Filipa: We begin here because there is no one point of departure to start connecting with the intricate lived conditions of students and teachers at the schools in the liberated zones. This pendular conversation departs from in-depth research into the militant educational system that the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) developed during the liberation process, the eleven-year armed struggle (1963–1974) against Portuguese colonial occupation and a recurring interest in the imaginary of the tarafe—the creole word for “mangrove.”1
Sónia: Marcelino Mutna shared with me: “We studied in the mud. When the water came up to here [gesturing to a bit above the ankle], we would stay there, until we finish the lesson. Then we would go down and walk all through the water to go home. We lived and studied in the mangrove for four years [1966–1969]; it was our refuge against the bombings.”2
Figure 3. Excerpt from SPELL REEL (Filipa César et all, 2017).
Filipa: Guinea Bissau’s geography describes an alluvium ecology with most of its land under sea level and its tidal coast hosting one of the densest chains of Rhizophora mangle known around the globe. In one of his speeches to the militants, Amílcar Cabral, agronomist, poet, and revolutionary leader, said: “In Guinea, land is cut by the arms of the sea that we call rivers. But in terms of depth they are not rivers.”3 River was a Portuguese concept—Cabral wanted to address the importance of the knowledge coming from the specificity of land itself and not that one imposed by colonial order.
Sónia: In the second year of the war that burst out in 1963, the movement led by Cabral had already started militant educational hubs in villages and guerrilla bases. In the following years, this grew to 164 schools throughout all of the liberated zones. In the last years of war, between 1971 and 1972, according to PAIGC statistics, there were 14.531 students and 258 teachers distributed in the liberated areas of Guinea-Bissau and neighboring countries, the Republic of Senegal and the Republic of Guinea.
Figure 4. Excerpt from Skola di Tarafe (dir. Sónia Vaz Borges and Filipa César, 2021).
Filipa: The mangrove ecosystem encompasses a natural tidal technology of connectivity, protection, and resistance to any kind of monolithic culture. Natasha Ginwala and Vivian Ziherl wrote: “The mangrove is itself just such a place where the earth seems unearthly. It is here that human traces cannot survive as a lasting form, for this tropical coastal ecology is a site of continual refiguration: neither sea nor land, neither river nor sea, bearing neither salty nor fresh water, in neither daylight nor darkness.”4 Under the most hostile conditions for flora, the mangrove grows on Atlantic shores, between land and sea, between fresh and salty waters, in a permanent amphibian life condition.
Sónia: One of the main challenges of the jungle schools was to solve the architectural demands—how to protect students and staff from the aerial attacks and ambushes by the Portuguese. The schools had to be accessible by foot for ten-year-old children and, simultaneously, be hidden and inaccessible enough to avoid becoming targets for attacks by Tugas, as the Portuguese soldiers were called. Some jungle schools, such as that of Mutna, were built on and within mangroves, rendering them impassable, connective, as part of the intricate nature of what Édouard Glissant described as “roots that intertwine, mix and mutually assist each other.”5
Filipa: The Rhizophora mangle, surrounding Guinea-Bissau’s shores, develops stilt roots arising from the trunk or branches, which grow toward the soil where the stilt root will develop an underground root system. Once the stilt root hits water instead of soil, the stilt root will grow underwater toward the soil in the ocean.
Sónia: Mangroves often do grow in mud, which supplies almost no oxygen at all. The stilt roots have the ability to allow the exchange of gas in oxygen-poor sediments. The arcuate stilt roots have countless lenticels, which provide the gas exchange. The mangroves themselves are prepared for hostile environments, protecting themselves and creating shelter for other beings, including the students threatened by the colonial forces.
Filipa: The seedlings of mangrove plants can float and bob along for more than a year before taking root. A buoyant seedling lies flat on the seawater, floats and drifts; when it approaches fresher water, the seedling turns into a vertical position, so its roots point downward. After lodging in the mud, the seedling quickly sends additional roots into the soil. Mangroves store fresh water in thick, succulent leaves. The coating on the leaves’ surface, called suberin, is an inert, impermeable waxy substance present in the cell walls of the mangrove, sealing in water and minimizing evaporation. From the journey of a single seed, a rich ecosystem may flourish.
