On the Space of Imaginations and the Space of Memories: Remembering the Conakry PAIGC Headquarters



Spaces used for historical national liberation struggles, such as the headquarters of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde, may not exist physically anymore, but the memory of the militants who lived and struggled in them can recreate the idea of them.

Archives and Imagining a Liberation Struggle ///
Space: A continuous area or expanse that is free, available, or unoccupied.

Histories read or told, true or fantasy, always ignite our imagination, and when we imagine, we allow ourselves to create our own version of the story, the place and the space. History books fill our imaginaries with stories of struggles and great battles, political arguments, and military tactics, all located in a certain space and in relation with other places. Images of people in these struggles fill our imaginary with stories, and questions such as:

What did they look like?
How did they dress for the struggle?
What did their smile look like?
What they dream for?
What things did they carry in their backpacks, bags, or purses?
Did they even have one?
What did their house, room, or entrance hall look like?

Vaz Borges Funambulist1
Site Plan of the PAIGC Headquarters drawn by two unknown PAIGC militants.

In 1959, the African Party for the Independence of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC), a liberation movement founded in Guinea Bissau by the agricultural engineer Amílcar Cabral together with a group of Guineans and Cape Verdeans, waged an armed struggle against the Portuguese colonial government in the liberated areas located in the Guinean forests between 1963-1974. After several attempts to negotiate independence with the Portuguese colonial regime, the PAIGC started an armed struggle. The history of the struggle is quite well documented. Books, and some detailed chronologies of the struggle, allow us to follow more or less all the different phases of  the liberation struggle, from writing down the dream of liberation to the plan to achieve it and the practice of such a dream.

However, while books, chronologies, and even event celebrations, contribute to creating a collective memory of the struggle, this collective memory has been forged by a generation that didn’t actually live through it, but are a result of it. When studying the history of the PAIGC, archives are the official space where its memories are stored. We rescue memories here, but we can also silence and bury them through unoccupied shelves and rooms. When searching for elements of PAIGC histories in the archives, as a researcher I came to face several silences, or what I call spaces of silence, meaning empty spaces in the archive where, because of the circumstances, or the struggle, the armed war, and the emergency of achieving the dream of independence, certain elements that would help us build the imaginary of spaces where the struggle happened, were left blank.

The archive provides us with several other materials, including written documents, letters, photographs, and audio records, but when studying the history of a liberation struggle, the question that emerges is, what was the space like where the headquarters were located?

How was the space organized?
Who lived there?
How did people live there?
How did people circulate in that space?
What dynamics were developed there?
What memories do people have of that space, its dynamics, and its configuration?

These are questions that, with great difficulty, we can answer by drawing from the physical and solid archive. The closest answers that the archive provides are a couple of photos, namely the images of a destroyed house and a car. Both the house and the car belonged to Amílcar Cabral, and were photographed at the PAIGC headquarters. The photos were taken in 1970, after a Portuguese military operation called “Operation Green Sea” (November 21-22, 1970). Unfortunately, a partially destroyed house and a car are not enough to recreate the space of the PAIGC headquarters, the environment, and many of the memories of those who lived there.

Between 2013 and 2015, while working on my Ph.D. research on PAIGC militant education in Guinea Bissau and being fortunate enough to speak to and interview many surviving Party militants, I decided to explore and learn about these side questions that lived in my imaginary of the struggle.

It was in this process of recovering and reconstructing PAIGC militant education that I turned to what I consider to be the errant archive. The errant archive is made of people, their stories, memories, experiences, and reflections. It is not fixed in space, place, and the information that these errant archives provide are not frozen in time. The memories that the errant archive shares are expressed in diverse forms, according to the context in which it is consulted and the conversation that develops.

The Space of Memories: Headquarters and Cognitive Maps ///
Place: A particular position or point in space.

I met Arlette Cabral (who is not related to Amílcar Cabral) in Guinea Bissau in 2014. Immediately after our first conversation, she became an errant archive to me. Her green house had one of the most beautiful front yards of all the houses located on Francisco Mendes Avenue in Bissau. Two big calabash trees marked off the house. From the island of Martinique, she emigrated to Paris to study to become a nurse. But due to her low blood pressure and the strict laws of the hospital which did not allowed people with her health condition to practice nursing, she was forced to look for other places where she could work.

Vaz Borges Funambulist2
Arlette Cabral explaining and telling stories of the site plan of the PAIGC Headquarters. / Photos by Sónia Vaz Borges (2015).

In the beginning of 1960s, Arlette and her sister chose to move to the newly independent Republic of Guinea, which had become independent in 1958 after 60 years of French colonial rule. There was an acute shortage of medical professionals after most of the industry had fled to France, and Arlette was subsequently able to find work as a nurse. Her low blood pressure was never a problem throughout her entire life and career. In fact, she was still a practicing professional in the year that I met her, at 80-something years old, working in a general ward in the outskirts of the city of Bissau. Several medical students even came to visit her house asking for advice for their school exams and working with patients.

In Conakry, capital of the Republic of Guinea, Arlette worked for the city’s main hospital and rented a small apartment. She described her room as having only a bed, a table, and two chairs, with a red ceiling, two red walls, two yellow walls, and a green window. She had chosen this pallet of colors herself. She mentioned that the room could have had many more objects, including a bag full of photographs and other personal belongings that had gotten lost between her travels from Martinique to France, and then to Guinea. It was in Conakry that she would meet and fall in love with Fidelis Cabral, a PAIGC militant.

