There is no fight without the women

During Guinea-Bissau’s war of liberation, women filled key positions on the frontline. That is often forgotten in the mythology of the struggle for independence.

Fatou Mané. Image credit Ricci Shryock.

Without saying a word, Fatou Mané sits in her living room in Bissau, the capital of Guinea-Bissau, and uses her fingers to speak the language of a different time.

“Tap, tap, tap.” Her hand moves with rapid muscle memory, even though 47 years have passed since the country’s liberation war ended with victory over the Portuguese.

“What did you say?”

“Comrade,” Mané replies softly. For nearly four years during the 11-year war for independence she served as the Morse code operator for Guinea-Bissau’s revolutionary leader, Amilcar Cabral.

After a war is won, history builds monuments to men, vaulting the contribution of the male soldier onto a pedestal as the most valued work and the key to victory.

During Guinea-Bissau’s fight for liberation, much of the movement’s ammunition was smuggled across the border from Guinea-Conakry by women, who hid the bullets in the fruit and fish they carried in baskets on their heads. After independence, it was mostly men who filled positions of power and were celebrated in the new names of the liberated streets. As for the women who carried the bullets, it is left to the trees that grew from the fallen seeds of the fruit they carried to whisper their names.

As the battlefields shifted during the war, the liberators depended on the liberated. To confront the better-equipped Portuguese, freedom fighters from the African Party for the Independence for Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) needed the support of local residents, allowing the soldiers to launch sabotage and secret attacks from their forest bases.

According to Cabral, one of the best ways to win and keep the people’s support was to show them how their daily lives would be better under the liberation forces than under Portuguese rule. “Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head,” he said. “They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children.”

A United Nations delegation visited the liberated zones in 1972 and noted that while the guerrillas’ ability to wrest control from the Portuguese was admirable, “even more admirable is the work being done by PAIGC to organize the civil life of the community, and, while in the throes of the struggle, to create a new society, with its own institutions, suited to the characteristics of the Guinean people rather than foreign cultures forcibly imposed.” Although few women fought alongside the male soldiers on the front lines, many more were charged with the tasks that would do what Cabral prescribed—help the residents “live better”—by serving as healthcare providers, teachers, political officers, and more.

In present-day Guinea Bissau, where schools and the health system fall woefully short of the promise to “guarantee the future” of the children, one wonders if there is a correlation between the current condition and the way that the role of educators, health providers, and other “caretakers” during the revolution is a historical afterthought.

Though much of this work fell on the shoulders of women during the liberation war, after victory women’s work became again devalued, reduced to a given—something to take advantage of, not reward.

Recently, four women who took part in this revolutionary work reflected on their time in the struggle and contributions to the cause.

Fatou Mané. Image credit Ricci Shryock.

Fatou Mané (Amelia Sanca) [Morse Code Operator for Amilcar Cabral]

“There are many things that I will not be able to explain to you here,’” says Mané—a.k.a Amelia Sanca—of her time as Cabral’s Morse code operator.

She spent years by Cabral’s side during the struggle, encoding and deciphering messages from one front to the other. “I joined the fight because I am the only daughter of my father and mother, and they were killed during the fight. You know an orphan always has a bit of a habit—if you do something, you already have a grudge in your head. That was what led me to join the fight.”

Soon after the war broke out, Cabral sent Mané for military training in the Soviet Union. She returned to Guinea-Bissau in 1969 and became his Morse code operator.

“Our messages were directed by commanders,” she says. “For example, when they said that they attacked barracks and the ‘Tugas’ (slang for Portuguese fighters) lost five people and we lost one man, I would write this. Sometimes I would start to worry that I made a mistake, and when it arrived on national radio (Rádio Libertação), this is what they will read to explain to the population. It had to be written in numbers, encrypted in numbers and then deciphered in numbers.”

