BAFATÁ, Guinea-Bissau — On a quiet sandy street in this small town, amid old houses with their paint peeling off, stands one unfittingly polished white and pink building. It’s the newly renovated childhood home of freedom fighter Amílcar Cabral, the Che Guevara of Guinea-Bissau.
The house where Cabral lived from his birth, in 1924, to 1932 underwent a $15,000 renovation last year, financed by Unesco. The historical building is now being turned into a museum.
Bafatá is about a two-hour drive from Bissau, the capital, which went into lockdown mode in April when the military staged a coup, just one of many juntas that have overthrown the government since the country became independent from Portugal, with Cabral’s leadership, in 1974. The junta made its move just weeks before a presidential election run-off. Though little bloodshed occurred, the country remains in a precarious state and several government officials remain in hiding or have been jailed.
Nevertheless, the renovation of Cabral’s house is meant to honor one of Africa’s big heroes, who fought to free Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, an island off the West African coast, from the colonial grip of Portugal. With his half-brother Luís, Cabral founded the African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde in 1956, known as Paigc (Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde).
The museum’s opening is scheduled for Jan. 13, 2013, the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Cabral in 1973 in Conakry, Guinea, where he is buried. He was shot by dissident members of Paigc, in a plot orchestrated by the Portuguese government that went awry. (The goal was to arrest him.) Thus Cabral never got to see the fruits of his labor— both Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde gaining their independence the same year. One can only imagine how he might feel about his country’s latest escapade.
“This will be the first Cabral museum in the world,” said Policarpo Marco Lopes, the executive secretary of Unesco in Guinea-Bissau. “Guineans are very happy about this project.”
Lopes believes that Cabral’s early home will become a major tourist attraction for international and domestic visitors —presumably after resolution of the coup, which ousted the interim president, Raimundo Pereira, and the prime minister and presidential candidate, Carlos Gomes Jr. Both were released by the junta and sent to Ivory Coast as a regional group, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), the United Nations and others negotiate with the military for the country’s return to constitutional rule.
‘You can do it again’
Meanwhile, the long-term plan for Bafatá, at least, is to upgrade the entire neighborhood.
“We need to renovate the other historical houses and build a library, cultural centers and artisanal markets,” Lopes said. The money to do this, he said, will hopefully come from South Africa.
Lopes said that South African delegates visited Bafatá a few months ago and expressed their interest in helping develop Guinea-Bissau, one of the world’s poorest nations. The World Bank reports that the average salary in 2007 was just $17 a month.
“Guinea-Bissau is a country of the future, not today,” Lopes said, citing a potential for tourism. “But one day Guinea-Bissau will be doing better.” The tropical island group of Bijagós just off the coast is a Unesco biosphere reserve and draws more visitors each year, especially to fish, which are plentiful and exotic.
One reason Unesco financed the renovation of the Cabral house was to offer hope for the country’s well-being and remind Guineans of their heyday, said Gorka Gamarra, a former liaison officer of Unesco in Guinea-Bissau.
“The most important event for this country in this century was gaining its independence,” he said. “And the leader of the war was Amílcar Cabral.”
The museum’s message to Guineans is simple, Gamarra said: “You did it before —you can do it again.”
Whether Guineans believe they actually succeeded in creating a free and independent country is another matter altogether, as some controversy surrounding Cabral’s true origins linger. While born and raised in Bafatá, his parents came from Cape Verde, where he moved at age 8 with his family. Cabral was more light-skinned than most Guineans, which may be a result of the historical mixing of Portuguese colonizers and their African slaves on Cape Verde.
He waited to move back to Guinea-Bissau at age 28, a fact that causes many Guineans to think that Cabral was not a local hero at all. Gamarra said such talk was nonsense.
“Amílcar Cabral is a part of the history of this country,” he said. “He is one of the fathers of this country.”
Iva Cabral, 58, the daughter of Cabral, said she was tired of people saying her father was not from Guinea-Bissau.
“My father considered himself to be both Guinean and Cape Verdean,” she said by e-mail from her home in São Vicente, Cape Verde. “That must be why he fought for the unification of his two home countries.”
She also pointed out that it’s important for the youth in Guinea-Bissau to study the history of the national liberation movement.
“Every country needs heroes and examples of mythical characters, and Cabral is all that,” she wrote. “I’m very happy with Unesco for rehabilitating his house.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by Cabral’s 62-year-old niece, Iva Helena Gomes. She lives in Bissau, as do Cabral’s twin sisters, who are in their 70s. Gomes said it was nice to finally see her uncle recognized.
“For many years you were not even allowed to say the name ‘Cabral,’ “she said, referring to the years of animosity after João Bernardo Vieira, a dictator, ousted Amílcar’s half-brother, Luís, from the presidency of Guinea-Bissau in a military coup in 1980. (Luís was named president of the country after Amílcar’s death.)
Cabral’s spirit hovers over Bissau, where a 17-foot-tall bronze statue of him sits in the center of a roundabout near the airport, donated by the Cubans in 1985 and finally put up in 2009. Bissau’s only private university is also named after him.
In Bafatá, two new monuments commemorate Cabral, and tens of black and white photos of him line the walls of the future museum. The six small rooms of the house have been redone to resemble how they might have looked nearly 100 years ago, with iron frame beds and a small Catholic home altar.
Lopes said the finished museum will have a computer, so visitors can listen to Cabral’s interviews and seminars. A Web site is also planned to promote the museum toward an international audience.
“Cabral contributed a lot for the African continent,” Lopes said.
Besides the photos, other artifacts are being collected from the various countries where Cabral spent time. These include pictures and videos from Cuba, China, Portugal and Russia, reflecting the countries that supported his freedom movement. When the museum opens, a guide will be available to explain the stories behind the memorabilia.
Adriano Gomes Ferreira, the governor of Bafatá, is excited about the new developments in the town, which has a population of 20,000. He agreed that it was important to educate Guineans about Cabral — especially now.
“It’s our obligation,” he said. “Without the past, there’s no future.”
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Mirva Lempiainen is a journalist from Finland who writes about travel, culture and social issues for media based in Finland and in the US. She has a master’s degree from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and writes a travel blog at www.writeronthemove.com.