Sónia: Mangroves arch high over the water, and their aerial roots take several shapes—some branch and loop off the trunk and lower branches; others are wide, wavy plank roots that extend away from the trunk. Aerial roots broaden the base of the tree and stabilize the shallow root system in the soft, loose soil. A branch can take root or bifurcate in another branch: one grows downward, another upward. How does the algorithm defining the growth of the mangrove decide when the next sapling will evolve as root or branch?
Filipa: Some mangroves grow pencil-like roots that stick up out of the dense, wet ground like snorkels. These breathing tubes, called pneumatophores, allow the mangroves to cope with the daily tidal floods by inhaling oxygen. This won’t happen if they’re submerged for too long.
Figure 5. Excerpt from Skola di Tarafe (dir. Sónia Vaz Borges and Filipa César, 2021).
Sónia: This reminds me of what Lassana Seidi said: “In that time, there were no tables. We were in the forest. You would search for trees, cut the branches, and some palm trees, and we would make tables out of them, on the open spaces in the forest. The blackboard would be hung in a tree, and in this way, the teacher would give the classes. In the beginning, there was no school material. When we were learning the A-B-C-D, a normal pencil was cut in two, sometimes even three, according to the numbers of students. During that time, we would search for paper, or even … pasteboard. On these pasteboards, the teacher would write the alphabet, and you would repeat and copy.”6
Filipa: Mangroves thrive despite being flooded twice a day by the ocean tides. Growing where land and water meet, mangroves bear the brunt of ocean-borne storms and hurricanes, resilient when a tropical storm comes along and with all its force hits the mangroves first, before all the others, plants, animals, and humans. Mangroves protect the shore in many ways, also from colonial ships.
Sónia: The constant struggle of the mangrove, with its rhizomatic condition of resilience, echoes Cabral’s words:
Repressed, persecuted, betrayed by some social groups who were in league with colonialists, African culture survived all storms. Taking refuge in the villages, in the forests and in the spirit of the generations who were victims of colonialism.… The universal values of African culture are now an incontestable fact; nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that Africans, whose hands, as the poet said “placed the stones of the foundations of the world,” have developed their culture frequently, if not constantly, in adverse conditions: from deserts to equatorial forest, from coastal marshes to the banks of great rivers subject to frequent flooding, in spite of all sorts of difficulties.7
Filipa: Mangroves on the shore also teach us how borders are an artificial construct, and they give us the material proof that borders are, ontologically, floating signifiers. Mud collects around the tangled mangrove roots, and shallow mudflats build up. Mangroves grow and change, producing new soils, always on the move, territorializing, deterritorializing, redefining topographies—their root systems create the architectures that sustain constant shifts of land, challenging concepts of territory and ownership.
Sónia: In their essay “Rhizome,” Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze oppose the tree root with the rhizome and propose a critique of Western epistemology by imagining the root book as the tree of knowledge, departing from a one that gives rise to a two—implying an always traceable origin. For Frantz Fanon, this logic is that of colonialism, a white-versus-black perspective that is rooted in fantasies of origin, where the one naturally dominates the two—with the one always the point of reference for as it is and as it should be. The book tells this narrative, the epic narrative, an origin story, a story that always returns to a homeland. The book makes a tale of violence.
Filipa: The rhizome sets the term root under a certain kind of crisis. We could think about a mangrove book, against this figure of the tree book, a book that doesn’t relate to an origin but one that is made of the knowledge gained by a constant seeding or a recurring attempt to reach out to surrounding neighbors, projecting new roots that attach or not, a knowledge that evolves from the established relations and not from some kind of claim to from whence it comes.