Arlette likes to tell life episodes, which sometimes made it difficult to trace the stories that she shared. In the house yards or living room, she jumped from theme to theme and never told it straightforwardly. The constant interruptions of doing an interview surrounded by family and friends did not made the process easier. Maybe that was one of the things that motivated me to spend hours talking with her in her backyard while enjoying some bissap juice, or sometimes a simple glass of water.

It was during our conversations that I raised my questions about the PAIGC headquarters in Conakry:

What did it look like?
Where was located?
How did you get there?

The PAIGC headquarters, were located in Conakry, more specifically in an area then called Le Quartier Minière, near Ratoma. It was the president Ahmed Sékou Touré who gave the PAIGC permission to occupy and reconstruct the space and use it as the liberation struggle’s headquarters. Information about this place is scarce. All that is known is that the place was a French neighborhood during colonial times. After Guinea’s independence, the French people living in the neighborhood fled the recent independent territory. Before they left they made sure to destroy their own houses, by breaking the windows, doors, plumbing, and electrical lines, so that nothing could be of use. However, the name Le Minière remained, and was used by PAIGC militants as a nickname for their headquarters.

My long stay in Guinea Bissau was enough for me to collect many memories of Le Minière, but not enough for me to form a site plan so that I could localize these memories. I left Bissau with a promise from Arlette that she would do her best to have a sketch for when we met again. The opportunity came one year later, but this time in Lisbon, when I was visiting and she was in the city to receive medical treatments on her feet. When she called me on the phone, she said that she had something for me, and we met in the house she was staying in near Portas de Benfica. With two sketches of the plan of Le Minière, Arlette guided me through her memories of the space, indicating where she had only vague memories or no memories at all.

From these guided memories drawn on a piece of white paper with a pencil, I learned about and could visualize Le Minière and its stories, even if at a very small scale. From the house’s living room, Arlette guided me through the roads and where they led, through the buildings where she and her comrades lived, the Party’s general secretariat office, the room from where the PAIGC broadcasted its Rádio Libertação (Liberation Radio), the people warehouse where the Party stored many of the products that would be sent to the liberated areas in Guinea Bissau, the guest house also known by the PAIGC militants as “Buckingham Palace,” the garage and car repair shop. She shared the serenade nights that some Cape Verdean comrades used to do.

Out of all the spaces that Arlette described, and the stories behind them, she dedicated a large amount of time to discussing the Party canteen, which was located near her house. The canteen is very much associated with one of the most important episodes in her life: she got married there, and her wedding also marked the inauguration of the canteen. It was even delayed a few days in order for the Party to do both events on the same day. Her sister and brother in law were her wedding witnesses, and her comrade Lilica Boal her husband Fidelis’ witness. Amílcar Cabral presided over the wedding ceremony.

That day, instead of the typical boiled fish with rice that was normally served in the canteen before its remodeling, the food was more special. All Arlette’s comrades were present, with the exception of Vasco Cabral, whom they called “The Photographer”; he was travelling. For that reason, there was no wedding photo to memorialize the occasion. But she remembered very clearly the warm bottle of champagne, offered by a comrade and hidden by her husband after Amílcar Cabral had demanded that he shared it with everyone else.

Space of Memories and the Memories of Space ///
Memory: The faculty by which the mind stores and remembers information.

Between the memory and the process of remembering, there is a social space with whole social practices and processes. Arlette’s memories, located in the past, were brought to the present through questions and my own imaginations about the PAIGC and the headquarters. The sketched plan of Le Minière represented the space where this past and present encountered one another. The sketch became part of her life, but also part of the life of those who would recognize their histories in that space, and therefore would be able, in the small space that this sketch represents, to localize their special memories, paths, friends, and other events. The sketch can become a dynamic space and a memory referential where social practices and processes can be localized. Every single pencil line already drawn, or that might be drawn in the future, will be associated to people, events.

Nonetheless, they will be associated also with practices of forgetting and erasures, and therefore some spaces might never exist again in that drawing. Memory and space are inseparable, because if memory produces spaces, its own existence is impossible without a space, which allows us to assume that the space also produces the memory. However, memory and space are in constant mutation and in constant movement. My conversation with Arlette and her memories were produced in different spaces, starting in her home in Bissau, and then in Lisbon where they acquired physical form. The Le Minière site-plan sketch, more than a final point of Arlette’s memory, is now a trigger for other memories of the space, and can also be used to instigate other imaginations of the space.

As a trained historian, I tend to describe space as a container of chronological events, with starting and end dates, and sometimes with an object that represents these events in the space. The history of the PAIGC is no exception to this practice. When writing the history of liberation struggles, we historians tend to ignore that various paths of individual life’s that were forged during the struggle. And that the people who lived in those spaces had a relation to the space that went beyond dates and objects. The space known by historians as the PAIGC headquarters, had within it other dynamics and interpretations. The interpretation of the headquarters as space, have a different interpretation for the PAIGC militants. Yes, it was still viewed as the PAIGC headquarters, but as a space itself, it included memories and emotions that are most of the time difficult to express in words.

For Arlette and many other PAIGC militants, the Party headquarters as a space of action had a much broader symbology than what historians may give to it. For us, as outsiders and researchers, the headquarters represents the space of decision making from which all the coordinates and the coordination for the liberation struggle and also its bureaucracy were developed. It represents a hierarchy within the struggle. But for the militants, the headquarters represent their lives and the place they lived, left, stayed, and created. Even though the space itself, in its physical form, does not exist anymore, when militants remember and share their (hi)stories, that same space is still there, awaiting them in an immaterial form, nearly intact in their memories.