Solidarities Across Borders

Trekking with the Revolution: Birgitta Dahl in Guinea-Bissau

In December 1970, Birgitta Dahl – a 33-year-old Swedish Social Democrat and recently-elected Member of the Swedish Parliament – was trekking through the dense forests of Guinea-Bissau, wearing the uniform of the liberation movement led by Amílcar Cabral, the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC). By her side was the photographer Knut Andreassen, a political scientist called Lars Rudebeck, a Social Democratic Youth Party activist called Gunnar Hofring, and soldiers of the PAIGC. The recently liberated terrain was hotly contested by the Portuguese army, and the Swedish visitors felt the presence of war. In the book they published on their return to Sweden, Dahl and Andreassen vividly depict the Portuguese reconnaissance planes that were regularly spotted above the canopy during daytime, the Alouette helicopters that fluttered across rice paddy fields, and the Fiat bombers that roared past on their trek.

Birgitta Dahl with PAIGC soldier, November 1970. Photos from Guinea-Bissau. Photographer: Knut Andreasson. The Nordic Africa Institute.

The idea of Dahl, a Swedish social democrat, trekking with and donning the uniform of an armed revolutionary movement in Africa might seem almost fantastical today. Such stories and images can have a tendency to prompt imaginations of an era of solidarity and anticolonial struggle that no longer exists. But what does Dahl’s trip reveal about the politics of solidarity that connected her to the anticolonial national liberation struggle in Guinea-Bissau? How might dissecting the conditions and motivations of the various agents involved allow us to see beyond romanticised or nostalgic visions of such past encounters?

Guinea-Bissau had been a Portuguese colony since the late 16th century. While other European colonisers had been forced to loosen their grip on overseas territories in the 1950s and 1960s, the fascist Estado Novo regime – installed in Lisbon under António de Oliveira Salazar’s leadership in 1932 – refused to let go. But Amílcar Cabral, an agronomist who had studied in Lisbon and worked for the Portuguese government, had other ideas. In 1956, he co-founded the party that became the PAIGC and launched a movement for the liberation of Guinea-Bissau. Throughout the 1960s, he worked hard to create a network of supporters to help keep the injustices of Portuguese colonialism on the global agenda. His official and personal friendships stretched from Guinea-Bissau’s west African neighbours and fellow Marxists like Che Guevara to idealistic Scandinavians.

Amílcar Cabral with Fidel Castro, in Cuba for the Tricontinental Conference, January 1966. Wikicommons.

The trip to meet Cabral in Guinea-Bissau was not the first time that Dahl had visited the African continent. She had previously travelled through Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Sudan, in trips partly funded by Swedish development aid. Dahl was also far from unique as a Swedish professional politician and woman in the era of decolonization. Born in 1937, Dahl was a member of a generation of Social Democratic women who had been able to embark on political careers that would have been unthinkable for many of their female elders. Along with the men of this generation, they were keen to develop alternatives to traditional bilateral relations procedures.

Instead, they cultivated personal relationships with the figureheads of national liberation movements and some national leaders like Chile’s Salvador Allende and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Understanding themselves as a small state without overt affiliations to either of the two Cold War factions, the Swedes wanted to offer support to other small states, in the hope that this would allow the latter to break the chains of colonialism without having to ‘choose sides’ in the bipolar Cold War. When I interviewed Dahl and some of her contemporaries for my PhD thesis, it became clear that their primary motivation for engaging in such relationships – be they through official structures or in personal friendships struck up at conferences or while travelling – was a radical sense of idealism, a hope that their presence and support might change the lives of people beyond Swedish borders for the better. These ideals helped forge a new era of Social Democratic foreign policy with solidarity as a core tenet.

Among the beneficiaries of this active solidarity policy were African anticolonial movements. As Tor Sellström has showed, the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) commenced a funding program initiated by the Social Democratic government in 1969 that over the next decades funded liberation movements against colonial rule in Africa, including PAIGC, amounting to an estimated total of 1,737,920,000 SEK. The caveat – rarely checked until the 1980s – was that the money could not be spent on armed struggle.

Birgitta Dahl with PAIGC soldiers. Photographer: Knut Andreasson. Photos from Guinea-Bissau.

