau reached agreements with France, Rumania and Sweden for the mineral extraction of bauxite; agreements with Algeria for importing wood; and with China for the development of the rice crop.

Before the coup, Denis Goulet described Guinea-Bissau's economy as one in which "incompatible multiple sectors" coexisted. [40] The PAIGC, according to Goulet, "left much of the economy as it had been" before independence, because it "lacked enough competent people to run all the economic units on which the country depended." [41]

I do not have information as to the extent to which the coup may have brought about stronger defenses against the penetration of multinational corporations and neo-colonialism in Guinea-Bissau. What seems evident, though, is that at the time which Freire worked with Guineans, the country was far from being economically independent, and that a power struggle was being waged within the élite to determine the future of the country's economy.

The picture that emerges from a variety of sources is very different from the one that can be gleaned from Freire's book about his work in Guinea-Bissau. Reading the book in the light of this new information is sufficient to prove the point beyond any doubt.

Guinea-Bissau is one more instance in which our uncritical acceptance has led us astray. What the experience means within the United States context must be thoroughly discussed and analyzed by practitioners of Freire's ideas. As stated by a friend in the network: "If Freire's theory didn't work in Guinea-Bissau, does that mean the theory can't work; that it is irrelevant? Did his ideas not work because of his personal, 'contradictory' behavior, or because his ideas don't work? How are his ideas and his personal behavior related?" These are questions for the readers to answer.


Notes to Section 7: The Lessons of Guinea-Bissau

1. Freire, Letters, pp. 16-17.

2. Rosika Darcy de Oliveira and Miguel Darcy de Oliveira, Guinea-Bissau: Reinventing Education (IDAC Monograph No. 11-12, Geneva, Spring 1976).

3. Ibid., p. 10.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid., p. 5.

6. Ibid., p. 13.

7. Harasim, Literacy and National Reconstruction.

8. IDAC's monograph on Guinea-Bissau states: "The IDAC involvement in Guinea-Bissau was made possible financially by a grant from the Commission of the Churches' Participation in Development (CCPA) of the World Council of Churches." (p. 51).

9. Harasim, Literacy and National Reconstruction, pp. 196-97. Linda Harasim raises the issue that Freire's work in Brazil and Chile may not have been as successful as the literature on the subject presented it to be. I have never seen an evaluation of Freire's fieldwork; only glowing statements of success are available in bibliographic resources. Quoting Farideh Mashayekh, "Freire -- the Man, his Ideas and their Implications," in Literacy Discussion (Spring, 1974), Linda reminds us: "available documents and data on the results achieved during this experiment [in Brazil] are far from enabling us to evaluate the effectiveness of this method in either the cognitive or the affective domain... The Chilean experiment, like that of Brazil, did not provide adequate quantitative data allowing systematic evaluation of the method's impact. In spite of the relatively low rate of illiteracy in Chile (11.7%) and government support for literacy programs through 'conscientization,' the problems of drop-out among the participants has not been solved."

In this quote Mashayekh uses evaluation concepts and criteria which may be inadequate for understanding liberating education. However, the fact stands that evaluation reports (of any kind) on Freire's experiences are lacking.

10. Ibid., p. 20.

11. Ibid., p. 6. This statement was taken from a government document dated at Bissau, November 8, 1980. A military coup took place on November 14, 1980. Frank Tenaille, Las 56 Africas (México: Siglo XXI, 1981), p. 134.

12. Harasim, Literacy and National Reconstruction, p. 6.

13. The reader should not simplify or underestimate the language problem in the literacy campaign of Guinea-Bissau. Amílcar Cabral, leader of the struggle for independence, favored the adoption of Portuguese "as a vehicle for socio-economic and political advancement and for international communication," Amílcar Cabral, Revolution, p. 176. Cabral understood that, though Creole was a transethnic language that should eventually be used in education, it was first necessary to have it grammatically systematized and transcribed into an alphabetical and written form (Ibid., p. 179), not an easy task to be rapidly accomplished. In a recent article by Donaldo P. Macedo, "The Politics of an Emancipatory Literacy in Cape Verde," Journal of Education, 165:1 (Winter, 1983), pp. 99-212, the author states that Freire "failed to completely convince the Capeverdean leaders and educators of the importance of their native language in the development of an emancipatory literacy." He further states that in a personal interview, Freire "deplored" the policy of using Portuguese as a vehicle for literacy (p. 110). The quotes refer to Cape Verde. Did Freire also try to persuade the leaders of Guinea-Bissau to use Creole instead of Portuguese? Or is this something he learned after the Guinea-Bissau experience? The matter is not as simple as a reading of Donaldo P. Macedo would seem to suggest.

14. Harasim, Literacy and National Reconstruction, p. 314.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid., p. 306.

17. "In Guinea the peasants cannot read or write, they had almost no relations with the colonial forces during the colonial period except for paying taxes, which is done indirectly." Cabral, Revolution, p. 69.

18. "We have had no great difficulties as far as tribalism is concerned. We did have trouble creating in our people a national awareness, and it is the struggle itself that is cementing that national awareness. But all the people in general, from whatever ethnic groups have been easily led to accept the idea that we are a people, a nation, (...) We also know that the vestiges of tribalism in our country have been eliminated through the armed struggle we are waging (...) Only political opportunists are tribalists." (Ibid., p. 145).

19. "Events have shown that the only social sector capable of being aware of the reality of imperialist domination and of directing the state apparatus inherited from this domination is the native petty bourgeoisie (...) the popular masses do not generally reach the necessary level of political consciousness before... national liberation." (Ibid., p. 108). Yet, Amílcar Cabral also warned: "The moment national liberation comes and the petty bourgeoisie takes power, we enter, or rather return to history, and thus the internal contradictions break out again." (Ibid., p. 69).

20. Ibid., p. 143.

21. Harasim, Literacy and National Reconstruction, p. 366.

22. Ibid., p. 349.

23. Ibid., p. 352.

24. Ibid., p. 353.

25. Ibid., p. 354.

26. Ibid., p. 368.

27. Ibid., pp. 375-80.

28. Ibid., p. 369.

29. Ibid., p. 370.

30. Ibid., p. 372.

31. Ibid., p. 376.

32. Ibid., p. 372.

33. Ibid., p. 374.

34. Ibid., p. 375.

35. Ibid., p. 400.

36. Jean Ziegler, Saqueo en Africa (México: Siglo XXI, 1979), p. 199.

37. Ibid., p. 199.

38. Tenaille, 56 Africas, pp. 133-37.

39. Ibid., pp. 134-35.

40. Denis Goulet, Looking at Guinea-Bissau (Wash. D.C.: Overseas Development Council, 1978), p. 21.

41. Ibid.