Her job was made more difficult by the fact that often commanders did not speak Criolu, one of the many local languages. Although Guinea-Bissau is a small country, just 36,000 km2, and with only 600,000 inhabitants at the time of the conflict, it has more than14 ethnic groups with different languages. “Sometimes the commanders did not know how to speak Criolu, so it would come out as a painting [abstract] and camouflage to take to another person to interpret in your language.”

As is common of many who were close to Cabral, Mané lights up when she speaks of the independence hero. Instead of focusing on his ideas or his military valor, she relays his humanity. “Everywhere he went he was always playing with the kids, as if sometimes he had forgotten his destiny. He said that children are the flowers and the reason for our struggle.”

Cabral had frugal habits, Mané remembers. “He ate little and slept little. But when he slept, he looked like he was dead. He would sleep every day between 1 and 2 pm.” She smiles as she recalls the day one soldier bet another that he could move Cabral’s tent—with Cabral in it—without waking him. The other soldier took the bet and lost. “But he didn’t sleep at night,” Fatou adds.

Women played an integral role in all areas of the struggle, Mané concludes. “There is no fight where the woman is not a part of it, and there is no good moment that the woman did not take part in.”

Brinsam [Cook]

“There was a fight at that time that everyone participated in, but we never knew what tomorrow would be like,” says Brinsam.

After she was married to a soldier in 1966 in Guinea-Conakry, she traveled to the front with her husband. There, she and other women served the integral role of cooking food for soldiers in the liberated zones.

“Everything was difficult, because they bombarded us. The whites tried to make their plans come to fruition and they controlled almost the entire air surface of our country,” she says.

This meant that even liberated zones that PAIGC controlled on land were vulnerable to Portuguese attacks from the sky.“There were liberated zones, but no one could believe they were liberated, because the whites arrived at any moment and bombed us in a way that none of us hoped would happen while walking around a place called the liberated zone.”

When liberation fighters returned to base after an attack on the Portuguese, it was Brinsam and the other women who would make sure they were fed. “I cooked even if the mission was returning at dawn, they called me to wake up to serve them.”

During the war, women found that the large wooden mortar and pestle typically used to pound rice were too loud. The thumping of wood on wood could signal to the colonial forces where fighters were hiding. So Brinsam and other women devised a new method for cooking. Dotting the red earth of Guinea-Bissau, there are often termite mounds that tower higher than two meters. They carved large holes out of the sides of the mounds, and then used dried cow dung to smooth the surfaces. That’s where they would pound the food.

Brinson. Image credit Ricci Shryock.

She remembers a song they would sing, when they felt it was safe to make noise. “There was a girl who felt sad, and her sadness gave her the inspiration to write a beautiful song that I still remember to this day. This girl was a great fighter. She cried, singing this sad song.”

We are now reassured.
Many of our comrades have arrived.
They watch over us in Komo.
We no longer fear death in Komo.
We no longer fear anything in our area.
The strength of PAIGC is in Komo. Amilcar Cabral is our leader.
Where then can we find Cabral?
Cabral is in Cacine, Cabral is in Conakry.
Cabral is everywhere, he is also among us.

“During the fight we sang to motivate the combatants so they would not lose morale and never gave up the fight,” Brinsam says. “The girl’s songs were very moving. She taught me and a lot of my colleagues, and not only that, she brought us together and taught us to sing different songs. But unfortunately she passed away.”

Brinsam says she felt that women were treated more equally during the struggle than they are today. “During the fight women are always on the side of men, but after the fight, it is men on their side and women on the other.”

Joana Gomes [Healthcare worker]

In 1971, as the struggle continued in Guinea-Bissau, a cholera outbreak hit West Africa. According to a United Nations report from the time, healthcare workers dispatched by liberation forces in Guinea Bissau were able to stem the disease through a vaccination campaign.

The report reads: “PAIGC has several hospitals and healthcare posts scattered over the liberated areas; these are not only to care for wounded in the war, the majority of whom are civilians, but also carry out curative and preventative campaigns against endemic diseases in those regions and give intermediate level personnel training, thereby creating a new kind of soldier for peace working for his people.”