Sónia: The learning within an intertidal environment teaches alternatives to the single root, and that fixity in place and land is the origin of both violent identitarian and terrifying nationalist myths. For Édouard Glissant, its historical experience, mapped perfectly by its chaotic archipelagic geography, is rhizomatic and nomadic. How could movements of deterritorialization and processes of reterritorialization not be relative, always connected, caught up in one another? Creolized, archipelagic space is defined by its creative chaos and fractal character rather than by fixity and continuity.
Filipa: Under the condition of war, the fugitive Guinean students in the liberated zones found shelter in the mangrove schools, a relation student/mangrove/school forming a rhizome itself. Mangrove survivance is naturally resistant to external offshore occupations. The learning environment of the tarafe is a creolized and archipelagic space—everything is set adrift, yet everything still connects, everywhere a place, a nomad condition.
Sónia: The nomad thoughts of Maria da Luz Boal told “that some [students] were orphans. Others, the parents were in the war front.… And constantly we received the news that the comrade went and stayed [died]. And so, there was this environment of living the struggle, and the will to be free. It was so strong that those kids would draw the airplanes, rifles, bombings. That was their world.… You had to explain why the people decided to fight to be free from colonial oppression.… Politics was so evident, that they had to know and understand.”8
Filipa: As a nomadic seed, propagules can survive desiccation and remain dormant for over a year before reaching a suitable environment. Once a propagule is ready to root, its density changes so that the elongated shape now floats vertically rather than horizontally. In this position, it is more likely to lodge in the mud and root; otherwise, it can alter its density and drift again in search of more favorable conditions.
Sónia: Like these rhizomes, Marcelino Mutna and other students are carriers of nomadic archives. For more than forty years, PAIGC-related stories and experiences of militant education had only been remembered in small, private groups, as a reminder and shared nostalgic process between those who were part of it. During this time, they rebuilt their lives in Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, or various other countries; they traveled and worked in different fields; they rebuilt their ideals and memories about the liberation struggle; they forgot major details around the struggle. In this life process, they became walking archives, meaning an archive that is not housed in one place and whose information is not constant or fixed in time, and whose memories need to be constantly brought to life by the questions and curiosity of the ones who are interested.
Filipa: The fragmentary practice of this re-membering, bringing back to the members past experiences challenged from voice to the body, announces the fluidity and fictile construction of histories. Glissant wrote, “The notion of the rhizome maintains, therefore, the idea of rootedness but challenges that of a totalitarian root. Rhizomatic thought is the principle behind what I call the Poetics of Relation (Poetique de la Relation), in which each and every identity is extended through a relationship with the Other.”9
Sónia: Located near the villages, schools should be constructed in a relatively safe place due to the war situation and not far from a water source. The school structure was not permanent due to the war circumstances that forced them to have a sort of itinerant life and structure. Built with materials easy to transport, in order to be rebuilt in another region. Tree leaves, tree trunks, and branches. The forest environment provided a natural protection for school reconnaissance from the aircraft, while the conditions of the liberation struggle informed the architecture of the schools.
Filipa: In this field of suspension and kinship, an affected zone of impasse coexists with the technology of passage. The mangrove is also a natural site of protection for many species, nurturing reproduction. Within this fluctuating architecture, militant knowledge was being produced and transmitted against all odds in the measure of tidal cycles. These strategies were supported by a permanent pedagogical effort toward self-emancipation, employing what radical pedagogue Paulo Freire coined as the coding of language through a situated process of consciencialization (consciencialização).
Sónia: Militant education is a term that I define as an engaged and conscious education process committed to anticolonial and decolonizing principles focused on an ample concept of liberation. It is rooted and supported by the realities and necessities of the community and whose pedagogical role combines three aspects: political learning, technical training, and the shaping of individual and collective behaviors. Pupils/students, militants were guided toward the development of his or her self as a liberated African citizen whose task was to give his or her conscious contribution to the sustainable development of the newly independent liberated country, integrated into an internationalist world understanding.
Filipa: Under the condition of colonial oppression, particularly of this liberation war, survivance follows up catastrophe, then another beginning, another becoming—reterritorialization after deterritorialization. Education in these circumstances is a corollary of this very intrinsic survival mode of the mangrove.