Because of such policies, there were already ties between Sweden and PAIGC by the time of Dahl’s 1970 trip. What made this trip different was that she had been personally invited by Cabral, who was aware of her other work in support of liberation movements in Africa and Asia. Cabral was keen to create a diplomatic base of support for PAIGC ahead of what he perceived as Guinea-Bissau’s inevitable liberation from the Portuguese. The presence of a foreign MP – and one that belonged to the governing party in her home country – was specifically meant to legitimise PAIGC. The Swedes’ visits to schools and health clinics established by the liberation army were attempts to show that PAIGC was a competent alternative to Portuguese colonial rule.

As part of their mission, Dahl took notes, and Andreassen photographs, in the newly liberated areas, as they met PAIGC leaders, nurses, teachers and doctors, and children who were finally in education thanks to PAIGC’s mission to open schools in the areas it controlled. The result was the publication of the book Guinea-Bissau: Rapport om ett land och en befrielserörelse in 1971. In it, Dahl and Andreassen covered everything from the Portuguese empire’s history and expansion, PAIGC’s organisation and ideology, the armed struggle, the transport system, healthcare, and education. It also contains eyewitness accounts, excerpts from Cabral’s speeches, and songs from a PAIGC’s school textbook.

Birgitta Dahl at a PAIGC school. Photographer: Knut Andreasson. Photos from Guinea-Bissau.

A small, affordable paperback meant for the mass market, the book was arguably part of the Swedish version of the so-called paperback revolution of the late 1960s. It was published by Prisma, which at the time was owned by the Swedish Social Democratic Party. Prisma’s ethos was one of radical decolonial education, with more than a twinge of Marxism between its covers, despite the Swedish Social Democratic aversion to Communism. While communists at home were often despised or considered untrustworthy by many Swedish social democrats, international solidarity with ‘distant struggles’, like those in Guinea-Bissau, afforded politicians like Dahl the space to be more radical in their vision and action than would be acceptable in domestic policy.

Dahl and Andreassen remain invisible behind pen and lens in the book, perhaps to foreground the activities and ambitions of the revolutionaries they met rather than their own experience. Only in 2016 did Dahl publish three photographs of herself from the trip in her memoir. Two of these show Dahl wearing the PAIGC uniform, which she described as a calculated decision, made in the hope that the Portuguese army would consider the visitors protected under the Geneva Convention.

Birgitta Dahl in conversation with Amílcar Cabral. Photographer: Knut Andreasson. Photos from Guinea-Bissau.

Following her return to Sweden, Dahl stayed in touch with Cabral until his assassination by PAIGC rivals in 1973, 18 months before the fall of the Portuguese empire and the liberation of Guinea-Bissau. The Swedish government continued to support PAIGC until 1977. While Dahl’s trip and support for PAIGC seem to have been viewed as unproblematic by her contemporaries, and are largely forgotten today, her later and self-professed misguided support for the Khmer Rouge during the 1970s is an often-cited scandal in Swedish political history. The latter shows how quickly a romanticised view of resistance might lead solidarity activists into damaging rabbit holes.

The abilities of activists like Dahl to move around, make connections and spread information forms part of the focus of the new research network Global Solidarity Activism. The network was formally inaugurated at a workshop at Friends House in London in March 2023. At its core lies the hope to explore the role of personal and professional connections between activists from different parts of the world, their competing agendas and strategies, and the ways in which these networks have contributed to political globalisation over the past 70 years. The 2023 workshop showed clearly that using solidarity as a lens allows historians to peel back layers of international and transnational connections and endeavours. At future workshops, we aim to collect further voices, stories, and perspectives to show more of the breadth and nuances of 20th century solidarity activism.

The story of Birgitta Dahl in Guinea-Bissau is a story of practical political work, romantic resistance ideals and of an era when changing the course of history seemed possible. It is also a reminder that the solidarities that connected geographically distant political movements of the 1970s were driven by personal convictions as well as strategic motivations, in which there existed frictions as well as shared sensibilities. Recognising the many personal and political layers that have resulted in and infused solidarity activism is a step towards understanding the tensions and agendas that have sat side by side with the heady and often romantic idealism that, at least in part, fuelled the quest for a better, decolonised world.

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