Joana Gomes was one of those soldiers for peace. After a nurses’ training course in Kiev, Gomes returned to West Africa in the late 1960s. She was first sent to the PAIGC-run hospital in nearby Boke, across the border in Guinea-Conakry, an important rear base that received both wounded soldiers and high-ranking officers for vaccines, treatment, and routine care.

“In that moment in Boke, we were nationalists,” Gomes says. “We had no money, but we had everything. We had food, we had soap, we had milk. We ate, we did everything.”

Joana Gomes. Image credit Ricci Shryock.

By rule, the health workers were not allowed to take money for their services. “But when the people (officials from Guinea Conakry) came to the hospital they brought sacks, huge sacks of money. One diplomat, so rich, came and started to give the nurses and everyone money, but we were prohibited from taking any of the money. We also must help them, but we cannot take money.”

In 1972, Gomes was ordered to the southern front in Guinea-Bissau. In the town of Cubacare, she helped to take care of not only soldiers, but also the population in the liberated zones. One day in 1973 at Guerra Mendes hospital, a Portuguese air strike hit. “It was in the morning. The bombing was not in a village near the hospital.”

When the bomb dropped, she says, shrapnel flew everywhere. “We heard the bombardment, but we did not know where it was at first.” About an hour later, residents brought in a 9-month pregnant woman who had been badly injured by the shrapnel. A large piece of metal was lodged in her sternum.

“The woman said she heard the planes and started running. Then they dropped the bomb. When the shrapnel hit her, she stayed there because, when they are bombing, there is nothing you can do. You cannot run. Everybody is looking for a place to protect themselves,” Gomes says.

“Only afterward, people went to pick her up with the stretcher to take her to the hospital. Thank God, we managed to extract the shrapnel, treat her and do all the necessary things. We let her stay for a couple of days or so and that’s it. At that time, we could not let a patient stay in hospital for too long. As soon as they were feeling better, they were walking, eating well and there was not any risk—they had to go.”

Coba Sambu [Political Officer]

Coba Sambu remembers the day when a piece of paper almost cost her her life.

During the struggle, residents in the liberated zones were served by five-member political committees in each village, whose duties included representing the community’s needs to the party and vice versa.

Cabral insisted that two of every five officers on the committee be women. Sambu served as a political officer in Tité, a small town located a short boat ride across from the Portuguese-held capital city of Bissau.

Her work primarily consisted of communicating between the population and the PAIGC leaders, Sambu says. She helped the liberation leaders understand what services the community needed, and informed residents in turn what the fighters needed from them to help win the war.

“I was a messenger. I delivered information,” says Cobe. “When something needed to happen or they wanted to give the population some information, I was the one who would bring the information to the community. And what the community said back, I would tell PAIGC.”

Coba Sambu. Image credit Ricci Shryock.

The chief political officer on her committee was a man named Vasco, who would travel with her to the surrounding communities. They would listen to the residents’ concerns, and Vasco would write them down. But often it was Sambu who would deliver the message to the leaders.

“Once I went to Bissau to give PAIGC our messages, and they gave me letters to take back,” she says. “I didn’t know if I would get caught by the Portuguese. One time when I was on my way back to Tité with a message, I saw a Tuga (Portuguese), and I started running. They chased me. They would have killed me if they had caught me with the message I had in my pocket, so I ran and jumped in the river and buried the message in the mud on the riverbed. When they found me, they took me to prison, where I stayed for a month. But they never found the message.”

“We were the ones to chase away the Portuguese, but to do that we had to work together,” Sambu adds. “Some people wanted to leave the struggle, but I would advise them not to.” In the struggle, she says, ethnic differences faded away. “There was no Bifata, no Manjac, no Bijagos. In the forest we were all brothers.”

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