Sónia: Marcelino Mutna studied in a school constructed on a mangrove in which the soil was flooded twice a day. When he says “to go down,” it refers to how the school was constructed—seats and tables were built with higher legs, in order to avoid their feet being submerged in the water; another structure was constructed so that students could rest their feet during the classes. Mutna describes how the tides were intricate in the process of learning.
Filipa: Water in, water out: inhalation of knowledge and exhalation of life in the pace of a militant nature. The tidal breath oxygenating a knowledge of resistance in a condition of resistance for knowledge.
Sónia: Like the mangroves, militant education is a life condition on the edge. With one foot on land and one in the sea, these botanical amphibians occupy a zone of desiccating heat, choking mud, and salt levels that would kill an ordinary plant within hours.
Filipa: The mangrove as aerial natural architecture, where, although humans apparently can leave no traces, memory still fluctuates through its tidal root networks. Here, we urge to encounter an imaginary form entangling various converging dimensions: the epistemology of the rhizome as situated by Édouard Glissant, concepts of militant and political education developed by the PAIGC and later systematized by Paulo Freire, and botanical notions of the engineering of mangroves with the nomadic archives. This cinematic journey will speculate about the telling nature of the rhizome and its resilience.
Sónia: The mangrove schools are not a metaphor for a theory of resistance but rather the very materialistic organism of sharing and producing knowledge that evolved from an anticolonial struggle and that takes the very rhizomatic ecosystem as a place of permanent struggle; attaching roots / detaching roots, learning/unlearning, the militant condition is a latent becoming.
Figure 6. Excerpt from SPELL REEL (Filipa César et al, 2017).
Sónia Vaz Borges is an interdisciplinary militant historian and social-political organizer. She received her PhD in the history of education from the Humboldt University of Berlin. She is the author of the book Militant Education, Liberation Struggle; Consciousness: The PAIGC education in Guinea Bissau 1963–1978 (Peter Lang, 2019). In September 2021, she joined the History Department as assistant professor in History and Africana studies at Drexel University. As part of her academic work, Vaz Borges is developing a book proposal focused on her concept of the walking archive.
Filipa César is an artist and filmmaker interested in the fictional aspects of the documentary, the porous borders between cinema and its reception, and the politics and poetics inherent to imaging technologies. Since 2011, she has been researching the origins of the cinema of the African Liberation Movement in Guinea-Bissau as a collective laboratory of decolonizing epistemologies. The resulting body of work comprises films, archival practices, seminars, screenings, publications, and ongoing collaborations with artists, theorists, and activists, in particular with Diana McCarty, Sónia Vaz Borges, and Sana na N’Hada, with whom she initiated the Mediateca Onshore project.
Special thanks to Diana McCarty for the cosmic advice.
Luigi Scantamburlo, Dicionário do Guineense (Lisboa: FASPEDI, DL, 1999), 602.
Sónia Vaz Borges, Militant Education, Liberation Struggle, Consciousness: The PAIGC Education in Guinea Bissau 1963–1978 (Berlin: Peter Lang, 2019), 77.
Amílcar Cabral, Unity and Struggle: Speeches and Writings of Amílcar Cabral (London: Monthly Review, 1979). See also, Filipa César, “Meteorisations: Reading Amilcar Cabral’s agronomy of liberation,” Third Text 32, no. 2 (2018), 254-272.
Natasha Ginwala and Vivian Ziherl, “Sensing Grounds: Mangroves, Unauthentic Belonging, Extra-Territoriality,” e-flux 45 (2013), https://
www .e -flux .com /journal /45 /60128 /sensing -grounds -mangroves -unauthentic -belonging -extra -territoriality /.
Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997).
Vaz Borges, Militant Education, Liberation Struggle, 79.
Cabral, Unity and Struggle, 49–50.
Vaz Borges, Militant Education, Liberation Struggle, 155.
Glissant, Poetics of Relation, 11.